The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

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Architecture in the big apple

Professor Barry Lewis is an architectural historian, educated at UC Berkeley, La Sorbonne in Paris and the New School for Social Research. He teaches at Cooper Union and the New York School of Interior Design.

Lewis was unrelentingly witty and spirited as he delivered his lecture about New York City

Torch: Was it your experience in Paris that really made you appreciate architecture?

Lewis: I lived in Paris when I was 19 to 20 years old and I went to the Sorbonne on my own. There, I basically became interested in Gothic architecture which France created back in the 12th century. It’s all there in Paris but, more than that, the French love cities. Americans don’t like cities.

We can’t wait to get out of the city! Parisians love their city. When they found out I was American, I spoke French and I loved history, they would take me all over Paris and show me all the byways of Paris going back to the Middle Ages, going back to the Roman times, specifically Medieval and Renaissance Paris.
It was just fascinating. They taught me how to look at a city and I have to give the Parisians credit for that.

Torch: You’ve achieved immense success between your Channel Thirteen televised walking tour series, numerous published books and traveling lectures among others. Which element of your professional career do you enjoy most: writing, teaching or lecturing?

Lewis: I’ve always enjoyed teaching and so, by extension, I love doing video work because video is really the modern way that people learn about things.

Frankly, it looks like people in the 21st century are reading too
many books. People absorb what they know through video whether it’s a Hollywood film or documentary or something they saw on the History or Discovery channels. I enjoy doing it. I make it lively. I make it interesting – because I think history is very interesting.

You want to know why we are, what we are, you go back in history and find out what we were and where we came from and that’s my basic take. I talk to my audience. I grew up in the retailing business.

My parents had the local five and ten and I grew up in that store
– that was part of growing up working in the store.
And I learned to deal with the public really from when I was a kid. My father always said “you’re here to serve the customer,” and in a sense I always felt that when you teach, you’re here to teach the students. You talk to them. That’s what I do when I do video work. I really enjoy it.

Torch: If you could recommend a particular neighborhood or spot or even walking tour for non-New Yorkers to visit and explore, which would it be?

Lewis: There are all kinds of suggestions including places right in front of your face.

One of my favorite New York neighborhoods is Rockefeller Center, because I grew up with Radio City Music Hall.

I remember going there to see the first-run movies; there were Rockettes in between the movies; the state show which always included the Rockettes and a whole vaudeville act and I always loved that.

And we used to watch the ice skating. We used to go up to the Top of the Rock which is open again today and it’s one of the best places for a rooftop viewing in New York. The Empire State treats you terribly, but at the Top of the Rock, they treat you very nicely and you’re really in a more intimate relationship with New York.

I think Brooklyn Heights, which is only one stop away from Manhattan or another few stops into Brooklyn (Park Slope) you get the feeling that not all of New York is 70 stories high. To me, the East Village and the Lower East Side are so popular, I don’t even have to mention them. But I used to love to walk around neighborhoods like TriBeCa where I loved the old warehouses and 18th century quiet streets. It’s not so quiet anymore – it’s gotten very chic.

If you go one stop out of Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights where you not only have the skyline of Brooklyn, but you have the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, which is built over the double-decker Brooklyn Queens Expressway.

You get this spectacular view of the whole New York Harbor, lower Manhattan, you see all the way up to midtown. It’s really quite spectacular.

It’s surprising to out-of-towners. It’s also surprising to walk around Brooklyn Heights because you’re only one stop from Manhattan and it’s so different.

Personally, I love Jackson Heights. Jackson Heights was a planned neighborhood.

It has beautiful 1920s apartment buildings and it has people from everywhere.

It’s one of the most diverse populations in this country. I think its zip code is considered probably the most diverse population of any zip code in this country. And the great thing about it is it’s not Manhattan.

Unfortunately, Manhattan gets too much media exposure so places like the Meatpacking District have a kind of touristy feel to a New Yorker.

When you go to places like Smith Street in Brooklyn or the restaurants in Jackson Heights or the Mexican places in Sunset Park, the Chinatown in Sunset Park, or Little Asia in Flushing, you get more of a feeling of the older city not the newer, younger, wealthier city that Manhattan represents.

I say to people : “Try and get out of Manhattan and you’ll live. You’ll actually live. You may not know where you’re going, but you’ll come back alive.”

Torch: What is your favorite New York moment?

Lewis: I have many favorite New York moments, most of which can’t be repeated (laughs). I lived through the 60s and the 70s, remember.

But, I think that one of the highlights of living in New York was going to the centennials of both the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. Those centennials were in the 1980s.

Even better yet, the bicentennial in 1976 was a time when the city was really on its knees: people were leaving New York; the middle class was abandoning New York. People actually said in 1976 that by the year 2000, New York would be a ghost town.

Can you imagine? And, yet we pulled off the Bicentennial with the tall ships and the fireworks and all that and all those people gathered to watch and there wasn’t one single incident. There wasn’t one single problem, there wasn’t one single criminal act because we’re New Yorkers.

We know how to live with each other and that’s what I’ve always loved about this city.

We’re from all over the world. We always work and we accept you for who you are. We don’t care if you’re shorter than other people or if you have one limb or you wear a teapot on your head, even.

If that’s what you like to do then do it! But if you’ve got a good mind, and you’re willing to do a day’s work, we’re interested and we get along with each other no matter what backgrounds we’re from. And we’re not California so it’s not a love-in.

We tolerate each other. We don’t love each other but that’s fine and we give each other space. I like that. When I lived in Europe, I discovered the Europeans have trouble with minorities.
If you’re not one of them going back 1,000 years, you’ll never be one of them.

In America, in New York, you get off the plane, you learn to say “yep,” “nope,” and “no problem,” and you’re American. And nobody asks where your documents are.

Nobody cares. As long as you can do the job and you’re willing to work, fine. You’re hired. And that is what I love about this city.

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