I always find it interesting to revisit a good book or a favorite movie. I’ve read Giovanni’s Room three or four times; I can’t count the times I’ve seen Steel Magnolias, Wonder Boys, or Grey Gardens. And each time it’s different. I mean, the text is the same; the movie hasn’t changed at all. But I have. Different sections or turns of phrase stand out; I see things and hear dialogue and notice details and techniques that have escaped me in the past, even though they’ve always been there. It just took more time, a fresh perspective — perhaps new expectations — in order for me to see them, or for them to mean something this time around. That’s how I felt when I went to New York City last weekend for the U.S. Open. On Saturday afternoon I went on a family excursion on a Circle Line Tour. We went down the Hudson past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty before circling around past Ground Zero and back to the dock. It was a beautiful day and a nice 75 minute tour. While on the boat I started thinking about the difference between going to New York, or being in New York, and seeing New York. I’ve been to New York many times: to see plays, visit friends, spend Thanksgiving. I’m not a New Yorker, so always to some extent I’m wearing my tourist glasses and wandering around in various stages of awe. I’ve seen the city of New York numerous times, too: flying in, driving in, from the train as it loops out of the city through Queens, from the water, and of course wandering the streets up and down Manhattan and in parts of Brooklyn. But last weekend, looking at the city from the Hudson, it was the first time that I’d looked on this familiar scene and seen the old wooden water towers that dot the skyline. I had never noticed them before. And not only are they everywhere, but they’re beautiful.
I love how anachronistic they are — these “rickety shingled water towers,” tokens of 19th century technology, sitting on top of buildings in one of the most modern, advanced cities on the planet. It’s such a contradiction in terms, wandering this vast metropolis and looking up to see these old beat up wooden tanks stacked up in the sky. I was fascinated by the water towers, and even though I knew I must not be alone in my fascination, I had never heard a single thing about them.
A little poking around turns up some basic info. about them, one factoid of which was both disappointing and not at all surprising: they’ve apparently gained something of a chic factor, such that they are actually required to be placed on top of all buildings in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, whether they’re being used or not! You can hear about that and more on this NPR piece from 2006.
It’s amazing how such a simple new discovery can change an entire landscape. I saw New York City in a completely different way this go-round. Makes me wonder what I’ll see next time I’m there!