Dressed to Freeze

polar vortex                                                                                   Photo: Shel Serkin

Hundreds of millions of Americans may be shivering in their diapers due to the big, scary Polar Vortex that’s swept down from the Kingdom of the North, but for New Yorkers accustomed to crawling over jagged mountains of shattered skulls just to get to the subway every morning, it’s just another day in paradise. The temperature is currently a balmy 5 degrees Fahrenheit, so to cool off you’ll want to get as close to the river as possible, where refreshing wind chills make it feel like 16 below. It’s good to be alive! Gothamist

Yes, Polar Vortex is in town and he’s really putting on a show. He was photographed this morning, strolling along a stretch of permafrost, looking cool and inconspicuous. He reportedly took some time out to autograph a few snowballs, do a bit of window shopping, while customarily jostling his way through crowds. His present whereabouts are unknown but it’s rumored that he’s headed for the top of the Empire State Building.

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“As I Stood There, ‘Twixt Earth and Sky”


The Empire State Building has been named by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The building and its street floor interior are designated landmarks of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commissionand confirmed by the New York City Board of Estimate. Designed by Gregory Johnson (reputedly, in two weeks!!!) and his firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, built by Starret Brothers and Eken, financed by John J. Raskob (creator of General Motors) under the chairmanship of Alfred Smith, former Governor of New York, the building was constructed in a little over a year and officially opened on May 1, 1931.

Unfortunately, its opening coincided with the Great Depression and this resulted in most of its designated office space remaining unrented and the building unprofitable. Critics began calling it the “Empty State Building” and derided it as a white elephant. Visitors to its observation decks were the Empire’s State Building primary source of revenue for its first years of operation; this would continue to be the case, more or less, until 1950.

Within less than six years, over 3,000,000 people from all over the world had visited the building’s two observatories: the broader 86th floor gallery and the primary 102nd floor tower. There are many stories regarding these first visitors to the Empire State Building and the following are only a handful.

An experienced pilot and his wife. She was terrified of flying and had never set foot in an airplane but when she reached the gallery she took-off with abandon; when she ascended the tower, she was soaring with fascination. The view from 1,250 feet of New York City and beyond enthralled her so, that she even wanted to climb the mooring mast (a misguided and abandoned extension to the tower for dirigible landings) for an even better view. Meanwhile, her aviator husband, who had flown thousands of miles around the world, was terrified by this static height and stood inside the terrace’s glass-enclosure.

One day the King of Morovo in the Solomon Islands (soon to witness some of the bloodiest fighting of World War II) arrived. His name was Kata Ragoso, a giant chieftain with a kinky jounce of hair and bare legs beneath his wildly colorful apparel. His like had never been seen on Fifth Avenue before…at any altitude. Oblivious to the curious stares of others, he abandoned himself to his delightful viewing of the city: drawn out like a tapestry before him, the stream of automobiles and ships moving diversely on streets and rivers, gleefully chuckling and excitedly commenting on various sights in his native language.

A young Mexican girl who had come to New York from Texas, staying with a family in Brooklyn. She was glib towards most of the sights of New York City until she came to the top of the Empire State Building. She trembled with emotion and began to cry, not uttering a single word until she returned to the home where she was staying. She tearfully remarked that she’d “rather live in Texas…everything here is so towering it frightens me.”

Two great men stood atop the Empire State Building one overcast day in 1932 and conversed for the press: Alfred E. Smith and Winston Churchill. Smith, as chairman of the project, had made the Empire State Building’s creation and future plans a personal crusade and would talk with anyone who would listen, tirelessly endeavoring to rent its empty office space and show a profit. Some beneficial moments of national and international public relations were always welcome.

In the course of their casual talk, Smith and Churchill shared views and impressions of what they observed. “I can’t see the Statue of Liberty,” Churchill mildly remarked. “You can on a clear day,” answered Smith. “Ah, quite so, quite so, ” Churchill agreed, “the Statue of Liberty does seem to be in a bit of a fog, what.” As the talk proceeded, Churchill said that he had “never been so high up before.” To which Smith replied, ” And I don’t suppose I shall ever get any higher myself.” Alfred Smith would remain a legend in New York State, while Winston Churchill would go on to be a legend for the world.

