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The Trees For The Forest

When you look at a picture of midtown Manhattan today, the tall buildings – for the sake of discussion, let’s set a lower bound at 30 stories – are so common that they blur together. That’s a post-1960 phenomenon, and they used to be limited to a smaller area and have more space between them. A few military aerial photos make the point nicely. The March 1940 picture above is a reasonably traditional skyline view of midtown, looking west (the plane was over the East River) across to the Hudson River and New Jersey in the background. (Note the vast area in New Jersey without buildings once you get west of the narrow strip of land with Jersey City, Union City, and West New York – the word “meadowlands” is a polite euphemism for “swamp”.) The complex of multi-winged buildings in the foreground, just above the words “Central Manhattan, New York” is Bellevue Hospital. The tall buildings are clustered in east midtown, huddling together around Grand Central Terminal. The three tallest we see are the Empire State on the left, Chrysler on the right (with the stainless steel crown looking surprisingly dark, which may be some kind of artifact of the photography), and 30 Rockefeller Plaza to the left of Chrysler. Those three are 86 stories (the real top of the Empire State, with everything above in the ornamental spire), 77 stories, and 66 stories. If this were a nature documentary, I’d talk about the big trees colonizing a meadow…

Here’s the reverse angle, taken the same day, looking east:

Brooklyn (on the right) and Queens (on the left) were completely made up of low-rise buildings, which has not been true now for decades. Penn Station (with the triple-gable roof and three arched windows) is due west of the Empire State; the General Post Office (the location of the new train hall) is west of that, and then there’s a huge hole in the ground that makes the city look like an incomplete LEGO replica. That’s the station train yard some thirty feet below grade, and that was not decked over until recently. The closer train yard at a higher elevation is unrelated to Penn Station – it’s part of the New York Central freight line and we’re seeing the northern end of what’s now the High Line Park.

Here’s the view looking north on the same day (the pilot must have flown a complete loop around midtown):

Fifth Avenue runs up the center – the plane was probably somewhere around Washington Square – with 30 Rock peering over the Empire State’s shoulder. The mid-rise apartment houses on the Upper East and Upper West Sides gives way to low-rise Harlem north of Central Park and then the Bronx. The George Washington Bridge is on the upper left; the vaguely-colonnade-looking thing on the upper right is the Triboro Bridge and the Hell Gate Bridge approach. For me, this picture really brings home how much the Empire State stood out back then. Not only is it much bigger than anything remotely near it, it’s modern in a way that most of the other tall buildings, with their all-masonry facades, are not. Here’s a close-up from December 1936:

Chrysler is on the right with the Queensboro Bridge behind, 30 Rock is on the far left. And finally, a portrait of the Empire State taken from not quite overhead in late 1937: