in the East to
what New York,
the idea of New
York, means to those of
us who came out of the
West and the South. To an
Eastern child, particularly a child
who has always has an uncle on
Wall Street and who has spent
several hundred Saturdays first at F.A.O. Schwarz
and being fitted for shoes at Best’s and then waiting
under the Biltmore clock and dancing to Lester Lanin,
New York is just a city, albeit the city, a plausible place
for people to live. But to those of us who came from places
where no one had heard of Lester Lanin and Grand Central
Station was a Saturday radio program, where Wall Street
and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at
all but abstractions (“Money,” and “High Fashion,” and “The
Hucksters”), New York was no mere city. It was instead an
infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love
and money and power, the shining and perishable dream
itself. To think of “living” there was to reduce the miraculous
to the mundane; one does not “live” at Xanadu. (Didion)
Joan Didion’s New York is very different from the one we now know, but the sentiment she described in 1967 is still very real. It is very different to come to New York from somewhere else than to be born here, or to grow up near here. That is in part due to New York’s legend, which I believe is directly proportional to the number of miles away New York City is from wherever you are, divided by the population of your city. That coefficient is high in a small Midwestern city, to which I attribute the New York-philia I developed by the time I reached middle school.
There is a New York that exists only in the collective imagination of those who have never been here. It is fed by every movie ever set here, every song ever sung about this place, and every sitcom set here, regardless of whether the actors ever set foot on these streets or not. Until you live here, you believe that the apartments in Friends are typical New York apartments. Your conception of the city may have little trace of reality in it, but it feels so real that at some point, you believe you know New York. You have studied the subway map for so long that you can imagine taking the A/C/E from your West Village loft up to 50th to see Wicked at the Gershwin. You know the grid and you know which way the avenues run. (Of course; remember that scene at Washington Square from When Harry Met Sally?) You develop an aversion to Jersey and to the boroughs due to Billy Joel’s warning about wanting a house in Hackensack and Miranda from Sex and the City’s refusal to go to Brooklyn. Imagined New York becomes another player in your life and dreams, one you know so intimately that you forget it isn’t real.
But this isn’t just about knowledge, it’s about a certain belief in the idea of New York City. There is a romance about this imagined New York, the place where stars are made, the place that you see in the movies, the place that people write songs about. It is not only a romantic notion by the nature of its unreality, but it is also supposed to be a romantic place. More movie love stories take place here than even Paris or Venice. A this very moment there are signs all over the city for the upcoming Sex and the City movie declaring, “Year after year, twenty-something women come to New York City in search of the two ‘Ls’: Labels and Love.” Like it or not, New York is a romantic icon.
To this New York transplant, nothing represents this romance better than the Empire State Building. In An Affair to Remember, Deborah Kerr says of the structure, “It’s the nearest thing to heaven we have in New York.” Indeed, part of the romance of the building is undoubtedly its height. A New Yorker article about skyscrapers notes that “[t]he Bible gives us one tall building and leaves it unfinished, and ends with a shining city coming down from Heaven, but never says how many floors its towers have” (Gopnik). Perhaps the Empire State Building is our attempt to connect our shining city, New York, with the city of heaven. Height is connected with power, strength, leadership and confidence. Things (and people) that are taller are considered more attractive. Indeed, the Empire State Building’s height is part of its mystique and allure.
The building’s magic also rests in the fact that it is one of the only icons in the city that rivals the icon of the city itself. Even when it wasn’t the tallest building in the city, it still boasted the most recognizable spire in the skyline. It is the first thing you see flying into the city, it plays a part in every movie set in the city, and it towers over the city like a watchful but ultimately lax parent – it sees all, but never interferes. If Colson Whitehead is right and New York City sees everything its residents do, then I imagine its eyes are located at the top of the Empire State Building (8).
