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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Urban Gadabout: Plans come together as I look out over the upper East River esplanade and later walk across 72nd Street

From the esplanade (more properly John H. Finley Walk) of Carl Schurz Park (lower left) we could look out at the lighthouse at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island, which I visited last week on an MAS walking tour, and, farther off, Astoria on the Queens shore, with the bird sanctuary of Mill Rock Park on the left and Wards Island farther off.

by Ken

It didn't quite rise to the level of the way the A Team's Col. Hannibal Smith always used to love it when a plan came together, but that's sort of how I felt last week during a Municipal Art Society walking tour on Manhattan's Upper East Side with Francis Morrone. It's sort of the reason at least some of us urban gadders gad: to make sense of the world around us.

It was in the East 70s and 80s, and all to the east of York Avenue, the north-south street that runs parallel to and east of First Avenue. As a matter of fact, I learned from Francis that York Avenue used to be called Avenue A, and the still-farther-east East End Avenue used to be called Avenue B, just the way the streets to the east of First Avenue in Manhattan's Lower East Side bulge have lettered-alphabet names, creating Alphabet City. I also learned that the name York Avenue has nothing to do with any of the other York place names in the region -- like, for example, New York -- all of which have to do with the Duke of York. No, York Avenue was so named in commemoration of Sergeant York.

The things you learn on these walks! And while I probably only remember about 10 percent, that's still 10 percent more than I knew before!

But I digress. It so happened that the tour meeting place, on a corner of York Avenue and East 76th Street, was right across the street from a branch of a health club I had gone to many, many years ago, since I was working on the East Side then, and that was the closest location. And so every day after work I made my way up there, and on weekends I traveled straight crosstown from the Upper West Side, where I lived then -- or as straight as you can travel with that big park there in the way. At the time, I recall, I had never set foot as far east in Manhattan as York Avenue. And now here was a walk on which York Avenue would be the western extreme.

We proceeded to tiny Cherokee Place, which had been in the tour description and which I'd never heard of. So I was relieved when Francis ventured that 99 percent of New Yorkers never have. And the reward was exposure to the "model tenements" there, known now as the Cherokee Apartments, which were designed according to health objectives involving maximum light and air, and therefore even (or especially!) now have amounts of light and air that are generally unknown now in even the most expensive Manhattan apartments. Francis described the apartments as having "almost too much light," and I remembered that I had once looked at an apartment up the block, on East 78th Street, in the City and Suburban buildings, also model tenements. It was a sixth-floor walkup, and the rooms were tiny, but I remember looking out the south-facing windows, where the 59th Street Bridge seemed almost within reaching distance, and the sun streaming in was almost blinding.

We made our way up to 79th Street and then farther north and east, and eventually we mounted the East River promenade known officially as the John H. Finley Walk. (Naturally Francis made sure we knew who John H. Finley was.) And looking out over the river the first thing I saw was the norhtern tip of two-mile-long Roosevelt Island, which sits in the River between Manhattan and Queens from roughly 46th to 86th Street, and which I had just walked the weekend before on the second of two MAS Roosevelt Island walks, this one the "northern route" -- up to the lighthouse at the northern tip, or almost. We learned from tour leader Judith Berdy, president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, that because of Superstorm Sandy damage, which was considerable on the low-lying island, you can't get to the lighthouse, which is actually on a little island of its own, and the two little bridges that connect it had washed out, with their repair still trapped in an administrative boondoggle.

Beyond Roosevelt Island, in clear view was the Queens shore of Astoria, with the inlet where Jack Eichenbaum had explained -- on a walk up the Queens shoreline that I've done twice with him -- that this is the southernmost point in Queens where a ferry was possible, for the obvious reason that Roosevelt Avenue blocks the way farther south. (Also, Jack pointed out, at the time when ferries beetween Manhattan and Brooklyn were becoming so important to commerce and development, there was nothing that far north on the Manhattan side worth ferrying to or from.)

Off to the left was notorious Hell Gate, the infamous strait between Astoria and the now-combined Wards Island and Randall's Island, which are traversed by the Triborough now (RFK) Bridge that joins Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx (with the Hell Gate Bridge, a railroad crossing, just visible in the distance. Closer to us in the direction of Wards Island was little Mill Rock Island, now a city park, notably chiefly as a habitat for wildlife, which as it happened I'd had a chance to view close-up just a few weeks earlier on a New York Water Taxi EcoCruise up the East River beyond Wards and Randall's to and around the now-abandoned North Brother and privately owned South Brother Islands. (The captain took us on a different side of Roosevelt Avenue on the northward and southward legs of the trip, so we saw both sides of the river.) And come to think of it, just a few months before, I'd done my most recent circumnavigation of Manhattan, chugging north past the very point where I was standing, on up the Manhattan shoreline into the Harlem River.

As I say, it wasn't really planned, this confluence of al those gadding experiences, but in a sense it was, because each of those trips had been undertaken as part of my ongoing project, as a life-long map obsessive, to (finally) get some real-world images and tread some real-world turf to bring those maps to life. After we finished that walk last week, seeing the higlights of Carl Schurz Park, which contains within it the NYC mayoral residence, Gracie Mansion, which is separately administered (and for which I must make a note to schedule one of the tours offered there, which Francis says are extremely good, especially while there's no mayor in residence, the current officeholder being our first mayor for whom residence in Gracie Mansion would have been a step downward), I circled back to Finley Walk and just sat for a while, on that picture-perfect late Sunday afternoon, just enjoying the view, and enjoying how all those pieces had come together for me.


