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Five Boroughs in 48 Hours

When Dwell proposed that I undertake a design writing variant of Supermarket Sweep—visiting five projects in five boroughs in two days—I had a single thought: Why me?

The New York City subway crisscrosses the five boroughs, linking all but Staten Island.

Getting five sets of interviewees to stay put while I ran around a vast, unpredictable metropolis seemed like a stunt that was bound to fail. Yet the idea was irresistible. Such a tour would draw me through the city’s infrastructure, its trains, roadways, and streets, sharpening my understanding of how the great urban machine holds together. I live in New York for its variety, yet I spend my days shuttling between the same few places in Manhattan; here was a chance to really see my hometown, to apprehend its sweep and multiplicity in a compressed way that would amplify both. And let’s face it: New Yorkers like a challenge—especially one that tests them against their city. This promised to be a good one.


  • “When I first thought of moving to Harlem, I looked at a map,” says Ryall. “The island’s about 210 blocks long, I’m near 110th Street—I thought, ‘It’s right in the center of Manhattan.’”


    Like many white people of a certain age, I first visited Harlem by mistake. I took the wrong subway and barely got out of the station: First one guy, then another, tried to shove me down the stairs. Thirty-two years later, walking past the gourmet markets, wine shops, and chain drugstores that are the sine qua non of change, I am struck by the Asians and Caucasians on their way to work, none scurrying with the head-down haste of the unwelcome. Harlem may still be the global capital of the African Diaspora, yet no court could have integrated it as efficiently as the lure of affordable Manhattan real estate. Nowadays, everyone takes the A train.

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    The 84-block trip south to Times Square is surprisingly speedy. But when I transfer to the 7 for the journey to Flushing–Main Street, its final stop, time slows. The train becomes elevated after entering Queens, rattling over a low-rise sprawl of dirt lots, gas stations, big-box stores, and midrise mid-century apartment blocks, and mile after mile of graffitied rooftops. It’s an interminable yet hypnotic transit the passengers endure with a very un–New York–like stoicism.

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    Twenty-nine years after Robert Moses’s death, the mixed legacy of New York’s über–urban planner remains inescapable. I feel it acutely when, after a long ride on the F that loops me into Brooklyn and a stroll past the magisterial 40-foot-deep front lawns of Carroll Gardens, I cross a footbridge over the six-lane trench of Moses’s notorious Brooklyn-Queens Expressway—which, in addition to bringing noise and pollution, cast Red Hook, on the expressway’s other side, into isolation. Indeed, when I descend from the bridge, the milieu changes markedly: There are houses interspersed with weedy lots and light industry, signs warning of rat poison.

  • The tall vegetation surrounding Carrie Grassi, Freshkills Park land-use and outreach manager, grows atop what was formerly the world’s largest landfill: 150 tons of (mostly) garbage, accumulated over more than half a century.

    Staten Island

    While my appreciation of New York’s 24-7 public transit system remains immeasurable, I am pleased, as day two begins, to catch a ride in a Parks Department Jeep to Staten Island. Within an hour, I am standing atop South Mound with Carrie Grassi, Freshkills Park land-use and outreach manager, looking at what will be—following a 30-year build-out based on landscape architect James Corner’s master plan—New York’s next great park.

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    Two hours later, revivified by a pair of conga players’ exuberant performance on the 2 train, I hustle out at the corner of Third Avenue and East 149th in the South Bronx, once an international symbol of urban blight. A man hands me a postage-stamp-size pamphlet titled “Messiah Is the Prince of Peace”; another, buying a bag of roasted nuts, offers directions to the Brook in a gregarious voice, looking pleased. is your online home in the modern world. Join us as we follow our team around the globe on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. Want more? Never miss another word of Dwell with our free iTunes app.


interesting and evocative without the usual verbosity of most dwell articles. i enjoyed it!