Hidden New York Revealed With 80,000 Photos in Latest AIA Guide

AIA Guide to New York City
The cover jacket of the book "AIA Guide to New York City" by Norval White, Elliot Willensky and Fran Leadon. Source: Oxford University Press via Bloomberg

Fran Leadon, an authority on New York City byways, wore out four pairs of shoes tramping as much as 20 miles a day to update the classic “AIA Guide to New York City.”

“I love discovering these quiet corners of New York,” Leadon said as I joined him recently on a city walk, referring to a quiet enclave of vine-clad 19th-century row houses called Vinegar Hill. It missed out on the boom decade’s wave of gentrification that seems to have swallowed up much of Brooklyn.

We had walked just a couple of blocks from newly transformed loft buildings in the borough’s Dumbo neighborhood. They tuck under the spectacular (and ear-splitting) approaches to the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. The street has a high-end children’s store and the Jacques Torres Chocolate shop.

The AIA guide, sponsored by the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, is a 1,055-page love letter to the city. It obsessively details the greatness of well-known neighborhoods, while luring the reader to bucolic corners of Staten Island and the hidden Art Deco grandeur of the Bronx.

Leadon, who helped update the work of the original authors, the late Norval White and Elliot Willensky, had the daunting task of reflecting the biggest explosion of development in New York since the 1950s. He says he took 80,000 photographs.

Since the last edition, 10 years ago, glassy residential towers have sprung up all over Manhattan -- yet more surprisingly along the East River’s edge in Queens and in downtown Brooklyn. New life seeped into almost every corner of the city in spite of the destruction of the World Trade Center’s twin towers in 2001, when many thought the terror attacks would stunt the urban revival of the 1990s.

New New York

Along with the rise, fall and tentative rebirth of Ground Zero, Leadon includes the Meatpacking district’s collection of buildings by big-name architects -- Gehry, Nouvel, Gwathmey, Shigeru Ban -- that huddle along or teeter over the wildly popular High Line Park. He’s frequently skeptical of the new New York, saying of his comments in the new edition, “The tone is more pointed.”

He documents the robust renovation that has energized the neighborhoods all around the planned Atlantic Yards megadevelopment. “None of these areas were in the last edition of the guide,” he said. The riches he uncovers explode the argument that Forest City Ratner’s contentious project was needed as an antidote to blight.

Artisanal boutiques for hipsters, glassy condos for young professionals, and dour masonry apartment blocks with metal-grate balconies for the Hasidic Jewish community coexist (if not always happily) in a heady mix in once humble Williamsburg. Leadon will have you wandering the forested hills of Staten Island where picturesque villages of ramshackle mansions survive amid the stamped-out tract-house acres.

‘Cocktail Cabinet’

The small type and some 7,000 entries can seem intimidating at first, but ample illustrations draw you into the guide’s rich mosaic. Leadon adds his own acerbic assessments to the witty comments and bad puns he inherited. In the guide he compares the Standard Hotel that looms over the High Line Park to an “open cocktail cabinet in concrete.”

Happily, the book points out eateries, flea markets and other respites from the neck-craning scrutiny of floral stone garlands and bright terra cotta zigzags.

“I wanted to keep the tone of earlier editions, which were clearly written by someone walking around and living in the city,” Leadon said.

Reflecting New Yorkers’ greater nostalgia for the past -- perhaps an inevitable response to an era of great change -- Leadon offers extensive “necrologies”: entries describing beloved demolished buildings.

Greek Revival

To find that rare temple-fronted Greek Revival hidden on a side street, you’ll traverse commercial streets where a miasma of smells and brightly colored signs in dozens of languages have spruced up trash-strewn neighborhoods once left for dead. Art Deco apartment buildings and leafy row-house streets in vast swaths of the city now stand proudly restored.

You can be sure that intrepid urban preservationists rediscovered them thanks to this monumental guide.

The “AIA Guide to New York City” is from Oxford University Press (1,055 pages, $39.95). To order this book in North America, click here.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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