Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes: A Review

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Written by Robin Lynn and Francis Morrone with photography by Edward A. Toran, Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes shares with the curious reader the modern architecture and design of beauty and mystique surrounding this historic city. Lynn brings a hands-on appreciation for New York City has organized architecturally themed walking tours for over ten years on behalf of the Municipal Art Society. Morrone balances this approach with the guided perspective of a historian honored in having received New York University's Excellence in Teaching Award.

Today, New York City serves as the singular tourist destination for Americans and foreigners from around the globe, and as such, it deserves a detailed guide outlining its variety of attractions. Ever since it came into existence, founded by Dutch colonists in 1624, it has played a substantial role in American culture and development. Lynn and Morrone endeavor to capture the nostalgia and magic surrounding this ubiquitous global landmark in a manner that recognizes the architects, urban planners, and designers who contributed to New York City as we know it in the twenty-first century.

Photography in this book remains strictly within the scope of impromptu shots of typical days spent at the various locations described. Toran aims to capture the heart of New York's urban landscapes without glitz and glamour in an apparent preference for pastoral scenes with guests relaxing or exploring their habitat among skyscrapers and waterfront scenes, all the while protecting their anonymity (and minimizing copyright payouts).

The authors make a point of fashioning their attitude from the viewpoint of its parks, initially examining them from the position of an expatriate recently returned home as shared in the prefatory material by James Huneker (1857-1921), an American art critic. In his essay "The Lungs," written in 1914, Huneker describes New York with eyes of renewed innocence for its true worth, convinced that, even after having lived in Vienna, London, Paris, Berlin, and Brussels, New York could stand to compare in its beauty with the best Europe had to offer. "The Lungs," as it were, represent the green parks of which 182 existed during Huneker's lifetime. Standing by far as the most densely populated city in America, it stands as no surprise that native New Yorkers, even in the author's generation, tended to see only the grass immediately in front of their ward. With typical literary wit, Huneker challenges himself to see New York for its comprehensive urban beauty, and Robin Lynn shares the same aspirations for this book in an epigram to Hunneker's discourse: "an appreciation of the character and diversity of Manhattan's parks . . . The Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes is written in the Huneker tradition of showing the variety and diversity of open spaces in the urban landscape" (Lynn, 15). With this effusive enthusiasm for New York greenery, the journey of delving into its urban landscapes officially commences with a gracious tip of the hat to history.

Utility for the visiting tourist never escapes the full consideration of the authors. John Hill took the time to contribute his expertise in the creation of maps for the curious visitor on the go. The authors divide their book into two main categories: the first constitutes areas lying "along the water's edge" and divides further among subcategories according to the five boroughs of the city including special islands such as Governors Island and Randall's Island, which retain their own grouping. Next, the authors travel inland to describe the second grouping of locations throughout New York such as cemeteries, atriums, cultural institutions, boulevards, and more parks. In conclusion, the authors recommend certain park locations where eating and drinking are encouraged. The authors always contribute website information, existing regulations, street intersections, and public transportation details for easy accessibility to described locations. For quick reference, an index has been provided at the conclusion of the book.

When describing the Manhattan waterfront, one finds no better place to begin than historic Battery Park wherein 1850 renowned entertainment manager P. T. Barnum debuted the resplendent and genteel Swedish opera soprano turned concert artist, Jenny Lind. Even before housing Castle Clinton, the historic fort built-in 1808 in defense against the British during the War of 1812, Battery Park stood as the central rendezvous point for cultural affairs of all kinds during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

For better or for worse throughout its history this park reflected the culture and milieu of its most immediate surroundings, which, in a place like New York, calls for great diversity as described by nineteenth-century journalist Nathaniel Parker Willis:

The Battery on Sunday is the Champs-Elysées of foreigners. I heard nothing spoken around me but French and German. . . . They are not the better class of foreigners who frequent the Battery on Sunday. They are the newly arrived, the artisans, the German toymakers and the French bootmakers—people who still wear the spacious-hipped trowsers and scant coats, the gold rings in the ears, and the ruffled shirts of the lands of undandyfied poverty. . . . They sit and smoke on the long benches. They run hither and thither with their children and behave as they would in their own garden, using it and enjoying it as if it were their own. And an enviable power they have of it (Morrone, 29)!

Willis's detailed description of park life confirms its central role in the daily ongoings of past New Yorkers, a historical viewpoint the authors continuously seek to highlight throughout the book.

