Escape to New York: Visiting The City After 6 Years

March 7, 2021

In 2019, I had the good fortune to visit New York City twice, for the first time in the more than six years since I had left it to move to California. All of this was pre-COVID, obviously, when everything was open, restaurants were bustling, shows were happening, etc etc. Visiting after so many years trapped in the suburbs felt both like coming home and a reminder of all I had left behind. Looking back now, even after a year in San Francisco, I can still remember the overwhelming feeling of “here is a real place” that swept over me when I was walking around, whether on Columbia’s campus, downtown, on the High Line, or even taking the architectural boat tour. I still love New York.

So here are the things I made of point of visiting after six years away. If you’re looking for suggestions of New York things to see that are not the top ten tourist attractions, I would recommend all of these. Many thanks to my friends who hosted me during my stay in October 2019, and to my parents who took me on the second trip as my Christmas present!

Times Square NYC

Shed / Vessel / Mercado Little Spain / High Line / Chelsea Market

This one may be a super obvious place to visit, but I very much enjoyed checking out the area, so I recommend it. When I left NYC, the Vessel and Shed were still in conceptual phases, so I was looking forward to seeing them in person - especially knowing that one of my grad school friends worked on the Shed (back when it was the “Culture Shed”). The Vessel was pretty pointless (pretty, and pointless), so we didn’t end up climbing it - also because it’s expensive and was extremely windy when we visited. But the Shed is an impressive piece of engineering, and I’d love to see it in motion. I hope one day I can go back and actually attend a performance there. Underneath the Vessel/Shed plaza is the delicious, crowded, dispersed restaurant called the Mercado Little Spain by Jose Andres. It’s a single entity with consistent theming and good food, but set up like a market with different stalls and eating areas serving different Spanish fare. Be prepared to stand while eating as seats were not plentiful. But the paella was very good. After filling up on tasty rice, take the stairs across the street to the High Line, where you can walk out along the latest extension and get a good view back toward Hudson Yards and the Vessel. Then turn back and walk south through Chelsea, visiting the Chelsea Market along the way, and ending at the Whitney Museum (by Renzo Piano). The High Line is a well-known tourist attraction at this point, but there’s still something lovely about its variation and surprising moments (framed views across streets, assorted plant environments, views while passing by and under different buildings).

The Shed

For another take, here’s Karrie Jacobs on the High Line after ten years.

The High Line from atop The Whitney Museum

WTC Station / Oculus / Fulton Center Station / 9-11 Memorial / 9-11 Museum

This set of attractions may be the most touristed of the lot here, but I had to visit since none of this was open when I left NYC in 2013, except the 9/11 Memorial. I had visited the Memorial and construction site when I lived in the city, and watched the One World Trade Center going up (opened in 2014), and was interested to see it now all open. I did not re-visit the Memorial except to walk by the upper part, but we did visit the 9/11 Memorial Museum, which was better than I expected. The World Trade Center foundations (from the Twin Towers) are exposed in the largely subterranean exhibition space, allowing an archaeological and architectural consideration of the former buildings. Parts of the retaining walls, including the tie backs and other structural components, are also on view. I’ve never seen an exhibit about the ruins of a contemporary building - much less a contemporary skyscraper - so if you’re architecturally or structurally minded, I recommend it. I mostly ignored or wasn’t interested in the more culturally-focused exhibits, which were more crowded as well, so I can’t say much about those.

9/11 Memorial Museum foundation wall

Also in the area is the Oculus, the notoriously over-budget Santiago Calatrava confection of a mall/subway station that was filled with holiday shoppers when we visited. It’s an impressive space but ultimately feels like… a mall. So take a look, then feel free to move on. There isn’t much to uncover here. Meanwhile, over in the Fulton Center Station (down the underground hallway from the Oculus), you can see the James Carpenter Design Associates []“Sky Reflector Net”](https://www.architectmagazine.com/technology/lighting/sky-reflector-net-at-the-fulton-center_o) piece, which is trying to bring some sky down into the underground concourse. I think the effect is somewhat spoiled by the mass consumerism all around, in the form of illuminated signage that distracts from the piece - it’s essentially suspended above a food court - but I did appreciate getting to see this delicate feat of engineering with cables and glass.

The Oculus Sky Reflector-Net

Roosevelt Island / Cornell Tech Campus

I had never taken the gondola over to Roosevelt Island, and I would say, this was a fun one! We walked over from my friend’s apartment, climbed up to the platform, and away we went, whisked through the sky to this strange skinny island in the East River. From there, it’s a leisurely walk around the island to visit the new Cornell Tech Campus, and further south, the Four Freedoms Park (posthumously by Louis Kahn). The site is about half-built at this point, with only a few (albeit large) buildings by different architects, on a master plan by SOM & James Corner Field Operations. The current buildings are The House (residential tower) by Handel Architects; the Bloomberg Center by Morphosis; and the Tata Innovation Center by Weiss/Manfredi. The rest of the site is laid out in gently mounded parcels with roads dividing them up, for future development. A fair number of joggers and walkers roamed around the site, watching geese and taking advantage of an exercise trail. The view back toward the city is particularly nice. Take a picnic or pick up lunch at the Bloomberg Center cafe. It’s a strange but welcome experience to be so quiet in the middle of the river, with the city on both sides.

