Views of the USA

New York City

The following notes were made during a three week visit to the USA, to be published in three or four parts.

Pour un Européen les Etats Unis semblent avancer toujours progressivement á cause de la solidarité et l'unité des américains, car malgré leurs origines différentes en culture et religion, ils partagent cette solidarité et ce patriotisme inébranlable- sans aucune connotation politique- avec fierté. C'est une partie essentielle de la force et de la richesse des États Unis, et ce qui différencie les américains des européens. Ces derniers, par contre, semblent vouloir se tirer chacun de son côté selon ses propres intérêts, determinés par sa caractéristique nationale, ainsi que son histoire par rapport avec ses voisins européens.


On the bus taking us from New York City to Washington DC, trying to gather some thoughts and retain certain feelings. For example I didn't know that reference to 'Ground Zero' is no longer considered acceptable, but this is quite understandable. And I never knew that the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan had in fact been replaced, not as a monument of course, but as a beautifully designed tower that is as functional (if not even more so) as were the Twin Towers. Why? Simply because New York City has to have its world commercial centre.

The memorial is there of course, way down below, the exact emplacements and base dimensions (footprints) of the twin towers,  4,000 square metres (one acre) each. On the inclined, surrounding, bronze border encasements one can read the inscribed names of the many victims (2977).
Water streams constantly down all the interior granite covered walls before pouring into smaller central squares.

It was designed by Michael Arad of Handel Architects. He worked with Peter Walker and Partners (landscape architects based in New York and San Francisco) presenting an idea of a wooded (Swamp white oaks) garden with the two square pools thirty feet below ground level. Arad's design was the winning project of an international competition. Eight finalists were chosen by a jury of thirteen members including Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, and the Deputy Mayor, Patricia Harris. As many as 5, 201 designs were proposed from 63 nations.
Additionally the idea of the water-falls of the National September 11 Memorial, 'Reflecting Absence', would be that their constant sound would subdue the surrounding city noises, and thus create a fitting sanctuary for solemn reflection.
On each anniversary, the sky is lit with incredibly high, towering shafts of light that are perhaps projected from the centre wells. The 9/11 Memorial is beautifully symbolic. As peaceful and as moving as it should be. 

But life, and business goes on, as always.
The new tower is beautiful. Apparently there was no great inauguration fanfare, otherwise even I would have heard about it. It was designed and built superbly, as a fully functional World Financial Center, (one sometimes avoids the use of the shorter word, no doubt out of respect, but the 'One World Trade Center' is often the term used instead of the over symbolic and poignant first choice of 'Freedom Tower'). It was designed by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. It's said that the functional name is preferred because it's 'easier for people to identify with,' and that's it.

But there are always the blasé or cynical european journalists, including one who wrote for the Telegraph, even before the completion of the building, who have nothing good to write about it. Perhaps they lack a sense of æsthetics, or just plain sense, or maybe they are simply being mean-minded.

I am certainly one of its admirers. The tower could also be interpreted as a suitable major finger gesture, the highest and most penetrating gesture in the western world. A direct sign to the poor, rabid dogs still conditioned to believe that they can improve the world by trying to destroy dreams, aspirations and democracy, substituting them with nightmares, terror and totalitarianism, and all with God's casual approval. But not even the devil would approve, yet it's highly evident that God already approves of the new 'One World Trade Center.'
As part of the Memorial there is a touching detail, the only tree that survived the terrible destruction, a Callery Pear, has its special place. After the attack it was discovered, broken, uprooted, covered with rubble and dust, but one branch was found to be still alive. It was lovingly nursed back to health by tree specialists, so the little tree's incredible survival represents undying hope.

In New York one is always overawed by the size of everything. The sky's the limit and nothing is impossible. There is also a natural community friendliness of most people of all origins, who of course, are all 'Newyorkers'. Friendliness and helpfulness which, let's face it, you don't find as often as you would like to in Europe. For example, we needed to be informed that we had been walking several blocks in the wrong direction to reach a specific subway, and as I approached someone to obtain this urgent information, (an Afro-American in fact, if any other term or allusion is now considered politically incorrect, but that's another subject I'll get round to dealing with soon) I discovered, too late with my myopic eyes, that he was engaged in a telephone conversation. I immediately whispered an apology and was about to back off discretely, when, for my benefit he stopped short his conversation, and politely asked me if he could be of any help. Such a gesture of kindness and consideration would be unheard of in Europe, but maybe one should refrain from trying to make such comparisons, even though it's natural to do so.

Nevertheless it occurred to me that Europeans 'don't dare', whereas for Newyorkers, and maybe Americans in general, nothing is impossible. You see this just from the architecture, and not necessarily relatively recent high-rising creations. Even world famous, monumental edifices built long ago like the Grand Central, or the beautiful Chrysler building, and obviously the Empire State Building, if not the very first skyscraper ever built in New York. There are other high rise buildings that are also exceptional such as the Woolworth Building (above), a sort of Gothic skyscraper with stunningly beautiful Art Deco interior decoration where no casual visitors are allowed to take pictures (as I sadly found out).

