Make the Road By Walking

Pedestrians - Times Square

Pedestrians – Times Square

“Sorry about that. I normally don’t slam the brakes but sometimes, I don’t have a choice.”

“It’s not your fault that these people never look.”

“I know, but I have to still be careful. Some of them are my future passengers.”

Pedestrians.

I can’t stand them.

Most of the people in my business would probably say the same thing if they were to be asked about those on foot as well. With tourism at a record high and the economy in the Big Apple in decent shape, there’s never been more of them to contend with during a shift. For the record, I haven’t hit one yet but I’ve had enough close calls that I still haven’t completely mastered the art of dodging them with ease. I don’t mean to bash them – after all, I learned my way around New York by being one for many years as well, since I hardly ever drove in from my humble suburbs of New Jersey. I could count the number of times I brought my vehicle across the Hudson River in the 15+ years between the obtainment of my driver’s license and my hack license. Thankfully, I was able to get a lay of the land via foot before getting behind the wheel for a living on a nightly basis.

The average walker in Gotham has had it better than ever in recent years. While traffic fatalities remain a problem, they are in the news more than ever now and with the new mayoral team set to take office late next week, pedestrian safety already seems like it will move to the forefront of issues that need to be addressed. Yes, there will always be taxis that jump the curb and people racing around way too fast in the wee hours of the morning but the changes that have been implemented lately are already a harbinger of what’s to come.

And nowhere is this more apparent than on the Great White Way.

For those unfamiliar with the street grid in Manhattan, Broadway is the major exception to the orderly layout of thoroughfares from the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811. North of Houston Street, there were to be 12 major Avenues running north-south and 155 total Streets running east-west, which was later extended upwards as more of Manhattan became settled. Older thoroughfares like Greenwich Ave. and the Bowery would remain in place but for the most part, the plan that was drawn up was remarkably close to the one that was laid out. Central and Gramercy Parks filled in some of the streets with a superblocked green space and the topography of the northern part of the island dictated that some streets (like 116) would not be able to stretch from river to river. Mother nature also showed some resiliency over mankind’s attempt in impose an order of enlightened rationality, without having to tear apart the existing urban fabric like what was done in Paris by Baron Haussmann. Although part of the Village was indeed demolished to make way for the southern extension of 6 and 7 Ave’s in the early 20th Century, very little changed when it came to the layout of Manhattan’s arteries, unless one takes into the account the reworking of the Avenues into one-way streets in the 1950’s.

That was until Mayor Bloomberg came along.

Led by Transportation Commissioner Jeanette Sadik-Khan and City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, many thoroughfares were remade into “Complete Streets” during his 12 years as Mayor. Inspired by European cities, autos would no longer gain precedence when it came to deciding how the space on a given street would be utilized. Widening streets would no longer be an option, traffic calming measures would be implemented, and for the second time (the first being under Mayor Koch in 1980), bike lanes would be added to allow for the easier and safer movement of two-wheeled non-motorized vehicles. Hardly a week goes by now where someone at my garage isn’t complaining about bikes flying the wrong way down the lanes, traffic caused by them, or tickets being given out by the NYPD because a passenger wanted to be discharged in a lane and someone had a quota to fill that day. Toss in the addition of protected bus lanes on 1, 2, and Lexington Ave’s and the midtown bus lanes on Madison Ave being expanded from rush hours to all hours, and the ripple effect from the changes ended up affecting more than just those who had to make a living on the same streets that were becoming less and less spacious for motor vehicles.

So where did Broadway fit into all of this?

To put it simply, it didn’t.

North of Union Square, Broadway was a diagonal street that also served as a double-edged sword. When it crossed 5 or 6 Avenue’s, the result was a square that allowed for more sun and air to reach down to the streets, as well as for buildings like the Flatiron that were able to break free of the rectilinear mold that so many others were cast in. Where Broadway messed things up was in the traffic flow, as intersections that were two-phased were now forced to become three-phased. None of the streets were given sufficient time to get all of the traffic through the intersections. This called for some changes to the layout of Broadway and during Bloomberg’s tenure, an extraordinarily bold step was taken:

Broadway would be closed off to all traffic.

