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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.
TAKE 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.
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.
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).
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.
FOR ONE REASON AND ANOTHER, I found myself in Midtown Manhattan three times last week and — to my surprise — enjoyed it. Even when I lived in Manhattan eons ago, I was a downtown person, rarely venturing north of 14th Street. After I moved to Brooklyn in the late ’70s, my visits to “the city” grew more and more infrequent. Weeks could go by without my having any need or desire to cross the river (especially after Brooklyn got a few shoe stores).
Yet, there I recently was, three days in succession, suddenly feeling my eyes had been opened to something immeasurably rich, complex, and vibrant I hadn’t noticed before. I found myself searching for signs of vintage Manhattan, for remnants of the pre-skyscraper era, dwarfed now by towering neighbors but still standing proud, like the little house, top, in Virginia Lee Burton’s children’s book of the same name, that got gradually engulfed by new construction.
On Day 1, I had a doctor’s appointment in the East 30’s. I noticed a brick carriage house I had never seen before, below, and wondered how long old tenements with fire escapes, cornices, and storefronts at street level could possibly remain in place, unprotected by Landmarks and subject to the relentless march of commercial development.
There are some gorgeous intact rows of 19th century townhouses on the side streets of Murray Hill, but I also noted surviving row houses here and there on the avenues. The grimy pair on Lexington, right, have that forlorn look of Burton’s little house, but you know they won’t be moved to the country (as the fictional cottage eventually was) but likely torn down when the economy commands it.
I took pleasure in noting old one-story structures like the two, below. By sheer coincidence, I ended up having dinner with a friend two nights later in the Art Deco building on the right, which now houses Tokyo, one of the first sushi restaurants in New York when it opened in 1969. A welcome discovery, it will become my go-to sushi place in midtown from now on, with mostly Japanese patrons and bartenders in kimono who have clearly been there from the first.
The following day, I met a friend for lunch at Schnipper’s on East 23rd Street, but our timing was off. It’s fine when quiet — a cafeteria-style burger place with a self-consciously retro vibe — but this time, it was a madhouse. We couldn’t hear ourselves over the din and repaired instead to Turkish Kitchen on Third Avenue for authentic, scrumptious, and well-priced food. But I was still seeking signs of Olde New York, and later — for future reference when in need of a quiet, unpopular lunchtime spot — walked around in search of a place I had happened into one day last year, whose name I couldn’t remember. It was decidedly old-fashioned; I was one of the only customers, and I ate something like mushrooms on toast.
I found it under scaffolding on East 28th Street: a British pub called The Churchill, above, with a menu of fish’n’chips, shepherd’s pie, mushy peas, and so on. It was even quieter than I remembered; there wasn’t a soul in the place. It probably does better at happy hour.
The following day, early for a dinner date, I emerged from the B train at the corner of 42nd Street and 6th Avenue, looking forward to a walk through Bryant Park. Below, my favorite warm-weather outdoor lunch spot, The Bryant Park Cafe, shuttered for the season.
I found the park itself transformed for the holiday season. Instead of the quietude and fall plantings I expected, there was a tacky Christmas fair, with merchandise a half-step up from that on Canal Street, set up in booths around a temporary ice skating rink, below, over the expansive lawn. It was lively and possibly even “magical,” there in the shadow of the New York Public Library. But the music (think Frank Sinatra singing ‘New York, New York’) was hokey and I wondered when ice skating in the heart of Manhattan’s business district had become so popular that the nearby Wollman Rink in Central Park and the one at Rockfeller Center weren’t enough. (The Bryant Park rink is free; skate rentals $14.)
Then, naturally, I stepped into the library and spent the next hour leisurely enjoying its always-worthwhile exhibits. The current “Lunch Hour NYC,” open until February, is great fun. I actually learned a lot, including the origin of the term “lunch” (from the Spanish lonja, meaning a chunk or piece you can hold in your hand). There are etchings of Victorian-era Wall Streeters in top hats and derbies wolfing it down at an early lunch counter, and menus from diners to Delmonico’s. I watched all five film clips of scenes set in Horn & Hardart’s automats. and then signed up for my first New York Public Library card in decades (the last one didn’t even have a bar code).
My friend and I intended to meet up at one of New York City’s genuine hidden treasures: The Campbell Apartment, above, on the mezzanine at the back of Grand Central Station, a coffered-ceiling, intricately painted relic of the late 19th century, when railroad barons had their whiskey and cigars there. It being Friday night at 6:30, we were unable even to enter, so thick were the crowds. That’s when Barbara suggested Tokyo, where we sat for two hours at the bar sampling odd dishes that both the menu and waitress stated were “not recommended for first time.” But as we are old sushi hands, we loved them, as we did the Japanese rice vodka.
Altogether satisfied with my Manhattan experience, I’ve decided I am not bored with Manhattan. There’s still a lot for me to discover. Paraphrasing Samuel Johnson about London, that must mean I am not, after all (as I’ve sometimes feared), bored with life.