Reflection on Walking in New York City

Dedicated to Professor Brendan O’Flaherty for helping my apply to Columbia as an undergraduate. The following video lecture contains paintings and photos I compiled while walking in New York.

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Learn more about my New York walks in this collection of photos and drawings. They are organized into ten urban walks, with each day in a different Manhattan neighborhood.
Strolling in New York City is a world tour. The street fairs of Spanish Harlem mesh into college town Columbia. Columbia gives way to the shabby chic of Harlem. A few blocks farther and I am drowned by the tourists of Times Square. Further still and I reach the bustle of Wall Street brokers. I stroll and try to identify the passing languages. Spanish in the outer boroughs. Polish in Greenpoint. Russian in Brighton Beach. Cantonese in Chinatown. French and German shoppers in SoHo. There could be no more fitting a place for the United Nations.
Reading Here is New York by E.B. White, I realizethat  some aspects of New York have changed little in the past seventy years. The streets, cars, and tenements are different, but the essential spirit of dynamic and diverse urbanism remains. Here is New York.

Love and Longing in New York

Selected from undergraduate college application essay to Columbia University. Read more.

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Walking is my form of enlightenment.
I live in Newark.  My city is generally ten degrees hotter than its neighboring environment.  The airport.  The port.  The downtown.  All are blanketed in asphalt that turns my city into a hot desert.
Tens of thousands of cars, and one of the largest garbage incinerators in the country, spew their fumes into my city.  Returning home, the smell of burning garbage often greets me.  As a child, I had asthma.
At night, I am alone.  Nobody my age lives in my neighborhood. From my front window, I see a parking lot for corporate commuters. From my back window, I see a vast parking lot for university students.  Both are desolate after dusk. As an infant, my first words were “demolition” and “truck.”  As a child, I never had play dates; my suburban “friends” feared my city.  As an adult, I hope to see my city’s vacant lots developed.  I keep on dreaming.
The streets of my city are not made for walking.  They are made for driving.  I walk.  I stop.  I wait.  Speeding traffic and interminable stoplights hinder my progress.
But I love walking in New York City.
When I walk, I am free to choose.  Each street guides me forward.  Each intersection is a choice.  Each destination is irrelevant.  When I walk, I sometimes choose a random order of directions, left, right, left, right, right, left, left, straight.  I see where they lead me.  I know not where.
When I walk, I am free to move.  I love walking on the High Line.  I float above the cars that prevent the city from realizing itself as a community.  I see the crowded streets twenty feet below.  I see the gardens on either side of me.  I let the verdantly landscaped path channel me forward.
When I walk, I am no longer alone.  I walk in the footsteps of the millions who passed before me.  I am one among millions, all of us on our separate voyages.  Lawyers.  Butchers.  Tourists.  Homeless.  We all walk alone.  Yet, we are together in walking alone.
When I walk, I see the world.  In Spanish Harlem, street fairs sell traditional Mexican foods.  In college town Columbia, well-dressed university students amble on their way to class.  In the Upper West Side, the shabby chic push their grocery prams.  In Times Square, tourists lug their large shopping bags from theater to theater, store to store.  Finally, after many neighborhoods, I reach the ceaseless bustle of Wall Street.  Tired after many miles of walking, I descend the subway steps.
When I walk, I achieve tranquility. I am happy.
One of my recent projects is painting New York City, neighborhood by neighborhood.  Each day, I choose a new district to stroll through.  Then, equipped with my miniature watercolor palette and notepad, I walk and paint.  I discover the city block by block.  I aim to capture a fragment of what I see through painting.
Like a pianist who memorizes music by heart, the flâneur (or urban pedestrian) embraces the street symphony with his soul and feet.  People’s voices and buildings serve different, but equally important, clefs in the symphony.  As le Corbusier wrote, “… first to look, and then to observe, and finally to discover.”  My countless urban walks enhance my passion for cities, their architecture, their history, and their planning.
Living in Newark inspires me to dream.  Walking in New York City enlightens me to walk.  I am ready to walk my next journey.

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Chinatown: a living neighborhood

View more artwork like this about my experiences walking in New York City.

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Chinatown is both static and dynamic: Static in its resilience against gentrification, dynamic in its cultural interplay between past and present, immigrant and American.
Everywhere in Chinatown, past and present intermingle. Dusty and decrepit Jewish textile stores struggle onward; their elderly owners wait to close up shop and sell out for millions to developers. By Division Street rests a former synagogue with an AT&T outlet on one side and a Chinese-language job agency on the other. Bustling bakeries and bodegas abut reminders of past immigration. Lyricist Ira Gershwin’s birthplace is still inhabited up the street, red paint flaking off its brick walls. Weathered brick tenements, serving successive waves of Germans, Italians, and Irish, still serve elderly Asians and urban “hipsters.” Chinatown is still a living, breathing being in constant flux.
On select corners sprout feeble tendrils of gentrification: a pricey café, a garish painted crêperie, a chic souvenir shop advertising “I love Chinatown” tote bags. This neighborhood is devoid of its youth; little children and wizened elderly remain. The rest have left to work in the America beyond the dense city. Beneath the Manhattan Bridge a sign reads in Mandarin: “Chinese-American special carrier to return infants to China.” The shabby A Train rumbles in the sky.
On the neighborhood’s fringes is the touristed Tenement Museum. The museum’s cycling documentary chronicles life on the Lower East Side. Black and white imagery flickers across the screen: Italians and Irish, Germans, and Jews, the immigrant experience, dreams of coming to America. It is all too convenient to reflect on the past and to conclude: That what was New York no longer is.  That its immigrant travails have now vanished. That overcrowding and grime is no more.
Much has changed. Much has not. The city awaits the next tide of tired, poor, and huddled masses.

