Workday Views of Sky and Street
MY new office is on top of a food warehouse in downtown Manhattan. The first 14 floors of our building on Varick Street are filled with pasta, prosciutto, salami, cheese, olive oil, smoked fish, p^ate, and other delights. We are on the 15th floor. From my desk I see one river (the Hudson), two states (New York and New Jersey), three boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens), and many of the city's architectural landmarks (the World Financial Center, the World Trade Center, the Woolworth Building, the Municipal Building, and looking north, the Empire State, Chrysler, and Citicorp buildings).
The views are so magnificent, both day and night, that I find myself getting to the office earlier in the morning and staying later in the evening. They energize me, and surprisingly, add to my concentration rather than detract from it.
Choosing an office involves basic lifestyle decisions. The nature of my job - working with law firms to provide free legal services to poor people - suggests selecting an office in midtown around 42nd Street near many of the major law firms. But midtown happens to be the most congested and expensive part of New York City.
Instead, I chose Tribeca, an area south of Canal Street near the Hudson River. By comparison, it is bucolic. Just how bucolic is evidenced by our closest neighbor, a stable with 20 New York City Police Department horses. The other day the sidewalk was blocked by a truck from upstate New York delivering hay. The pace of life is leisurely; the setting is 19th century, with low red brick buildings and cobblestone streets.
The views of Manhattan's skyline won me over to the new space. I had told our real-estate broker that sun and sky were essential. One spends a third, or more, of each day at the office. No one wants to look out on a shaftway!
I have lived in New York City a long time. A number of the buildings I see from my new office have, over the years, become an important part of my life.
To the southeast is the Woolworth Building. Across the street from this building in City Hall Park each evening over a hundred homeless people gather to receive a sandwich, soup, fruit, and milk. Then they disperse to spend the night under the Brooklyn Bridge, or in subway stations. Along with other volunteers, I hand out food on Wednesday nights. In the midst of misery, the illuminated Woolworth Building stands as a beacon in the darkness; and so, perhaps, does our food program, carried out by volun teers seven nights a week, 365 days a year.
To the east I see the Criminal Courts Building at Centre Street. From time to time, I visit the court pens where large numbers of people are confined under harsh conditions awaiting court arraignment. On this single New York City block the problems of urban America are painfully evident. The homeless sleep outside Housing Court.
Across the street, the Department of Correction buses leave for the city jail on Rikers Island, carrying accused criminals and drug dealers. This is not what Katherine Lee Bates had in mind when she wrote in ``America, the Beautiful,'' ``Thine alabaster cities gleam/ Undimmed by human tears!''
Also to the east, I see the old New York Life Insurance Company building, with its square clock tower, designed by McKim, Mead & White. On this block, at Broadway and Leonard Street, took place an important literary event in our nation's history.
ON March 5, 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a lecture at the New York Society Library on the topic ``The Poet.'' In the audience was a young man, age 23, living precariously as a newspaper reporter, named Walt Whitman. Emerson asked whether ``poetry is possible in the present time.'' He then went on to say, with more prescience than he realized, ``The genius of poetry is here.'' To doubt that America's poet would yet appear ``is to doubt of day and night.''
Thirteen years later, Whitman sent to Emerson, to whom he was still a stranger, an unsolicited copy of ``Leaves of Grass.'' Emerson read it and wrote to Whitman: ``I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that America has yet contributed.... I greet you at the beginning of a great career....''
The city I see from my office windows is a place of great contrast: beauty and human attainment, alongside suffering and despair.