This didn’t take place along the entire length of it but through Times and Herald Squares, Broadway would no longer flow through them as it did for generations. There was significant outcry at first as drivers bemoaned the loss of more street space and were fearful of increased traffic on parallel routes. Even though this change was made before I started my current occupation, I could see that some of these fears were justified. Times Square is a complete mess now, as the increased space given for sidewalks has been nowhere near enough to compensate for the massive expansion in retail and office space that recent rezoning has allowed for. It’s torn apart nearly every night and since only one street flows out of it now, backups are quite common well after Midnight on most nights, when most of the rest of the City has quieted down.

As for 6 Ave, it flows better through Herald Square as the green phase on the lights is longer than it was when Broadway still went through it. While it is a plus, most of the rest of the Avenue of the Americas still gets congested during rush hours as the office buildings along it empty out and the buses jockey along the right-hand side of the street to get ahead of each other. Where Broadway still messes up the pulse of the City is in front of Lincoln Center, as it has to content with Columbus Ave and 65 St for valuable green time where they all cross. Since Broadway is a two-direction street north of Columbus Circle, further changes are not likely along it. Where changes will be seen is in how those outside of Manhattan will get from Point A to Point B.

The concept of Select Bus Service, which allows for express buses in dedicated lanes has taken off in the Outer Boroughs in the last few years and will probably be expanded under Bill de Blasio. If it gets people out of their vehicles, that’s great but already there has been an outcry along Nostrand Ave in Brooklyn as only *one* lane can now be used by cars that make their way down it. As New York grows in population and more people move to those Outer Boroughs, the ideas that first took root in Manhattan will branch out down major streets one by one. The difference is that Manhattan has a density seen in only a few other places on the Earth, while the Outer Boroughs have a lot more room to work when it comes to converting the layout of the streets there. Subways and until recently, metered Taxi service are lacking in many commuter and immigrant neighborhoods which has made the expansion of buses the preferred method of mass transit growth throughout much of the City. While many in Manhattan asked for SBS, many outside of it haven’t and it remains to be seen whether complete streets will be opposed more as the program takes off any further. Social engineering was easier in crowded Manhattan but in a less dense environment, would the conversion be met as receptively?

Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about that as the county known as New York still remains my home base and the one that I’ve gotten to know the best. One of the reasons I loved walking around it when I was still getting to know the layout of neighborhoods was that the traffic was so bad, and this was before the boom in tourism, drop in crime, and growth in people returning to New York from the suburbs led to more vehicles on the streets of the Big Apple. The number of yellow cabs has been capped for years, even though that’s set to change as more Outer Borough Taxis are added to the mix and the 1,500 medallions that were recently sold come online. It’s only a matter of time before Bus and bike lanes are expanded and more turn restrictions are added along the two-way crosstown rues like 23 and 34 Sts. Of course, emergency vehicles and the NYPD can turn wherever they want, but who’s going to ever pull *them* over?

I couldn’t imagine having to learn Manhattan by foot now, as Citi Bikes have permeated into every nearly nook and cranny south of Central Park and the attitudes of those riding them have threatened to make even the most relaxed of cabdrivers want to teach them a lesson or two. The calmness of backwater neighborhoods has been replaced by a frenzy that will only see temporary dips during the next recession, only to grow even further as upzoning results in more people needing to get around with less room to do so.

