Anyone that knows me well will know that I love architecture almost as much as I love pizza. So, when I was asked to go on a five-day trip to New York – the land of both delicious pizza slices AND rich architectural history – I positively fainted from pure excitement! Indeed, New York is to architecture nerds what avocado is to millennials – a treasure worth breaking your bank account for. Therefore, it is equipped with this crazy enthusiasm that I blindly boarded the plane to the land of infrastructural ingenuity, never to return again…I wish.
Whilst there is much to marvel in this manmade metropolis, there is also a’hell of a lot to unpick in just one trip – or one blog post. As my boyfriend’s family had already had an itinerary at the ready (post about this pending), my strategy upon arrival was really to act first and think later i.e. I took photos of anything and everything and simply organised my thoughts when I’d returned home to England. Did this mean I occasionally got lost halfway down the street whilst taking photos? Yes, it did. However, you only get to experience your first time in New York once, right? And I wasn’t going to let a small thing like spatial awareness get in my way.
Alright then, lets get cracking – what does New York look like? More specifically, to what do we owe this architectural layer cake? Well, if you’ve been forced to watch as many period dramas as I have, you’ll probably know that the impetus of the industrial revolution is what transformed the landscape of many port cities forever, including our very own Manhattan. Sadly, it is the cotton trade and the labour of slave-run plantations, that catapulted these cities (including the UK’s Manchester and Birmingham) to global prominence in the 1800s. As a result of the profits made from these human atrocities, people flocked from all over the world to seek their fortunes on Manhattan’s shores. It wasn’t long before the developing city became a melting pot for ethnically distinct communities and neighbourhoods. One such neighbourhood is the infamous Goodfellas hangout, Little Italy. The droughts and corruption taking place in Italy during this time encouraged thousands of families from Naples and Sicily to relocate to America to escape their suffering – or so they thought.
Being a somewhat tiny island (okay, at the time) expanding within an annoyingly organised grid plan, Manhattan had – and still has – nowhere to build but up. To accommodate this growing population tenement buildings designed by German and Jewish architects, popped up all over the Lower East Side. These are the iconic red brick buildings with metal fire escapes that are compulsory of all action movies and vomit inducing rom coms. You’ll probably also have seen approximately 1000 instagrammers pose candidly outside these red bricked beauties. Far from being the hipster hangouts they are now, however, tenements would often house three or four families in a single subdivided flat and, by the end of the American Civil War, “tenement” was practically synonymous with unsafe and unsanitary living conditions. Unsurprising given that you can still find them on fire every now and then throughout the city. Whilst walking along the bustling and often gentrified streets of the Lower East Side, it was hard to imagine that these edgy buildings were once the epicentre for New York’s growing population and a prolific pandemic of Cholera.
Indeed, the unrest between inhabitants of the Lower East Side reached its crescendo during the civil war.
Crafty Downright nasty anti-war politicians warned the white working class immigrants that their labour would be replaced by the freed slaves coming from the South. This antagonisation, coupled with the fact African-Americans were then exempt from the civil war conscription, lead to racially charged draft riots that lasted five days. These riots caused millions of dollars in property damage; took thousands of lives and caused 3,000 of the city’s black residents to become homeless. This manipulation of New York’s most vulnerable and a brainwashing of an entire generation has left a stigma that still lingers on NYC’s streets today. If this stuff interests you, you can learn more about the hardships these communities faced at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Their Hard Times tour, I have heard, is particularly poignant and provides a lot of food for thought about the unsung heroes that contributed to New York’s success. Though not your typical feel-good tourist spot, tenements are, arguably, as synonymous to New York’s prosperity as its skyscrapers are today.
This is a convenient segue for one of New York’s greatest hits…the Statue of Liberty! Being the poster girl of all our fave film panoramas, it would have been an absolute travesty to have missed a dalliance with Lady Liberty. So, I have for you some juicy tour guide low down. To congratulate New York for its post-independence “comeback” and its bustling commerce, France gifted the new world (though not that new to its indigenous people) with a neoclassical statue; partly designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel. Yes, he’s the guy behind Paris’ Eiffel Tower. Interestingly, the skin of this statue was originally bronze. The copper, however, has since turned green and now seems as quintessential to the statue’s design as it does to American culture. The broken chains she stands on – that are almost entirely hidden from view – represent the emancipation of slaves. Often referred to as the ‘Mother of Exiles’ this neoclassical statue is a symbol of “freedom” and “democracy”, watching over those passing into NYC. A somewhat laughable notion considering what many immigrants and freed slaves were subjected to on Manhattan’s streets.
Over 12 million immigrants were processed on nearby Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954, including a few of my ancestors. During the peak years of its operation, anything up to 10,000 people passed through here every day. Indeed, it was a sombre experience standing where they might have stood and imagining them placing their lives in the hands of the American Government. In fact, it has been estimated that close to 40 percent of all current U.S. citizens can trace at least one of their ancestors to Ellis Island. It is on the ferry to and from this site that you may snatch your sought after money shot; the Hudson River and Manhattan skyline. We, unfortunately, didn’t get the privilege of a clear view due to foggier weather conditions, but it’s there if you’re visiting in Spring or Summer.
Whilst we didn’t personally visit Brooklyn Bridge the same day, it’s only 20 minutes away. You could do Liberty Island and pop to DUMBO for some lunch after. Be warned though it will be VERY busy and you may get mowed down by an angry cyclist. Opened to the public in 1883, it was one of the greatest marvels of engineering that the 1800s had ever seen. It was not only the first suspension bridge made of steel but then the longest bridge ever to be built. Constructed by immigrants for just $2 a day, it’s construction was not without its tragedy. Sadly, its need for underwater construction cost the health of 30+ of its makers, including its German designers John and Washington Roebling. Nevertheless, this bridge connected the cities of Manhattan and Brooklyn for the very first time and paved the way to the expansion of the Big Apple. It was after this that the five cities; the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island joined to become New York state.
One of my favourite buildings to just stand and marvel (i.e. take 1000 photos of), however, was St Patrick’s Cathedral on the infamous 5th Avenue. You’d never have guessed that, when this church was first built, its visionaries Archbishop Hughes and architect James Renwick were ridiculed; the church was, at the time, considered too far outside of the city. Oh, how its creators must be laughing at their naysayers now! Positioned on one of NYC’s central streets, this neo-gothic beauty somewhat mirrors the story of the city itself. Built in democratic spirit in 1879; this church was paid for by the contributions of thousands of poor immigrants and the upper echelons of high society, who pledged $1,000 each. Not even the bloodshed of the Civil War nor the resultant lack of manpower derailed its completion. All so the likes of Blair Waldorf could walk its aisles…I’m winking at you Gossip Girl fans.
To conclude, since inexcusably seizing the Americas from its indigenous people, New York’s o’hallowed soil has homed a whole cast of colonial characters…most of which haven’t been too nice to be honest. Built predominantly by hardworking slaves and immigrants, I hope this post encourages anyone that was intending to visit this majestic city post-Covid to appreciate the hands that built some of its landmarks and the variety of people that walk its streets. It is a sad truth that even immigrants today are often subject to living in poor conditions and that African-Americans are still treated as second class citizens. There is a lot of history to digest but, not unlike the many museums New York has to offer, its very streets contain artefacts that may enhance our understanding of this nation’s cultural heritage. So, as you visit your first deli; as you tuck into your spaghetti and as you get your insta pic with Lady Liberty remember those that cast their sails to Manhattan’s shores to make these experiences possible.
Lonely Planet’s Best of New York City 2019