David Hills - My Kind of Town

I first visited New York when I headed off to spend a year in America before going to college and then returned every summer for the next seven years whilst I studied. I still remember the experience of emerging from the subway at W10th St for the first time as a naive suburban boy from England and being instantly overwhelmed by the scale of my surroundings and the frenetic volume of noise and people.
The next eight months was like having daily electro-shock treatment to displace my small-town values with the sensory overload of the incredibly “constructed” city that seemed alive from the steaming vents in the pavements to the compressed juxtaposition of flamboyance and extreme necessity that is confronted on every street corner. The occasional respite was provided by the Metro-North trainline from Grand Central to the rarified tax-exiledom of Duchess County in Upstate New York where I worked in grand gardens for some of New York’s aging art collectors. Of course even the experience of Grand Central station was like a taster for Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York with its hyper-intense section of oyster bar and shoe-shine, elevated fitness clubs and raised highways bypassing central Manhattan. 

My home became a rent-control apartment in an otherwise derelict building on Commerce Street in the Village. It belonged to a friend who was an accomplished potter in upstate New York, and had kept hold of it since living there when he was a producer at the Cherry Lane Theatre next door. An external stair from backstage to the dressing rooms ran past the bedroom window on one side, and an opera singer lived on the other filling each day with bizarre overheard conversations and the fascination of living in high density, thoroughly mixed use neighbourhoods. New York taught me to enjoy neighbours making a noise – it made life interesting and was the opposite to the territorial control of front gardens, which I had grown up with. 

My potter friends encouraged me to explore the quiet places they loved in the city like Paley Park, the Earth Room, the Ford Foundation and the Dan Graham pavilion that then existed on the roof of the DIA foundation. These spaces sat quietly against the spectacle of the architecture of New York’s skyline, which I felt I was supposed to be observing, but they were far more compelling to me, being immersed within the city itself. 

It was only years later that I finally made it to my friend’s top recommendation - the Noguchi Museum and Garden in Queens. Here the isolation of such a contemplative space was equally energized by the scale of its industrial neighours, bringing into focus the intensity of making in the city. The scale of the enormous pieces of carved stone seemed possible with the infrastructure of the city outside the yard, and in this context was refreshingly un-precious. 

When this corner of Queens had seemed so far away to me on many of my earlier stays in New York, it was ironically that when I finally managed to get there, I ended up visiting on the day of the Five Boroughs Cycle ride, when it felt like it was part of a new urban circuit in New York. The same trip involved a ferry to the Frieze Art Fair on Randall’s Island which had hitherto been unknown, and the City’s waterways seemed to be genuinely extending and celebrating the amazing possibilities of this island and its infinite connections which had previously only seemed to be played out on the Circle Line Tours or the inevitable ferry ride to the Staten Island. Now, a short hop on the East City River Ferry whisks me from midtown 34th Street to Greenpoint where not long ago a cab driver would refuse to take me, and where friends have gradually drifted as the East Village and then Williamsburg became ever more gentrified. Manhattanites now intrepidly but regularly fill the uber-trendy restaurants with doormen outside beat-up old warehouses in Greenpoint and an armature of new towers is proposed to eradicate the last rough edges of this extended territory. 

If I can, I go to New York every year. Briefly. I now usually end up in the Bowery. It has retained the rough quality of the City, which I enjoy despite the new galleries, and (very nice) hotels, which try to gentrify it. Years ago I bought my kitchen sink from one of the cavernous catering shops on the Bowery and bought it back wrapped in cardboard on the aeroplane as my luggage. The same shops are still there and sit awkwardly as a defiant statement against neatness. It reminds me that interesting things happen in the rough, unfinished parts of the city and is a character we nurture in projects we are exploring in the hinterlands of South London at Stockwell, Vauxhall and Loughborough Junction.
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