Someday when I’m not driving anymore, I’ll pick up where I left off in the ’90’s and set to re-explore what I can on foot. It won’t be the same as then, as everyone has their heads buried in their phones now and would rather let their apps be their brains instead of learning in ins and outs of neighborhood nuances on their own. I will fight the good fight and do my best to go where I want when I want, as more plazas, fences, security barriers, and closings will be put into place, all in the name of “security”, “flow”, “throughput”, and “efficiency”. The City I grew up with is still the one I desperately hold onto, even as it’s being remade into a playground for those who are totally unaware of the way things used to be. I know full well that I can’t go back, but I’ll refuse to go go forward without being dragged into the future. I can only hope that the planners and leaders of tomorrow take into account all modes of transit and show consideration for those who need to make a living on the street, no matter how they choose to get around.

“Don’t you think that bikes need some of the street too?”

“Look at this traffic. Do you think that anyone needing an ambulance is going to have one come on two wheels?”

Broadway, interrupted - Herald Square

Broadway, interrupted – Herald Square

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Reflector

“I thought I found the connector – it’s just a reflektor”

-Arcade Fire

Reflection - Bryant Park

Reflection – Bryant Park

“Hey there, where to?”

“505 W. 37.”

“How’d your you day go?”

“Long.”

“Sorry to hear that. At least it’s over now.”

“Thank God!”

I have something closely resembling this conversation 5 times every week, for nearly every week since I started my current occupation. It’s never enjoyable to feel like that life has been reduced to a routine straight out of Groundhog Day but for the late-night cabbie, that turns out the be the case more often than not. *Twice* on Monday alone did I have someone come into my cab and utter nearly the same words:

“Didn’t I have you before?”

Sure enough, both of those people did.

One of them was a restaurant owner that I had to take to his establishment in the West Village. A month or two ago, I took him and his S.O. home to Jackson Heights in Queens, right over the Willy B. and onto the BQE before briefly becoming reacquainted with Northern Boulevard. The other fare was one of my many late-night wait-in-line types, which happens outside of a Midtown box housing professional office drones or a club housing those fortunate enough to have money and time to blow on bottles service on a weeknight. Cruising the streets has its advantages since many of my most interesting fares were found in the middle of nothing during a time where nothing seemed possible. It can also be extremely hypnotic once the familiar pattern of hitting the proverbial and actual cruise control kick in and the City become reduced to a museum best viewed at 30 M.P.H.

The real issue comes in finding people, and I mean people in the sense that they are personalities and not clones of the ones that I picked up earlier in the night, or the week, or even previously past that. I always want to push the edge of what I know, what I learn, what I experience, and what challenges me to the point where I have to re-evaluate my intellectual hierarchy and update it with what I’ve recently taken on. Many of my best fares have been interesting enough to where I completely kept quiet and just let them talk – endlessly, incessantly, and with abandon. One I feel like I’ve already heard what they have to say, they’ve lost me, even if I’m not lost in a physical or metaphorical sense.

Recent census estimates have put the population of the Big Apple at 8.4 million people and according to “The Naked City”, everyone in New York had a story. That quote was famous during a time where New York had not quite yet become the world’s Capital and could actually claim to have grit, toughness, and a setting made for any film noir that wanted to set itself there. This was reflected in the built environment in the cornices, alleys, Belgian block streets, and abodes leftover from pre-consolidation New York could still be found. The world’s tallest building could easily be found in New York but so could Hell’s Kitchen, waterfront piers dominated by Teamsters, and clotheslines behind every tenement that covered the edges of the gilded center of Gotham. There was contrast, clash, and class divides that allowed for anyone and everyone to take part in the land that epitomized the siren emanating from Emma Lazarus’ poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Over the years, that changed. The zoning revisions of 1961 allowed for bonuses for creating plazas and combined with changes in design, resulted in a place that took the best of international style modernism and replicated it for for the masses while simultaneously dumbing it down. When Lever House and the Seagram Building were first erected, they won accolades for their minimalism replicated on such a fine scale. The design may have been elementary but as Daniel Burnham once stated, “God is in the details”.

And were they ever in those buildings.

Bronze-tinted glass, window-washing equipment built into the mullions, public plazas, perfectly proportioned columns, setbacks, and plazas allowed for the City to open up. Not just when it came to space and flow, but in order. Now, there was room to relax, unwind, see the sun…

…and reflect.