Then yesterday another MAS tour group assembled at Park Avenue and East 72nd Street for a walk that Matt Postal explained he had led once, seven years ago, and not since. The idea of simply walking across 72nd Street, including walking through Central Park, all the way to Riveside Drive at the Hudson River, sounded intriguing enough. Little did I know, though, how strong a role 72nd Street, which barely existed at the time that Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead had had for it when they were conceiving their plan for Central Park in the 1850s. In reality, of course, 72nd Street is only maybe a quarter of the up the north-south length of the park, but from the start it had the feel of a sort of "central" east-west axis, which is how Vaux and Olmstead conceived it, with vehicular entrances (tough the vehicles they envisioned would all have been horse-drawn) on both the east and west sides of the park, which laid the way for the development of both the East and West Sides relative to the park.

But that's not all. At the far end of West 72nd Street, Matt pointed out, lies the start of Riverside Park, and he explained that Vaux and Olmstead had always thought of 72nd Street as a connecting boulevard between the two great parks -- and Riverside linking to a network of parks to the north and circling around to the parks along the rift fronted by Saint Nicholas Avenue in Northern Manhattan and then . . . back to Central Park! And suddenly a whole new vista, a whole new way of thinking about all that park space, opened up to me. Along the way, both out of Central Park and in, Matt pointed out a selection of the kinds of things he normally does, and though I lived on West 75th Street for more than 20 years, I saw things in my old neighborhood that I'd never been aware of. We finished up at the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial at the foot of Riverside Park, at 72nd Street and Riverside Drive. Matt pointed out -- obvious enough, once you've had it pointed out -- that the statue of Eleanor sits directly on the ground, without a pedestal, and it's remarkable what a powerful humanizing effect that "no pedestal" feature has.

Naturally we were well entertained along the way, on both Francis's East Side walk last week and on Matt's 72nd Street walk this week. That you can count on with them, along with counting on learning all sorts of stuff you wanted to know and even more stuff you didn't know enough to know you wanted to know. I try to make sure that all the tour leaders I especially value hear periodically how grateful I am for what the do. I worry that it's not often enough.


The schedule for September, October, and November is up now on the Tours page at On my first pass, I found something like 29 tours I hoped I might be able to do. There should be lots of stuff for all tastes on the schedule, and at $15 for members, $20 for nonmembers, they're still an amazing value. If you see something you know you want to do, it's a good idea to register sooner rather than later.


A few weeks ago Francis and his co-author, Robin Lynn (a former MAS director of tours), were guests of honor at a public book-launch party held in the beautiful Historical Chapel at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. (The chapel was designed by Warren and Wetmore, whose credits include Grand Central Terminal.) The book (pictured above) is Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes, and in recent times Francis has been doing a lot of MAS tours on the subject, and insisting that it's revitalized and exploding urban landscapes are now becoming perhaps the city's defining feature in the outer world.

The Green-Wood people had in fact provided important support for the book, for the obvious reason that when it comes to New York City urban landscapes, Green-Wood stands at the beginning of time. In the city's early history, cemeteries provided a lot of residents with their only opportunity for "getaways," and often involved a day trip with picnic lunch, with or without a dead relative to visit. A carefully fabricated reinvention of a selection of natural environments was the basis for the design of Green-Wood (which sits astride a portion of the terminal moraine in Brooklyn, with what must have been -- in pre-development times -- spectacular views of the harbor), and it clearly served as a starting point for Vaux and Olmstead's designs for the city's first great parks, Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

Francis did a terrific presentation tracing four stages in the evolution of the city's thinking about urban landscapes, with new thinking about parks and the way they should or shouldn't relate to their surroundings replacing older ways of thinking in cycles. It occurred to me that you can build fine parks according to any of these philosophies, and also not-so-fine parks. For all sorts of reasons you couldn't build Central Park or Prospect Park today, but is it possible to imagine the city without either of those magnificent spaces? Happily they're both in better shape now than they've probably ever been.

As for Matt Postal, it happened that when I was ordering Robin and Francis's book, and looking for something lift my order into the "free shipping" zone, I noticed a book I'd somehow never been aware of, a 2009 MAS-instigated book called 10 Architectural Walks in Manhattan, half by Francis and half by Matt. I don't know how I managed not to know about it, but I'm having a lot of fun with it now. It's great for parts of Manhattan that I have walked with them (among other reasons to fill in some of the 90 percent I've forgotten) and also for areas I haven't. There is, for example, a block of lower Greenwich Street that I walk through almost every morning coming out of the Rector Street IRT station, which was once the heart of the young New York City's most fashionable residential district. With the incision for the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel this stretch of Greenwich Street has become a sort of wilderness. I learned a lot about it from Joe Svehlak's MAS tour of "Manhattan's Lower West Side," and even more from the portion of one of Francis's walks that covers these blocks.

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