Written by Clyde Haberman
Richard F. Shepard, as keen and joyful a chronicler of New York as ever graced the pages of the Times, had simple advice for anyone out and about on the city streets. Look up, he said. Look especially at second-floor windows above storefronts. That, he liked to say, is where a lot of absorbing action takes place. Why would a perambulating soul wish to miss any of it?
One can imagine Shepard shaking his head at many of today’s New Yorkers. He died in 1998, so he never held an iPhone or, I’m willing to bet, any of its forerunners. But there’s little question that he would have found something hollow about this smartphone age, when so many people routinely violate the Shepard rule, New Yorkers being no exception. At any given moment, thousands of them are so focused on their little screens that they fail to look up. Truly, they don’t know what they’re missing.
Plenty has been written about the perils of modern electronic devices, real or feared: They’re rewiring brains. They’re shortening attention spans. They’re killing dinner-table conversation. They’re disrupting sleep patterns. They’re addictive. A somewhat ungainly word came into being a decade ago: nomophobia — short for “no mobile phone phobia” — meaning a fear of being without one’s phone, or at least without juice or network coverage.
But there’s a more basic failing that is apparent every day in a great walking city, be it London, Paris, Rome, San Francisco, Boston or, for our purposes, New York. The frailty is inattentiveness. What’s the point of navigating the metropolis if you ignore the very sights that give urban life its verve?
If you don’t look up, you won’t see the splendour that is the top of the Woolworth Building. Or sense the small-town flavour of City Island in the Bronx. Or admire the patience and fortitude of the New York Public Library. Or take glee in a child’s exploring the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Or appreciate the easy elegance of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, or of the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, or of the High Line, or of the entrance to the Astor Place subway station. Or, or, or.
You will surely be heedless of ghosts of an older New York that haunt the sides of some brick buildings — faded advertising signs for long-gone toothpaste brands, furniture makers and (gasp) corsets.
In all likelihood, you will sail blindly past the improbable wedge that is the Flatiron Building, by Madison Square Park. Fran Leadon, an architect who in 2018 published a history of Broadway — the street, not the theatre district — describes the Flatiron in its early years at the start of the 20th century. It created patterns of strong winds that sent hats flying and blew women’s dresses upward in a most unseemly way. Buildings erected later in that neighbourhood moderated the wind gusts, now “rarely strong enough to lift a skirt,” Leadon writes. Then again, he adds knowingly, “And with everyone’s eyes glued on digital devices, no one would notice anyway.”
Americans who have reached what is sometimes cloyingly referred to as a certain age may remember the old “Adventures of Superman” television series, with its signature opening, “Look, up in the sky!” Nowadays, would anyone lookup?
Terrestrially, many New Yorkers keep heads down as they pass street performers. Below ground, with buds in their ears, they ignore subway balladeers. It’s an understandable defence mechanism. But the potential for surprise shrinks, as it did for some riders when a guitarist boarded a No. 1 train one evening a few days after the November 2016 election. Wrapped up in their own music, they ignored him as he strummed his latest work: “I didn’t vote for him, but somehow he got in.” Attention should have been paid.
And hazards can lurk in this compulsive staring at screens. Take New York’s more hideous structures, the miles of scaffolding called sidewalk sheds. Some time ago, I saw a young man so fixated on his phone that he smacked his head on the pole of a shed in Midtown. Rough but poetic justice, some would say.
That fellow had certainly never heard Shepard’s admonition to look up. But perhaps he was familiar with wisdom once offered by philosopher Lawrence Peter Berra, a transplant from St. Louis who became a New York legend. It could shape a splendid resolution as New Year’s Day draws near. “You can observe a lot just by watching,” said the man better known as Yogi.
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