Which is exactly what happened.

Whatever intellectual stimulation was brought upon by the changes in these buildings’ design was outdone by the changes on the physical landscape that resulted from their groundbreaking design. America was triumphant, prosperous, and fully confident in its destiny as much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins but at the same time, it was full of what led to its currently-visible downfall:

Arrogance and hubris.

The atom may have been a proponent for peace but it was the epitome of what the mentality was in the Cold War era – technology over art, rationality over intuition, and economics over aesthetics. We could design whatever we wanted with whatever new materials, style, and engineering would allow but there wasn’t any sense of heart or soul in the end result. Frank Lloyd Wright brought an organic, prairie style of architecture to a nation that had largely found inspiration from the Old Word but at the same time of his death, the country turned to a bunch of modernists from that Old World to produce a language and even a vernacular for the second half of the 20th Century.

What resulted was absolutely devastating.

The 1961 Zoning law allowed for bonuses should a development include space for a public plaza or arcade. More importantly, it allowed for an unlimited rise without setbacks, unlike the Zoning Law of 1916. Buildings erected after that was enacted into law could rise uninterrupted but only after they were reduced to 1/4 of the total base. What was a city of “waterfalls” and “wedding cakes” soon turned into a bunch of shoeboxes with barren, windswept plazas at street level. They may have been great for lunch but they were terrible for street life and amazingly, even worse when it came to to their facade. The reason for this was simple:

Glass.

Masonry was the preferred choice of exterior for so many buildings in Gotham’s history but as technology and design changed, so did the means to express that change. Load-bearing walls were no longer needed as steel became strong enough to fully bear the load of a tower. This was true by the time of the building boom of the 1920’s but it wasn’t after WWII that changes in design and aesthetics caught up with the progress of the underlying engineering.

As copycats proliferated around the City, Seagram and Lever House became less of an anachronistic anomaly and instead, became the standard that no one could possibly measure up to.

But that didn’t stop SOM, Emery Roth and Sons, Yamasaki, and anyone else prominent enough to earn a commission during the Mad Men-era to design their own glass  box on 3, Park, or 6 Ave’s.

By 1970’s, whatever charm lay on the streets of Manhattan’s recently-cleared El’s or grand, landscaped thoroughfare was obliterated in favor of corporate headquarters that were less concerned with civic grandeur and more interested in the bottom line. The people that were housed in these vertical cube farms were increasingly commuting from farther distances and less interested in staying in Manhattan after work. Any proof of this could be seen in their bases, which lacked retail amenities and interaction with the passerby on the street. Worst of all, these skyscrapers ended up turning Manhattan into a fun-house on a scale never seen before.

But there wasn’t anything fun about being trapped in a corporate campus full of mirrored monoliths.

Winston Churchill one said that “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us”. It should have come as no surprise that a few generations after we started to mass produce our houses, workspaces, meals, and cartoons (Hanna-Barbera, anyone?), that the offspring in the ensuing generations turned out to be mass-produced as well.

And there’s where my typical night comes in.

Too many times, the person getting into my cab is a clone of someone I previously had. I can guess their language, destination, thought pattern, or occupation just based on a few cues that don’t even call for an accompanying neon sign. It’s pathetic on so many levels that I hardly know where to begin in explaining it. For starters, New York was always a place where immigrants came to find themselves and enter into America but increasingly, it was a destination for those seeing extreme wealth at all costs. The division of labor espoused by Adam Smith reached it’s zenith in Gotham at one time as nearly every occupation on Earth could be found somewhere within its confines but increasingly, a service sector and knowledge economy came to dominate, headed by a few select fields that weren’t important on the grand scheme of things but had their literal headquarters somewhere on the island of Manhattan. Most of all, New Yorkers was a place where people clashed – not civilizations on Huntington’s scale but classes. Think Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (yes, I know it took place in the Bronx) or Gangs of New York for the vibrancy that resulted when various groups were thrust into a social setting that could only have taken place in Gotham.

