american institute of    architects'    
      guide to   new  york cit  y
    four th     edition    (2000)

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    part four
continued from previous page.

One wonders how AIA-NYC would have read had it been written anew rather than merely revised and updated. As it stands, it happily avoids the cranky pedantry of White's decade-old Paris guide; but in its place is a kind of Connecticut retiree's disengaged weariness. It isn't that he's paleo-reactionary--if anything, Norval White remains a principled urban progressive at heart who'll take Tschumi over Trump anyday (in fact, he'll pay you to take Trump--please). But too many new entries this time around--some of them relatively prominent buildings in prominent locations--are given the generic "1990s" (or sometimes, vestigially, "1980s") architectural date and no architectural credit. One looks in vain for certain architectural icons of the 90s, such as the much-publicized "green" rehabilitation of the National Audubon Society HQ (the "green" stuff's not all that discernable with the passerby's naked eye, but so what). Of course, there are eleventy jillion other omissions that we'd hoped might be remedied this time around but weren't; you can't have everything. (They include a pair of my fave 60s pop-music icons within a spit of each other on Broadway: the still-with-us Brill Building, and that beaconed Tommy James inspiration, the MONY Building--both mentioned in Access, by the way.) But given how as a quasi-self-generating series of urban facilities, Chelsea Piers became a true Noo Yawk 90s urban phenomenon and experience, one expects more than a non-indicative mention in the p238 ex-Westyard Distribution Center entry--and one also wishes for a clearer indication that for all the love and care that went into it, the Fulton Market spent much of the 90s not "filled with activity day and night", but rather as an increasingly forlorn symbol of the festival marketplace novelty having run its course, as nearly all the shopping and eating that counted decamped for the more Gapcult-friendly Pier 17. (Perhaps the truth is tread upon lightly because Fulton Market and the South Street Seaport in general is much more the baby of Willenskyan "heritage culture" than Chelsea Piers. It proves that yes, even in this realm of heritage-conscious felicitous urbanity, all the careful, well-studied planning in the world cannot hold a candle to Jane Jacobs-style vulgar, messy, styleless urban spontenaiety.)
               In fact, if one looks carefully throughout the chapters, very little of the introductory text has been updated since 1988--which, considering that the intervening years have seen not only important volumes on the city such as the formidable New York Encyclopedia, and lots of new directions in archi-urban research, but the Giulianian apotheosis of New York as spiffed-up commodity, is a bit puzzling and dismaying. (Though, one might argue, the commodification process and its urban patterns were already adumbrated in the later Koch years.) On a more vulgar level, considering that AIA-NYC has traditionally been among the earthiest and most real-world-and-popular-mythology-grounded of the architectural guides (hey, anything to "provide context"), some might call the absence of 90s popcult ref points disconcerting--thankfully or not, the banally requisite "Friends" or "Seinfeld" references are nowhere to be seen, and even the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill areas breeze by with nary a mention of Spike Lee. (On the other hand, a front-to-back peruser'll spot the movie "Men In Black" referenced a few pages into the first tour; sorry about having promises raised so early.) Maybe again, it's a sobering-up in the aftermath of 80s excess, or another acknowledgment that other guides do the pop-cult thing better, or a reflection of Norval White being more the ahts-elitist type than Eliot Willensky (though as with the "Men In Black" ref, White does good deadpan). But there's still a vague aspect of vacuum overcoming the enterprise; maybe a jaded disillusionment...
               ...with one exception that may or may not prove the rule, and where it counts, yet: Times Square. Over the editions, coverage of the Times Square vicinity has been beefed up considerably and nicely, thanks in no undue part to the blanket landmarking of its early theatres in the 80s. Even in 1988 W&W stopped short of providing full entries on that theatrical plethora (providing instead a 2-page reference list sans comments); but now there are the full entries, replete with references to shows that played there ("Friends" & "Seinfeld" may be transitory things, but Broadway is eternal), and even the recent massive redevelopments around Times, 42nd, et al have been treated (all things considered) charitably and without undue cynicism. (Yet still, no Brill, no MONY, not even the Times Square Howard Johnson's, and there's at least a couple of unattributed "1990s" thereabouts...)

