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2006 05 02
Mark Kingwell Writes on The Empire State Building - Part 1
imageLIKE most people, I made a trip to the Observation Deck of the Empire State Building on my very first visit to New York, when I was a gawky Canadian teenager fresh off the train from Toronto. The two-elevator ascent to the top of the building is one of those mandatory itinerary items, like seeing a movie in Times Square or shopping for knockoffs on Canal Street, whose appeal is lost on the city’s regular dwellers.

That first visit was romantic in more than one sense. I was with my first girlfriend, a petite Catholic girl with braces on her teeth. Though neither of us had seen “An Affair to Remember,’’ the 1957 Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr weepy that immortalizes the building as the quintessential New York lovers’ rendezvous, we knew that the top of the building was the ideal place to share a kiss, even if it was awkward and adolescent and jostled by other tourists hefting the bulky camera equipment of the pre-digital day.

The movie we saw later that day in Times Square-a matinee of “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial’’-featured a fistfight in the back of the theater, in the smoking rows, and my girlfriend and I broke up on the train ride back to Canada. But that moment on top of the building, looking out over the broad Hudson and Lower Manhattan’s dense packing of brick and stone, sealed New York’s grip on me, as it has on millions of others.

I would not visit the top of the Empire State again for two decades, probably a typical gap. You go once, and you may never go again. Natives may never go at all, which is a shame. The foursquare view from the top of the Empire State, even more than the sweep of Manhattan that was available from the summit of the Twin Towers when they stood, is one of life’s great vistas. It may not quite be, as the building’s primary booster and moving force Al Smith argued, better than air travel. But it must surely be what Deborah Kerr breathlessly calls it (twice): the nearest thing to heaven we have in New York.
Mark Kingwell, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor to Harper’s magazine, is the author of Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams, published this week by Yale University Press.
[email this story] Posted by M. Kingwell on 05/02 at 11:08 AM

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