New York City
Tim Maly writes about the true architectural marvels of New York, not the skyscrapers, the low-slung brownstones, or the magnificent suspension bridges, but the rivers and islands and shorelines of the city itself:
In 1660, Pearl Street ran along the shore. Captain Kidd had a waterfront property at the corner of Pearl and Wall. Today, that site lies three blocks inland. In the 1690s, the City sold water lots to private would-be landowners, each forty feet wide. Purchasers agreed to infill forty feet into the river, leaving space for public access wharves on the far side. These wharves became Water Street, which is itself two blocks away from the shore today, thanks to subsequent infill.
When these areas were built up, landscapers didn’t build very high. As sea levels rise and the climate becomes increasingly wild, we now have a series of artificial flood plains populated by people who did not sign up to be residents of a flood plain.
You can roughly trace Manhattan and Brooklyn’s original shorelines by looking at a map of the flood zones. Take away Zone A, and you get a pretty good picture of the ancient boundary between water and land. Some of that territory didn’t use to be land at all. Much of it was marsh and wetland.
“The High Line,” Tim writes, “is an architectural marvel made possible by the dredging of Newark Bay.”
Tim’s essay reminds me of two of my favorite pieces of writing. The first, “Atchafalaya,” by the great John McPhee, is probably the classic account of human’s semi-tragic, quasi-doomed, but all-too-real attempts to remake and restabilize the relentless natural wonders on which we’re precipitously perched.
The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah… The industries were there because of the river. They had come for its navigational convenience and its fresh water. They would not, and could not, linger beside a tidal creek. For nature to take its course was simply unthinkable. The Sixth World War would do less damage to southern Louisiana. Nature, in this place, had become an enemy of the state.
The second is from Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika (also called The Man Who Disappeared). In the original draft of the book, Kafka gets key details of New York City’s geography “wrong,” so his editor Max Brod “corrected” them in the early published version. But I think Kafka’s absurd, imaginary architecture (restored in this translation) was entirely deliberate and from the standpoint of literature is actually far superior:
The bridge connecting New York to Boston hung delicately over the Hudson, and it trembled when you squinted to see it. It seemed entirely without traffic and underneath it ran an inanimate, smooth belt of water. Everything in both of these giant cities seemed empty and pointlessly displayed. As for the buildings, there was barely any difference between the large ones and the small. In the invisible deep of the streets, the bustle went on after its own manner, but nothing moved above it except for a light haze which wouldn’t be pushed away, but it was as if you could chase it away without any effort. Even in the harbor, the largest in the world, it was quiet, and only here and there, influenced by your memory of seeing it up close, you might believe you saw a ship pushing on for a short stretch. But you couldn’t follow it for long, it escaped from your eyes and couldn’t be found anymore.
Besides, it’s not as if the geography of New York is fixed and immutable anyways. We’ve built things nearly as flabbergasting as this.
I like old Law & Order episodes — there’s a reason why I put the show smack in the middle of my Showroulette pitch — but wasn’t heartbroken when I’d heard that the flagship series was cancelled. (The quirkier, more salacious spinoffs, like “Law & Order: Freaky Sex Crimes Unit,” remain.) The show had been losing its edge for a while, in writing, acting, and even casting. I mean, how are going to cast the judge from The Wire as … a judge on Law & Order? That’s just lazy. At least the guys from The Sopranos didn’t always play mobsters.
A couple of things I’ve seen lately, though, in the wake of the show’s cancellation, suggest that Law & Order wasn’t quite as sharp because the city itself had lost its edge — in a good way, at least for New York (if not procedural dramas). This New York Times article notes how the show helped improve New York’s image to tourists and parvenues (“This Crime Spree Made New York Feel Safe”):
In 1990, when the show made its debut, 2,245 people were murdered in New York (a high-water mark), and several of those victims became emblematic of the haphazard, senseless violence that gripped the city…
[But] as [the detectives] pulled on the threads of the case, a pattern and motive always emerged. Unlike in the real New York, there is almost no pure street crime in “Law & Order.” In a show obsessed with the city’s class structure, you were far more likely to be murdered by your financial adviser than by a drug dealer. Crime has no single cause, the show seemed to argue, but crimes do, and they can be solved one at a time…
Mr. Wolf portrayed a city in which there were no senseless crimes, only crimes that hadn’t yet been made sense of. He took the conventions of the English country murder mystery and tucked them inside the ungovernable city. In so doing, for a national audience, he de-randomized New York violence.
The plunging murder rate has to help too — just 466 homicides in all of New York City in 2009, an all-time low. For a city of almost 9 million people, it’s pretty impressive that fewer people were killed in New York last year than follow me on Twitter. Let’s put it this way — Philadelphia and Baltimore, which also had record-low homicide numbers, together easily beat New York even though the two cities combined have something like half the population of Brooklyn. New York went from one of the most dangerous cities in the country to one of the safest.
The Wire’s David Simon, though, argues that the rising wealth and lowered danger of New York skews New York’s sense of what’s happening in American cities nationwide — and because New York dominates America’s media imagination, that has a disproportionate effect on how we understand what’s happening elsewhere. (Make sure you watch this video to the end, where he gives Law & Order a pop):
Some of this is familiar anti-NYC stuff, particularly from people who 1) live/grew up elsewhere and 2) work in/adjacent to media and publishing. But I think Simon’s bigger point, that the “urban experience” in America has become much more heterogeneous, both within and between cities, is 1) true and 2) has consequences, is really worth paying closer attention to.