To remember or not to remember?

Battery Park City, Times Square, and South Street Seaport – fake or real history?

M. Christine Boyer, an urban historian at Princeton, argues for the former in “Cities for Sale: Merchandising History at South Street Seaport”:

“Places like Battery Park City, Times Square, and South Street Seaport are sustained not only by the pleasures of picture-writing, but by the expansion of historical tourism, the desire to ‘just look’ at the replicated and revalued artifacts and architecture of another time. Yet to historicize is to estrange, to make different, so that a gap continually widens between now and then, between an authentic and a simulated experience.”

South Street Seaport lighthouse

Her main argument in the article is that the historicized architectural forms cropping up everywhere in cities aren’t actually historic – they’re bite-sized, easily consumed freeze-framed pictures of the past intended for tourists who don’t know how little relation they actually bear to the city’s past.

“City after city discovers that its abandoned industrial waterfront or outmoded city center contains enormous tourist potential and refurbishes it as a leisure-time spectacles and sightseeing promenade.” Other examples of this recycled, clichéd waterfront tableaux: Quincy Market in Boston, Harbor Place in Baltimore, Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, and the Riverwalk in New Orleans.

Fulton Market in South Street Seaport

There’s no doubt that city planners recognize the cash value in building or preserving relics of the past in today’s cities. And this undoubtedly leads to a fine line between representing the past and commodifying it. While I agree with many of the points the author makes, I find myself resisting her critique against any attempt to historicize or represent the past. There are dangers in recreating the past in the present (out of which an inevitable gap occurs that Boyer talks about in the first quotation), but still I wonder: Isn’t there also a gap if we don’t even try to preserve a memory of the past in our cities, through such means as heritage buildings and historicized architectural forms? There’s a gap either way, and I think the risk of entirely forgetting a city’s past because there’s no visual stimuli is greater than the risk of remembering it and not necessarily getting it completely accurate.

My backlash largely stems from the fact that in my master’s essay, I argued for the importance of remembering a city’s past – Vancouver’s past, actually. Vancouver, you ask? A city that’s only been around 126 years? Yes, especially a young city like Vancouver that’s praised so much by people like Douglas Coupland as the bright and shining city of the future. This kind of rhetoric strongly risks forgetting Vancouver’s past, which happens to be not-so-shining (particularly towards Asian immigrants). I think architecture and literature about the city – historic fiction specifically – play a vital role in helping remember the diverse layers and peoples of a city. Literature has perhaps an even greater potential as a tool to remember because books last longer than buildings, which are constantly getting demolished and replaced with new ones, thereby building over and erasing the past. Literary and architectural representation are two ways that come to mind when I reflect on ways to remember the city’s past in the present – perhaps we need to brainstorm others that would lessen the historicizing gap even more.

I appreciate buildings like Woodward’s in Vancouver (left) or yes, even the South Street Seaport museum (right) where something as simple as the material or words of the building visually indicate a previous past for the site that I would not even be aware of had they not been there. I guess I’d rather remember a little than not remember at all.

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When I Thought I Knew York

There’s nothing that could have prepared me for the scene that met my eyes when I emerged from Penn Station with my friend Emily two Sunday nights ago.

I knew New York was huge, but I didn’t fathom how big and how busy it was until I landed there myself.

We took an escalator from the bowels of Penn Station into what my friend and I both thought would be a central atrium, more in the manner of Grand Central Station. I think part of the shock was expecting one thing and getting another. Instead of entering an indoor area, we were abruptly thrust onto the frenzy of Seventh (Fashion) Avenue, where I think one of the first comments I made to Emily was, “Look how big and bright it is!” I felt like Michael Ondaatje’s character Patrick in the novel In the Skin of a Lion. He arrives in Toronto’s Union Station for the first time, having only ever lived in the country (I’ve lived and travelled to several cities but I still felt a bit like a kid in a candy store). Ondaatje writes, “[Patrick] spoke out his name and it struggled up in a hollow echo and was lost in the high air of Union Station. No one turned. They were in the belly of a whale.”

Grand Central Station, one of my favourite spots in New York

Penn Station, one of my least favourites

New York makes you feel small and big at the same time. Small because the city dwarfs you, and big because it makes you feel important just by being there – like you’re in the centre of the action. This is the city that never sleeps, even on a Sunday night. We ate our first meal from a street vendor whose cart stays open until 4 am.

