Panorama Part 3: A Walk Up the East River
After viewing New York Paleotectonic and the Sanborn book of Brooklyn, it was time for the moment I'd been waiting for. David Strauss took me out for a walk on the Panorama itself.
We went through a secret door and down a set of stairs into a tiny bunker where we both removed our shoes and slipped on a pair of blue hospital booties. David opened a hatch onto the Panorama. It was like looking into an alternate universe. The tiny city blushed in the lights as I climbed towards it, emerging like a giant from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.
"Try to walk lightly," David told me as we crossed the New York Bight and Ambrose Channel, dodging tankers and oceanliners, toys spilled at our feet.
"Do you ever have Godzilla fantasies out here?" I asked.
"More like Godzilla fears," he said, "Like I'm going to trip and flatten the Statue of Liberty."
We crouched down beside Coney Island, a flea circus with its miniature Wonder Wheel and stringy tangle of Cyclone, framing what used to be--the booths and rides of Astroland. All gone now. These pieces will be slated for removal.
Williamsburg Bridge, looking south
We headed up into the harbor, passing hilly Staten Island and making it past Lady Liberty without incident. She was no taller than a can of Coke. David invited me to follow him up the East River. I felt my heart racing with anxiety, as if I would somehow lose control of myself and topple into Brooklyn, taking Downtown Manhattan down with me, inadvertently realizing a New York Apocalypse fantasy in miniature.
But I managed to step gingerly over the bridges (made of brass, painted white) and came to stand with ease between the Williamsburg Bridge and Roosevelt Island, where even a tiny passenger tram hangs on a filament.
Standing so high above the city is a bit dizzying. There is the fizz of altitude. It is hard to take it all in, the vast expanse of it, your own physical immensity in the city's midst. You feel large and small at the same time. Monosyllables like "wow" tumble out of your mouth. It takes a moment to get your bearings.
I looked down at my neighborhood, frozen in time at 1992. I have not yet walked those streets 5,000 times. There's Teresa's, Leshko's, and Kurowycky Meats. The St. Marks Theater is still playing double-feature films. Stefan is pouring drinks at the Holiday Lounge. Allen Ginsberg is picking out bruised fruits at Prana Foods.
In the above photo, the green corner of Tompkins Square Park is visible at bottom left, while St. Marks Church can be seen in the upper right, near the slant of Stuyvesant. Though much has changed in terms of people and places, structurally, it is largely the same today.
Below, however, is a piece of the Lower East Side as you will never see it again. Here, framed by Houston on the right and Delancey on the far left, you can see Katz's Deli as a small gray rectangle in the uppermost right corner. How many of these buildings will be removed, yanked out like teeth, to make room for the massive mini Thors and Blues?
Lower East Side
Here is Astor Place and Cooper Square (that green triangle is between 6th and 7th) as they were without Gwathmey's green monster or the Cooper Square Hotel. The old Cooper Union building is a flat rectangle, without the metallic hive to come. There is not a single Starbucks here. The Bowery begins, going south into a world where nothing tall, glass, or metallic will be found.
Astor Pl. and Cooper Sq. at top
The museum is counting on money from developers wanting to add their new buildings to the Panorama, so I asked David how the museum will handle requests to make those miniatures in something resembling glass, the material that has radically changed the look of the city.
He told me, "We want to keep the structure in style with the Panorama itself. So glass is a real question mark. How accurate can you make it without it completely losing its character?"
There is no glass as of yet in the high-rises of the Panorama. They still look like the buildings of yesterday. Steel and stone. The renovation has officially begun with the replacement of Shea Stadium. More is to come. It will be done piece by piece, in situ, instead of in one fell swoop.
Changing it this way, said David, "leads to incongruencies. Citi-Field never co-existed with the Twin Towers. But this period of flux perfectly exemplifies the city itself, which is always in a state of flux."
If you want to see the city as it was, visit the Panorama soon. It is a rare and brilliant artifact, a memory itself, perfectly rendered. And like the real city, piece by piece, it is already vanishing.
See all my photos of the Panorama here