But Churchill’s quip came to be reality and as the buildings became more square and transparent, so did the people that inhabited them and eventually, their offspring. Nothing bothers me more than getting someone in the back seat that either works 90 hours a week in finance, is perpetually glued to the phone in his/her hand, or can’t speak without sounding like he/she came from the San Fernando Valley and wanted to be a mallrat. Those people are a dime a dozen and drain all the life and vitality out of a metropolis that should be home to 8 million stories – unique, wild, zany, fascinating and ultimately, colorful stories.

But that’s not the case.

Instead, what I come across pales in comparison to what used to be. I’ve had at least a dozen passengers tell me that their Dad, Uncle, or Grandfather drove a Taxi in New York in the 60’s or 70’s, to which I always say the same thing:

“I would have killed to have done it back then.”

No, I’m not the next Son of Sam but I do wish for a City with edge, gruff, grit, a bit of danger, and most of all, characters.

Most nights, I’m the biggest one of those in my ride, and that’s not saying a whole lot!

What bothers me the most now is that too many people are plugged into the outside word to think, reflect, and create on their own and I know this firsthand because I’m partially guilty of this too. What separates me from them (aside from the fact that I’m up front and behind the wheel) is that I do my best to listen, react, and ask when I come into contact with someone new.

For jobs that I come across all the time, it’s just this:

“Do you like it?”

To which I hear, “Not really…”

When I get someone that is a professional wardrobe stylist, a music promoter, or a short story writer, that’s when the fun begins and I feel like I’m in school all over again.

But sadly, those instances are too few and far between.

Onward, I go. I know I’ll spend more nights ahead watching the soulless masses enter my cab one fare at time, taking in news and information from others but offering so little original thought in return. Once in a while, I will get proven wrong and find a moment of joy in the midst of a sea of bland mediocrity and regurgitation of someone else’s ideas and commands. The division of labor is still dynamic enough in an economy this trepid that new positions are still being created at the expense of the masses that have been laid off in the name of downsizing, reorganization, and offshoring. Thankfully, those in the transportation field don’t have much to worry about, as our ilk will continue to enliven the City until robots come along and the trains, buses, and taxis, are fully automated.

While our positions many not be paramount in the grand scheme of things, no one will ever accuse us of ever being carbon copies reflections of those who also hold the same position.

Not that I’ve ever had to worry about that during my time in the Big Apple!

New York Central lightshow - Midtown

New York Central lightshow – Midtown

 

 

 

Skyward

157 W 57 – under construction

Skyscrapers. It’s nearly impossible to picture Manhattan without them. Most cabdrivers find them annoying because their construction and maintenance will clog up a street for weeks and months on end. Ask any hack what gets in the way besides the tent cities and closed-off lanes that pop up every night and tall buildings would probably be one of the answers that you’d hear first. Most people in the city have no idea what’s where aside from the Empire State Building and a few other landmarks but as you’ve probably guessed, this cabdriver isn’t quite like all of the others.

When I was little, nearly every major tower that wasn’t pyramid-shaped or designed by Gustave Eiffel was in the United States. The Sears Tower was #1 in height while #’s 2, 3, and 4 resided in the Big Apple. Like the cars that Detroit churned out or electronic patents that fueled automation and innovation, the United States was home to the tall buildings that those in other countries could only be envious of and emulate.

As many people know, that is no longer the case in the 21st Century. On the day that Towers 1 and 2 of the World Trade Center were destroyed, the United States had already ceded the title of the World’s Tallest Building to a structure in Asia. Rapid urbanization was unable to fully assimilate and integrate the masses of laborers that were flocking to cities in search of a better life but the concrete and steel shoots of bamboo that sprouted up in city after city overseas was enough to get the world’s attention. If not full, the skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur, Dubai, and Taipei accomplished the feat of putting their respective cities on the World Map. No longer could anyone not know where these places were or not recognize any landmarks in them, even if they were involved in a race to the sky that had no end in sight.

