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The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center


As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers.

Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020.

Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.  

Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020.

Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been frequently occupied, as in Occupied, with crowds protesting police violence. This week, NYPD officers in riot gear removed an encampment at Occupy City Hall, echoing the clearing of Zucchotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011.   
 
Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020.

Of course, the pandemic explains the absence of people in the otherwise famously crowded places of New York City. In normal times, commuters, visitors, and shoppers would converge in Grand Central Terminal through all hours of the day and night. In the pandemic summer of 2020, however, many office workers are staying at home. Some companies have told workers to stay home for the year or to never come back to the office. 

OneVanderbilt, 42nd Street.

Ironically, fourteen stories below the vaulted terminal, work continues on the East Side Access, a decades-long project that will extend the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) to Grand Central via eight rails on two levels. Above the terminal, the 67-floor One Vanderbilt skyscraper hastens to completion, part of an overall plan to increase density in this part of Midtown. The office building will include dining facilities, an observation deck, and access to the terminal. So while these urban developments converge, the city and state struggles to fight a virus that thrives on such density. 

Fortitude, one of a pair of lions flanking the steps of the New York Public Library's main branch. The other lion is Patience. Both are wearing masks.

A travel advisory currently in place for the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) discourages visitors from many other US states. To keep New York on course for containing the pandemic after the tragic loss of life in the spring, the current rules mandate filling out a traveler health form and a quarantine period for those arriving from certain states. This week, more than 30 states are on the list. Also, New Yorkers are subject to the same rules if they choose to leave and come back. 

The NYPL is also highlighting the Schomburg Center's Black Liberation Reading List.

The 65 million tourists from 2018 are gone, as reported this week in The New York Times. (article) In addition to the plunge in the tourist industry, many city dwellers may not feel comfortable venturing outside their neighborhoods, if they have the choice. Going far translates into riding mass transit, which presents a risk. Mitigating the risk may involve choosing to travel early in the day, taking trains or buses likely to be less busy, and taking the necessary personal precautions like wearing a mask, using hand sanitizer, and maintaining social distancing. (All followed here in the course of this adventure.) 

Bryant Park, with the lawn closed

The city also feels lonesome because many places have closed or slow to reopen. Green spaces and parks do attract local residents and workers, because trees offer shade and the spaces necessary for social distancing. 
 
Bryant Park in the shade

Bryant Park, surrounded by now quiet office buildings and the New York Public Library’s main branch, offers regular activities, many for children. The library is closed, though grab-and-go service is currently available at eight library locations.

Outside the 42nd Street entrance of the NYPL, looking east with the Chrysler Building in the distance

Where parks offer trees and shade, the streets and avenues offer few comforts or diversions, especially in the summertime heat. It was muggy this day, with fierce thunderstorms in the afternoon and evening. 

Fifth Avenue, looking north, between W. 48th and W. 49th Streets

Gaze upon these blocks of Fifth Avenue in the upper 40s, and behold Saks Fifth Avenue and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the distance, two pillars of this normally busy avenue. Both are open, waiting for shoppers and worshippers with generous pockets. 

Prometheus at the Rockefeller Center Rink

At Rockefeller Center, the scene was equally surreal this Wednesday summer morning. Why am I here? I feel compelled to document the city as it goes through this moment, this pause. The city is changing in profound ways, a watershed moment between before and after. I often think about the documentary photographers of the 1930s and how they contributed to our understanding of their times. 
 
Over the shoulder of the masked Prometheus. Rockefeller Center.

Even bronze gods wear masks. On Fifth Avenue, Atlas wears a mask as he holds heaven on his shoulders. So does Prometheus at the skating rink, as he steals the fire. 

Masked Youth. Rockefeller Center.

Paul Manship’s sculptures, Maiden and Youth, don masks as well. 

The Rink, with outside dining area, Rockefeller Center.

The masked figures are also a good reminder for their guests. The Rink has been repurposed for safe distance dining, with offerings from Alidoro, City Winery, Makina Truck, Other Half Brewing Company, and the Rainbow Room. The summer configuration extends through September 1.

Inside 30 Rock

Inside 30 Rockefeller Plaza (“30 Rock”), another surreal scene awaits, but this time with air conditioning, one amplified by the cool sleek Art Deco interiors. So otherworldly this space, I spent time gazing at the American Progress mural in the lobby and imagining Diego Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads, the controversial mural it replaced. No one distracted me from my 1930s reveries.

Rockefeller Plaza

Leaving 30 Rock, I marveled at the surroundings and what the future might hold. 

W. 50th Street, with Radio City Music Hall.

I asked a staff member when Top of the Rock would open again.* We talked about the Empire State Building and how it reopened on Monday. No one is sure about anything, we agreed. As long as this pause lasts, and the longer it lasts, no one is sure what happens next.

I miss the city. I enjoyed seeing Patience and Fortitude, the lions at the New York Public Library, and Prometheus at the Rink. Did I feel safe? Yes. Look at the pictures. Did I feel lonesome? Sometimes, yes, but walking tends to quicken the senses and can improve a down mood. Stay in the moment. Be amazed. Take things in stride.

Update: Top of the Rock will reopen Thursday, August 6. Purchase tickets in advance. More at official website.
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Walking notes: I made a strategic plan before setting out, complete with a goal (to see the masked statues) and tactics for getting there and back (via mass transportation). For this walk, I took an express Metro-North Hudson line train to Grand Central Terminal departing the Marble Hill station at around 9:12 am. I arrived at Grand Central in 22 minutes. I walked for about an hour before hopping on a D train at Rockefeller Center for the ride uptown. I was home for lunch.        


Images from Wednesday, July 22, 2020 from 9:40 am to 10:45 am. 

Related posts:
A Morning Walk from Pandemic Station to Pandemic Square (Penn Station to Times Square) July 8, 2020

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