(This was my first essay in Ralph Caplan’s “Critical Imperative” class)
I walked the length of Central Park South late at night recently, entering the park at Columbus Circle, staying near to the road, and exiting a few blocks over before reaching the Plaza Hotel. Coming up one of Central Park’s typical flanks of wide granite steps at Seventh Avenue, to pop out on the street, the piercing blocks of light which pile on each other to create Times Square were head-on in front of me, about fifteen or seventeen blocks south, but infinitely closer simply because of their presence.
I’ve kept a mental tally of moments like this in New York; urban moments which I happen upon, and which strike me as enhancing or affecting the public realm in some way. There is a giant tree on Houston Street, perfectly conical but obviously not a Christmas fir. It is as present in its setting as a bell tower, but not immediately understandable. In Chelsea, two Beaux Arts banks balance each other on either side of Fourteenth Street, closely similar although not identical in appearance. One is now a drug store. Obviously presenting some idea of civic monumentality, the intent has stopped there and the intersection is the lesser for it.
New York has little classical monumentality, and restraint in its civic spaces. Although everything is taller, Union Square is not Trafalger, and 5th Ave is merely a sidewalk of the Champs-Elysees. The Beaux Arts dream never came true, restrained by a practicality of street grids, value engineering, and American individuality. And yet we love New York, partly because of the urban amalgamation, the accidental spaces, and the small urban moments, which I have been keeping a tally of in my head.