The Canyons of Lower Manhattan

John Street with Freedom Tower in the backgroundI happen to work in the Financial District in Lower Manhattan. I’m not connected to investment banking or a brokerage firm, but rather to a small eCommerce company. Over the past three years, I have spent more time in this neighborhood, than I would ever have imagined. This spring, I made a conscious effort to get outside during my lunch hour for some exercise and “fresh” air. Far from being a favored hood, it does offer history that is still in the making, and on a lucky day, some architectural surprises.

The southern most tip of the island is completely flat thanks to the Dutch who, in the early 17th century, broke down the hills in the natural landscape and flattened building areas to make way for urban development. While no existing structures remain from that period, four centuries later, construction continues to transform the setting. Certainly, the Freedom Tower, 9/11 Memorial and WTC Path Train Station have brought a new aesthetic to the neighborhood, but for the workers and residents of the area, high rises define the scene. Real estate is precious and pricey so open and green spaces are limited. With the heavy concentration of skyscrapers and the maze-like divisions they create, sadly the sun doesn’t grace any one street for very long.

For the most part, I am not a big fan of the vertical constructions that are increasingly part of our dense urban landscapes. Certainly, going up is one way to claim more space and get more out of your real estate,but it can also compromise elements in the natural environment, which are important to our quality of life. And while I understand the draw of the engineering challenge, the competition to build the tallest building and the one-upmanship is never ending.

Frank Gehry's 8 Spruce StreetOn one of my lunch outings, I decided to take a closer look at one of the more recent and talked-about skyscrapers, 8 Spruce Street, and was more than pleasantly surprised with what I saw. Built by architect Frank Gehry, it stands on its own — 76 stories high — and is also Mr. Gehry’s first skyscraper, but of course, he is no novice to the field. Even from afar, the chameleon-like building seems to change color and shape depending on the time of day, weather and particular viewpoint of the observer. The stainless steel exterior mimics the moods and changing hues of the sky, and there is a playfulness and nuance to the contoured and irregular facade, which gives the illusion of movement. There is something satisfyingly lyrical about this structure.

8 Spruce Street is definitely worth a visit if you happen to be downtown, or if you just want to explore the area’s more recent constructions. It offers a welcome respite from the bulk of the tall buildings that line the streets in the Financial District. Typically, I find these glass, brick and/or steel exteriors bland, flat, nondescript and lacking in aesthetic appeal. Yet, for some reason after having just visited 8 Spruce Street, I saw them in a different light. While walking though the narrow one-way streets, which curve ever so slightly — denying the usual NYC grid — with tall buildings rising straight up from the sidewalks, I had the impression of being in a deep and narrow canyon.

The Narrows

Maybe it was the relaxed vibe of the city on that Friday afternoon, or the fact that the usual crowds on the street had thinned out. Or maybe Frank Gehry’s whimsical design had truly ignited my imagination. In any case, for a split second, I was taken back to a canyon hike I did a few years ago in the Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah. I reconnected with that sensation of walking at the bottom of that stunning canyon with its massive, steep rocky walls towering over us, a reminder of  just how small we are.

It was one of those Proustian moments when something arouses the senses, evokes the memory and whisks you off to another time and place. Of course, hiking through the river of an awe-inspiring canyon with majestic, multi-colored rock rising up from the earth is a very different experience from walking down a narrow urban street between man-made structures rising up out of the sidewalk. I am still surprised that my mind made such a leap and wonder if it was a subconscious call to the wild or an urban coping mechanism? In any case, it was a treat to revisit that memory, and a fitting way to start my summer!



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