November 8th, 2016 14 November 2016 No Comments

I spent Election Day in Philadelphia with a friend, giving people free rides to the polls through the Drive the Vote! project. We were driving folks in Philadelphia because Pennsylvania was, as they say, in play, and because I’m from Philadelphia and my parents still live there. Our territory was meant to be northwest Philly. It’s the area I know best, having grown up in Chestnut Hill, the city’s most northwestern neighborhood. But Chestnut Hill is not the sort of place where many folks need rides to the polls because if they can’t get to the polls under their own steam, they generally have the means to arrange for transport. So we drove out of Chestnut Hill hoping to get in range of a voter in need of driving (Drive the Vote! was using Uber-like technology to connect people with cars and people casting ballots).   

philly-neighborhood-mapAs we travelled slowly southeast along Germantown Avenue, areas of long-standing prosperity gave way to expanded fields of gentrification, which gave way to districts of just barely hanging on marginality, which finally, and monumentally, gave way to the wide variegated swath of impoverishment and abandonment of North Philadelphia (as in north of Center City). North Philly is not one single place; it’s made up of distinct neighborhoods, all of them shaped as much by social and economic evolution as by physical geography. 

Annexed into the city in the 1850s, North Philadelphia became a center of industry in subsequent decades. By the turn of the last century, much of its gridded extent was densely built with blocks of row houses, mostly two stories, and with considerable typological variety. Blocks of red brick houses are followed by blocks of buff brick houses. One side of the street has projecting bays and porches; the other side has flat fronts and stoops. Some blocks have elaborate cornices; others have decorative columns. 

etting-streetMy mother grew up in one of those North Philly row houses near 27th and Allegheny (that’s her on the stoop in 1953), on a street where the block’s original homogeneity was long ago replaced by idiosyncratic individualizations that accumulated over the decades: tin siding, vinyl siding, asphalt siding, awnings, astroturf, and so on (as is clear in the google street view). My grandfather made his own contribution when he added a railing and milk bottle holder to his Etting Street stoop, thus preventing members of his family from posing in that spot for any subsequent photographs they might have taken before my grandmother sold the house and moved in with us in 1974. 

While we might look for meaning in these individual physical markers, it’s their aggregation across North Philly that creates the strongest impression of the changes that have taken place here in the last half century, as factory closings, block busting, absentee landlordism, and generational poverty left their mark on these row house blocks in predictable and devastating ways. North Philadelphia today is less the “inner city” of political dog whistles than “the Ghetto” in the complex, even classical sense that Princeton sociologist Mitchell Duneier lays out in his important recent survey, Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea. As we drove across North Philly on ElectionDay, an extended landscape of urban decline seemed to stretch out in every direction, revealing itself with numbing effect as we passed block after block of empty shells, boarded up buildings, and run-down row houses.

But we weren’t just passing through that day, and any deadened detachment we might have been feeling ended each time we pulled up to a particular house to pick up the specific North Philadelphian residing at that address and in need of a ride to the polls. A few of our fellow citizens needed rides because they had mobility issues, but more of our fellow citizens needed rides because they were registered to vote in election districts far away from their current places of residence. A few of our fellow citizens had missed the deadline to change their registrations, but more of our fellow citizens were contending with the realities of housing displacement that the economically insecure live with every day. Some of our fellow citizens couldn’t afford to pay the fare for the multiple subways and buses they’d have needed to take to their polling place–and it didn’t help that the recently-settled SEPTA strike had screwed up their weekly passes. Some of our fellow citizens couldn’t afford the time such a journey would take–we drove one young woman nearly 14 miles across town. But every one of our fellow citizens was determined to exercise the franchise and vote in the  2016 presidential election, and it was a patriotic privilege to help them make this happen just by getting behind the wheel with a smartphone.  

philly-pollingIt was long past dark and after 7:30 when we pulled up at our final polling place, a public recreation center in North Philadelphia, in a row house neighborhood not far from Temple University. The line to get inside snaked across the playing field and out onto the sidewalk, but since poll workers had assured everyone that if they were on the line before the polls closed at 8 pm they would be able to vote, the mood was more festive than restive. As we stood there with the crowd (because our voter also needed us to drive her home from the polling place), it seemed like the anxiety of the previous months was being slowly washed away, not by a certainty of victory, but by the mere presence of our fellow Americans waiting to vote in the City of Brotherly Love. 

