In a city of giants, the Empire State Building is not the tallest, not by long shot, but it has a perfect location for contemplating this moment in time.
And it, itself, is the perfect symbol of New York City’s transition into the modern age, and maybe the nation’s, too.
Because like the city that spawned me, that spawned my father and gave his father a place to become something other than a village peasant of the Russian Jewish variety…
…the Empire State Building arose from a dream that we have dreamed for many ages but never quite made sense: that man’s rationality and the force of sheer masculine will could tame the passion and chaos of nature, make it bend to his desires, and mold itself in his image.
Its development was the swan song of an extraordinary New Yorker named Al Smith, whose rise from utter poverty in the dark corners of the Lower East Side to the halls of state power in Albany is the American myth itself,
…and whose meteoric political career crashing into the cliffs of anti-immigrant hatred when he tried to take a larger stage reflects the mercurial story of New York, and at times, the United States, too.
The project was the brainchild of John J. Roskob, an affable, unstoppable former GM executive who witnessed his friend Al Smith’s despair and proffered the Empire State as a ticket to mutual redemption:
A permanent place in an iconic skyline, one that would transform the neighborhood nearby and become a rival seat of commerce to the midtown cluster 3/4 of a mile to the northeast.
Only half the dream came true: the Empire State, finished near a low point of the Great Depression, was a commercial disaster.
Too far a walk from the trains at Penn Station and Grand Central and the busses of Port Authority, the collapsed economy and the millions of commuters that swarm the island from Jersey and Connecticut and Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx weren’t having it.
The action the Empire State coveted was in Midtown, and the new kid on the block didn’t have the right zip code.
But to this day, the building remains the icon of Manhattan. After the Twin Towers fell, it had no rival, and still doesn’t.
Its isolated location may have doomed the enterprise commercially, but it left the tower with a perfect panoramic view of the entire Tri-State area.
There may quite literally be nothing in the world like it: standing on the Mezzanine platform at Twilight in the Spring or Summer, watching dusk settle over the city, the lights of the office buildings peeking into the wisps of daylight, and the radiance of the structures just before they take the hue of a night sky visible in equal measure.
From there, no matter which direction you point your gaze, the curtain of noise and wildness and intensity of the street lifts, revealing themselves for what they are: the rhythmic dance of chaos and order, the dream of urban America itself, imperfect and perfect, messy and beautiful, man’s fantasy made real…at least for now.
In this age of glass and steel and empty storefronts lining Bleecker Street, Broadway on the Upper West Side, and midtown 5th Avenue, shielding some of the city’s wealthiest land owners from New York City’s overburdened tax code…
…Al Smith’s and John Roskob’s boondoggle swan song remains our greatest monument to the moment in time, since diminished, when the United States and New York City still harbored no doubts in their abilities to remake the whole world in the image of the superior man.
What becomes of those dreams in this, our moment of epochal transition?
Will we honor the full legacy of the past and each other with the gentle grace of nostalgia and the tears of forgiveness and mercy or will the causes of salvation and redemption lose the day, leading the angry and hurting and heartbroken among us to tear it all down?
The Empire State Building, like the city that hosts it, that hosted my childhood, and my father’s before me, the dream of infinite possibility that I love so much, tells the story of the hubris and brilliance and idealism and fantasy and reality of America itself: a contradiction that may or may not resolve itself gently, but within which rests the essence of the human story itself.
All the light and all the dark. The order of chaos and the chaos of order. Man against nature and the nature of man against itself.
As construction workers polished the final touches on Shreve, Lamb, & Harmon’s design, America had unmistakably fallen from its self-imagined state of grace.
The clouds of war gathered over Europe and the Far East, and men in hats and suits roamed the streets of the city, looking for jobs, scraps, and a place to put their wounded pride.
What becomes of the Empire State Building In this, a dawning new age, where the old boundaries have again dissolved and none of us can yet say with any confidence what that foretells?
This building’s story, in this moment, feels like it has again become the whole world’s.