President’s Letter, February 2018

Monthly observations and insights from MAS President Elizabeth Goldstein

February 28, 2018

Last week on a rainy but warm weekday, I emerged from the Wall Street subway station and crossed Broadway. I was headed east towards the East River. The gorgeous façade of Trinity Church was at my back and I turned onto Wall Street under a sidewalk shed that seems to have been there forever. The Bankers Trust and Bank of New York Mellon Buildings, both constructed in the very late 1920s and early 1930s, were almost completely obscured from the street by the scaffolding and looked more than a little forbidding.

As I walked toward the myriad bollards and iron street plates that block vehicular access to the twin pillars of American life—the Stock Exchange around the corner to my right and Federal Hall on my left—I had the eerie sensation of being in two centuries at once. I felt I was passing through the wall of a medieval hill town, with the fortification at my back and the lively comings and goings of a village ahead of me. But the narrow streets of New Amsterdam are now home to skyscrapers that shoulder for space on lots that once held cottages, making it hard for the 21st century life that wants to move through them.

exterior of the New York Stock Exchange
The New York Stock Exchange. Photo: Creative Commons, Dave Center. Modifications: Image cropped and made black and white.

As I moved further east, I still felt overwhelmed, even as I admired the architecture, the Beaux Arts Tiffany & Co. Building (originally the Trust Company of America) and Greek Revival Cipriani Wall Street (originally the Merchants Exchange) on the south side, and the Postmodern Deutsche Bank Building (originally J.P. Morgan & Co.) on the north. The peak of Delmonico’s around the corner at 56 Beaver Street provided a little visual relief.

I think of this as a business district but, of course, it is no longer just that. As I continued my walk I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to live in this part of the city. If you are really lucky and have purchased some height, then there must be unparalleled views over the rooftops and spires, with glimpses of New York Harbor and perhaps Lady Liberty.

But back down on the street, it can feel like a rabbit warren, not really a place for us humans except to pass through on our way somewhere else. Yes, I know you have so much access to Manhattan’s waterfront, Battery Park City being the verdant brink you might hope for; but the eastern edge is a swath of monolithic buildings and barren plazas.

This walk was just a reminder of something that has been on my mind a lot since I have returned to New York just over a year ago…how precious our access to light and air has become. Certainly, this is an urban design issue of a rather urgent sort, but it is also a health issue.

We humans are healthier when we have access to light and air. Don’t take my word for it, I am not an expert. But Dr. Brian Wiltgen is! Here is what he says: “Light plays an important role in modulating heart rate, circadian rhythms, sleep/wake cycles, digestion, hormones, mood and other processes of the body.” He was part of a team of researchers at the University of Virginia who verified that light plays a role in reducing fear and anxiety. A 2005 study on the recovery patterns of patients found that if patients have sunlight and views of nature they felt less pain.

So that visceral joy that we feel when we wake up to a bright, sunny day, even in the dead days of winter is a real physiological response. (Go on and google it, I know you want to!)

As we think about how New York neighborhoods should develop to accommodate more New Yorkers every year, we should think twice about whether those incremental shadows, the darker streets, and our canyons of glass and concrete are just a minor annoyance or whether they are a matter of far more significance.

Wishing you all a sunny March!

Elizabeth's signature

Elizabeth Goldstein
The Municipal Art Society of New York

children play on the shore near the Brooklyn Bridge. Photo: Giles Ashford.

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