By Suzanne Farrell
I’m afraid of heights. It’s the sort of afraid feeling that has me sprawled face down on the carpet during particularly panicky evenings so as to avoid being suddenly, mysteriously, sucked out the window. Some of my more bizarre nightmares involve a giant vacuum and a lot of broken glass. For months, however, I’ve been resisting the fear, perching boldly on the windowsill ten floors above the sidewalk, gazing upon a view that I grandly declare has changed my life.
When real estate developer Sheldon Solow bought one of Consolidated Edison’s most coveted sites, an industrial stretch between 35th and 41st Streets along Manhattan’s East River, he promised to tear it all down. I’m sure he guessed there would be ramifications for this little neighborhood situated around the United Nations. But could Solow have guessed the ramifications for this little woman in apartment #1009 who, until now, never had the guts to go near her windows?
In a benevolent gesture a few days before my birthday, Solow made good on his promise. The last, ugly, skeletal heap that was once the 41st Street building – surrounded by monster cranes and draped with tarps that Crayola would call “construction orange” – was dramatically erased from the planet. In reality, it had been hauled down to earth beam by iron beam over several weeks, and methodically removed by wage earners working overtime. But the final effect was still extraordinary.
One pivotal morning, I saw my new view.
I noticed it first from the bedroom; a pinky-width portion of the East River, gray that day, churning, complete with glimpses of boats sliding by. According to simple geometric principles, I knew the view would be a bit wider from the living room. It was. My heart rate went up at the sight of a finger-full of busy river life. On to the kitchen window! There, as thick as my thumb, our East River view. Squinting to peer across the wide river, I could see the mysterious structures of a world beyond mine, a foreign frontier, the Brooklyn waterfront.
This instantly enhanced my opinion of the apartment I share with my boyfriend. It no longer mattered to me that our stove door couldn’t open all the way or that our books must be amassed in treacherous vertical piles. All that mattered suddenly was our view of the river. I recalculated our apartment’s worth and imagined the ads: “The window in the cozy galley kitchen offers surprising and unparalleled visual delights” or “Magnificent 15-degree view of the iconic East River transports you to the best of New York’s romantic waterways.” I became obsessed. Running from room to room, whooping each time I saw the river, shocked it was still there. I began to scheme about capitalizing on our view. Knowing an apartment on the floor above us was for sale, I dragged my boyfriend upstairs, bursting in on the agent’s open house. I was in a weird, hallucinatory state. My checkbook was burgeoning in front of my fuzzy, demented eyes. I believed I could handle a casual weekend purchase like a penthouse apartment. Just a few more loans. I thought I could stack one view on top of the other to double it. Improve the picture by making it taller. Stretch it to its limit. See all the way to Montauk!
The penthouse was a crushing disappointment. On the verge of pitching a deposit, I recoiled at the shabby, dark, outdated studio. The tiny space, curiously overrun by dozens of pots and pans filled with murky liquid, was not even directly above us. Situated at the back corner of our I-shaped building, the apartment had a dilapidated deck overlooking not the river, but the column of space between our building and the neighboring one. Ironically, the best view from the penthouse was down into our own apartment’s back windows.
I ran downstairs to check on our view, nausea closing up my throat. Phew. The river was still there. I breathlessly logged onto the Internet and surfed the news sites for word on this profound development.
You can imagine my dismay when I learned our view, granted to us only that morning, would soon be obstructed by progress.
I have a thing about progress. In a Forsterian way, I desire progress, but backward. I want progress to be a black hole, sucking large objects back into itself; not a supernova burning up the past. But Solow does not agree about progress.
The developer has released several versions of his plan for the $630 million multi-block site. His designs focus on attracting new business to the area, a much lauded idea since more and more midtown office spaces are abandoned. These days, it’s a bit shocking to walk along East 42nd Street – a piece of midtown teeming with human life – and paradoxically find it dotted with desperate-looking real estate signs.
I quickly noted that the design includes towering structures of 600, 800, even 1,100 feet, making the United Nations building look quaint. Solow’s vision will entail skyscrapers. My vision, I understood, would suffer.
Community Board 6 has retaliated against Solow’s plan, releasing a competing design for the parcel. The association’s proposal incorporates schools, affordable housing, public parking, trees, and an East River Esplanade. Certainly neighborhood families are concerned about overcrowding at the local public schools. And the high housing costs have prohibited many young couples from moving into the area. Plus, our pedestrian population dreams about descending the U.N. steps, scooting across First Avenue, and strolling onto a sunlit riverside walkway. Community Board 6’s plan also calls for a remapping of several streets, providing easier access to the river and “view corridors” instead of the current “very narrow visual slots.” I quickly skimmed past such desirable aspects of this plan, focusing only on the fact that it too would involve, you know, buildings.
I hated both plans. Stores and schools be damned. Don’t take away my view! Didn’t Solow and Community Board 6 realize how much I’d come to love my precious narrow visual slot?
On to the blogosphere, a haven for the desperate, searching for others who would understand the immensity of my duress. There I found the NIMBY’s. Masked as proponents of “sensible development,” these activists render models to demonstrate exactly what will happen to neighborhoods when new buildings are constructed. The models are all white, except for gray smudges that ominously indicate where the new buildings’ shadows will fall. The NIMBY’s are outspoken, emotional. They predict a bleak future, as if we will shrivel up in the shade, wheezing through our last dark breaths, “There goes our view…” They understand an emergency when they see one. I joined up.
