Reflections on the city's development.

Exerpt from an article published in Spanish in GQ (Madrid) , April - May 1997, pages 82 - 87.

Eagle-eyed strollers on a neglected stretch of New York's lower Broadway, between the towers of the financial district and the art galleries of Soho, can still discern a faded sign painted on the side of a dusty old building 115 years ago. "359 Brady's Gallery," the letters read, referring to the studio of famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, where future President Abraham Lincoln stopped by to have his portrait taken in 1860.

This stretch of Broadway has been all but forgotten since soon after the Civil War, when it ceased to be the fashionable center of New York's retail activity. And much the same can be said for the commercial centers that succeeded it over the following hundred years. In New York's vertiginous growth, the commercial heart of the city moved northwards about every twenty years, devouring the luxurious neigborhoods of the wealthy, who built newer and more luxurious mansions further uptown. In the 1870s, the center of luxury retail trade followed Broadway north to Greenwich Village. By the 1890s it had reached 14th Street, stretching to 23rd, 34th, 42nd, and 57th in succeeding decades, Today it lines Madison Avenue from 57th to 72nd streets. Corporate offices, newspapers, hotels and theaters followed this northward migration, leaving in their wake, like empty shells, a vast stockpile of once-fashionable but declining buildings.

Thus, the first Saint Patrick's Cathedral stands not on Fifth Avenue but on Mulberry Street in Little Italy, a large brick shed with a quaint walled churchyard that dates to 1815. The first offices of the New York Times are found not on Times Square but in an early skyscraper opposite City Hall of 1889. And the first Tiffany's opened in the 1870s on Broadway in Greenwich Village, four kilometers south of its famous corner on Fifth Avenue.

Other famous but outdated buildings were torn down for larger works. The Empire State Building was built on the site of the first Waldorf-Astoria Hotel of 1897, built in turn over the rubble of the famous William Astor mansion of 1857. The city's first opera house, built on 14th Street in 1854, was replaced by a skyscraper; its successor of 1883 near Times Square was torn down when Lincoln Center opened in the 1960s. A train station on Madison Square provided the site for the spectacular first Madison Square Garden in 1892, by the famous architect Stanford White, who was killed by the husband of his lover in its rooftop restaurant, in the scandal of the age. Crowned by a tower modeled on Sevilla's La Giralda, it was torn down in 1928 for the offices of an insurance company, and rebuilt elsewhere two more times. Its latest incarnation, also slated for replacement, stands on the site of the Pennsylvania Railroad Station, also by WHite's studio, which was demolsihed in 1967.

This portrait in reverse of New York's growth reveals an unfamiliar face of the city. Behind the sleek modern towers and luxurious apartments of Manhattan, its crowded sidewalks and department stores, its elegant shops and museums, there lies another city, a city of shadows, containing all that New York once was but has left behind. This spectral city has been restored and brought back to life in many areas, but more often its buildings are poorly maintained, underused or abandoned, urban shipwrecks that, like their maritime equivalents, shelter an astonishing variety of exotic urban fauna and flora, all the marginal professions, pastimes and vices that a bustling international city of eight million inhabitants can imagine.

For contemporary New York is still largely a product of the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries, a city built in the industrial age, surrounded by cheap housing for poor immigrant workers, docks, warehouses and factories. Its buildings brought together the riches of an entire continent, the forests of New England, Michigan and the Pacific Northwest, the iron and steel of Pittsburgh and Bethlehem, the coal and coke of the Allegheny Mountains, the bricks of the Hudson River valley and the limestone, marble and granite of Georgia, Indiana, and Vermont.

Its great suspension bridges were the engineering marvels of the age, from Roebling's Brooklyn Bridge of 1883 to the Williamsburg (1903) and the Manhattan (1905). New York boasted elevated trains along its avenues as early as 1879, and its vast subway system began construction at the turn of the century. Its inventors introduced the devices that made the modern skyscraper possible, in buildings which still stand today. In 1857 the first passenger elevator was installed by Elisha Graves Otis in the Haughwout Store on Broadway and Broome Streets. Two years later and a few blocks away, at the Cooper Union on Astor Place, Peter Cooper introduced the first steel beams in a building, in the form of railroad rails which span the brick walls to support the floors.

Even the most humble tenements were built with pressed brick facades, hardwood floors, and mosaic-tiled lobbies laid out by skilled Italian craftsmen. Large public interiors such as the New York Public Library or Grand Central Station were spanned in Catalan vaulting by the Gustavino Brothers of Valencia. And the salons of the city's mansions and clubhouses were paneled in oak, cherry, mahogany, walnut and other now-rare hardwoods, while their frescoed ceilings or marble chimneys were often stripped from European palaces. The staggering material richness of its constructions reached an apogee in the skyscrapers of the 1910s and 20s, with their granite columns cut from single pieces of stone, their lobbies of exotic marbles and stones, their cast bronze, nickel or even sliver-plated elevator doors.

But this extravagant pattern of growth and voracious consumption reached an inevitable crisis after the Second World War. The spread of highways and single family houses into Long Island, New Jersey, Westchester and Connecticut, followed by shopping centers, corporate offices and jobs, together with the decline of the city's industries in the face of foreign competition, precipitated a loss of confidence in the very idea of the city. In the 1960s and 70s, the shadow of neglect cast over the streets around Mathew Brady's Gallery covered the city as a whole. Its docks and factories fell silent. Highways and harsh new blocks of public housing were cut through established residential neighborhoods. Crime rose and rents dropped as white residents fled to the suburbs, leaving behind a population largely consisting of poor minorities. Empty buildings were burned by arsonists and left in ruins, while subways and streets filled with graffiti. A financial crisis forced the city to neglect basic public services. Bridges rusted, water mains burst, elevated train lines dropped bolts onto passing cars, a section of the West Side Highway collapsed and was closed....

But today the future of New York is no longer in serious doubt. Though homelessness increased through the 1980s, in the same years a new generation of the middle class, the so-called Yuppies, discovered the attractions of city living, while hundreds of thousands of immigrants from around the world filled neighborhoods abandoned by the descendants of earlier immigrant generations. Developers learned to restore handsome old buildings instead of demolishing them. Following the example of Soho artists, young professionals converted unused factories into offices and residences, while docks were replaced by waterfront parks and recreation centers.

At the present moment, Disney and other entertainment giants are restoring 42nd Street theaters, and art galleries are migrating to old warehouses in Chelsea. In the near future, the magnificent skyscrapers of Wall Street, outdated for today's computerized financial transactions, may be converted to residences and studios for the new entrepreneurs of "Silicon Alley," the graphic designers, composers and writers who are producing "content" for the new multi-media products. Modern New York is a vivid portrait of a post-industrial, polyglot, global society, born in the ruins of the 19th century industrial city and emerging with a breathless velocity. With its deep resources in human energy and creativity, as well as its considerable financial clout, New York has succeeded once again in reinventing itself.


Silver, Nathan, Lost New York, Houghton Mifflinm New York, 1967.

Willensky, Elliot & Norval White, AIA Guide to New York City, Harcourt, NY, 1988.