So many stimuli compete for your attention. The city compels you to look up at the steel and glass monoliths marking the relentless gridiron pattern of Manhattan. Yet the massive crowds at street level and the plethora of people selling you everything from knock-off purses to comedy club tickets compels you to keep your gaze on the street as well. We lugged our suitcases for what felt like a very long four blocks to our apartment building at the corner of 34th Street and Park Avenue, fighting crowds the entire time until finally arriving at our prime yet noisy destination. You know it’s noisy when an entire minute goes by without hearing a siren or a car honk and you think to yourself as you’re falling asleep, “Ah good, this will be a quieter night.” I got used to the noise by the end of the week and actually grew to enjoy the cacophonic lullaby of 34th Street (reminiscent of Jane Jacobs’ Hudson Street ballet.) As a local was telling us, some say that a New York minute is the time it takes after the light turns from red to green for a taxi to honk its horn. Not long at all.

A futile sign in this city

I came to realize that this city is a work of art – not just a man-made architectural art, but a human art as well. For instance, the art of being aware of your surroundings so you don’t break stride and disturb the flow of pedestrian traffic; the art of weaving your way through crowds and looking for gaps in which to step; the art of timing your photographs when you’re stopped at an intersection instead of midway on the sidewalk where you’re sure to be an annoyance to everyone (that didn’t stop me all the time though!). Even the art of hailing a taxi. Who knew it would be so difficult? There are yellow taxis everywhere in this city, and not one stopped for us after coming back from Mamma Mia on Broadway. Granted, many of them were full, but still. What I’ve observed from New Yorkers for next time: be more aggressive. Be willing to risk your life and step out in the middle of the street to flag one down.

Taxis, taxis everywhere but not a ride to catch

If you read my previous entry, you’ll know that I had expectations for New York, and I was curious to see which ones would be accurate and which ones would be blown out of the water. I’ll now fill you in on the other side of that “split screen” I referred to earlier – the reality that always accompanies expectations.

The Pulse of the Streets

New York is like the Energizer Bunny that keeps going and going and going. That’s why I love it, as do many others. It’s always moving with a magnetic drive that’s hard to resist. I only noticed that the pace of New Yorkers was fast when Emily and I were lost and had to stop on the sidewalk in order to consult our map. But when you know where you’re going, the pace is just fine. In fact, it was actually a relief to find a city where peoples’ speed of walking matches my own. I think I could fit in quite well there on that account.

The Subway

Sometimes it was dirty and smelled of odours you’d rather not smell. Sometimes it was confusing to navigate. Actually, most times. But a few of my favourite moments were exiting onto the platform where beautiful music greeted my ears, whether from a violinist, pianist, guitarist, or singer. Emily made a thought-provoking comment in contemplating the mayhem of the underground (and for that matter, the above ground) with the magic of its street performers. She said something to the effect of, “I wonder how New Yorkers find beauty or stillness in a city that’s always noisy, busy, and on the run. Maybe it’s even in small things like this – listening to music at a subway station – that they find peace amidst the chaos.”

Statue of Liberty

Speaking of a city that’s always moving, the Statue of Liberty was as I expected, except for this detail a tour guide pointed out that I didn’t notice because most shots of her are taken from the New York side, instead of from New Jersey: her right foot is lifted as if walking forward, unwavering in her strength, her fortitude, and in the idea of liberty she enormously represents despite whatever circumstances.

Empire State

I took far too many photos of this building, basically every time I left our apartment (partly due to the fact that we were staying just two blocks east of it). Daytime or nighttime, you can see its majestic tower from miles away.

Fun fact: You know this photo below that I included in my previous entry? I always thought it depicted the construction of the Empire State, but it’s actually of the Rockefeller Center, which also gives great views of the Manhattan skyline.

View looking north from the Rock

Times Square

Of course Times Square was loud and ostentatious, and I guess that’s part of its attraction. I call it an assault on all of one’s senses. One thing that did surprise me though is how long it goes on for. I thought Times Square was well, a square. It actually extends six or seven blocks. I liked it best in the rain and at night, giving it a moody ambience.

Central Park

You can forget you’re in a city when you’re in Central Park, but a quick glance up will quickly remind you that you’re still in a concrete jungle where skyscrapers frame every edge of the park’s rectangle, so you never really forget it. That wasn’t the noteworthy thing though. What was noteworthy for me, and, I admit, a little disappointing, was how green the park was. I was hoping for colourful autumn leaves like you see in the shot of When Harry Met Sally that I included in my previous post. Instead, this is what I saw:

This is slightly better

Apparently autumn splendour arrives in New York later than in Canada, and one guy we spoke to said New Yorkers will often leave to go to other states that are even more vivid in the fall. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. Something else I didn’t expect to get in New York: snow. A nasty storm hit the eastern states on on our last day there, and even the locals were snapping pics of Central Park in October snow, something that hasn’t happened in what I hear is a very long time.

Alice in (Winter) Wonderland

Watching the storm from the comfort of the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park

Looks like Canada's winters

Ah, New York, unpredictable and ever enticing. I haven’t done a whole lot of travelling, but I think I can safely say that no place can quite compare.