For all of this talk about the icon of the building, it’s interesting to note that New Yorkers tend to be indifferent to the structure. Unless someone comes in from out of town and wants to visit it, most New Yorkers leave the Empire State Building to the tourists. Its only day-to-day relevance in the city, unless one happens to work inside, is as a geographic reference point rarely used. Its overall relation to its population is a bit more complicated. The building arguably sets the tone for the city, having been constructed mostly because Walter Chrysler of Chrysler Corp. and John Jakob Raskob, creator of General Motors, wanted to compete over who could build the tallest building first (ESB). The spirit of competition and the emphasis on speed are both values the city has retained for more than 75 years. When poet W.H. Auden visited New York in the mid-twentieth century, he asked rhetorically, “Why are the public buildings so high?” His answer revealed his perspective on the city’s population: “Why, that’s because the spirits of the public are so low” (Gopnik).
Regardless of who does or does not idolize the building, the Empire State Building is revered in part as an impressive feat of architecture and human drive. No one likes long lists of statistics, but a few key numbers are relevant here. The building was completed ahead of schedule in one year and 45 days at a rate of 4.5 stories per week through seven million person hours of work. When it officially opened on May 1, 1931, total construction costs had reached $40,948,900, including land, which was considered a bargain because the onset of the Depression cut construction costs in half. It stands 1,454 feet tall measured to the tip of the lightning rod. It features 103 floors and 73 elevators (ESB).
For all of its extraordinary statistics, the Empire State Building has had many not-so-romantic moments in its history. Five workers died during construction (Rosenberg). Because it was completed in the middle of the Depression, the building had a hard time finding renters. New Yorkers chided it as the “Empty State Building” and it was only through observatory admissions fees that it avoided bankruptcy (Dolkhart). In 1945, a United States bomber flying in thick fog crashed into the north side of the building, killing 14 people, injuring dozens, and causing $1 million in damage (ABC). More than thirty people have committed suicide by jumping from the observatories or open windows (VanDam). Even the structure’s place in history as the tallest building in New York City is tinged with tragedy: it stood as the tallest until the North Tower of the World Trade Center was completed in 1972, but regained the title after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The building’s mixed history conflicts with its iconic image and left me wondering what I would find when I visited. Would I find the romantic set of An Affair to Remember, all plays of shadow and light bounding out of the Art Deco curves and lines, and this century’s Cary Grants waiting in the wings for their lovers? Or would I find a structure self-conscious of its own vulnerability in this post-9/11 world and acutely aware of its complicity in a few too many twentieth century tragedies? Is it still the emblem of this city, or has time rendered it simply a relic of an era we wouldn’t mind forgetting? And what of its relationship to the New Yorker versus the one who dreams of this city?
The Empire State Building’s lobby is a soaring expanse of marble that serves to share its self-importance with the visitor. The walls are adorned with plaques commemorating the building’s status as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World as well as various graphic and lighted depictions of the building. I am duly impressed, if only by how successful the merchandising efforts must be based on this presentation. Even though it is a cloudy weekday morning, there are enough people clamoring for tickets to warrant a 10-minute wait in line. Then I am ushered along and made to wait in a different line, this one for the elevators. My impatient New Yorker attitude is swelling and I realize why this is for the tourists: no one who lives here would ever want to spend hours of their precious day waiting in line to see an aerial view of the city that they live in every day. Luckily for the tourism bureau, the tourists can’t get enough of it, and I am standing in the middle of a crowd of these eager sightseers.
When I finally get in the elevator, I stumble as it begins to zip upward at the speed of light and my ears pop like the pilot doesn’t know how to land the plane. I think I hear the elevator operator tell us that this particular machine can hit speeds of up to 1,000 feet per minute and that it’s possible to ride from the lobby to the 86th floor in under a minute. My tourist friends ooh and aah while I frantically search my bag for gum to chew to unpop my ears. After some shuffling and another short ride, my travel group and I have reached our final destination: the 86th floor observation deck.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously bemoaned that the building’s panoramic views afforded him “the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe” (Mooney). He’s right; the views that stretch to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts make me oddly aware of how small and geographically inconsequential our island actually is. People are huddled all around the perimeter of the deck, staring and pointing, so I hang back and wander around. I didn’t bring any quarters to play with the binocular machines, so I fiddle with them while waiting for a spot to open up. The following admission will reveal just how many times I’ve seen Sleepless in Seattle, but I’ll say it anyway: I half expected to see a multicolored child’s backpack stuffed behind one of the viewfinders. I was kind of disappointed not to find one.
