March 6, 2009

The Walking Arcades of Midtown

Those of us with a flâneur sensibility go into throws of sophisticated excitement at the very sight of an arcade. I'm not talking about a shoot 'em up palace of games, but the kinds of passageways first built in Paris in the 19th century. Here, let me pass the mic over to Walter Benjamin, our greatest collective biographer, for a description of the early ones:

"An illustrated Paris guide said: 'These arcades, a new contrivance of industrial luxury, are glass covered, marble floored passages through entire blocks of houses, whose proprietors have joined forces in the venture. On both sides of these pass ages, which obtain their light from above, there are arrayed the most elegant shops, so that such an arcade is a city, indeed a world, in miniature'. The arcades were the setting for the first gas lighting." 1935 From The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin


When I arrived at the New York City Center on W. 55th this past Sunday for a performance of Paul Taylor's company, I spotted an arcade across the street, and exploring it (it was rather humble), I glimpsed a fairer one in the distance. So, yesterday, I returned to Midtown to explore these arcades, four of them, that link 51st Street with 55th Street. I began with the spacious one between 51st and 52nd and then walked north through the rest.

This area of Midtown, around the hotels and places in the Theatre District, between 6th Avenue and 8th Avenue, features several arcades. Although these arcades in particular are a little too cold and corporate for my taste, they nicely break up these long blocks for the benefit of pedestrians. In fact, together they make a nice short-cut from City Center to Radio City Music Hall, if one ever needed that sort of thing.


Many of these large arcades came into existence as a trade between corporate developers and the city. The city provided the private developer with financial incentives to create these public spaces.

"There was the pedestrian who wedged himself into the crowd, but there was also the flâneur who demanded elbow room and was unwilling to forego the life of the gentleman of leisure. His leisurely appearance as a personality is his protest against the division of labour which makes people into specialists. it was also his protest against their industriousness. Around 1840 it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades. The flâneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them." 1938 Walter Benjamin

A turtle. Charming.

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The images are in sequence. The arcades pictured above are between 6th and 7th Avenues. Top image: Equitable Life, between 51st and 52nd St. Middle: Flathotel, between 52nd and 53rd St. Bottom: between 53rd and 54th. Not shown: the small passageway between 54th and 55th. I'll be writing more about these types of places, including the famous Shubert Alley (44th-45th, between 7th and 8th). I rather like that one in the middle that looks like it's lined with gigantic pumpkins.

1 comment:

helen said...

This reminds me of when I worked in midtown and walked there from East Village. To vary the routine, I started looking for how many building lobbies I could cut through. That, of course, is no longer possible.