But, major tourist zone and place of Big Apple mythology that it is, Times Square is easy stuff. Then, there's its opposite number as an out-there destination and perverse fixation point, and the erstwhile most delirious part of this real Delirious New York, the true test of the truest AIA-NYC connoisseur--Staten Island. Of all comprehensive New York tourist guides, few--not even Access--give visitors the kind of positive incentive to turn the requisite Staten Island Ferry sightseeing jaunt into, well, an excuse to visit and appreciate Staten Island--i.e. to actually get off at the St. George end and look around, rather than doubling back to the Battery--that AIA-NYC does. And such is the curiosity-piquing magic of architectural perambulation; it gives a positive sense of place and destination--a little bucolic, a little elegiac--to what might otherwise be dismissed as sleepy, unhip, ordinary, and unworthy of your time. Thus the St. George end of the Staten Island Ferry is revealed not as a nothingsville, but, like Brooklyn--and in an oddly more "all-American" way--a happy antidote to tromped-over, Trumped-over, Schragered-over Manhattan. And even St. George is only Staten Island's gilt edge: AIA-NYC celebrated Staten Island in toto as a daffy, unique, sometimes lovely, sometimes not-so-lovely, sometimes just perverse slab of the city, totally different from the rest and perhaps more for those oddball fanatics of "Long Island" or "New Jersey" as a concept--yet with an odd sort of reverential-yet-carefully-critical dignity tempering what could easily have collapsed into easy, banal 80s-style irony and cynicism (or 90s-style arch "extremity"). It was like the happily orchestrated, weirdest-of-them-all grand finale to the guidebook (and you can go home now, richer in spirit)--and in its turn, if there has to be a model for "Pevsnering" the North American suburb, AIA-NYC's erstwhile treatment of Staten Island, in turning the forgotten or even forgettable into something unforgettable, is a fine place to start. (And I know, having perambulated Staten Island, right down to the blitzed-out Arthur Kill Road processional drive, AIA-NYC in hand--who needs Compostela when you have Tottenville--as a conscious diversion on a cross-country road trip in '93. In a subsequent family parlour game, when asked my favourite body of water, I chose Arthur Kill. Then I was told that my choice was supposed to show the kind of lover I was, or something like that. I guess that must mean I'm destined for Angelina Jolie or something...)
               But, after the loss of the Necrology, the saddest aspect of AIA-NYC 2000 is that relative to 1988, Staten Island's been anaesthetized. Albeit with a mitigating factor: in keeping with the cartographic bolstering throughout the volume, there's now capsule maps of St. George, New & West Brighton, Stapleton, et al (though, curiously, not the most self-consciously "walkable" part of all, the Richmondtown Restoration)--a definite benefit, especially given the cluttered, ill-planned, upsy-downsy and dubiously navigable and sometimes even unsafe (yes, there are zones in Staten Island you'd think twice about treading into) nature of those communities. But outside of that, it's a shortsighted shadow; and contrary to the pattern elsewhere, even a discernable amount of the between-the-cracks old has vanished in the name of editorial rationalization, together with the bulk of 60s/70s schools, community centres, Charles Azzue wackiness, etc. As for the extremist's Joizy-cum-Long Island "dystopian" aspect of Staten Island (Heartland Village, Fresh Kills, et al--yeah, even any real reference to Fresh Kills, that ur-objet in SI, is shoved away)--it's all but gone, although continuing post-Venturian trends in suburban scholarship (think of obvious cases like Joel Garreau on Edge Cities, etc, or even your average copy of Metropolis) would have led one to expect otherwise. Instead, we're left with a Staten Island that conforms too closely to a familiar historic-communities-and-heritage-landmarks-and-token-little-else model of architectural guiding--and illustrating Peter Eisenman's fascinatingly, disconcertingly cosmopolitan vision for the Staten Island Ferry Terminal cannot compensate. An overzealous post-80s "return to sobriety"? Or running out of space at the end of the book (familiar situation to the last-minute term-paper writer with a page/word limit)? Or just misguidedly "concluding" that Staten Island as previously covered isn't all it's cracked up to be?



NEXT: "NYRO was a BRONX BABE" in PART 5.



guide to guides AIA Guide to New York City entry in Omnitectural Forum's "Guide to Guidebooks"

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