Today, Battery Park stands as one of the few points on the Manhattan shoreline that lie unclaimed by the port authority alongside Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park, the Esplanade, and Nelson A. Rockefeller Park. With the dual penchant so characteristic of this book, Morrone continues by describing monuments standing today, the aquarium inside Castle Clinton and its central function as a vending point for tickets to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. He even describes more recent efforts at rejuvenation after years of wear and tear, going as far as to describe the Peter Minuit Plaza with a futuristic information center and fast food options intended to liven up the entrance into the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. Morrone sets a precedent for the book in this introductory chapter. He meaningfully researched the park and its history while maintaining a focus on how the park functions today. In doing so, he transports the book beyond the convenient echelon of tour guide publication to that of a hybrid text for both historian and traveler.

The authors, in their comprehensive summary of New York City public gardens, elected to focus beyond the scope of obvious locations like the Conservatory Garden at Central Park and bring to the forefront recently constructed parks rescued from the open jaws of urban decay. Concrete Plant Park in the south Bronx looks like its name sounds; landscape developer James Mituzas took certain pains to leave vestiges of the area's industrial history in place, choosing not to remove the concrete silos, hoppers, conveyors, and even the abandoned cottage-like train station, designed in 1908 by Woolworth building architect Cass Gilbert. To Mituzas's credit, he did not try to turn the Bronx park into a magnificent suburban environment, which likely would have disjointed from the rest of the borough, officially the poorest congressional district in the United States. Instead, Lynn outlines a simple yet accessible area with a pathway for couples to walk alongside the west bank of the Bronx River (now cleared of abandoned cars and tires), tables for playing chess, and concrete reclining chairs for area residents looking for a reprieve of space in a borough severely lacking in it.

The authors of this book also take steps, when appropriate, to highlight any critical reviews of newly constructed urban developments, and upon traveling inland in the quest of park descriptions, Morrone brings special attention to a reclaimed area called the High Line. As such, the park stands as an unconventional and highly popular attraction among locals. The New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff acclaims its aesthetic values:

As mesmerizing as the design is, it is the height of the High Line that makes it so magical, and that has such a profound effect on how you view the city. Lifted just three stories above the ground, you are suddenly able to perceive, with remarkable clarity, aspects of the city's character you would never glean from an office window. At some points, billboards and parking structures dominate the foreground. At others, you are directly below the cornice line, so that you seem to be floating among the rooftops (Morrone, 156-57).

Lasting one mile long yet only thirty feet wide, the High Line appeals to the imagination for its clever placement in an area where conventional wisdom might argue there is no available space for such a recreational diversion. Today, this former train line serves as a link to pedestrian waterfront access in the ruins of what was once the heart of West Side port activity, once again linking past history with the present.

In the process of concluding the book, the authors highlight some of the best places for eating opportunities related to parks in the city. Readers will find no full-blown restaurant guides here, only an annotated bibliography of names, phone numbers, and locations for accessing clever eateries serving food at all hours of the day. Options include everything from a "You're Fired" cocktail at the Trump Tower Bar to Grimaldi's at Brooklyn Bridge Park with the pizza "as famous as the line to get in" (Lynn, 273). Notably, the authors take some pains to suggest the value of a simple brown bag lunch to be packed and shared among friends in a myriad of urban locations. To their credit, in a world filled with hot dog stands and hawked tourist merchandise on so many street corners, the idea of a pre-planned brown bag makes the authors look positively revolutionary.

Often, the city streets of only a few generations past appear unrecognizable to modern eyes. Lynn and Morrone finish the book by acknowledging the great "trap" of tourist books: the insipid tendency to become passé and fall out of use shortly after printing in favor of the latest publication. By focusing on historic landscapes as well as newer ones, the authors hope to create a guide that serves the reader even when the urban landscape has evolved once again beyond the perspective of the current worldview.

New York City serves as the symbol of American freedom and opportunity for all people, and Lynn and Morrone make an engaging team as they pick apart the fascinating locations found in all five boroughs, exploring well beyond the typical thoroughfares to describe the worthwhile nooks and crannies scattered throughout the city. The result creates an effect that leaves one wanting to buy a ticket for immediate departure to John F. Kennedy Airport and begin soaking up the rich cultural history seeping from these urban developments. This book deserves recognition as a valuable contribution to a better understanding of New York City urban life both in the past as a developing port city and humble settlement and in the twenty-first century as a bustling city that never sleeps.

Work Cited

Lynn, Robin, Francis Morrone, Elizabeth Christian, and Tamara Coombs. Guide to New York City urban landscapes. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013. Print.