My patient boyfriend, perplexed at my rapid transformation from window-wary penny pincher, to delusional big spender, to nascent NIMBY planning a t-shirt campaign, gently reminded me that NIMBY’s have the reputation of being self-interested and insular. They dismiss the potentially positive civic growth that accompanies new building developments, in favor of preserving “character” and “uninterrupted views.” They draw attention away from their streets and highlight the potential for development in other “more appropriate” areas much further away. Let those other people look out upon brick and mortar. Apparently, NIMBY’s can appear a bit snobbish with their views on views.
NIMBY’s are viciously abused on the blog battlefields. TLOZ Link5 spitefully types, “Hypocrites, screw them all.” Rich Battista lol’s, “The damn NIMBY’s. I wish they would all go to their own little island somewhere.” Of my new NIMBY cabal, Chris sardonically asks, “Why would anyone want a view of the East River anyway. Have you ever been up high in any towers on the east side and looked out over the East River? It’s pretty lame.”
In my state, I couldn’t exactly express why my view of the East River was decidedly unlame, why it meant so much to me. I just knew I craved it. It was my drug. I needed a fix. I glanced outside yet again, to make sure the river was still there and hadn’t dried up or been covered by a big tarp. I was completely hooked. What was it about the view that transformed me into a maniacal NIMBY?
A friend of mine suggested that possessing a view makes you feel powerful. It feeds your ego. When out-of-town guests come to visit, who wouldn’t delight in having them bend at the window, looking up and around, marveling and oohing, “Oh look, honey, the Empire State Building”? It’s as if you have provided the Empire State Building all by yourself, generously lent it to movies and books and your out-of-town guests who now feel they’ve truly seen New York. Another friend told me her view of the Chrysler Building makes her feel like she has a small slice of something mythological, something bigger than herself. She likes to think she’s earned that slice with effort and resolve, working her way up the floors, up the ranks, to obtain the view. The wealthy, and sometimes the not so wealthy, are willing to purchase their views at high costs, to sacrifice space in order to add a bit of sun, water, tree, or landmark to their daily observations. Real estate ads try to play up the view, even when it’s not such a worthy selling point. If an apartment is not on a high floor, it might at least be flooded with sunlight.
But is a view really all about power, prestige, and ego? Consider two acquaintances, both positioned squarely in the middle class, who decided to buy apartments around the same time. Their teaching jobs, which promise stable monthly payments, but certainly not luxury, allowed them to purchase modest apartments in comparable neighborhoods. One bought a sizeable two-bedroom apartment on his new building’s second floor. He claims preference; “I have always chosen to live in the caverns with the rats if it affords me more space.” The other purchased a tiny studio, Murphy bed and all, on a high floor of his Upper West Side apartment building. It was worth the lost square footage, he says, for his unobstructed view of the Hudson River. He tells me it brings him “peace and joy.”
The Pierre’s “chateau in the sky” is clearly not the only spot to find a bit of peace and joy. A view, even 15 degrees of the East River, can change everything. A view can make you feel more whole. A view can remind you there is nature in the city, precedent to the city. A view can separate you from your environment and concurrently bring you closer to it. A view can, according to one friend, give you “the distance and the pace” to enjoy the city. A view can make you feel free, even from behind the cage bars of the window guards. A view can show you a world larger than your own. A view can make you forget you’re afraid of heights.
My view is still there, for now. Until the proposals are ironed out, I have unlimited access to my drug of choice. (Progress, thankfully, is slow.) I have replaced my fear of heights with my thirst for the river. My view leads outward and inward at the same time, taking me far downstream and deep inside myself. On a sunny morning, the silver water glistens so brightly I have to squint to detect wave motion. A wide, diagonal swathe of sunlight begins in the southeast, lies down across the sparkly surface, sneaks between two apartment houses, crawls up my building, and lights up my face as I wait for the coffee to percolate. I like to think it is meant for me. In the afternoon, the river remembers to reflect the sky, blue and busy with the huge flat barges that hug the western bank. On a windy day, the whitecaps come out to play, throwing themselves against the hulls of slow-moving ships. Wakes zigzag without regard for one another.
If I position my shades at just the right height, sit at the northeast chair of the round table in the dining nook, and glance over my left shoulder, I meet my view of the river at its best. It is an entire windowpane of water with no earth below, no Brooklyn, no Consolidated Edison, no buildings. It could be the River Plate. It could be the Pacific. It could take me anywhere, if I had a boat.
E.M. Forster perhaps knew much more than we do about the hidden complexities of a simple view; more than NIMBY’s or NIMBY haters or Solow or Community Board 6 or my friends or myself. The truth is we’re dealing “not with rooms and views, but with – well, with something quite different.” I admit it. Call my viewpoint as narrow-minded as my view is narrow. Not in my backyard, please. Let me keep my little sliver of heaven.
Suzanne Farrell is a second year Liberal Studies student and co-editor of canon. She loves to make coffee, sit on her windowsill thinking about things to write, then go back to bed. When she gets up again, Suzanne writes all types of creative nonfiction except nature writing. She hopes her view will inspire a nature essay or two.