Speculations on the Origins of the Jersey City; or, Geographies of Drinking, cont’d. 21 February 2015 No Comments

ABC of Cocktails coverSome months back, I chanced upon an unfamiliar book on a shelf in my parent’s kitchen: a little volume on cocktails that was jazzier than the venerable Mr. Boston (the book to the left) and less learned than William Grimes’ Straight Up or On the Rocks (the book to the right). Published by Peter Pauper Press in 1953, The ABC of Cocktails was part of an extended series of whimsical, food-oriented primers edited by Edna Beilenson and illustrated by Ruth McCrea (and now reissued in kindle editions). Though filled with lightweight rhymes (“Alcohol’s a temptress, alcohol’s a flirt, She’ll either raise you to the skies, Or drop you to the dirt.”), the recipes were intended for “experienced drinkers,” rather than “amateurs [and] maiden aunts.” Being an experienced drinker myself, I gave The ABC serious consideration. The cocktails it included went well beyond the standard repertoire, even that of our expansive updated-classics era: Ward Eight, High Hat, Third Rail. But what really caught my eye, vis-a-vis a broadening interest in the nexus of geography and spirits, was an impressive number of drinks with place-based names.  Not just usual suspects like Manhattan and the Bronx, but Hong Kong, Havana, Kingston, Monte Carlo, Nevada, and Florida. Of these eponymous drinks, one in particular stood out.Jersey City recipe

The Jersey City appears on page 34, in between the Jack Rose (immortalized in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises) and the Jersey Sour. Like both of those drinks, the key ingredient in the Jersey City is apple brandy, a.k.a. applejack. As noted in an earlier discussion of the Newark cocktail, applejack can rightly be considered the state spirit of the Garden State, having been produced in Jersey since shortly after the first European settlers arrived. Though grains don’t grow well in New Jersey, fruit trees do; apples, in particular, have been called the foundation of the state’s “fruit culture.” It goes without saying that in the 17th and 18th centuries, folks were drinking those apples as frequently as they were eating them, the fermentation of excess harvests having long been an economic, as well as social, necessity.New Jersey in 1834 detail

According to some sources, the need to get applejack from producer to consumer was critical to the development of the state’s infrastructure, spurring the construction of plank roads and gravel highways north and south, east and west. Early in the 19th century, supporters of the Morris Canal reversed this logic, arguing that the speed and efficiency of an engineered waterway meant that New Jersey growers could bring their apples to the markets of Philadelphia and New York without turning them into spirits. When the Morris Canal finally opened in the 1830s, the supposed result was “a large increase of profit to the farmer and of good morals to the community.”Morris Canal Locks, Mules, Boats

That may be, but it’s hard to imagine not needing a few slugs of Jersey Lightning during that five day, 100+ mile journey from Phillipsburg on the Delaware to Jersey City on the Hudson, through the canal’s 23 locks and, especially, its 23 incline planes (which lifted each barge a whopping total of 1600 vertical feet). Regardless, given how quickly the railroad made the Morris Canal obsolete (completing the same journey in about five hours), its impact on the state’s morals was probably as short-lived as its profits. By the eve of prohibition there were more than 400 applejack distilleries operating in New Jersey.Laird's Pre-Prohibition Bottles

Today, only one is left standing: Laird’s of Scobeyville, Colts Neck Township, Monmouth County. Members of the Laird family have been making applejack in New Jersey for twelve generations (even if their apples now come mainly from Virginia). Their outfit is the oldest licensed distillery in the United States and one of the oldest family owned and operated businesses in the country. Applejack’s bona fide New Jersey terroir is, therefore, unimpeachable. Having adequately explained the presence of “cyder spirits” in a cocktail named for New Jersey’s oldest, if not yet largest, city, we can now turn to less obvious dimensions of the Jersey City‘s cultural geography.Jersey City Cocktail Recipe

