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April 05, 2005

New York's aesthetic

I went back to New York yesterday, to hear former Governor Jim Hunt, Federal Judge (and Pennsylvania First Lady) Midge Rendell, Wendy Puriefoy of the Public Education Network, and others speak in support of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools.

As a child and a young adult, I spent a lot of time in New York City, and it left a powerful imprint. However, I don't get there much these days. With the benefit of distance, I decided yesterday that the city's distinctive aesthetic can be captured by three simple concepts.

First, it is a strongly rectangular place, on account of the famous Manhattan street grid and the vertical rectangles of the buildings. Second, everything seems to be covered with fine, intricate patterns. That's because you can see a long way in Manhattan: far along the straight streets and up the sides of the buildings (or down them, if you're inside). In a city like Washington, you can't get far enough away from a window or a car to see it as a shiny point in a pattern. If you do get a distant view of a building, it lies low on the horizon, so that most of your visual field is sky and trees: lumps of color. But in New York, the distant windows and balconies etch regular patterns on the massive rectangles all around you, patterns that are complicated by tree limbs, wires, cornices, fire-escapes, and signs. The rows of buildings make thin vertical stripes as they recede toward the vanishing point; and the cars on Park Avenue or the FDR Drive are numerous enough to form their own mosaics. Even human crowds turn into patterns.

Third, New York is huge. Even if you’re moving quickly in a car down a long avenue, you're conscious that there's much, much more of the central city than what you can see. In this respect, it's different from the densest and tallest sections of Chicago or Philadelphia.

Rectangularity, delicate pattern, and vast scale: these three concepts combine to give New York (and especially Manhattan) its distinctive look. Within this structure, more concrete and idiosyncratic aspects of the city awaken my oldest memories: the quick double-taps on car horns, the smell of chestnuts and hotdog-water from vending carts, the deadened roar of traffic heard from 20 or 40 stories up; the surge of pedestrians jay-walking at the first break in traffic.

Posted by peterlevine at April 5, 2005 08:19 AM


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