Postcard from New York

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Tonight, coming at you Live and Direct from New York City, the greatest city in the World…  Yes, there are other great cities apart from Wellington, and it’s interesting to compare how the original Gotham city stacks up to our own mini-Manhatten.

This city is amazing, but also amazingly civilized in both buildings and people. We’re only here for a few days, but there is evidence of planning and building codes everywhere, including the graceful stepbacks of the haunches of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, right down to the height of buildings relative to the width of the street. I’m staying in Greenwich Village and the leafy trees hide the 4-5 storey facades on these narrow side streets, whereas on the wider Avenues the buildings soar up 20 stories. Lessons to be learned here for back home in Te Aro.


Traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular, is incredibly well behaved. Yes, so everyone sneaks through the last second of a red light, but there are no red light cameras, and you know what – they’re not necessary. On the side streets there is no honking allowed ($350 fine and 2 points off your licence for some offences) while on the big Avenues with 5 or more lanes of yellow taxicabs there is just a steady peeping and parping, no revving of engines and no boy racers with blow off turbo kits. Cyclists are well catered for, with most streets having a well demarcated cycle lane and as a consequence there is no need for futile measures such as helmet, hi vis gear, or, it seems, lights on your bike. There are, of course, the odd skateboarder around also doing battle on the roads, but also quite a few electric bicycles that noiselessly whisk their way to work.

What is really noticeable however is the pedestrian life here. Wide, wide sidewalks, enough to ensure no jostling, and amazingly many of the old walks are made from giant slabs of solid granite, although modern sidewalks are concrete now. It’s hard on your feet. No time for niceties such as coloured bricks. But the shops are here, on every inch of ground floors on the main roads, catering for your every need. And in New York, your every need seems to be: built to last. Stainless steel or brass fixtures everywhere, do it once, do it right.


The big thing in town right now is the iPad – Apple have commandeered every single advertising board in the city it seems and everyone wants one. After all, everyone already has an iPhone.


I’ll finish up by saying: Wellington needs a Light Rail system. The Subway here works like a dream, fast and without incident, resplendent new stainless steel and aluminium cars transporting you 10 blocks in 3 minutes, and really stitches the city together. Meeting uptown in half an hour? Not a problem when you take the subway. No annoying snapper worries either – their paper card system works flawlessly on bus or train.


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Posted under: Comment, urban design | 8 Comments »

8 Responses to “Postcard from New York”

  1. tomek Says:

    Sounds swell. I’ve never been to NY but I have been to Tokyo and they too have wide, wide footpaths. However, there are almost 20 million people in NY and Tokyo city has 12 million with about 32 living in the greater Tokyo area. That’s a lot of people so you better have wide footpaths. Also, both cities are fairly flat and not topographically locked between steep hills and a water’s edge.

    On cycling; bicycle lights are not a futile measure. If you want to ride your bike on the road then you need to be seen. It’s common sense. Otherwise why would motorcycles need lights? Helmets etc., are a different bag though. Our local system has it all backwards—we do damage control rather than damage prevention—hence helmets as a legal requirement (they are a good idea generally speaking as one only has one melon that has to last one’s full life span). We’re also extremely exclusive as a society—pedestrians only, bikes only, cars only. Even in the great outdoors on walking trails you will see signs to that effect. In Tokyo, pedestrians share the footpaths with cyclists who ring their bell, ever so gently, as they close the gap from behind. Nobody even turns to look, they just sidestep to their left so that the bike may pass on their right. You may still ride on the roads but most people choose the footpath. It doesn’t get much simpler than that; it all comes down to CHOICE.

    Do it once, do it right—our construction business is not the only one that suffers from not considering this maxim. As a software engineer of over 10 years, I too am guilty of building it many times over because I was trying to be too clever or too cheap for anyone’s actual greater good. I’ve learned my lessons the hard way and I believe that it all comes down to education and work culture (which is strongly influenced by early education). Instill in people a sense of how important something is, without ramming it down their throats because it’s in human nature to always resist, and it will become habitual. Then at least when they come to design their buildings the default stance will be to do it right, do it once and the quality of the outcome will be largely dictated by the client, whom we should always try to make aware of CHOICES and consequences.

    Light rail—definitely. I probably don’t need to convince anyone here but do take a peek at this site: http://railforthevalley.wordpress.com/. Of particular interest is the Urban Design influenced design of a modern tram car: floor to ceiling windows to engage the travelers with the city around them, doors designed to not required ramps or raised platforms for quick, easy access and integration with the existing fabric of the city (it’s probably cheaper to buy some new trams than to change all the roads and stops).

    cheers,
    -tomek

  2. David Says:

    Have been following this blog for a while and am delighted you’re visiting my home town. A few suggestions:

    The Oyster Bar, Grand Central
    Peek into the lobby of the Osborne, at 57th St. and Seventh Ave., one of the world’s oldest skyscraper apartment houses
    Closer to Fifth Avenue, at 9 West 57th, the Solow Building holds an amazing high-style 1960s sunken lobby that is now 8 1/2.
    Walk West End Avenue from 70th St north–all of the glory of Park Avenue with none of the traffic.
    Check out the interiors of the Morgan Library’s original annex
    Gramercy Park at 21st through 20th foot of Lexington. Check out the National Arts Club on the south side of the park.
    East 19th Street East of Irving Place is the “block beautiful”
    And of course the High Line.

  3. Guy Says:

    David – thank you for the tips – and for telling us that you’re a regular reader. Managed to do a couple on the list, and ticked a lot off on my list, but have just arrived back in NZ again so will have to save the rest up for ‘next time’

    The High Line and Grand Central (found the Campbell Apartment bar) were top of my list.
    I’m curious though on 2 things – the Architectural League and the Storefront for architecture – could find no trace of them – any idea on them ?

    Fantastic city – you’re very lucky to love there.

  4. Evelyn Says:

    guy – when i had the awesome pleasure of visiting NYC at xmas, i found Storefront (its kind of between Little Italy and Soho if i recall correctly), but it was closed…

    nonetheless i found a fellow architecture enthusiast there taking a millions photos regardless.

  5. Guy Says:

    I have figured out that the Arch League must be a fictional group of superheroes, (such as the Justice League of America…) but I’m totally confused as to why I couldn’t find the Storefront.
    I mean, here is their website:
    http://www.storefrontnews.org/gen_page.php?contentID=100 and I was on that corner and yet the damn place was still elusive. Surely I am not that stupid?

    (don’t answer that…)

  6. m-d Says:

    It’s there on Google Street View (who needs to travel these days…), although looking somewhat ‘weathered’…

  7. richard Says:

    Guy – you just needed to have an i-phone – then you’d have been able to find it

  8. David Says:

    Hi Guy,

    The Architectural League is at 594 Broadway. It’s on the 6th Floor, however, so it’s easy to miss. It’s a great resource.

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