To put it another way: what’s up with the pineapple juice? As Imbibe recently observed (about a different drink with a similar provenance), “Jersey City isn’t exactly a tropical paradise.” But what kind of a place is it? More precisely, what kind of a place was it when The ABC of Cocktails appeared? The WPA Guide to New Jersey (1939) had this to say: “Millions of people carelessly regard Jersey City as a necessary rail and motor approach to Manhattan.”Arthur Rothstein, Jersey City in 1939, Seaboard Terminal & Refrigeration Company at Holland Tunnel Approach

[For drivers en route to the Holland Tunnel, necessary evil is probably a better description, whether in 1939 or today. Above is an Arthur Rothstein photograph shot for the FSA/OWI; below is an iPhone photo shot by a commuter sitting in what he called “ridiculous” traffic. The Seaboard cold storage building is evident in both.]Holland Tunnel Traffic by Keith Lam via flickr

And yet, the Guide continued, “the propitious location of the city, close to the tremendous financial and consumer markets of New York City and metropolitan New Jersey, is an advantage equaled by its geographical position on upper New York Bay. This favorable situation has furnished Jersey City with shipping facilities which, in turn, have drawn motor routes and rail lines.”1891 Map of New York & Jersey City detail

This is not a minor point: Jersey City is On the Waterfront, even if Elia Kazan’s iconic film (1954) about longshoremen, unions, and corruption was shot on location one town over, in Hoboken.Baker's Schooner Telegraph at Port Antonio in 1870, illustration by Edward A. Wilson

It is a little known fact that the enterprise that became the United Fruit Company began in Jersey City in 1870, when a sea captain named Lorenzo Dow Baker returned from Jamaica with 160 bunches of bananas and sold them on the streets of JC at a considerable profit. In 1899, Baker merged with his nearest competitors to become the United Fruit Company of New Jersey (state laws passed in the 1880s were famous for their generosity to big business; Standard Oil of New Jersey incorporated in 1885).

Florida Pineapples & Walker Evans Photograph of Pineapple Seller in NYC 1930Around the same time, the United Fruit Company started growing pineapples in Florida, which was then the world’s largest pineapple exporter, and then shipping them north to the “tremendous” consumer markets of the NY/NJ metro area.  Thus, however tenuously, we have established a connection between the pineapple and Jersey City, between the pineapple juice and the Jersey City.United Fruit Company Banana Building in Weehawken 1953

To conclude: by the middle of the 20th century, in between propping up Central American dictators and violating anti-trust laws, the United Fruit Company continued to dock its ships at Pier B (at the foot of Exchange Place) in Jersey City, while also operating the world’s largest mechanical banana handling facility in nearby Weehawken (at the foot of the Lincoln Tunnel ventilation towers). My research to date has not revealed where the pineapples were handled at mid-century, but today they are processed further inland on Jersey City’s West Side. The anonymous container warehouses hard by the Newark Meadows may lack the romance of the Hudson River, but the work still has its hazards: in 2013 a stevedore was nearly crushed when 1500 pounds of sliced pineapple came toppling out of the container he was unpacking.Jersey City Waterfront 1975 & 2015

Back on the waterfront, Jersey City has a post-industrial sheen that will be familiar to anyone who’s followed urban transformation since the 1970s. As for the Jersey City, even without the backstory, it’s a damn good cocktail.Jersey City in Manhattan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Motor City/Brick City Comparative Ecologies, Part I: Geographies of Drinking 2 November 2014 No Comments

DesignInquiry‘s Year of Agitation commences with a follow-up to its DesignCities expedition to Detroit: a residency at MOCAD‘s Department of Education and Public Engagement. The DEPE Space “enables adventurous, multidisciplinary programming in which the museum and city of Detroit function as sites for investigation and experimentation,” and that pretty much sums up the exploratory nature of DI and the DesignCities initiative. My own contribution is still very much a work in progress. As installed at MOCAD, the rawness of the thinking is reflected in the roughness of the presentation: a series of 10 typewritten cards, as in TYPED on a 1957 Halda portable with plenty of typos and, most likely, a few hasty conclusions to match. 