Of all the visitors to the Empire State Building’s aerie heights, no single person captured the majestic view and grandeur of the building with more intensity and passion than Helen Keller. Rendered deaf and blind as a child by an affliction (possibly meningitis), she was still able to see and hear with the heart of a poet. In a letter to Dr. John Finley, she wrote as follows of her visit:

What did I “see and hear” from the Empire Tower? As I stood there ‘twixt earth and sky, I saw a romantic structure wrought by human brains and hands that is to the burning eye of the sun a rival luminary. I saw it stand erect and serene in the midst of storm and the tumult of elemental commotion. I heard the hammer of Thor ring when the shaft began to rise upward. I saw the unconquerable steel, the flash of testing flames, the sword-like rivets. I heard the steam drills in pandemonium. I saw countless skilled workers welding together that mighty symmetry. I looked upon the marvel of frail, yet indomitable hands that lifted the tower to its dominating height.

Let cynics and supersensitive souls say what they will about American materialism and machine civilization. Beneath the surface are poetry, mysticism and inspiration that the Empire Building somehow symbolizes. In that giant shaft I see a groping toward beauty and spiritual vision. I am one of those who see and yet believe.


Sources: Atop the City’s Great Peak by Julia Chandler; NY TIMES, January 17, 1937

Churchill Is Guest Of Smith On Tower; NY TIMES, February 10, 1932

Wikipedia & related links


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If I Didn’t Live Here Forever, I’d Visit For Awhile


The word on the streets and through the caverns of New York City is that it’s the Number One destination for foreign tourists, according to Global Insight, an international economic analysis firm. No wonder I found it so crowded here lately, as a flurry of cultures and languages swarmed around me; one and all attracted by the city’s ingenious marketing campaign, and weak American dollar, to come skip the Big Apple‘s light fantastic.

As Jennifer Lee told the NY Times: “The United States, unlike many other large industrialized countries, does not have a central tourism promotion and marketing agency. New York City, however, has been running a global ad campaign called “This is New York City.” The huge popularity of “Sex and the City” (both the HBO television series and the recent movie), which NYC & Co. has promoted, has helped to draw female tourists seeking a taste of the Carrie Bradshaw lifestyle.”  Then again, I’m still in my personal Breakfast At Tiffany‘s groove and forever entranced by that “Moon River” style of romanticism.

Since the 9/11 attacks, NYC remained one of the few cities in America to have experienced an increase rather than decline in tourism…and not merely to gaze at Ground Zero, but to actually enjoy other activities (maybe visiting the Empire State Building or Times Square…or something like that). This lively surge of foreign visitors is forcing many local businesses to, among other things, set prices in foreign currency.  However, while this is good news for the local economy it’s bad news for New Yorkers traveling abroad.  However, that’s the way the cookies and the coins crumble.

via “Foreign Visitors Adore New York City” NY Times


The Heart of the ESB


Many people associate the Empire State Building observatory with meetings between lovers. Movies such as “An Affair to Remember” and “Sleepless in Seattle” have helped to cement the romantic associations of the famous skyscraper. To add to the Empire State Building’s [romantic allure], every year 14 lucky couples win the chance to get married on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building….For these reasons a history of the Empire State Building seemed a very appropriate Valentine’s Day issue of New York history. via-The history of New York’s most romantic Valentine’s Day spot – New York History | Examiner.com.

The ESB is certainly no slouch when it comes to romance; indeed, its very prominence is suggestive of romanticism. For a building that rose from the depths of the Great Depression to such majestic heights, it did well for itself: rightly considered one of humankind’s greatest architectural achievements. A lot of love–from the creative to the covetous, the joyful to sorrowful, the requited to unrequited– went into such an endeavor; an appropriate paradigm for the love we feel this Valentine’s Day.


Polar Bears At Sea Again

polar bear

The usual gang of adventurous, flamboyant, and/ or berserk swimmers.

As has been tradition for time immemorial, on New Year’s Day thousands of New Yorkers will ring in the New Year by taking a dip in the Atlantic Ocean on the shores of Coney Island.

This year, the Coney Island New Year’s Day Polar Plunge [the Polar Bear Club] is even more important than ever. To be hosted 64 days after Superstorm Sandy devastated the area, this year’s New Year’s Plunge is an opportunity to reflect on the relief efforts to date, and raise awareness for the recovery ahead.

As for myself, I’d sooner dance a bolero atop the antenna on the Empire State Building before taking a polar plunge (or any plunge) at Coney Island on New Year’s Day. But I do love this kind of splashy spectacle; a tradition that undoubtedly says more about New Yorkers than we’d probably care to tell.

