Scaffolding depresses me beyond reason. To me, it is as aesthetically pleasing as barbed wire fencing. I have decided that I have some unnamed disorder that experiences physical revulsion at the sight of the massive structures. I suppose that is why I felt so disappointed during my recent visit to New York City. When I say that Manhattan looked like a 12-year-old with a mouth full of metal, I am not exaggerating.
As a person who lives in suburban Philadelphia, I must admit that my only real knowledge of New York comes from Sex and the City and the few class trips I took to the Big Apple. I am almost embarrassed to admit that I live so close to the cultural center of the world and I have made so few attempts to experience all that it has to offer. Once though, I did take a day trip with my now deceased mother to see the Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall. It was in 2000 – before 9-11, before she was sick, before I was married with my own children. I remember the day as being magical. We did everything that a good tourist does in December in New York. We went to Rockefeller Center, we shopped at Macy’s, we visited Bergdorf Goodman’s just to use the restrooms.
The experience that I remember most fondly about that trip with my mother was going to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I recall coming up Fifth Avenue and being in awe of the beauty and the strength of the architecture of the church. We prayed there, we lit candles, we bought souvenirs. To this day, I have a framed picture of the cathedral hanging in my living room that I bought from a vendor on the street. I keep it there to remind me of how completely happy my mother was that day. She, like me, had little experience with New York, and I know that she felt like a different, more confident person during our very brief visit. She was in the most fascinating city in the world, and she felt emboldened by its vitality.
My recent trip to New York was in honor of my daughter’s ninth birthday. All she wanted this year was to go to the Empire State Building and walk around the city. Even though her birthday fell right after our return from a very long road trip to Washington DC and Charleston, SC, I agreed to take a day excursion to New York so she could have her birthday wish. Another reason that I agreed to take her to the city is because she might be the most grateful child on the planet. My daughter’s eyes light up in wonder at just about anything novel to her, so I knew that this trip would be as much a gift to me as it would be to her.
I was very excited to take her to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and tell her all about the time I went there with her Nanny. We were sidetracked by quite a few shops on Fifth Avenue, but finally we made it up to 50th street. Well, I must say, my daughter’s eyes did not light up – she did not even know that she was looking at a church. Almost the entire outside of the cathedral was covered in scaffolding. I was already upset by all of the other landmarks barely made visible as a result of renovation and construction (Carnegie Hall, the September 11th Memorial, etc.), but I nearly cried with disappointment when we visited St. Patrick’s. Even the inside of the church was marred by the menace of the metal. I think that she did enjoy visiting the Cathedral, but I couldn’t help but feel robbed of a more picturesque memory of our pilgrimage.
This kind of unexpected disappointment also happened to me when we visited other places this year. In DC, I envisioned us all having a Forest Gump moment when we visited the Washington Monument. In reality, the monument was still closed because of last year’s earthquake, and the reflecting pool was closed off and emptied due to renovation. Instead of us marveling at the majesty of the monument’s site, we were disappointed by the reinforcements surrounding the marble tower and the brown dirt of the drained pool. In the spring, we went to Ellis Island. We could not go to the Statue of Liberty because she was being renovated too. As we sailed by the beacon of hope on the ferry, I felt saddened by the disarray created by the scaffolding around her base and the mounds of dirt everywhere we looked. Maybe I have just picked a very bad year to go sight-seeing, but throughout my life, my many visits to Philadelphia have always left me a bit crestfallen too. (City Hall perpetually bothers me. It seems to be constantly under construction. Does it upset anyone else that since Billy Penn’s tower was restored decades ago, the building has remained two-toned? I really would have preferred that the edifice had stayed one color – soot gray.)
I am not sure what my despondency at encountering these decaying sites reveals about me – I hope that it does not make me seem shallow. I know that a city is much more than its structures. The beauty of a city lies within the people and its culture, but I can’t help but think of the Ozymandias-nature of the architecture of these places. To me, these buildings are unsettling reminders that old Eastern cities are full of beautiful grand gestures from past generations who had visions of contributing permanent marvels, but in reality, the structures will continually depend on ugly scaffolding if they are to survive. The inevitable decay was not considered in the original vision.
When I look at the landscape of a city, I realize that there was never a time when it was at its best. It is always evolving and many would say improving, but I guess the chaos of it all is not for me. I have had my fill of despairing at mighty works this year. Maybe when St. Patrick’s is fully restored, I will visit it again – that is if its marble is of a uniform color.