The old-school wooden water tanks that stand on the roofs of many Manhattan buildings look like wine barrels ready to dispense a good supply of your favorite cabernet. They’re favorites of many Gotham observers, for good reasons: They are both supremely functional, supplying water to millions of faucets, and a physical connection to the past, with their clearly manual construction and weathered appearance.
I had never noticed them, though, despite visiting and then living in the city for years, until an old friend who visited me about two decades ago—someone who happened to be an architect—pointed them out as we looked down on some rooftops. He provided a discourse on them, and after that I saw them all the time and fell in love with them.
Something similar happened to me with photographer Stanley Greenberg’s new book, Codex New York: Typologies of the City (Monacelli Press, 2019). I had known and liked Greenberg’s 2003 book, Waterworks, so it was with eagerness that I opened the review copy of Codex that arrived in the mail. I looked at the cover. Kind of interesting. A photo of a section of street with cobblestones on one side, asphalt on the other, and an iron manhole cover bisecting both. Maybe it’s something about New York City being a palimpsest, with layers upon layers, a place continually built on itself.
But when I opened the book, I could see no obvious theme. And most of the images didn’t seem particularly pretty or striking in their composition. It didn’t help that I didn’t really know what “codex” meant (“an ancient manuscript text in book form”), and even “typologies” did not really speak to me as to what the book was about.
But wanting to give Greenberg a chance, I flipped to the table of contents, which I had skipped. And there I saw “Alleys,” “Bridge/Tunnel/Track,” “Buttresses,” “Cemeteries,” “Construction,” “Gas/Electric,” “Geology/Topography,” “Grid/Non-Grid,” “Little Streets,” “Parking Lots,” “Parking Sheds,” “Playgrounds,” “Relics,” “Sanitation,” “Skybridges,” “Vacant Spaces,” “Wastewater Treatment,” “Water Supply,” and “Waterfront.” These were the labels attached to the 19 chapters of photographs.
And then everything became clear. Now the photos weren’t mute; they spoke to me. They said “alleys,” “parking booths,” or (more curiously) “grid meeting nongrid streets.” They were interesting, even compelling, in the way that seeing more clearly enlivens the senses.
Sometimes I had to turn back to a chapter heading to make sense of some photos, but when I did, they inevitably did. That a headless statue of an eagle supporting a bathtub was a “relic” wasn’t immediately obvious, but it made sense when I was told that.
Many of the groupings were in categories I would never have thought of. Parking booths? What I came to understand was that I was seeing inside Greenberg’s mind, and that is what made the photos interesting. I was seeing the gaze of someone who reportedly had walked every street in Manhattan with a camera. After that, by both inclination and newfound enrichment, Greenberg saw the city differently and more keenly than most of us—even those like me, who pride themselves on being astute observers.
Information shapes seeing, I was reminded again. Just as I awoke once to see water towers, I am now awake to see things I had not consciously noticed as a category of things. “Buttresses” are one. It turns out there are numerous Manhattan buildings supported by wood or steel buttresses, in an ad hoc way, to keep them from falling down.
Is there an overarching lesson Greenberg is telling us through the book, other than that the city is a visually rich and diverse place? Not that I can tell. I didn’t see a polemic against, say, climate change.
Greenberg’s book is about perception, about how we see what we know, and how we can see more, if we know more.
Karrie Jacobs, whom I have also read for years, arguably does get a bit polemical when she argues in her fine introduction that Greenberg was out there seeing for the rest of us, who were too busy to look up from our phones as the city transformed itself around us—sometimes in ways not always welcome. “The smartphone is a mind-suck of historic proportions,” Jacobs writes, “and as we focus on it, checking on the analytics of our most recent selfie or tracking the whereabouts of an ex-boyfriend, the city around us fades.”
Greenberg’s book is an antidote to that. It’s about perception, about how we see what we know, and how we can see more, if we know more. This is also a book about the places in Manhattan that don’t get immediately looked at. The alley or parking booth or relic a few paces from the 9/11 memorial, or the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, to name two places that get looked at a lot. It’s about the street equivalent of water towers, things that New York City visitors and residents have walked past, oblivious, until someone said, “Look!”
Featured image courtesy of Stanley Greenberg.