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EVERY NOW AND THEN, I need a photo workshop to help me look at things afresh. In Europe last month, I was so busy chronicling all I saw as straight-up reportage that I rarely took time to be creative with my camera — or iPhone, in my case (I’ve given up carrying anything heavier).

This morning, at the Municipal Arts Society offices in Midtown Manhattan, I took a two-hour class called “Getting the Shot” taught by Timothy Schenck, a photographer specializing in art, architecture and construction. Tim ran through an astonishing amount of information in an hour. His reminders about basic mindfulness (“focus on the task”) were not lost on me, and I loved being given permission to experiment (“tap into your individual vision,” “try the unconventional”), along with composition (eliminate visual clutter, use negative space, remember the rule of thirds) and technical tips.

I asked how to take photos of a building besides just standing in front of it and holding the camera up, something I often find myself doing. Among Tim’s suggestions: try a very low angle to take in, say, the cobblestones on a street; use ‘leading lines,’ like a row of houses diagonally pointing toward the subject building; look for a convenient bell tower for a high vantage point; take close-ups of a weathered door or interesting knob; tell a story about the building in a series of images.

All very helpful, so when our group of about 25 — most with SLR cameras, some with point-and-shoots, a few with cellphones — marched the 10 blocks south to Grand Central Terminal to put Tim’s tips into practice, I was feeling inspired. The image, top, taken on 42nd Street just in front of the station, may be my favorite of the day.

It was crowded inside the station, with more tourists than commuters. I interpreted the part of the lesson about weeding out visual clutter to mean people — people en masse, at any rate. I gravitated toward quiet corners and was surprised there were some, even inside Grand Central on a Saturday afternoon. And when there weren’t, I found that if I waited, a wave of humanity would pass and for a few seconds the coast would be clear to grab a shot of the station’s grand Beaux Arts architecture.

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April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain. 

 – T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

APRIL HAS BEEN CRUEL, an abrupt withdrawal from the stimulation and excitement of my monthlong trip to Europe in March. Though I was there but four weeks — and they flew — the trip had been in the planning all winter, so my head had been in Europe far longer. Now both mind and body are back in Brooklyn and I’m in recovery, chafing against the fact that I’m no longer hearing mellifluous Romance languages, hopping on and off trains with a sense of purpose, feeling intrepid and self-sufficient, exploring new streets and seeing new vistas, steeping myself in art and culture, walking a pair of sturdy boots into oblivion.

I came home to bills and taxes and issues I’d been happy to put out of my head completely for the duration of my trip. I’ve been feeling dull and grouchy, if only to myself, pissed off about being back in New York, but unwilling to kvetch out loud, for who would sympathize with someone who’d had those four weeks of freedom and delight? I couldn’t even write a blog post; what could I possibly say or show that would hold a candle to Verona or Naples? I went out to eat with friends at restaurants new to me, including Eugene and Company in Bed-Stuy and Chavella’s in Crown Heights, and though I liked them both and look forward to return visits, couldn’t even be bothered to lift my iPhone to take a photo of my food.

“Mixing memory and desire,” T.S. Eliot wrote — that’s what April has done for me, mixing the memory of being in Europe with the desire to return. Be here now? Ha. I’ve been wanting to be there. I drove out to my house in Springs to check on things and found both house and garden in perfect order, just as I left them last November, but didn’t feel the usual uplift.

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It was only yesterday that I finally felt “dull roots stirring.” I met a friend for lunch in Bryant Park during a brief spell of perfect weather, and it happened as I emerged from the subway, caught a glimpse of the Park’s newly seeded lawn (thankfully rid of the skating rink and market stalls of winter) and the stately back of the Public Library, and the fountains, and the daffodils, and the carousel, and the happy people released from their offices basking in the novelty of an alfresco lunch, and even the green and blue glass skyscrapers which somehow on this day didn’t offend but wowed me with their shiny brilliance. I was a bit early, so I went inside the Library and wandered through their current, excellent exhibitions: one of vintage photographs and another of World War I graphics.

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Coupled with my first visit of the season, this morning, to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, below, where the cherry orchard is late to bloom but the magnolias are going crazy, I’ve at last begun to think, hmmm… maybe New York can hold a candle, after all.

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IMG_5301THE LAST SURVIVING HISTORIC PIER IN NEW YORK CITY, Pier A at Battery Park in lower Manhattan, was ripe for adaptive re-use. Built in the 1880s, with a clock tower added in 1919 as a World War I memorial, it was used by the city as a fireboat station, then abandoned in 1992. Whereupon it sat vacant for more than two decades, and — though landmarked and on the National Register of Historic Places — fell into disrepair.

Happily, after a long renovation, it’s been reborn as a 28,000-square-foot oyster bar and beer hall, Pier A Harbor House, owned by Peter Poulakakos, who owns 10 other restaurants in downtown Manhattan, including three on Stone Street.

With a gazillion-dollar view of the Harbor, including Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, perfectly poised to catch the sunsets over New York Harbor, Pier A is an obvious place to bring out-of-town visitors. But it’s also a great spot for locals, with beautifully executed interiors, as my sister and I found out last Sunday. It was fairly quiet on a foggy winter’s day, a month after opening, but seats thousands, including 400 outside, and I can picture next summer’s mob scene. Only the lower level is open at present; the upper level will be a fine-dining restaurant and special-events space.

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As I looked around Battery Park and into the Financial District, below, I was heartened to realize the area has actually retained a fair number of old limestone and brick office buildings. It’s not all glass towers yet (or perhaps they were lost in the fog). It seemed like it would be recognizable as lower Manhattan to someone disembarking from a ship here in 1945.

