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Friday, September 14, 2007

Book Thirty-Three

The thirty-third book we read this year is New York: Then and Now, by Annette Witheridge. This is one in a series of photography books that compares city views of the past with the present.

We chose this book because we enjoy viewing old photographs, and because it was available on Bookmooch. There actually wasn't much to read, only the captions to about 150 photographs. Although the book does tell a very interesting story.

In over 100 years the city of New York has changed most notably in scale. Buildings have risen to the clouds, and streets have spread into a huge metropolitan area. This has changed the appearance of the city from afar, as well as from within. In many of the old photographs, the East River or the Hudson River can be seen in the background. Any such panoramic views in the modern photographs are completely blocked by skyscrapers. In some of the photographs one can see the same buildings still standing. But they are identifiable almost exclusively by their exterior features, because in most cases their use has changed, as well as their surroundings. Shanties along the river have been replaced by ritzy mansions. Railroads have been pushed underground. Swampland is now park. Saint Patrick's Cathedral was built on the outskirts of town, and is now nearly lost amid towering neighbors. The change of scale makes some buildings difficult to recognise at first. Church towers that once soared above all other buildings are now dwarfed by giants.

The turn of the last century was a grand time for architecture. Every building was resplendent, decorative, distinctive, classical. Modern buildings in comparison are dull and unimaginative: the cell-block look of the United Nations, great walls of glass lining Times Square, the utilitarian design of the World Trade Towers. This record of New York's progress is less triumphant than sad. Much of the city's most beautiful works of architecture have been demolished and replaced by buildings. All the old photographs are in black and white, but they have a certain warmth and comfort; the modern color photographs show a cold, sterile, impoverished urbanization.

For us, the climax of the book is an episode of shame. Pennsylvania Station was a masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts, and a sparkling jewel of New York. It was the largest building ever erected for rail travel.

The Main Waiting Room:

The Concourse:

The jewel was replaced by this slab:

This was necessary because the second Madison Square Garden had been demolished for the headquarters of the New York Life Insurance Company. The new train station was forced completely underground:

No wonder travelers are weary. No wonder the modern station is kept hidden underground. No wonder a New York Times editorial lamented, "And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed."

This book was enjoyable, despite the lesson we learned from it, that progress can sometimes be a step backward.

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