George A. Fuller (1851-1900) is famed for having 'invented' the skyscraper. He solved the problems of 'load bearing capacities' of tall buildings. One of his works was the 'Tacoma Building' (1889). It was the first example of its kind, the walls of which were not built to bear the weight of the building. Bessemer steel beams and cages supported the load, and this was the precedent 'keystone' for such buildings. The 'Flatiron Building' (Broadway and 23rd) is another example of one of New York's first skyscrapers. It was built by Daniel H. Burnham, the chief architect of Fuller's building company.

But New York City, like other prestigious North American cities, attracts the very best, because there's always a demand and competition for the very best.

In Chelsea and lower Manhattan the areas that were previously seedy and run down are now becoming increasingly fashionable due to massive investment from the municipality. Not by pulling down the old to replace it with the new, but by imaginatively marrying the old with the new in a highly æsthetic way. Thus all that is of historic value is not only retained, it's restored, highlighted and enhanced by new, tasteful additions. There's a beautiful old iron railway bridge near Chelsea market that has also been restored. I have just learnt that it's called The Highline, and that it runs from 35th street down past 14th Street. Although no longer in use, the rails are still left discretely embedded as a reminder, but now the bridge is part of a much used pedestrian path and access to the market area. It's embellished with stylish, appropriate sculptures and flower gardens. This reminded me of the dock-land conservation and renovation carried out in London in a similar vein, respecting the historic past and renovating it in an agreeable and convivial way that Londoners can also identify with.

This investment and call for real architectural talent has had an enormous effect. Young architects from all over are only too eager to accept the challenge and compete for the honour and privilege, which is also what it's all about. What it isn't about is politics, which is also generally apparent in the USA.

There's no trace of politics in beautiful Central Park, of course, with its natural forest and impressive rock formation, or in it's peaceful and exquisite Conservatory Garden. You won't find politics in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which in my humble opinion, must be one of the very best, if not the best museum of its kind in the world.

If you ever have the chance to go to a Gospel in New York City, let's say in the 'First Corinthian Baptist Church' in Manhattan, and you see the elegant hand waving, the tears, the trances, and the handing out of tissues and fans. And you hear the music, the drummer encased in a transparent booth to mute the beat, or the 'beast'. You hear the clapping and the loud and fervent singing, then the energetic, constant flow of words of the sermon made by a magnificent lady of a certain age. A sermon that is full of metaphors and simple truth. And you feel that community spirit. Whatever your nationality or 'colour', you are made to feel welcome and you will be hugged by the people near you and you will be invited to hold hands and unite. Where in Europe can you find such a willing, multiracial, community spirit of togetherness? 


As a rare postscript to this first 'View' of New York City, I've been sent an entry to a diary faithfully kept at a certain period of her life by an Italian member of the family, under the title 'My Trip Abroad'. Her mother took her to emigrate to the USA the same year she was born, in 1906. She was a beautiful girl in her twenties when she began writing her diary of her travels, especially of those in Italy. It includes the following, unchanged note on New York City. It's dated March 11, 1927. As such it's a personal and valuable historical reference. My sincere thanks to RP for confiding this to me.

'Had breakfast at The Golden Pheasant, very nice. Took a streetcar on Broadway and got off at the Woolworth Building; the highest in the world. It sure is a beautiful structure, being 54 stories to the tower and 4 stories to the top of the tower. We bought tickets to go to the tower, and believe me when one gets to the top it sure is a relief; those elevators sure are fast, (all operated by women).  When I got to the top and looked over the city I sure felt dizzy but it is a wonderful sight and well worth the price to see. Looking out from the tower I saw the Statue of Liberty, The Pennsylvania Hotel, Telephone and Telegraph Building, Metropolitan Life Inc., City Hall, mayors residence. Ellis Island, Government Island, Hudson River, East River, and across the Hudson is New Jersey. From the tower I saw the famous clock on the Colgate Building in New Jersey; it weighs about 6 tons and 60 men can stand on its hands. All this was a remarkable sight from the tower. I will never forget it. I also visited the Aquarium on Battery St. There are many different varieties of fish here (the horse fish, a very funny fish). Then I walked along the waterfront, viewed some of the piers; everything on this street is done in a rush. I then took the car and came back on Broadway then walked to the hotel and slept 'till 6:30, had supper and walked down Broadway to see the "bright lights".
    The Great White Way is quite proper for Broadway (electric lights). Went to the Paramount Theater. This is a beautiful building, not quite completed. The Grand Lobby of the theater is lined with Italian marble, imported from Italy at a cost of over half a million dollars. The Grand Lobby is 5 stories high, the ceiling is all heavily painted representing "The Spirit of Life". About eight crystal chandeliers hanging.
This is one of the most beautiful theaters I have ever seen. Walked further on down Broadway, saw all the playhouses, getting tired so I came back to the hotel.. Seen more today than ever before.'
Text and photographs © Mirino (PW) with the exception of the night scene of the 11/9 memorial anniversary, with thanks for this use. Many thanks to J for her kind and generous hospitality (and information), and to Tomas, for his gentillesse et expert guidance.
Thanks to Wikipedia for all additional information. July, 3013

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