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IMG_6173

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This high-density tenement on Eldridge Street is home to a myriad of businesses including:
– Third Brother’s Fuzhou Snack Bar
– Green Forest Internet Bar
– United Express and Lottery Tickets
– Universal Phone Cards
– Everything OK Job Agency
– International Job Agency
– Twinkling Star Job Agency

.Field Chicken

These frogs, marketed as seafood and known as “Field Chicken,” are sold for $5.19 each.

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All Purpose Flower Shop and Funeral Services

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This all purpose establishment advertises the following services:
– Weddings
– Conferences
– Concerts
– Gatherings
– Ceremonies
– Western Chinese Music
– Performing Arts
– Potted Plants
– Floral Arrangements
– Funerary Flowers
– Funerals and Birthdays

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Windmobiles

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This series explores movement. These sculptures made of paper, wire, and wood are powered by the wind. When placed before a light breeze, the pinwheels spin and power the sculptures’ cyclical movements. The bird will soar. The horseman will charge forward, lance at the ready. Each sculpture evokes the theme of movement.

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Pinwheel is the simplest in this series. A light breeze spins a three-pronged pinwheel, which vibrates a wire. The following sculptures are variations on this mechanism.

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In Ocean Voyage, the pinwheel rocks a sailing boat. Wind movement translates into wave movement.

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Liberty symbolizes the search for freedom. The pinwheel connects to a wire that flaps the dove’s white wings.

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Similar to Liberty, the pinwheel in Don Quixote’s Windmill powers the horse’s charging legs. Ironically, Don Quixote attacks the windmill that powers him.

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In Cityscape, two pinwheels power rows of zigzagging traffic. In this “snapshot” of urban life, movement is choreographed along mechanical lines. The city silhouette in background is made from paper. This white sculpture is illuminated from beneath with a light.

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This sculpture called Time represents the wheel of life. A hand-operated crank rotates a wheel and powers the moving legs of a walking skeleton. On the wheel, silhouettes of infant, child, worker, senior, cripple, and coffin spin round, symbolizing the repeating stages of life for each new generation. While the skeleton depicts death, the wheel depicts continuity. In contrast to the sculpture’s theme of death the human hand, instead of wind like the other sculptures, moves the sculpture and completes the metaphor.

South Bronx

View more artwork like this about my experiences walking in New York City.

Strolling in the Bronx, I am arrested by the inner-city grid that stretches mile after mile. Block after block, street after street, a never ending treadmill of bodegas, tenements, hair salons, C-TOWN supermarkets, strip malls, and laundries. In the treadmill of the city grid, I become an explorer lost wandering. I retrace my footsteps.
And then, there is the ceaseless cacophony of Spanish speakers, buses, and car. The chaotic maze of streets leads me to fantasize walking through one of M.C. Escher’s drawings of a geometric maze. The blaring signage for SHOES, SHIRTS, PIZZA, and ICE CREAM hints at shabby decadence. The never-too-distant fast-food joint hints at obesity in a relative food desert. The din of distant cars on the Cross Bronx or Major Deegan hint at the childhood asthma that I, too, had. I immerse myself in the urban grid.
After many hours, I spy an elevated subway stop in the distance. I take the next southbound train back to Manhattan. I must return to the Bronx soon. The outer boroughs beckon.

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Detroit: visual essay

Detroit represents the shortcoming of American-style, car centric urban development. Wide highways slashed through decaying neighborhoods now serve a city devoid of people in whole neighborhoods. In a city that lost 60% of its population since its 1950 height, extensive infrastructure designed to serve millions of people now serves thousands. After Detroit’s July 1967 civil unrest, over 200,000 whites fled Detroit in fewer than five years. Now over 50,000 homes lie vacant and decaying.
During WWII, Detroit was dubbed “the arsenal of democracy” for all the military equipment that rolled out of its auto factories. Planes from Detroit went on to bomb European cities. In a form of fitting, yet ironic, justice Detroit, too, has been bombed. Except this time, it’s a city destroyed from within by the American forces of racism, the automobile, and anti-urban government policies.

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Attempts to rectify Detroit’s fallen status fall short. Everywhere there are fields of surface parking lots, where there were once businesses, people, and wealth. A near-empty monorail system circles a quiet downtown. Downtown is a skyscraper graveyard full rotting Art Deco architectural gems and empty storefronts. Renaissance Center soars above downtown, secluded from the aging and indebted city. The imposing appearance of the nearby Greektown Casino abuts the ominous city jail. Suburban residents travel to Detroit for sports games at Comerica Field; they return afterwards by car to their safe, quiet, and white communities.

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Detroit represents flaws in American culture across levels: government policies that encouraged suburban development at the expense of cities; corporations that developed America’s love of car culture; planners who designed cities and city life around the car. Most of all, Detroit represents the failure of American democracy to end racial segregation. Over fifty years after the end of legal racial segregation, Detroit is a city divided along borders of race and class.
Detroit’s fitting Latin motto is: “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus.”
We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.

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New Jersey Meadowlands

The New Jersey Meadowlands, nestled between New York City and Newark, is a strange sort of in-between zone. It belongs neither to nature nor to man. The grasslands and birds of nature are abundant. So, too, are the derelict factories and warehouses. The unwanted detritus of civilization is cast off into the Meadowlands, ranging from garbage piles to noxious-smelling industries.
Millions of commuters to and from the suburbs to New York City pass through this region of indeterminate identity. Many look out the windows of passing trains, planes, and cars. Yet few care to observe the lapping tides and bizarre beauty of this unwanted strip of land. These views show various scenes from my daily train ride through the Meadowlands between Newark Broad Street and Hoboken Terminal.

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