Geographies of Drinking at MoCAD

This is research towards a colloquy between Detroit, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey, two urban centers (the largest in their respective states) that are cataclysmically in flux, with compelling parallels and equally compelling divergences. This research does not explore the reasons for crisis and decline in Detroit and Newark, as these are well documented [see Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996) and Kevin Mumford, Newark: Race, Rights, and Riots in America (2007)].

Detroit & Newark Map details

LEFT: Detroit, detail of Shell Oil Motoring Map, 1956; RIGHT:Newark, detail of Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1926

Instead, this research probes fault lines of rebirth, retrenchment, resurgence, and renaissance that have defined each city in recent decades, especially since the uprisings of 1967. As an urban ecological exploration, this research considers profound differences in urban identity and urban scale, of physical and cultural infrastructure, and of physical and cultural interventions.

Last Word Cocktail at Pony Ride

Last Word mixed at Pony Ride, February 2014

The Last Word Cocktail

3/4 oz. gin [pref. Two James Old Cockney, made in Detroit]

3/4 oz. green Chartreuse

3/4 oz. maraschino liqueur [pref. Luxardo]

3/4 oz. fresh lime juice, strained

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled glass. According to tradition, this venerable drink was invented in the Grill Room of the Detroit Athletic Club at some point during Prohibition. With the privatizing of public drinking in the wake of the Volstead Act, members-only clubs like the DAC became a focal point for socializing while imbibing. And Detroit’s proximity to Canada meant the city was awash in bootleg liquor. Though some claim it was the rotgut quality of bathtub gin that required masking by the herbs and cherries of the mixers, there is no evidence to support this. Chartreuse, made by French monks since the eighteenth century, has always had a rarefied air. Maraschino may well have been produced locally back then, northern Michigan being a major cherry growing region. The origin of the cocktail’s name is lost to history though the drink’s potency (Chartreuse is 110 proof) is an obvious source. In the past decade, the Last Word has rebounded in popularity due to the craft cocktail movement. This recipe is based on one published in Imbibe, borrowed from mixologist Murray Stenson of Seattle’s Zig Zag Café, who discovered it in Ted Saucier’s 1951 book Bottoms Up.

Detroit Athletic Club 1915

Detroit Athletic Club Founded in 1887, the Detroit Athletic Club moved to its present downtown location in 1915. There, a block east of the Grand Circus, Albert Kahn designed an imposing, freestanding, six-story palazzo seemingly more appropriate for the Gilded Age than the Motor Age, but absolutely in keeping with the parvenu ambitions of Detroit’s new industrial elite. The building featured state-of-the-art facilities for sporting and socializing, including a swimming pool, a gymnasium, meeting rooms, and banquet halls. The Club’s original restaurant, the Grill Room, had room for more than 200 members who dined in neo-Renaissance splendor.

Detroit Athlectic Club Grill Room Bar

At the back of the Grill Room was the Club’s first and, until 1936, only bar, notable for its dark woodwork, vaulted ceiling, and a large saloon nude called Lilly (painted by Julius Rolshoven in 1900). Sensuous and mildly exotic, with just a hint of the louche, Lilly presided over the mixing of the first Last Word at some auspicious, gin-soaked moment between 1920 and 1933. The Detroit Athletic Club was restored in the 1990s; today it has more than 4,000 members.

Newark Cocktail in Manhattan

Newark cocktail mixed on Upper West Side of Manhattan, October 2014

The Newark Cocktail

2 oz. Laird’s Bonded Straight Apple Brandy

1 oz. sweet vermouth

¼ oz. Fernet Branca

¼ oz. maraschino liqueur [pref. Luxardo]