View of Cornell Tech Campus from unbuilt area

Columbia Manhattanville Campus

During my time at GSAPP, the Manhanttanville Campus (Renzo Piano / SOM) was under construction, so this was the first time I was able to see it in person. Some areas are still under construction, but I was able to visit the relocated Wallach Art Gallery, opened 2017 in the new Lenfest Center for the Arts, which I had visited when the gallery was on the main campus. Students were there leading a gallery talk about the exhibit on post-colonial African art. I also admired the indoor climbing wall at the ground level of the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, visible from the exterior, and took a break in the open cafe area of The Forum. The buildings were glowing and busy on the rainy evening when I visited, and I appreciated the open plaza in the middle that did make the new campus feel more inviting than the main campus. Columbia’s main campus is famous as a super block with ornate gates at the main entrances on 16th Street, which are perpetually open, but still a reminder that this is a private university space. I recall that one of the goals for Manhattanville was to make it feel more integrated with the neighborhood, despite its enormous scale and dedicated university program. I will need to visit again during the day, once it’s fully occupied, but I think they are succeeding so far.

Jerome L Green Science Center

Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum

I was able to experience nearly unlimited programming on design and architecture while I was in graduate school, but one experience that eluded me was visiting the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum (now the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum), which was closed from July 2011 to December 2014 for renovations. So I was very pleased to check this one off my list of art and design institutions when I was finally able to visit in December 2019. And my overall impression of this museum was - it was weird! A weird mix of historical exhibitions, historic rooms and spaces, and cutting-edge to the point of very odd contemporary design. Consider: an exhibit on textiles including the dead bugs that are used to make dyes; a fabric burial suit to help bodies decompose; an interactive piece that flaps the wings of butterflies when you walk by; etc. My dad was just confused and I was generally amused. I don’t think I learned much or was very inspired, but I am glad there is a museum to display all the weird and wonderful things that designers are doing these days, from ink made from carbon taken out of the atmosphere, to furniture, architectural design, and graphic design. (The curatorial departments of the museum are Drawings, Prints, and Graphic Arts; Product Design and Decorative Arts; Textiles; Wallcoverings; and Digital.) Check it out - why not!

Cooper-Hewitt exhibition

AIA New York Architecture Boat Tour

This was a somewhat unexpected hit. Back in 2018 when I had hoped to attend the AIA convention in New York but ended up going to Hawaii instead on a surprise trip (no complaints here), I had eyed the AIA New York and Classic Harbor Line’s boat tour as a part of my anticipated convention experience, so I was pleased that I was able to fit it in to my December NYC visit. Despite the cold and rainy weather, the boat was warm enough, plenty comfortable, and filled with like-minded architecture nerds. I guess there are enough other boat tours you can take in New York if you are interested in more than just buildings! (I do apologize though to my dad and the other tourists at my table for constantly pointing out things mere moments before the guide spoke about them, which I’m sure got annoying after a while.) Seeing the city from the water is really fun, as an entirely different perspective on places that you’ve visited in person, and a way to uncover spaces you might not otherwise be able to experience at all. It’s pricey but I think worthwhile, and would be even better on a warmer day when you could spend more time on the deck without freezing!

Manhattan from the boat

Hunters Point Public Library / Hunter’s Point South Park

On my last day in New York, after my parents had left and I had half a day of exploring on my own, I wandered around Long Island City / Hunters Point and visited the recently-opened Hunters Point Community Library, part of the Queens Public Library system, by Steven Holl (2019). This building has been highly scrutinized for its lack of universal design and accessibility, resulting in a lawsuit and removing books from many of the center terraces where they were not accessible except by stairs. Steven Holl has not been particularly gracious about the whole thing. I had to check it out for myself. On the holiday weekday morning that I visited, there were not a lot of patrons, and some of those I passed were clearly there to check out the architecture and not to browse for books. I’ll admit the views are fantastic, located as it is on a waterfront site. But I found the sheer number of stairs to be tedious and not very easy to understand; I felt like I was trespassing as I tried to figure out how to get upstairs to the teen area without using the single elevator, which is busy with parents using strollers (as one architecture critic has noted, the child area is awkwardly located on the second floor - why did they do that?). So I would agree with the criticism that, for such a prominent public building, this is a real tragedy in its lack of access. Funky stairs are fun and all, but if they’re not functional, they’re more harm than good.

Hunters Point Community Library

The rest of the morning, I walked around the lovely Hunter’s Point South Park, a delightful series of waterfront spaces by Thomas Balsley Associates and Weiss/Manfredi that opened in 2018. I started at the boat and kayak launch and walked around the point and back up to the library, passing the wetlands, overlook, and various other lawns and trails along the way. I particularly enjoyed the variety of spaces as you continue down the path along the waterfront, from dense grasses to open lawns, with views back to Manhattan. Nothing was open that day, but there was a couple getting married, and plenty of other people walking, jogging, and skateboarding. This is another space I’d like to come back to visit one day during a different season.

Hunter's Point South Park'

This concludes my latest tour of New York! I am really grateful I got to visit after so many years away, and just mere months before the city went into coronavirus lockdown. I can’t wait to visit again someday, and hopefully sooner than in six years from now!