Monday, January 23, 2012

Geology Among Us

I walk by a boulder countless times a week on my way to and from my building on 114th and Riverside. Couched between the back of a Cuban restaurant and an apartment building, this huge chunk of rock rests innocuously behind a gated fence blocking the restaurant's storage entrance from the street. Many people walking by don't even register its presence; the iron fence obscures the rock's dark face. Two stories tall and 100 feet wide, the rock takes up what must be valuable Morningside Heights real estate.

Looking at photographs of the neighborhood from a century ago, there was much more open space to be developed. Hundreds of similar rocks must have been blasted to make way for the construction of the crowded blocks of today's New York, but for some reason this one was overlooked. According to a New York Times article, the rock was simply never removed in the course of the neighborhood's development. "'When the row houses were built around it in 1896, leaving the rock was no big deal because there were hundreds of acres to develop,'' said William Scott, vice president for institutional real estate at Columbia. 'But now, it's just this huge ugly rock in the middle of our neighborhood.'"

It serves as a reminder of what Manhattan looked like before we drastically altered its appearance. I mean no judgment in that statement, but I appreciate the two senses of the city evoked by the sight of the rock.

On one hand, Manhattan is defined by its city blocks, myriad stores and residences, and strictly delineated property lines. The rock on 114th is tamed by its iron fence, and made mundane by the stacks of beer kegs and trash cans lining its eastern side. On the other hand, this rock clearly renders unusable one of the most cherished commodities in the city - space. It reminds us that the nature that we cordon off in city parks was once all that Manhattan consisted of. Millions of years of geological time seep into our everyday experiences of New York. The city before human occupation is not gone, just buried under concrete in most places. But sites where its earlier form remains, like with this rock on 114th st., are not static reminders of the past. A tree grows out of one crack in the rock's street-facing surface, oblivious to the lack of greenery around it.

On a larger scale, it appears that every part of the city was intentionally placed, but when experienced on a day-to-day level each neighborhood and street reveals idiosyncrasies that fell through the cracks of urban planning. Walking by that boulder every day gives me a little twinge of delight, like I'm experiencing the land's response to human occupation.

Images from: The Fed, The Harlem Eye, Columbia College

Further information: NYTimes, The Fed

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