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We walked up toward Fulton Street to see Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s $4-billion new PATH and subway station at the World Trade Center site. The comb-like roof structure, below, doesn’t look as graceful as the renderings the architect presented a decade ago.

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Inside, an impressive oculus, below, will illuminate an indoor shopping mall.

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I find myself more excited by the spiffing up of a 19th historic pier than by the madly un-contextual 21st century design of the train station, but I’ll reserve judgement. Over-budget and behind schedule, it’s still incomplete.

IMG_5223TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT THESE BUILDINGS next time you’re in the area around Grand Central Terminal, because some of them may not be there much longer. Big changes are coming to what’s called the Vanderbilt Corridor, the five-block stretch to the west of the station, running from 42nd to 47th Streets, between Madison and Vanderbilt Avenues.

Grand Central’s new next-door neighbor is likely to be Midtown’s tallest tower, One Vanderbilt, a glassy spire designed by Kohn Pederson Fox, that will replace the sturdy 1912 limestone building, above, designed by Grand Central’s architects, Warren & Wetmore, to complement the station’s Beaux Arts design.

Already underway — the building’s major retail tenant, the sporting goods store Modell’s, leaves this month — construction won’t start until an NYC rezoning proposal to increase the density of buildings in the corridor (and height, although there’s no limit on height now and never has been) finishes its journey through through the city’s ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) process and is approved, something most observers expect to happen. The De Blasio administration is in favor, and Community Boards and preservation organizations like the Landmarks Conservancy, though dismayed by the prospect, have nothing more than an advisory role. It is almost certain that One Vanderbilt will replace the older building as well as two other venerable early 20th century buildings on the same square block.

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From there, if the Vanderbilt Corridor Rezoning Proposal is in fact approved, which will likely happen around mid-year, it’s not a long hop to the redevelopment of sites that include the limestone Yale Club, above, and the Roosevelt Hotel, below, the last of the eight grande dame hotels that once surrounded Grand Central, if their owners decide that demolition and rebuilding are to their advantage, which they well might.

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I learned all this and more when I reported a news story last month for Architectural Record, headlined “City Chips Away at Beaux Arts Heart of Manhattan.” It’s all there if you want to delve deeper. The photo, below, shows the base of One Vanderbilt, the building that will replace the 12-story structure at the top of this post (51 East 42nd Street, or the Vanderbilt Avenue building).

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The Vanderbilt Corridor is one of those stretches of New York City we tend to take for granted. These solid structures, none of them landmarked, are the fabric of the city as we’ve known it, not the trim. They’re remnants of pre-World War II New York, so much of which has already disappeared in favor of banal or downright ugly glass towers. If they come down and are replaced by 21st century ‘supertalls,’ we’ll become more like Shanghai or Dubai. Is that what we want?

It’s certainly not what preservationists (and I’ll include myself in their number) want. Some may call it progress. I call it sad.

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LAST THURSDAY NIGHT’S MUNICIPAL ARTS SOCIETY WALKING TOUR of East Village neon was not what I expected, on several counts. How cold was it? Couldn’t-feel-your-toes cold. Still, I thought there’d be at least a bit of a crowd for such an intriguing event. But just three of us showed up — myself, my sister, and a woman from Virginia. Plus our leader, Tom Rinaldi, the 34-year-old author of New York Neon (Norton), a near-comprehensive book of pre-1970 neon in NYC. I’m glad a member of that generation is interested in documenting what remains of these 20th century artifacts, because they’re going fast. Since Tom’s book came out last year, there are even fewer of those mellow retro neon signs that once characterized the New York night.

Just last week, DiRobertis Pasticceria, on First Avenue near 11th Street, closed down after 110 years in business. Now the block is dark, where once their pink signage cheered the scene. To my shock, the Variety Photoplay Theatre on Second Avenue near 13th, with its Deco-era neon marquee, was no longer there. I’m sure I knew in the back of my mind that it had disappeared some years ago, but I had evidently blocked the knowledge and was looking forward to seeing it. As we walked, I grew increasingly depressed at the realization that very little great neon endures. It is, as Tom called it, ‘an endangered species.’

In our circuit of the neighborhood, from our meeting place in front of Block Drugs, below (obviously), on the corner of Second Avenue and 6th Street, to our final stop at Katz’s Deli on Houston, here’s what we saw.

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Above: The business goes back to 1884; the signage, Tom told us, about 1945.

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We ducked into a sports bar/pub on Second Avenue, mainly to warm up, and discovered a vintage Bar & Grill sign inside, above, with a great ampersand. Tom told us it had been moved here from elsewhere.

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Tom helped my sister and me figure out the best ways to photograph neon. Above, the one remaining Italian pastry shop in the East Village, the venerable Veniero’s. But we were on a mission and did not stop in for cappuccino and cannoli.

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Heading down First Avenue, a window sign in a coffee shop, above, the rounded A’s indicating its age.

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Popped in to the Theatre 80 St. Marks — their dignified signage, above — and discovered a warm and inviting bar in the lobby. Hot toddies made with absinthe. Note to self.

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An appliance store sign on First Avenue, above, had a couple of letters out, but the GE logo looked swell. Those rounded A’s take me right back to childhood.

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Then on down to Houston Street, and two classics from the era when the Lower East Side was a bastion of Jewish food: Russ & Daughters Appetizing, above, and Katz’s Deli, below, a neon extravaganza inside and out.  Both businesses are still going strong in the 21st century. As long as people keep eating smoked fish and pastrami sandwiches, we can assume their neon signage, lovingly maintained, will endure.

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Photos 4, 5, 7, 9, 13, 15, 18, 21: Stacie Sinder

 

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