May 19, 1998
Essayist Roger Rosenblatt considers some New York City landmarks.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: The landmarks project of New York has been launched as part of this city's centennial celebrations. The project documents over 300 years of New York landmark buildings-apartment houses, fire houses, banks, schools, churches, restaurants, clubs--and honors the efforts at preserving them. The occasion includes photographic exhibits and symposia and the publication of a book, "The Landmarks of New York," by Barbara Lee Diamondstein Spielvogel. The book is an elegant chronicle of the desire of people to keep part of their past intact. This impulse is always applauded semiautomatically as a civic good, yet it goes against the currents of American thinking, of New York City thinking especially. Here is the city of surging ambition, forward progress, and built-in obsolescence. Change and replacement are its presiding muses, its reigning goddess's function. Landmarks are useless. Why preserve the useless? Ask that question and out trot the arguments that have occasionally prevailed over the years. Landmark buildings are tangible forms of history, and such things bring a special pleasure and education.
ACTOR: Keep your eyes closed. Trust me?
ACTRESS: I trust you.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Some people say that the success of the movie "Titanic" is due to the doomed love story of the two young people. But it was probably due more to the sight of the ship, the remarkable huge resurfaced landmark or seamark cutting confidently through the Atlantic. Then too landmarks are storehouses of human memory. In every stone and structure a life, many a life is traceable. And lives are made continuous, as well, connecting the present to the past and back again. So the imagination is peaked-there's another argument-and one is drawn into dreaming a short story or a novel of Old New York by the glimpse of a decorative archway, a door, a spire, a flight of steps.
The best argument for keeping landmark buildings intact may be no argument whatever, a reason that does not appeal to reason. Landmark buildings are useless, sublimely useless. For no reason but their appearance do we want to keep them around. In a way the project is ahead of the curve in its preservation of useless things. Eventually everyone becomes a useless thing. Uselessness is destined. So out of sync is uselessness in American culture that it almost has a revolutionary air. See the rebels in their motionless glory: PS-27 in the Bronx. Engine Company 252 in Brooklyn; the George Bowdoin Stables in Manhattan; the Free Magyar Reform Church on Staten Island; 12 West 109th Street in Harlem; the 7th Regiment Army Interior on Park Avenue; and the Green Point Bank; and the Loew's Paradise Movie Theater.
Talk about dreaming. What movie could compete with a house that portrayed the heavens and the unisphere from the 1964 World's Fair, a planet in Queens, a New York and an old world in perpetual, stationary orbit. Had all this stuff been knocked down and swept away, the alternative would have been nothing. When I was a kid, I used to walk to school past a building at 18th Street and 3rd Avenue. It was the oldest apartment house in New York, the very first. I had friends who lived there. Five stories, two apartments per floor, and anchored by brass and mahogany staircases that told even a kid he was in a special place. You know the rest. One day the wreckers came and knocked the building down, and it was replaced with a dreary and humanless joint behind me. One day there was the presence of beauty, the next the presence of absence. Unconsciously, the heart sinks at such events. Unconsciously, it soars at the sight of worthy things preserved-useless, lovely, indispensable. I'm Roger Rosenblatt.