What makes New York unique is that even though it will never house the World’s Tallest Building again, the sheer volume and length of time that it took to construct it’s current skyline has enough history in it for anyone so inclined to look into it. Over the decades of the 20th Century that the Big Apple has had enough buildings that once held the title, with one overtaking the other until it became surpassed within a few years. Newspaper row was over by City Hall on Park Row and to this day, the buildings on it reflect the first attempts to take a horizontal building form and extrude it vertically. The results may not have been great but like any adolescence, the adulthood that resulted gave us works that were worthy of being the highest-built man made objects.

The dome of the Singer Building was dwarfed by its many of its neighbors by the time it was demolished in 196, but it was still noteworthy for being one of the first tall buildings to fully incorporate the tripartite idea of base, shaft, and capital. Other works that came later like the Woolworth Building, (original) Met Life Tower, and 40 Wall street incorporated this in a seamless manner while donning the guises of a church or bell tower. Capitalism on a big scale still needed something that people on the ground could relate to, even if the form that was used was irrelevant to the tenants that were housed in that particular building.

America was, and still was, a land of importation. The first people here were from foreign lands along with the labor that was brought here to perform many of the menial tasks of the young Republic. It should come as no surprise the Greek Revival, French second Empire, and Art Deco all found a home here in many of the buildings that have held monumental roles since their completion. All of this reached an apex in the roaring 20’s when anything was possible, even constructing Towers of Babel that were built without tenants in mind. The zeitgeist of the age could be seen in Midtown, which had finally wrestled the title of New York’s business district away from downtown during the Chrysler and Empire State Building’s race for the World’s Tallest Building. Never before nor since would a spire be hoisted into place in a matter of hours or a mast be built for air travel, defying conventional wisdom of architecture’s role of form and function on a fixed budget.

Unbeknownst to the people of the 1930’s and 1940’s, they did not realize at the time that they were living witnesses to the excesses of the Jazz Age. Manhattan’s skyline would be nearly frozen in time for 15 years until the end of World War II. “Wedding cakes” abounded in masonry and when the building resumed in the Postwar period, new forms, materials, and functions would alter not only what was vertically constructed, but how the people on the ground flowed through the city.

Sir Winston Churchill once said that “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” . It was only apt that the person most single-handedly responsible for Allies’ Victory in World War II would describe what would happen to the city that most prospered from the freedom ensured by their victory. New York was the largest city on the planet in 1950 and many of these others were digging out of the rubble of the World’s Worst conflict ever inflicted by man. Companies wanted to be in New York and the great wave of Suburban migration had yet to encompass the ubiquitous Office Park and campus that many communities encircling the Big Apple can claim today.

A list of seemingly disparate factors combined to give New York a skyline that was radically different in 1970 than from 1950, in the sense that what was gained in largesse was lost in aesthetics. Mies Van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier looked to America for site and projects where their Bauhaus School creations could be realized in three dimensions. Advances in glass and steel could allow for glossy-skinned buildings to be constructed with less planning and time to construct their skin and frames. Air conditioning made larger floorplates possible as well. Open space moved to the forefront with the revision to the city’s Zoning Law in 1961. The result was the ransacking of classic streetscapes on 3, Park, and  6 Ave with rows of glassy boxes that featured uninterrupted sides all the way up to the roof, set in barren plaza that was only built to garner a zoning bonus. Watching Mad Men or a Hitchcock film of the era may be the cool thing to do now but imagine living in that era, where every man in the gray flannel suit worked the same type of job in the same type of cubicle farm in the same type of building as every other man in the grey flannel suit. Only an lag in the unbridled growth of the nation’s economy brought a halt to the madness, which devoured such gems as the aforementioned Singer Building and Penn Station in the process.

This was the skyline that was familiar to me when I was a lkid and was lucky enough to get a glimpse of the Big City to the East. The land of shoeboxes that could be seen during the opening montages of Barney Miller or Rhoda told viewers what City the shows took place in but also as a reminder that the triumph of Modernism was too haughty not to see how dated the style would end up being withing a matter of years. Cramming as much rentable space into a building envelope may have made technological and economic sense but the overwhelming sense of scale that resulted on Water Street and major Midtown thoroughfares served as a constant reminder that bigger was not even close to always being better.

Recent years saw a full revival of older styles in garbs that weren’t quite up to par with their earlier century counterparts. To be fair, new colors, forms, and styles were used in an attempt to modernize, brighten, and humanize the City Skyline. Subway entrance improvements and plazas that were enclosed, midblock, or landscaped were constructed in an attempt to engage passerby instead of being a means to an end for the developer. All three of these ideals converged in David Child’s Worldwide Plaza, which anchored the redevelopment of 8 Ave from a porn-laden Avenue to the home of the “Starchitects” that were increasingly leaving their footprint on the Big Apple. It was at this time to that the skyline began to flatten out, as many towers were topping out in the 750-800 foot range, right before increasing heights led to a diminished level of return on the investment in construction.

1 Worldwide Plaza

What’s important to remember from the end of 20 Century was that as Postmodernism gave way to High-Tech architecture, was that the styles were increasingly en vogue for shorter amounts of time. As the world sped up, each movement that designers expressed their ideas in became shorter and shorter. Unfortunately, planned obsolescence only works for some durable goods and certainly not for many of the buildings that they were housed in. From a functional standpoint, it should come as no surprise that huge swaths of the city were turned into Historic Preservation Districts as many corporate corridors were becoming prohibitively expensive to upgrade to Class A (top of the line) Office Space.

Just last week, I picked up a fare that was heading uptown to a fashionable street on the Upper West Side. On the way up, I had this conversation:

“So, you said your husband has a hand in shaping this city. What does he do?”

“He works for FXFowle”

“Oh wow, that used to be Fox and Fowle. I remember when they designed 4 Times Square. Heck, I watched that go up!”

“Yes, my husband was involved with that.”

“What did he do for them?”

“He was their urban planner.”

Like so many others in New York, this continued as we discussed his job and the construction of one of my favorite late 20th Century towers in Manhattan.

What’s important to remember in the midst of all of this building and rebuilding is that the Towers that are leaving their mark on the skyline today are increasingly residential. As New York is increasingly a playground for the rich, they are the only ones who can afford the sky-high rents that these premium living spaces command. While not as exciting as the World’s Tallest Building race, watching the chase for the title of the city’s tallest residential structure has been just as exciting. Trump World Tower ruffled a few cages when it wrestled the title away from the Cityspire Building in the late 90’s. Frank Gehry’s new tower by the Brooklyn Bridge then held the title but the building pictured at the top of this post will hold the title when it’s completed sometime next year. Like all records, it will probably be broken and in a manner deserving of a story all its own.

As office space per worker shrinks in an era of automation and austerity, building New York’s supertalls of tomorrow will become that much harder. With the exception of Hudson Yards on the West Side, large building sites have been hard to assemble as well. Coach’s new Headquarters on 10 Ave has yet to commence as of this writing and each additional planned will need an anchor tenant before any of the serious earth-turning can begin.

Each of my shifts takes me around the city and like driving past a tree every day or week, it’s hard for me to notice the change taking place in buildings that are under construction in various neighborhoods. Eventually, the sidewalk sheds will come down and the cranes will be lowered to the ground, only to be brought across town to their next site ready to be developed. Most cabdrivers will be too busy cursing in Farsi on their Bluetooths or admonishing passengers for having the guts to use a credit card to pay for a fare. Such a shame too – all they’d have to do is look up at the city that is still doing its best to pull the rest of the nation out of a recession. How many other places are so adept at telling America’s architectural and economic story while still writing it at the same time?

1 WTC from the West Portal of the Battery Underpass