A spot along the edge looking south opened up and I slid in between two families quietly whispering in languages I couldn’t identify. I wondered why they felt the need to be so quiet in the open air – this is New York, after all, probably the loudest city in the country – when I realized that everyone on this side, and only this side, of the deck was either silent or whispering. I looked out and immediately realized why. The skyline was uncomfortably empty and the somber mood reflected the universality of this feeling. Even children too young to have been alive when it happened were respectfully quiet and still. I found it rather eerie and moved on to look out at each river and then at the Chrysler Building, which was the only other structure anywhere near eye level. It made the building, and me with it, feel strangely unanchored and kind of vulnerable.
This brings me to something I conveniently skipped over earlier: security. Only airports put people through that kind of screening, for which I had to wait in another slow-moving line, toss a glass bottle of juice I was carrying with me, and allow someone to rifle through my backpack and remark that I really should have brought a smaller bag. All of the material available about the Empire State Building online and in print conveniently neglects to mention the World Trade Center, but its absence and the various repercussions of that day are felt everywhere. It is the elephant that suddenly left the room and no one will remark on the empty space it left.
After a few more minutes taking in all of the views, I headed back to the elevator banks for an equally jarring trip back to earth. As I walked home down Fifth Avenue, my feelings about the Empire State Building were more mixed than I expected. I had hoped to answer the questions I raised, but instead was left with more questions and no answers. I was disappointed to find none of the romance that the city and the building are famous for; I witnessed no marriage proposals, met no honeymooning couples, and found the observation deck to be just another expanse of concrete, metal and glass. Maybe the building is nothing more than an average New York street corner elevated high into the sky. And maybe its magic is nothing more than the magic many of us have felt on the city’s streets, what Didion called “the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute.”
In this way, I think the collective imaginings of non-New Yorkers can be reconciled with the actual experience of the city. Part of the experience of this city is the experience of its legend, of living some semblance of a normal life in a place that people can’t stop writing, singing and talking about. Through it all, life goes on. It goes on at the Empire State Building, even though the building must confront unpleasant and trying realities on a daily basis. It goes on in every corner of this city, whether New York’s legend is up in the rest of the world after a re-release of Sleepless in Seattle on DVD, or whether it is down on a certain anniversary or because of the currently receding stock market or for any other reason. Through it all, we still find reasons to hope, simple pleasures, and even the occasional romantic moment. Whitehead said that “[t]alking about New York is a way of talking about the world.” So does the world talking about New York also say something about ourselves.
An Affair to Remember. Dir. Leo McCarey. Perf. Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. 1957. DVD. 20th Century Fox, 2003.
Didion, Joan. “Goodbye to All That.” Slouching Towards Bethlehem. United States: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.
Dolkhart, Andrew S. “The Architecture and Development of New York City.” The Skyscraper City. Columbia University. 2003.
Empire State Building Official Site (ESB). 2008.
“Empire State Building Sustained Crash.” ABC News. 11 Sept. 2001.
Gopnik, Adam. “Higher and Higher.” The New Yorker. 15 Dec. 2003.
Mooney, Jake. “An After-Hours Spot Above All the Rest.” The New York Times. 24 Aug. 2007.
Sleepless in Seattle. Dir. Nora Ephron. Perf. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. 2003. DVD. TriStar Pictures, 2003.
VanDam, Jeff. “An urban icon where they used to go fishing.” International Herald Tribune. 26 Apr. 2006.
Whitehead, Colson. The Colossus of New York. New York: Doubleday, 2003.