Combine ingredients, stir with ice, strain and serve in chilled glass. This early twenty-first century cocktail is a Jersey-accented variation on the Brooklyn, a drink that dates to the classic cocktail era (circa 1900), but has long been overshadowed by the inner borough’s iconic Manhattan. The Newark has no connection with New Jersey’s largest city, having been developed by two New York City barmen and served at their East Village speakeasy. They looked west across the Hudson and, even further, across the Meadowlands when naming the new drink because Laird’s has been making applejack, a.k.a. Jersey Lightening, in the Garden State since 1780. During the colonial era, applejack had a place in New Jersey culture that parallels that of bourbon in Kentucky: it was distilled and consumed in great quantities and was sometimes used as a currency in trade. According to tradition, George Washington himself asked Robert Laird to share his recipe for “cyder spirits.” That Newark never had a cocktail to call its own is not surprising: historically, it has always been in New York City’s outsized cultural and economic shadow. Even during Newark’s heyday as a manufacturing center, it frequently stamped its products with a “made in New York” label because Gotham’s marketing power was so much greater than its own. This recipe for the Newark is based on one published in Imbibe, borrowed from one developed by Jim Meehan and John Deragon of PDT.

Newark Athletic Club circa 1990, photo: HABS

Newark Athletic Club circa 1990, photo: HABS

Newark Athletic Club once stood on a prominent downtown location overlooking Military Park, a few blocks north of the city’s main commercial crossroads at Broad and Market. As designed by Jordan Green in 1923, the Club was a façade-oriented riff on the commercial palazzo typology that was as formulaic and routine as Kahn’s Detroit Athletic Club was robust. Though established in a moment of Roaring Twenties optimism, the Newark Athletic Club was bankrupt by the mid-40s, a victim of the Great Depression, which also caused the suicide of several of the club’s founding, businessmen members.

Lapidus renovation of Newark Athletic Club, lobby in 1944

Lapidus renovation of Newark Athletic Club, lobby in 1944

With 300 guest rooms, the Club was easily adapted for use as a hotel, and this transformation seems to have prompted a lobby refurbishment by Morris Lapidus. Though more restrained than the over-the-top eclecticism that would characterize his later work in Miami Beach, Lapidus’ design for the club-cum-hotel provided a modicum of swank and glamour—enough to imagine the lobby bar as the setting for the creation of a cocktail named for the city. Alas, this would remain a wishful fantasy: not even the Newark novels of Philip Roth make fictional mention of such an event. By the time a Newark cocktail appeared in a Manhattan cocktail lounge, the Newark Athletic Club had been abandoned, demolished, and replaced with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Though NJPAC has two different bars, neither serves a Newark, and recent efforts to order one in the city were met with polite incomprehension.

 

 

Postcard from Jaffa 14 July 2014 No Comments

Old Port of JaffaThe port of Jaffa is a very ancient place, and though it looks somewhat sleepy today, it was a bustling, working harbor for many centuries before the Egyptian Pharaohs took note. Located on a high tel on the eastern coastline of the Mediterranean, Jaffa’s strategic position (evident in maps both old and new) guaranteed its geo-political-economic importance into the modern era.Jaffa Mapped

Despite the treacherous waters around the Andromeda rocks, merchants, pilgrims, and colonists all passed through Jaffa, coming from somewhere else and going to somewhere else. The Cedars of Lebanon en route to Solomon’s Temple, the Empress Helena en route to the via Dolorosa; the Shamouti [a.k.a. Jaffa] Oranges en route to the world. And then there were the soldiers, legions of them across the centuries, commanded by military legends like Thutmose, David, Alexander, Richard the Lionheart, Saladin, Napoleon, and Allenby, each of whom regarded Jaffa as key to victory.Gros Napoleon Visting the Pest House at Jaffa

When Napoleon turned up in Jaffa in March of 1799, the French army d’ Orient had already laid siege to the redoubt as part of its Syrian Campaign, ransacking the port city and slaughtering approximately 3,000 Ottoman prisoners of war. Bonaparte entered Jaffa on March 11th on a mission of damage control, seeking to minimize the significance of an outbreak of bubonic plague and to quell rumors that he had ordered a military doctor to poison the victims, including members of his own army. Boldly, he enters the military hospital temporarily installed in the Armenian Convent on the Jaffa waterfront; dramatically, he reaches out towards an afflicted French soldier. Fearing neither disease nor grandstanding, the General touches the swollen lymph nodes of the soldier’s armpit. At least that’s how Antoine Jean Gros depicted the event five years later, in a canvas commissioned by the newly declared Emperor Napoleon with propagandistic intent. Le tricolore flying on the hill in the background didn’t waive over Jaffa for long. By June of 1799, Napoleon had ordered a full-on retreat, south through the desert and back into Egypt.Jaffa Port Cafes

