Exploring the City

     I have now been in New York for a month. Between work, organising my US life and getting settled in the new flat, there has not been much free time. Because of this, I have been trying to use the little time that I do have with maximum impact, and explore the city in the most effective way: slowly and on foot.  

The way I discover New York is probably contrary to the ‘norm’: most people would rush to visit all the sights, and use the subway in between. This is something I would be tempted to do as well – if I was visiting for a short time. Luckily, with a whole year in NYC, I have the luxury of discovering the place properly. Not just the sights, but – much more importantly – the city and its character.

Walking around unknown streets, absorbing the environment and not having to hurry – being a flâneur – seems to be the most enjoyable and revealing tactic. I choose a general direction, and see where it will lead me - with lots of small discoveries on the way. Google Maps helps adjust the path although it’s much more exciting to wander, get lost, then find a place visited earlier, and stitch those together into a kind of mental map. Slowly, the separate parts become part of the bigger picture – and it’s difficult to tell which I enjoy more: this process of discovery, or the fact that I’m getting a better grasp of the city with every day. It’s almost like reading a good book: you want to find out what’s next, but don’t want it to be over too soon. Fortunately, New York is so big and ever-changing, it’s unlikely it will ever ‘end’. 

In addition to the short detours before and after work, I have undertaken three major expeditions: one in Brooklyn, and two in Manhattan. They overlap, and form the structure for my further explorations. 

A quick diagram of the three expeditions

The first excursion, in Brooklyn, came out of simple curiosity: I wanted to find out more about the places I pass daily during my subway commute to work. So I walked - somewhat following the route of my B-train – from the apartment and all the way to Manhattan. 

On my way, there were neighbourhoods full of small international shops, squeezed comfortably next to each other in the most unlikely combinations; quiet residential areas full of repeating townhouses; the vast Prospect Park full of joggers – most in baseball caps; a neighbourhood of tenements that could have been transported from the West End in Glasgow; the area around the newly opened Barclays Center that has an air of big changes about it; and some bare concrete streets adjacent to the residential towers with hardly any pedestrian space. When I reached the middle of Brooklyn bridge, a massive fireworks show started – I like to think it was symbolic. Here’s a short video (of extremely poor quality) that documents this historic moment: 

The second tour aimed to connect the areas around the Steven Holl studio: I pass near them every day, but do so in ‘New Yorker mode’: in a morning rush, while checking the updates on my phone, without stopping even for the traffic lights – so not really seeing the place properly. Of course, I try to take a slightly different route to work every time, and find new places during lunch - but exploring at a casual pace is completely different. 

So, on this walk, I got a chance to finally visit the High Line – an elevated train structure from the 1930s that has been recently transformed into a unique promenade - just two minutes away from the studio.  It was especially great to see it after so many of my coursemates had used it as a precedent for the Town Study project that (similar to the High Line) dealt with the topics of new identity and re-use of industrial heritage.

After that, I tried to crisscross all the interesting looking streets between Union and Times Squares - but even with short walks after work, this dense and ever-changing area still needs a lot of exploration. Which is really exciting.

The High Line at night
View from the High Line

Finally, I spent last Saturday walking from 34th Street (my work stop) North all the way along 5th Avenue, with a detour into the Upper East Side, past the Central Park, then to Harlem and further West to Columbia University Campus. It was interesting to see how the 5th Avenue, full of shoppers and tourists, became more and more empty as I walked away from the main attractions further up North; to see the many iconic locations that feature in movies, shows and architecture books (some quite different in reality); and to get a sense of scale of the various locations – Central Park, for instance – that one cannot get from a map or while moving in transport. 

Now that this ‘spine’ has been established, I try to explore other areas in more depth, and actually spend time in the locations, instead of just walking past and making a mental note of visiting those in the future. Continuing the ‘mental map’ image, the idea now is to ‘pin’ some of the locations – museums for example – to my understanding of New York that now has a strong foundation. I will try to write about this process as I get more free week-ends to explore. Should also try to make more (and better) pictures - somehow, the exploration process has been so interesting I forgot to be a tourist :)