Glass, Granite, and Urban Awakenings

New York City is, and always has been, a study in stark contrasts. The route of the IRT Lexington Avenue subway line, which travels from some of the lowest income neighborhoods in the city (the Bronx) through the highest income neighborhoods (upper east side) exemplifies such a contrast. And it seems rather fitting that the Lexington line continues south to make a stop at – where else? – Wall Street in the Financial District.

This week, the new Whitney Museum has opened with much fanfare, and I do mean MUCH fanfare. After many years in the making, the plans for a new Whitney have finally come to fruition. With a $422 million price tag, the museum’s new digs were designed by the architect Renzo Piano. The 200,000 square foot structure of steel, concrete and glass sits along the West Side Highway in downtown Manhattan in what is known around here as the “meatpacking district”. But don’t let that historical reference to New York’s long gone turn-of-the-century slaughterhouses and packing plants fool you. The meatpacking district is, today, one of the trendiest, “hottest” neighborhoods in the city, replete with high end boutiques and restaurants. The planners for the new Whitney chose their real estate wisely, as “location” is everything in this town. Flanked by the High Line and Gansevoort Street, the Whitney is the sleek spanking new jewel of New York City. With a glass-enclosed lobby and a panoramic view of the Hudson River, it is the new home of the museum’s American art collection of Hoppers, Warhols, Pollocks, and company.

NewWhitney2

Just a few miles north of the new Whitney, an art space of a different sort also held an opening, but with significantly less fanfare and without the First Lady, the New York elite, glitterati, or art magazine critics in attendance. The old Bronx Borough Courthouse, which had been abandoned, neglected, and boarded up for 35 years, has been rescued from its squalid, dilapidated state by an organization called “No Longer Empty”, which avails community engagement to “revive underutilized properties” according to their mission statement. Constructed in 1905, the four story Beaux-Arts building would have been most likely demolished had it not secured historic landmark status in 1981. But though it remained standing, the structure still fell into disrepair, its cavernous interior and stately architectural features sealed off from the public. Now, as debris is cleaned away and the light is let in, the Bronx Courthouse is experiencing a renewal as a space for art, installations, and symbol of the neighborhood’s heritage. You can read all about it on CurbedNY.

BronxCourthouse

O Henry once said that New York “will be a great place if they ever finish it”. What O Henry didn’t know, presumably, was that New York will never be “finished”. Ever. Those of us who have lived here our entire lives can attest to the fact that the city will do whatever the hell it wants, and as New Yorkers our famously held skills of adapting and improvising are only strengthened in the process. Make no mistake, this is a town of deaths and births and reincarnations, relentlessly so. This town makes decisions that will either boggle the mind or thrill the spirit. This town will break your heart and ignore your tears. Some salivate over new constructions and state-of-the-art modernization, while others bemoan losses, cling to relics and shadows of the past. New York has certainly not thrown off its history, but its dogged impulse to surge forward will never be subdued. Nor should it be.

In the spirit of this diverse, crowded, maddening metropolis of contrasts and confounding changes, I offer a warm welcome to the new Whitney, and an equally warm welcome to the “new” old Bronx Courthouse.

2 thoughts on “Glass, Granite, and Urban Awakenings

  1. Bill says:

    A well-written posting on an important topic that leaves me with mixed, conflicted feelings.

    The best analogy I could make would be to baseball parks. I live in a traditional town that reacted almost violently when the Red Sox wanted to tear down Fenway Park. Despite the fact (alright, my opinion — but more valuable than a simple fact :-)) that it made a better museum than a ball park, the decision was made to stay in Fenway. I have to admit that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the renovated park — and certainly consider it to be superior to the soul-less multipurpose concrete monstrosities that they built for a while. But isn’t there a good middle ground? I’ve been to Camden Yards — I thought that the Orioles did a great job of combining modern conveniences with the traditional ball park feel.

    Similarly, do all of our new museums need to feature these huge, sun-drenched galleries? Vast rooms housing 3-4 installations, while most of the collection languishes in the basement because there is no room to exhibit it. The loss of human scale and opportunity to interact with the artwork on an intimate basis. Granted that the situation is partially engendered by the art itself, but I wish I could hear that the new Whitney would remind me of Camden Yards.

    Sometimes I think I’m turning into a character from Downton Abbey 🙂

    • artmodel says:

      Bill,

      The reviews are in for the new Whitney and they’re basically mixed. I’m hearing a lot about how the experience of being inside the building are different from just looking at photos of the exterior. I’m hoping to get down there soon so I can decide for myself. Architecture and personal taste aside, the location is really great, like I mentioned in the post. So the new Whitney does have that going for it.

      I’m rather ashamed to say that I’ve never been inside Fenway Park. I’ve stood outside it but never attended a game. Actually I’ve never been to any of our baseball parks except for old Shea Stadium, old Yankee stadium, old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, and of course our super-cool Citifield 🙂

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

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