New York, I see you...

Ambarish Satwik | Updated on January 12, 2018

Vapour up: This may not be one of New York’s prettiest attractions, but the steam stack’s affair with the city goes back 125 years   -  Shutterstock

Why it takes the eyes of an outsider, a tourist, to gather what best represents a city

The city seen from Queensboro bridge, wrote Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.

Even for saucer-eyed desi tourists, their first time in Manhattan isn’t quite the first time: they know the urban geography of the place, they know its strut and geometry and bustle and neon. And music. They’ve seen and read about the lives that are lived in it.

For a 10-year-old, after he’s done craning his neck at ‘Skyscraper National Park’, what is it about Manhattan that provokes wonder? He comes from a vile and despairing city that was once alam-e-intekhab, a singularly chosen place in the world, but he doesn’t know of it.

His city, Delhi, has too much self-esteem, but its great immersive ugliness has scarcely any place for the enactment of civic life. He too has a New York inside his head, abetted by a music score. He has been fed its lights and silhouettes and its finest sights.

Preparatory to our second visit to New York, my son and I leafed through a magnificent book by Cyrus Jhabvala. It’s called Old Delhi - New York: Personal Views, and is essentially a series of watercolours and pencil drawings of the two cities, accompanied, on each page, by scant descriptive prose. What Rudra noticed, almost immediately, was Jhabvala’s bias. Old Delhi’s cityscapes were made up of monuments: the Shish Gumbad, the tomb and mosque of Shah Alam, the mosque at Petiwala gali, Metcalfe’s ‘folly’, the church of James Skinner, the Talaqi Darwaza, Fateh Ghar and so on. The New York sketches had no historical monuments. They showed neighbourhoods and street life and views from coordinates: Street near Bowery, 52nd Street at 2nd Avenue, 64th Street at 3rd Avenue, view from 400 East 52nd Street and so on. In Delhi, the cachet of being iconic fell upon the monumental: edificial buildings self-consciously constructed to become icons. The bits of New York that were depicted (and classicised) in Jhabvala’s sketches showed the organic features of its cityscapes. They showed how the place looked and felt, what it meant to be in New York.

While we were there, Rudra and I (mostly Rudra) commenced our search for the iconic. We decided to pick out material artefacts of NY’s built environment that we thought were idiosyncratic and best represented the city. Vainglorious buildings, monuments and bridges were not allowed. This is the small list that two architecturally illiterate and insentient desis came up with.

Steam coming out of the streets. Out of manhole covers and orange-and-white inverted funnels that look unmistakably like the hat on the cat in Dr Seuss’s Cat in the Hat. They’re called steam stacks. The idea that steam (at 350°F), as a commodity, travels in pipes (like water, electricity, telephone lines and gas) under the streets of Manhattan, has been doing so for 125 years, is beyond the collective imagination of desis. Steam is used to heat and cool some of New York’s biggest buildings. Also for operating laundries, sterilising hospital equipment and humidifying museums and art galleries. The stacks are vents to guide heavy plumes of steam upwards and away from vehicles and passers-by. The steam from manholes isn’t a leak, isn’t hot; it’s vapour, from water falling onto those pipes and evaporating. And it’s splendidly photogenic.

Wooden water tanks. They’re in plain sight everywhere — 20,000 of them on rooftops. Storage amenities that have become quintessential New York superartefacts. Gotham’s gravity-driven piped water travels 150 miles from reservoirs upstate and can go up only six storeys. Every building taller than that has one. It’s entirely wooden and looks a bit like a squat and stout version of our Diwali ka rocket: a large wooden barrel with a conical lid, given a leg up by a steel mount. It’s assembled on site from cedar staves. No paint or adhesive is used. It leaks madly upon assembly but, in a while, the wood swells and seals itself. They last about 30 years and are the primary source of drinking water for many city dwellers. A resin cast of the inside of a once-functioning cedar water tank is an art installation on MoMA’s rooftop.

Fire escapes, as mounted exterior appendages: iron balconies connected by iron stairs or ladders. Mandated by the first major egress law enacted in New York City in 1860. First applicable to tenement houses, amended subsequently to include schools, asylums, hospitals, hotels, theatres, seminaries, academies and factories. In the late 19th century, the labouring population of New York, particularly the immigrant poor, lived, worked and recreated within the confines of tenement houses. The fire escapes gave them balconies, extensions of their hive-like living quarters to take their wretched lives out-of-doors, to stand and talk and drink and dry their laundry, and hang festoons. All the tenement housing stock of New York now stands gut-renovated. Apartments and boutiques and art galleries and restaurants have taken up their shells. The fire escapes abide unchanged.

The stoop. Or the high entrance steps leading up to apartment buildings or row houses. It took me a while to realise that brownstone (Edith Wharton called it the most hideous stone ever to be quarried) was just a four-inch veneer fronting row houses made of brick. It was cheaper than limestone, granite or marble and was picked entirely because it was easy to carve. The array of stoops on a tree-lined block of utterly formulaic four-storey brownstones has been, for a hundred years, the picture of the vaunted urban domicile. Stoop sitting in New York has always been an urban rite. Of fellowship and neighbourly communion and post-prandial cigarettes.

Subway grates. They’re ventilation ducts opening onto pedestrian sidewalks, covered with metal gratings; portals where you can hear the machinations of Gotham’s underground proctology and feel the cool gust as a train whooshes underneath. The grate produced perhaps the most iconic image of American popular culture. Of a passing uptown 6 train causing Monroe’s white halter dress to be blown well over her hips. It was a marvel, how she walked on those grates, like the queen of her species, in her high heels.

To the flâneur are revealed artefacts in situ. Artefacts of past and present urban life. Monuments to municipal pomposity and reform and localism and cultural memory. They have their own arbitrary high-low aesthetic. With time they achieve a wearisome normality, they make culture in plain sight. It takes a tourist to see the artefact as a visual relief, as another layer to the image. That’s why I can’t think up a Delhi list.

Ambarish Satwik is a Delhi-based vascular surgeon and writer;

Published on June 30, 2017

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