NEW YORK CITY and I could not have had a better matchmaker.
In 1979, sixteen years old, a timid product of a British all-boys private school, I arrived with my family in New York for the first time. I had never flown before and the astonishing rush of the plane taking off from Heathrow was still with me as I sat in the taxi hurtling along with what seemed an almost equivalent speed bound for Manhattan.
Elliot Willensky, architect, gadfly, cultural provocateur and co-author of the American Institute of Architects Guide to New York City, was our principle conductor for the week. My parents had first met Elliot in New York in the late ‘50s, when, tired of the gloom of a post-war Britain still enduring rationing, they had fled to New York for two years, living in a cold-water third-floor walk-up apartment on the Lower East Side. He and my father, also an architect, had worked together in the same offices on Fifth Avenue and become firm friends.
The AIA Guide, with its combination of uninhibited opinion—the Staten Island Ferry Terminal in Manhattan was “the world’s most banal portal to joy (a public rest room en route to Mecca)”—and eclecticism—forays into the depths of the outer boroughs deemed unworthy by previous guides—had quickly become a classic after its publication in 1967. It was certainly considered a holy text in our family, and my father clutched his personally inscribed copy from Elliot of the second, 1978, edition tightly upon arrival.
Tall, with large dark-framed glasses and sideburns (this was the ‘70s), Elliot emanated an extraordinary charisma when I met him in his Brooklyn Heights apartment. His face seemed constantly in motion—sly, gleeful, delighted—as he shared one marvel or absurdity after another about his beloved New York City. He had a collection of nine-volt batteries from around the world that he kept in a series of wooden frames on the mantelpiece, brightly colored little blocks which looked like buildings jumbled up next to each other, miniature streetscapes. I remember my astonishment, mixed with admiration, that his attention should have turned to something so apparently inconsequential.
This relish of the absurd and the overlooked was on particular display one memorable trip to the Ford Foundation Building on East 42nd Street, when he swept his English entourage imperiously up the stairs of an adjacent overpass then paused, shoulders heaving with laughter, in front of an NYPD poster taped to the wall:
“WARNING: THIS PREMISE IS REGULARLY PATROLLED BY POLICE OFFICERS.”
“This might be my favorite thing in New York,” he finally got out. “What I can’t figure out is whether they didn’t realize their mistake or thought, ‘Ah, screw it. They’ll never notice…’”
A few minutes later he swept us equally imperiously (New York was his, his footsteps sure) into the glorious plant-filled atrium of the Ford Foundation Building and I gaped in awe at this secret steel-framed oasis. Then it was on to lunch—Chinese—with Elliot making all the choices for us, and the mysteries of Chinatown.
Although I didn’t realize it then, New York was in what many considered its death throes. The city was still mired in debt and reeling from the sting of its infamous Presidential brush-off four years previously. The subway trains were covered in graffiti, whole neighborhoods (including where my parents had once lived) were drug-plagued no-go areas and the homicide stats were rising like an arrow.
For Elliot, though, it seemed the city was as unchanged as the post-war Eden of his Brooklyn childhood. Doubtless, aged sixteen, I was unaware of the subtleties of adult emotion, but still, there was something in his bravado that suggested no concessions to the pressing social ills of his surroundings. New York was a city to celebrate, not mourn.
Like Elliot, I also took things in my stride. On a car trip up to Times Square to see a movie, we drove past a body on the sidewalk covered in a sheet, surrounded by bored-looking cops; in the movie theater a vast cloud of marijuana smoke, sickly sweet, hung in the air above us, the product of a thousand glowing red tips. This was the natural state of things in New York, I understood, part of the scenery, like seeing mountains in Switzerland or artists in Paris.
My parents, on a visit by foot alone to their former home near Avenue B, encountered a similarly unnerving version of the city, though remembering the relatively benign one of their past, did not take it quite so much in their stride. The dark-clothed Polish men and women of their time had been replaced by hollow-eyed youths in leather jackets who eyed them menacingly from every corner. Outside their former building they plucked up the courage to ask if anyone remembered their old super, Mr. Bordow. An ancient man stared at them gravely. “Mr. Bordow moved to Florida,” he finally announced. “You folks should get out now.” My parents took his advice.
On our last day, Elliot took us on a trip to Roosevelt Island via the recently installed tramway, and we dangled together hundreds of feet over the East River on its gossamer-thin line. After that, and changing perspective nicely, we snaked out underground in the subway to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and stood on a hill surrounded by the handsome stone dwelling places of New York’s illustrious dead, while looking out into the distance at the sleek glass boxes of Manhattan’s illustrious living.
Elliot was good at making juxtapositions like that—the living and the dead, the underground and the overground, the minor comic note and the major beautiful one—and such a mixture still epitomizes for me the essence of this polyglot city that I have lived in now for almost 18 years.
For Elliot, if he didn’t plant the seed of my desire to live here, surely nurtured it, until, on a broiling hot day in July 1991, I finally moved here for good. I bought with me the new, 1988, third edition of the Guide, also inscribed by Elliot to my parents, and now swollen to over a thousand pages.
To our great shock, Elliot had died suddenly the year before, aged 56, from a heart attack. Like the assassination of JFK for a previous generation, I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news and selfishly mourned the fact this marvelous man would not be around to help induct me into his world. But I soon found that while he was physically gone his spirit remained. Almost daily, it seemed, I found myself, and still find myself, thinking happily: “What would Elliot make of this?”
And, of course, there remains the Guide. My father, on a visit a few years ago, quietly repossessed the third edition I had purloined, but shortly thereafter, in 2000, I consoled myself with the new fourth edition, a brick even thicker than its predecessor, edited by Norval White, Elliot’s friend and co-author of the series.
Now, with the appearance of the fifth edition—the manuscript completed just two weeks before the death of Norval White in December of last year with his new co-author, architect Fran Leadon—the Guide has clearly taken on a life of its own. While this fills me with pleasure, I am also saddened to think its original authors did not live to see it. In particular, I would love to know what Elliot would have made of the post-9/11, post-boom, post-gentrified version of his city. While I suspect he would not have approved, he would, I think, at least have been amused.