Architect and city planner Barry Benepe has the most unique mind I have ever encountered.He is free of any clichéd opinions – it is as if he is newborn each morning.Here he gives his own poetic encounter with our city.
Last month we looked at our city as a static composition, enjoyed if you will, at an outdoor cafe table or a park bench. Our normal experiencehowever involves both movement and time. This is why imprisonment is such a severely inhuman punishment. It deprives us of both free movement in space, and the passing of days and seasons, essential to our well-being.
Once we are free to move, how do we choose where to go? If we choose a destination, we then choose a pathway. What if all street signs were removed? It would be like entering a foreign city for the first time without a map. In daylight with sun and shadows, we might have a sense of direction. Cities with defined contours and pronounced physical features such as hills, rivers, shorelines, cliffs, parks, historic buildings and pathways might provide us with some orientation. Time becomes an essential factor in knowing how long it takes to walk there.
In Manhattan we have many prominent landmarks to assist our orientation. There are both water bodies, the Hudson and East Rivers, leading to the ocean, the Hudson Valley and Long Island Sound. (Strangely, considering we were such an ocean dependent shipping city, when the commissioners laid out the Manhattan Grid in 1811, they failed to provide any waterfront streets.) There are the major parks, Central and Riverside, the lesser parks reflecting local geological outcrop, and the several formal English fenced parks, very different than their Parisian counterparts which are generous and fully green, inviting to a wide array of neighborhood users. Major architectural landmarks such as the Jefferson Market Courthouse at the intersection of Greenwich and Sixth Avenues, the Con Edison tower at the foot of Irving Place, the Metropolitan Life Insurance tower on Madison Square, the Stephen A. Schwarzman building of the New York Public Library, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine also serve to orient us. Otherwise, our endlessly boring and repetitive grid leaves us with a formless environment, which Jane Jacobs referred to in The Death and Life of Great American Citiesas “dribbling into endless amorphous repetitions of itself.”
The sense of urban space, as of all space, is influenced by light, weather, sound and smell. The emotional experience of space can be strongly associated with our social experience of it. In New York City, the strongest sensory impact is from the sound and smell of automobile and truck traffic. Parked automobiles also wall in our ground level experience with the result that we never see buildings on both sides of the street simultaneously. Parked cars become the permanent undesirable visual furniture of streets. As we pass through our streets, which are virtually our only universal public spaces, we depend on their legibility to orient ourselves. In comparison most streets in Paris are too narrow to have parking, even on only one side.
Jacobs emphasized the importance of irregularity and shortness of streets. Low rooflines allow us to see breaks in the street patterns, emphasized by the architectural features of building walls. One of my favorite streets in Paris is the Rue de Bievre (Beaver). Like its 17th Century counterpart in New Amsterdam it reflects centuries old fur trade. Rue de Bievre follows the mysterious curve of the long river that once flowed there while Beaver Street still echoes the path for loading pelts on the ships waiting at the edge of the river. Henry James said, “There is never a better way of taking in life than walking in the street.” “New York is a walker’s paradise,”added Christina Henry de Tessan in herCity Walks: New York: 50 Adventures on Foot.Finally, Kevin Lynch in his perceptive What Time is This Place? concluded, “The urban landscape is also something to be seen, to be remembered and to delight in. We live only in the present and in no other time.”
Readers are welcome to write in describing their favorite walks.