New York Stories

Over the last year and a half, I have found myself arguing with lots of pictures of buildings, the buildings I feel I know from walking the streets of my city. You cannot, I have said to the images of Ana Carolina Boclin, try to tell me that the Woolworth Building sometimes looks yellow against a deeply blue sky—cream possibly, but never yellow. The columns on the New York Stock Exchange do not lean in the slightest, all those buildings downtown are perfectly vertical and, although obviously it is a nice effect, the Empire State Building is not an oblique sketch in a puddle. These are not the buildings of my New York, which are to be seen from the angle of my eye, standing straight amidst crowds of people, their edges blurry from the dust on my glasses. I have felt that each edifice is mortal, and this has made me more possessive and more insistent. I love the way stone and glass and metal have become repositories of history in New York, the way the city—despite its habit of tearing down a large portion of its buildings every year—has come to have more old buildings and a longer architectural memory than do many cities in the United States. In my head I have pointed out to Boclin that she is quite wrong to look at the Flatiron Building in sections—the thing about that building is its integrity. I would say to her, you have given the Flatiron newness, and what ought to be cherished in it is its oldness. I wanted the steadiness of my city’s landmarks. But not long ago, as I was looking at Boclin’s gray photograph of the Empire State Building and the clock pole distorted by the water, I remembered, almost despite myself, that when Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen photographed the Flatiron Building they were interested in its daring. Their photographs, the watery, blue-green images that have come to represent the Flatiron’s romantic oldness, were originally meant to show the triangular, white building’s striking contrast with the horse carriages standing on the street. I never pass the Flatiron Building without the pleasure of those images, and I have been, at other times, happy to marvel that newness and oldness are so easily transformed, one into the other.

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