One of our goals while visiting New York was to try many of the various foodstuffs associated with that city, and to visit a couple of its famous restaurants. Sardi’s had been a unique experience, but the food was not even close to being worth its high price. Maxie’s was less outrageously expensive, but the food was still not outstanding. On Friday morning, our third day in the city, we decided to just be simple. I got a slice of New York-style pizza and Miriam got some Indian food. My pizza was okay, but no better than you can get at any pizza restaurant anywhere in America. Miriam thought her meal was the best she had our entire trip, and it was a relative bargain. Once again we bought cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery.
We walked the bleak subterranean corridor from Grand Central to catch the 42nd Street shuttle to Times Square, where we caught the subway to Herald Square. Our destination was the Empire State Building, but I noticed that we were passing by Macy’s, and I thought Miriam might enjoy it, so I suggested we go inside. Any department store you have ever been in in your life, with the possible exception of Herrod’s in London, is nothing compared to this Macy’s. The only other store I have been in that comes close is the Chicago Macy’s that’s in the old Marshall Field building. This place is enormous, occupying at least eight floors. Though it was only the end of September, Miriam wanted to see the Christmas decorations, and we ascended escalators from floor to floor trying to find them. Amazingly, the escalators there are made of wood. Finally, at the very top we found the Christmas wonderland. It was insane. So many things, and so many things of each thing. I thought Miriam was going to lose it. If you’re looking for a vast assortment of gnomes, or if you want to high-five a stuffed polar bear, go to the Macy’s in New York City. (If you’re looking for a giant stuffed Unicorn or Pegasus, however, you’ll have to go to Chicago.)
The Empire State Building, only a block or so away, is immediately visible upon exiting the Macy’s. Indeed, it’s visible from all over the city. We knew well in advance that we wanted to see the city from high atop this great old skyscraper. The only drawback, of course, is that it doesn’t offer a particularly compelling view of the Empire State Building itself. (For that you’d have to go to, say the Top of the Rock.) The lobby of the Empire State Building is tall and elegant, but not especially large for a building its size. Visitors wishing to go to the observation deck are routed to an area that must take up half of the ground floor, where $20 tickets can be purchased, before being funneled Disney World-style through labyrinthine channels leading to a bank of elevators. The special elevators to the observation deck move very fast. The display counts ten floors at a time. Somewhere above the eightieth floor you switch to another elevator to reach the eighty-sixth floor observation deck.
The observation deck is open, and visitors are kept from being blown away by a tall fence that curves in to discourage BASE jumpers and the bereft. I was disappointed that, unlike the previous day which was clear and bright, Friday was smoggy, and the views from the top were limited. But the area in our immediate vicinity was easily visible, and I snapped many photos, including this one looking down upon the area outside of Macy’s from which I took the above photo of the Empire State Building. To the south I could just make out the Statue of Liberty behind the downtown skyscrapers. Nearer to me I could see the iconic Flatiron Building. To the east I could see the Chrysler Building, the river, and the bridges over to Queens. Midtown was close and clear, and the old Pan-Am and GE Buildings were visible, too.
I am not a New Yorker, of course, nor do I ever intend to identify myself as one. But I am one who appreciates beautiful architecture. So, looking west from the top of the Empire State Building, the area around Madison Square Garden caught my eye. Obviously, aside from the great old post office next to it, the new Penn Station/Madison Square Garden complex is ugly, especially compared to what used to be there. As I wrote previously, present-day Manhattan stands over the graves of its once great buildings. On the spot Madison Square Garden occupies today, the most beautiful train station in America once stood. Penn Station was built in 1910, and until it was demolished in 1963 it was a masterpiece of public architecture. The present-day Penn Station is so tragically inferior as to be offensive. What you see in my picture at left once looked like this.
The same short-sighted foolishness that destroyed the old Pennsylvania Station has destroyed countless other great old buildings. We can never get these places back. Even if someone wanted to rebuild Penn Station in its former image, the cost would be so astronomically high that the first shovel of dirt would never get turned. For all the money we spend on new architecture each year, we always seem to go the cheap route today. Never again would anyone spend the kind of money it would take to make a new Empire State Building, Wrigley Building, or any other architectural gem. (I will discuss this topic further when I write about Cleveland.) Don’t misunderstand me; I do believe that good buildings are still being designed. But does anyone think that a generic tower of reflective glass is beautiful? Look at the picture to the left and tell me which is the better building: the plain glass box or the masterpiece behind it? In great cities like Berlin war brought the demise of beautiful old buildings. But war is a different kind of foolishness, and some of those buildings are being reconstructed, in spite of the cost. Verily, there is a time to build up and a time to break down. But we too often lack the wisdom to know when is the time to preserve what we have built. It’s too late for the old Penn Station, for the old St. Petersburg Pier, for the old Gainesville Courthouse. But it’s never too late to start thinking about what we still have worth keeping.