julia foulkes

Imagining NYC

In this book, Christoph Lindner traces the New York that appears in literature and the visual arts in the early 20th century. He divides the imaginations into two sections, one vertical (skyscrapers), one horizontal (sidewalks), and ties creative pictures to urban plans and forms. In this, he adds an attention to spatiality to that of visuality in modernism. The city is not only seen but walked.

Skyscrapers/verticality, Lindner argues, catch New York between the sublime and the uncanny; sidewalks/horizontality add speed, movement, and dislocation. Oscillating between these spatial perspectives becomes a primary framework of urban experience.

Lindner is generally persuasive if not revelatory. There are good additions to the common core of New York imaginations — looking at female flaneuses, not only male flaneurs; keying in on the transformation that elevated trains provided rather than subways; and challenging the assumption that we trace the city to screens and, instead (following Baudrillard), use screen images to get back to the city.

What was most interesting to me was where Lindner placed these spatial orientations in the present and future city. He examines the forthcoming tribute to the Twin Towers in the park being built on the former dump of Fresh Kills on Staten Island. In this plan, verticality goes horizontal. The towers are literally fallen, the buildings reproduced in full form on their sides as bunkers to be climbed. From the top of the fallen building, the harbor of New York is visible, the new World Trade Center, the Statue of Liberty — all seen while standing atop the remains of those towers. (Fresh Kills was closed shortly before September 11, 2001, and then re-opened as the repository of the towers’ remains.) If critics of the 9/11 memorial and Ground Zero site regret the drive to build up the area with (likely underutilized) offices, this tribute is a kind of imagining that Timothy “Speed” Levitch came up with — let the buffaloes roam again.

Lindner then discusses the High Line as a new, prominent form of elevated horizontality in New York but then goes on to examine the more unusual proposal of the Lowline, opening up abandoned subway tracks in the Lower East Side to pedestrians. Here designers light up a forbidding space with skylights that filter natural light by fiber optics and re-imagine the belly of the city to be a place of meandering contemplation.

These are the kind of imaginings of New York that just might keep the city a vital, humane place in the face of economic, environmental, and political pressures. Let’s hope so.