Spinning A Fair & Giant Tire

The U.S. Royal Tires Ferris Wheel was undoubtedly one of the most amazing rides/attractions at the 64/65 World’s Fair. Insofar as thrills were concerned, it wasn’t very thrilling at all; in fact, it was rather dull (even for me, an impressionable 10-year-old, who usually got a thrill from almost anything that came down the pike). But it was its stunning uniqueness, its splendidly spinning eccentricity, which made it truly amazing.

The giant wheel was 86 feet high and was designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, the same architectural firm that designed the Empire State Building. The outer-shell was constructed of a Uniroyal-developed polyester resin reinforced with glass fiber.  Powered by a 100 hp engine and containing 24 barrel-shaped gondolas, each carrying 4 people, it was capable of carrying up to 96 passengers; among the 2 million who took a spin on the wheel were Jacqueline Kennedy and the Shah of Iran. Wikipedia

After the Fair closed, the Tire appeared to have vanished. For decades I had presumed that it had rolled on to that Big Fair in the Sky. While browsing the Internet, I was happy to discover that the Tire is still extant if drastically altered. After being dissembled in New York, it was moved to Michigan in 1965; renamed the Uniroyal Giant Tire, it now stands in Allen Park, Michigan on I-94

Views From The Rock

Actually, the views from atop 30 Rockefeller Plaza are arguably far more impressive than those from the more famous Empire State Building‘s observation decks. Renovated and redesigned about 20 years ago, Top of the Rock offers 360 degree panoramas from tiered decks located on the 67th, 69th and 70th floors. While these are far lower than the ESB’s 86th/ 102nd floor decks, the views from the Rock are far less steep, far less restrictive and, thus, far more panoptic.

My British in-laws, even though they love the Empire State Building, absolutely adore Top of The Rock; they can’t get enough of it and invariably drag along this dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker with them.

30 Rockefeller Plaza‘s observation deck (circa 1940)

Wedge-Shaped Jewel

The Flatiron Building is one of those architectural curiosities that has always attracted both admiration and disapproval. Unlike NYC’s newer, loftier skyscrapers (such as the Woolworth, Chrysler and, of course, Empire State buildings), the Flatiron appears somewhat quaint and rather droll. Even though an odd structure here and there  can be found in such cities as London or Paris, the Flatiron ranks among the most famous of structural oddities and, as a result, a popular target for controversy.

Completed in 1902, the Flatiron Building (originally called the Fuller Building, after George A. Fuller, who financed its construction) is situated on a triangularly shaped city block at 175 Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street in Manhattan. The building derives its name from the shape of this block and for its business: flatirons; the neighborhood itself is known as the Flatiron District.

Designed by Daniel Burnham, it was one of the first buildings to utilize a steel skeleton, crucial to support its height of 287 feet. Many people erroneously consider it the city’s oldest surviving skyscraper, whereas the Park Row Building is three years older and taller. During the building’s construction, many thought that it would topple over and critics soon  began calling it “Burnham’s Folly” due to its peculiar and precarious  shape. Others felt that it was a ludicrous sacrifice to form over function, artistry over safety, and would prove to be an utterly useless if novel conversation piece: the eccentric whims of its architect.

Reports, both real and fanciful, of strong and sudden currents of wind that would buffet the building and adjacent streets, lent credence to the widespread belief that the building would simply fall over or just as simply fall apart. The adjoining area, particularly 23rd Street, already possessing a somewhat shady reputation, began drawing hordes of “lusty young men” eager to view the bare legs of women when their skirts were blown upwards by the eddying wind (you know…I’m sorry I missed that one). Police would shout to these roues to disperse by shouting “23 Skidoo.” While this phrase is now obsolete, an offshoot expression was widely used throughout the last century in America: “scram!”

However, as the years passed, most New Yorkers came to accept, admire and (in various ways) love the wedged-shaped jewel erected in their midst.  As with the World Trade Center seventy years later, it merely assimilated itself into a city conducive to assimilation. While progressively larger and ambitiously taller buildings emerged around it, the Flatiron retained its quiet yet tough dignity…often out of sight but never out of mind in our modern age.

“Perhaps because it symbolizes so much of how New Yorkers see themselves — Defiant, bold, sophisticated, and interesting. With just enough embedded grime and soot to highlight its details. ” (Glass, Steel and Stone)

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