Movement. New York City is MOVEMENT. Swarms of people animated by the most primal forces of modern life: Money. Capital. Goods. Information. Indeed, New York is emblematic of modernity, birthed and fostered in the New World at the dawn the modern world by the two nations at the vanguard of this new world order.1 Founded as New Amsterdam by the Dutch West India Company, one of the first modern corporations, it was the port of entry to the vast, uncharted territory possessing untold potential for trade, profit and wealth. A blank slate, free of the historical and cultural encumbrances of a past, New Amsterdam was created and built for the sole purpose of commerce; an outpost of an emergent mercantilism and a founding site of nascent capitalism.2 New York remains true to this founding mission.
A trading port, New York shares the characteristics of all great trading centers; a cross-road of cultures, customs, peoples, all seeking goods and profit, requiring collaboration for barter and exchange. Traditional norms, social mores, and moral strictures are swept aside by the onrushing flood of commerce. Unburdened by a settled past, New York, in a New World, made for an especially dynamic, unfettered hive of activity; a New World Sodom and Gomorrah, where capitalism, and unconventionality, glow white hot, side-by-side.
The movement that is New York may not appear obvious to those unfamiliar with the city. The towering forest of skyscrapers give the appearance of landed stability and permanence, but this is an illusion. Mostly consisting of banks and structures dedicated to commerce, they are, actually, relay stations; nodal points in a dynamic system that appraise, assess and transfer. And they all are located on an island. Indeed, New York is actually an archipelago scattered across river and ocean. Four of the five boroughs—Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens—are located on islands, and the fifth, the Bronx, is separated from most of the rest of the mainland by a mighty river, the Hudson.3
Water is the life-blood of the city—the origin source and a propulsive force of New York’s movement; arteries of trade and transportation, which also constrict landed trade through a capillary network of bridges and tunnels. Anyone traveling by wheels in to, out of, or within the city is acutely aware of these chokepoint on movement that are a source of raised ire—and blood pressure. Over thirty-three bridges and tunnels connect the New York City area; none more iconic than the one to Brooklyn.
Everyone loves the Brooklyn Bridge. Everybody. I, of course, knew of the Bridge long before I ever visited it, but its appeal puzzled me. I love bridges, especially modern ones, whose clean, spare geometric lines compose stirring visual harmonies; soaring expressions of the mathematics of gravity-defying suspension. But the Bridge is old. Old bridges are, perhaps, worthy of historic notice, but they often are chunky, Lego-blocks of inelegant functionality, frequently serving railroad transport. The Brooklyn Bridge was completed almost 150 years ago, in 1883, after 14 years of arduous, dangerous labor.4 It was the first steel suspension bridge and also, at its time, the longest. It welded the bustling metropolis of Manhattan with the growing suburb of Brooklyn, leading to their political union 12 years later.
My puzzlement disappeared with my first strides onto the Bridge, when I discovered that it not only spans a river, it unites medieval and modern architectural beauty. Its massive stone pillars echo the cathedrals of 12th and 13th century Europe, and include huge, arched stain glass windows—without the glass!— that confer a soaring grandeur to these bulwarks of stone. The curved shapes of these ‘windows’ also echo the skyscrapers of the Manhattan skyline in the distance. Oz, in all its muscular, angular, glass-shimmering beauty, beckons through the stone portals of the Bridge. Attached to the medieval buttresses are the cables, wires and structural webbing of modern bridges. These impose a grid on the skyline that echos the geometric shapes of the buildings on the shore, and the cables that swoop to the top of the pillars reinforce the urgency, and the promise, of journeying to Oz. Augmenting this beauty is the rumble and hum of cars, trucks and busses that run on the deck below, reminding that New York City, from its inception, is a hub of commerce. The Bridge has been the object of obsession for many artists and now is also for me. My favorite image is one by Joseph Stella (one of many by him).
Coursing unseen, underground, is another river of movement. The New York subways are noisy, crowded, grimy and disorienting, reflecting the city itself—gritty, bold, and ebullient. It is a world unto its own, a subterranean conduit channeling the bustle and surprises of the city that delight, disorient, disconcert and captivate; all available for a mere several dollars entrance fee.
Be prepared for anything: buskers of great talent and virtuosity, drummers, singers, dancers, upright pianos, brass bands, acrobats and gymnasts cavorting through car isles, hawkers of everything imaginable (and some beyond imagination), preachers, prophets, doomsayers, beggars, desperately needy sprawled next to pinstriped Wall Streeters, mutterers, drunks, school children, concert goers, construction workers, the mad and crazy ranting while librarians read, and the speech, dress, and skin tones of every country in the world. And much more. This may seem a dangerous place, but it is remarkably safe, as is much of New York.5
Traveling in a subway car evokes the experience of tide pooling, where the receding tide leaves vivid micro-cultures of arresting creatures who have been trapped in the residual pools of water. As the tide cycles, the inhabitants are washed out to sea, replaced by a new constellation of life.
Similarly, each car is a human tide pool. At each subway stop, some arresting life forms are carried away in the outgoing tide of riders, and a new micro-culture is created by the incoming surge.
The subway is also a fun house. I like to sit at the end of a car and look back at the windows where multiple reflections make it difficult to discern whether going forward or backward, whether the images are from this car or another car, from the left or to the right. Changing speeds, and trains running parallel or in the opposite direction, furthers the experience of vertigo and a thrilling disorientation of movement and images.
This embodies the spirit and experience of New York City: The thrilling disorientation of movement.