Sunday, January 08, 2006

Emerald Cities

A fellow was traveling to Boston on business. He wasn't going to be free during the day, so he asked for advice on what to see in the city after sunset. I suggested the bridge.

I suppose it wasn't the most exciting suggestion. If you've just finished an eight-hour day spent in a stuffy conference room, you can probably conceive a few sexier ideas than hopping into a cab and declaring, "To the bridge, driver!" So I also pointed him to a few other stops, including Wally's, Quincy Market, and the North End.

But I think part of the fun in visiting another city is seeing the architecture that defines it. Those are the sights I remember. And maybe it's a trivial thought; but when I watch a movie or read a book, and the story is set in a city I've seen, being able to visualize its landmarks anchors me into that setting.

It's part of the reason why I don't fly. (Mostly, I abhor airports.) I usually drive. It's an investment into the trip; the memories of baggage claim and airline food lack the resonance of watching landscapes and mileage markers tick past. And dropping into the middle of a city, relying on subways and taxicabs to ferry you through a few districts, lacks the poignancy of stumbling your way through bridges and tunnels.

I've been to Montréal a few times. I won a few thousand dollars in the casino and had a few great meals at Da Emma and Pizziaole. Those are great memories. But when I think about Montréal, the city I remember seeing the outside of the casino and the Biosphere along the skyline at night, or cruising the main stretch of rue Sainte-Catherine (and maybe the oddity of highway speed limits in residential areas on the outskirts of Quebec).

Manhattan is always a party; but it's sweeter for having earned it with a five-hour drive through the traffic on the FDR, winding around one-way streets lined with mile-high buildings. I've been to Montréal a few times, and I've won a few grand and had great meals at Da Emma and Pizziaole; but when I think about the city, I remember its skyline, the international symmetry of the Casino standing opposite the Biosphere. (The former was built as the French pavilion for the 1967 World's Fair; the latter was the US pavilion.)

Restaurants and clubs, museums and concerts, these are great experiences in their own right; but in a very real sense, a city's character is established by its architecture. Everything else aside, possibly the most incredible aspect of Manhattan is standing in the middle of Rockefeller Center and thinking, "Before we landed here, this island was a forest."


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