American Cityscapes

Revisiting New York was like seeing a whole new city, even though I’d been there in 1992. There were some prominent absences in the landscape, obviously, but a decade of watching Seinfeld, listening to Interpol and the Strokes and reading the online words of New York peers also transformed the experience. Our hotel was around the corner from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles brasserie, a few blocks from Park Avenue and the Empire State, and we arrived hours after the end of a transport strike that recalled the 1970s. Even catching the subway made me think of The Taking of Pelham 123 (the superb original, not the remake). New York felt just like... New York, New York.

I picked up a copy of Freakonomics over there, and read it back at home. One chapter talks about America’s extreme awareness of crime in the early 1990s, even as it was in fact falling. It reminded me what else was different this time around: I didn’t feel so paranoid. Last time, brainwashed by Sixty Minutes and Hill Street Blues, I kept waiting to be mugged. This time, NYC felt as safe as any other big city. Being a decade older and wiser probably helped.

I was also more conscious of New York as a historic city this time around. New skyscrapers are still going up, but the most striking are those that evoke its glory days of the twenties and thirties: the Chrysler Building, the Woolworth Building, the RCA Victor Building. Plus, of course, all those iron staircases in SoHo and the Meatpacking District. Manhattan feels like a landscape of the late-19th to mid-20th century. When it comes to late-20th, Kuala Lumpur and Berlin—even Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane—do it just as well. The absence of those prominent towers has something to do with it; when their replacement arrives, the atmosphere will no doubt be transformed again.

Boston, by comparison, felt more familiar on a second visit, even though my last was in mid-summer and this time it was covered in snow. We stayed there with a good friend from Britain at the end of our trip, spending a day walking the Freedom Trail, which probably added to the deja vu—those buildings and “burying grounds” haven’t gone anywhere. One major difference was the completion of the Big Dig, which was just getting underway in 1992: the huge highway that once cut off the North End from the city is now gone, replaced by tunnels.

It’s a more sedate and orderly place, the Edinburgh to New York’s Glasgow or London, and felt unnaturally quiet after the crush of people in Times Square. I sampled the chowder at Legal Seafoods and the breakfast at Boston Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe, and spent my birthday at the Museum of Fine Arts, catching the tail end of an Ansel Adams exhibition and wondering if I’d ever take a photograph half as striking as his best. (Better learn the candle count of the moon.) The rest of its collection looks as much to America’s past as to the wider world: famous images of George Washington, Paul Revere, whales in the harbour. The gift shop is full of reproductions of that stuff, but can’t even manage a postcard of Gauguin’s masterpiece, which hangs almost unremarked among the museum’s post-Impressionists.

They may not be Ansels, but some of my own photos turned out well. Half of them were desaturated by the winter grey, so I’ve partially desaturated some of the others just for fun—see if you can tell where.

Duck on the Charles River

18 February 2006 · Travel

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