Rebecca Solnit is a writer I’ll follow anywhere. A few years ago, she produced an atlas of San Francisco that just called to my old geographer’s heart. Infinite City was followed by Unfathomable City, in which she teamed up with Rebecca Snedeker for an atlas of New Orleans. Now she and the wonderfully named Joshua Jelly-Schapiro have produced Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas. (Each of these volumes, on cities which are both quintessentially American and un-American, are ensemble works with many collaborators.)
In introducing the latest, Solnit writes “A city is a machine with innumerable parts made by the accumulation of human gestures, a colossal organism forever dying and being born, an ongoing conflict between memory and erasure, a center for capital and for attacks on capital, a rapture, a misery, a mystery, a conspiracy, a destination and point of origin, a labyrinth in which some are lost and some find what they’re looking for, and argument about how to live, and evidence that differences don’t always have to be resolved, though they may grate and grind against each other for centuries.”
And they do inspire you to do your own mapping, the streets you walk, the reach of your eyes from the moraine.
For instance, consider the city as an avian nesting, roosting, and perching space. House Sparrows in every stoplight cross-tube, Rock Doves under bridges, awnings, cornices. The human architecture of the city provides the necessary nooks and crannies. The decay of certain aspects fosters some species, for instance Kestrels, who nest in cavities. (Architects could incorporate even more such spaces intentionally in new buildings.)
The Peregrine scrapes on bridges and buildings, including Brooklyn’s House of Dentention. This year I heard about a Red-tailed Hawk nest on a fire-escape. Usually the Red-tails use trees, but Fifth Avenue apartment buildings of billionaires and university libraries of millionaires’ children are known to host them as well. And then there are the backyards.
If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you know that I’ve been blessed to live in two different neighborhoods with tall church spires that are regular raptor perches. Peter & Paul in Cobble Hill was a very reliable place to see Peregrines, probably the ones from the nearby prison. St. Michael’s in my new neighborhood of Sunset Park has a flat topped cross that is a virtual butcher’s block for Peregrines.
St. Augustine in Park Slope: Kestrels. St. Agnes in Carroll Gardens: Red-tails. But also these massive antennas: the FDNY tower next to the BBG: Peregrines. Bishop Ford High School: Red-tails (a pair recently), Peregrines. You may have your favorites, too.
Brooklyn was once the “City of Churches” because there were so many of them and because they stood out of what was largely a low-rise place into the 20th century. The building boom of the last generation, which has thrown up so many generic glass towers, too many of shoddy quality, has done much to muddy the borough’s horizon. But there are still spires from which raptors can command all before them. Indeed, there are churches on which I’ve never seen a raptor, and that strikes me as positively weird.November 4, 7pm.