Walking the waterfront today, past the trendy cafes and fashionable boutiques that are hallmarks of urban revitalization across the planet, it takes a sharp eye to locate the remains of the Pestilence House of Jaffa–and not just because most of the buildings lack the exaggerated Orientalist details that Gros so hotly imagined (I wish I had laid eyes on a courtyard with such a crazy, ziggurat-like, corbeled parapet).Armenian Convent sign

Even the most studious tourist, upon locating a sign identifying the Armenian Convent, might be forgiven for confusing the Pestilence House at Jaffa with a luxury condo, mainly because the Pestilence House at Jaffa is a luxury condo.Armenian Convent at Jaffa

Though the small Church of St. Nicholas is still intact and open for services, much of the complex, including parts of the monastery and the pilgrims’ hospice, has been transformed into a series of private residences by “a bespoke property development company” based in London. The sandstone walls, the arches and openings, the woodwork, it’s all been stabilized and restored with the exterior imperfections so perfectly preserved that it could only be the product of 21st century historical self-consciousness.Luxury Bathroom at Nativ Hamazalot 18

This is hardly the exclusive purview of the folks responsible for the work at the Armenian Convent. A few doors down, Sotheby’s International Realty is offering a 5 bedroom apartment for $13.7 million, one that inserts the “ultramodern” into a “[framework] of ancient archeological architecture.” Which likely explains that bidet tucked inside a 12th century vault.Armenian Convent Apartment

Back at the Armenian Convent, while keenly exploiting the monastery’s “steeped in history” Napoleon-was-here marketing potential, the company website tactfully avoids any mention of swelling buboes and dying soldiers. Nothing takes the sheen off of high end real estate like an infectious disease, except maybe the fraught legacy of displacement, abandonment, and settlement that has characterized Jaffa since 1948. Needless-to-say, these are not mentioned either. But that’s not really surprising.W Residences under construction

In the 21st century, it may well be that the only force strong enough to overcome political and religious factionalism is the one that replaces it with gaping class divisions and staggering income inequality: restless and relentless global capitalism.W at Jaffa

And unlike Napoleon, the W in Jaffa (opening summer 2015) shows no sign of retreat.

 

 

Up In the Air 26 January 2014 No Comments

2014 marks a decade since since Google acquired Keyhole Corporation, a Silicon Valley start-up whose mapping technology transformed the way we see the world. Keyhole created the seamless combination of high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery that provides the geo-located guts of Google Earth and Google Maps, the satellite view that has become a ubiquitous part of our digital lives.

As a descriptor, satellite is sexier than aerial, conjuring Sputnik and the space age instead of the drifting balloons and lumbering dirigibles in which photography first took flight. Somehow, the view from space has managed to retain its romance. But then I was one of those kids in the 70s who wrote to NASA for views of space–photographs of Mars sent back by the Viking orbiter.

They arrived in a big manilla envelope stiff with cardboard and emblazoned with NASA’s brand new logo. Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn designed the so-called worm to replace the Administration’s original meatball logo (to which it returned in 1992). With its sleek continuous letterforms and missing cross strokes, the NASA worm looked absolutely like the future to me–and so did the pictures inside the envelope.

Today, we spend more time engaged in the planetary equivalent of navel-gazing. It’s not the red planet that captures our imagination; it’s our own “big blue marble,” a preoccupation that also dates to the 70s, when Apollo 17 astronauts sent back the now iconic view of the illuminated face of the earth. If photo #AS17-148-22727 gave us a sense of the earth’s wholeness (as in Whole Earth, which used a comparable 1967 view on the cover of its first catalog), it was Charles and Ray Eames who provided a sequential point of view.

