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Gotham

In an effort to get a compass on Manhattan, I've now scaled the heights of this city, descended to its underground, circumferenced it on water and zigzagged through its midtown grid.

From high up on the eighty-sixth floor, it's hard to look out over this seat of the empire and not be seduced by it. The industry and the egotism that has put up these countless edifices across an entire island -- two by seventeen miles -- is powerfully affecting. It really feels like a challenge or a siren's call to contribute your own creative energy to its cause.

Circling it on a boat, down the Hudson past Ellis and Liberty Islands, up the East River to the forests of Inwood, and back down the Jersey side reinforces the scale and the diversity of the enterprise. East, west, upper, lower, central: these aren't just directions in Manhattan, they're semaphores. Take one or combine any two and you have a unique character, built on long histories of community identity.

From these vantage points, you can think in this grand way about the ancient American city. You can pause and reflect on the Gormenghastian imperial headquarters built with and for money and stupendous narcissism. Or on the city of clusters of communities of families who have struggled and risen or fallen in the tenements and apartments, and produced, like a silkworm eventually produces a shirt, the historical strata of the island.

But on the streets, none of this reflexive pondering is possible. You careen, buffetted by the crowds, dragged forward by some next thing, down wide avenues and narrow streets. The streets are gloomy, not dark or shadowy, but sunk in the wells and valleys between massive buildings hiding most of the sky. I got the sudden sense of being in Gotham this afternoon scurrying in midtown, passing* the main branch of the New York Public Library, the sense reinforced by the grand statues and architecture of the midtown area.

I think I've adjusted to the pace and restlessness of the city, but Times Square was too much for me. Tourists, beggars, actors and office workers march in phalanxes down the pavement, as a swirl of screens and lights spin around you. Times Square is sort of a square, but there's really no place to stop for a moment to absorb it. I ducked down a side street.

* Well not quite passing. The Kerouac exhibit was on there, and though I was late to collect my washing from Nice Laundry opposite the hotel, I could hardly not pay homage.

Empire State, which I ascended (as I realised at the top) shortly before 9am on a Tuesday morning.

Pier 83, where the Circle Line ferry unmoors and travels south — taking three hours to circumnavigate the island.

Humanities and Social Sciences Branch of the New York Public Library.

Joseph | 13 Mar 2008

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