Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Really Greater New York

On a website of ‘Strange Maps’, I came across an early nineteenth century image of a distorted and bloated Manhattan. The title of the particular post, “A Really Greater New York,” explores a 1911 proposal for the expansion of New York City by Dr. T Kennard Thompson, a consulting engineer and urban planner. The proposal called for the reclamation of 50 miles of land from the New York City Bay and East River. If carried out, the water dividing Manhattan and Brooklyn would be non-existent and the 5-mile distance between Staten Island and Manhattan would be significantly lessened.

Through some more searching, I was able to find Dr. Lennard’s radical proposal in an issue of Popular Science Monthly from 1916. In the volume he propounds, “New York’s City Hall would become the center of a really greater New York. Having a radius of twenty five miles, and… ample room for a population of twenty-five million, the entire project would be carried out in a few years.”

Now of course this idea was never realized, but for a few fleeting moments I was overcome with images of ‘imagine if’. Imagine if the Empire State Building was never constructed because it was never necessary or imagine if the Brooklyn Bridge was razed to the ground. I was left considering what was laden in this realm of possibility of “A Really Greater New York”? And to what extent would our collective memory of New York have been altered?

I also recently stumbled upon a series of photos from 1960s New York City. The Mad Men-esque photographs signify an actualized, but now defunct image of Manhattan. Vibrant Images of classic yellow cabs, women in voluminous skirts and cat eye-glasses, buildings cloaked in adverts of a bygone era, all trigger feelings of nostalgia. Once again I was flooded with imagined memories. In my mind’s eyes, I was watching a woman ever so coolly take a drag from a cigarette and another blissfully soak up the sun on a busy street corner.

These evocative images, one a map of a proposed future, the other of snapshot of the past, seem an index to situate us in the present and a stimuli for the proliferation of memories. Memories of this sort Mary Warnock argues, reifies the past as continuous with the present and effectively allows us to live through it (949). And it is by reliving a memory that we experience the pleasure and sense of creativity that lies within the historical imagination (949). Viewing these pictures (you can see the larger images on the websites) are a wonderful exercise in historical imagination. How does one imagine past and possible future in the present? What can we learn about individual and collective memory/imagination by such an exercise?


Mary Warnock, "Memory: The Triumph Over Time"

Popular Science Monthly Volume 88, "A Really Greater New York"

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