In 1968, the Commission on College Physics (which promoted physics education during the space race) asked the Eameses to make a film to explain exponents. Their famous response used Kees Boeke’s Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps as the starting point for a dramatic human-scaled visualization of moving through space by Powers of Ten. In the revised and expanded version of 1977 (which my elementary school screened in an assembly), it takes just over a minute to move out from a couple picnicking on a lawn near Lake Michigan to the whole earth view of 10,000,000 meters (10 to the 7th power).

What was mind-blowing then, we take for granted now.  Even though the jumps are not as regular as in Powers of Ten (in Google imagery they shift back and forth between meters and feet, kilometers and miles), with a few mouse clicks, we easily apprehend how different Chicago’s Burnham Park looks today.

In 1977, the couple picnicked on a flat expanse of lawn hard by the northbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive and the parking lots of Soldier Field. In 2014, they would spread their blanket in a picturesque landscape of grassy berms, walking paths, trees and a winding roadway–the results of a 1996 road relocation and a 2003 renovation of the stadium (the one that resulted in its de-listing from the National Register). Attempting to show us “the relative size of things in the universe” and “the effect of adding another zero,” the Eameses anticipated a crucial aspect of contemporary visuality.

We zoom in, we zoom out; we locate ourselves with geospatial precision. We encounter bytes of biography: the Street View of my block of the Upper West Side captures one of those rare days when my very own car was parked outside of my very own building. We spot details that produce a frisson of familiarity: the outline of the Central Park reservoir, the shadow of an oversized winged “radiator cap” on the 31st floor of the Chrysler building.

Mostly, though, we click and drag with detachment; blame it on digital mediation or, less virtually, on the routine nature of the aerial view in a world of $99 round trips. But even in the 21st century, in between the flat screen at hand and the pressurized cabin at 30,000 feet, we can still find moments of visceral visual experience, of emotional resonance and maybe even joy–as I discovered when I climbed aboard an Airbus Eurocopter AStar 350 for a 30 minute ride.

My companions had hoped for a Sikorsky (departing from the Westchester County Airport, we were very nearly in the Black Hawk‘s home territory of southern Connecticut), but I had no preference, my ignorance of helicopters trumping my customary localism. As it applies to metropolitan development and centralized urbanization, localism wasn’t so much trumped that morning, as radically intensified.

Flying from White Plains to Midtown, we knew what to expect: low rise giving way to high-rise, greenfield to asphalt, open space to density, suburb to city. Even if we didn’t reside in Greater New York, even if we’d never been to the Panorama in Flushing Meadow, this particular urban morphology belongs to the collective memory of the 20th century. We knew it instinctively, even before the helicopter left the ground.

But there it was, the periphery giving way to the center with startling clarity and autumnal color (it was mid-November) at somewhere around 1500 feet. If the birds-eye perspective does little to improve the view of McMansion subdivisions, it gives even undistinguished corporate and college groundscrapers an aura of geometric abstraction.

Structures already possessing geometric abstraction–like the Breuers in the Bronx (originally NYU/now Bronx Community College)–appear even more potently sculptural. Even the Cross Bronx Expressway, when seen from above, looks less “hacked with a meat axe” (as Marshall Berman memorably described it), the graceful curves of its interchanges almost convincing us that it is not the ring of hell we know it to be from behind the wheel.

We followed the East River until we could see the towers clustering at the lower edge of Central Park, and then we turned toward the middle of the island. Looking south, you could see the skyscrapers giving way to mid-rise blocks of the 20s and 30s, where, according to tradition, the Manhattan schist is too far below the surface to support tall buildings (recent research has rendered this more urban legend than geological fact).

Between the thumping of the chopper blades, felt bodily, and the isolation of the headsets, experienced aurally, we hovered above midtown in a warp of dislocation. And yet we were absolutely in the city, maybe even of the city–if we accept verticality as urban essence. Flying in that helicopter was like a shot of hyper-reality (in a simple literal sense, rather than Baudrillard’s), the urban condition as adrenaline, imagined, actualized and exaggerated.

If the city I witnessed and photographed from the helicopter is nearly identical to the one captured in images accessible on Google 24/7, there’s one critical difference: looking at midtown on Google Maps or Google Earth has never made me weep.