Real estate and the human creative spirit


Recently I was at the Association for International Art Dealers (AIPAD) show at the Park Avenue Armory. The abundance, diversity, and quality of the art shown in one space almost created a feeling of sensory overload, and I started to think about how thrilling it is to be in any place where the creative impulse is expressed by people, whether it be visual art, theater, dance, music, or architecture and design. The need for creative expression is fundamental to how we see ourselves as humans – the recognition we feel when we view the cave paintings from Paleolithic people living 40,000 years ago in Lascaux, France, emotionally spans the gap in time between us and them.

After leaving AIPAD, my thoughts turned to how we express our creativity when it comes to where we live. It might be a more efficient use of valuable real estate space to have every building in Manhattan exactly the same, with apartments only differing in how much space and how many rooms someone needed (and perhaps whether or not you felt the need for a doorman). The gables, terracotta ornaments, and decorative gargoyles at the Dakota (seen above) have no practical purpose. However, we all instinctively recoil when imagining Manhattan as a series of uniform buildings, neighborhoods identifiable only by street names as boundaries, not because you see the San Remo or a series of cast iron buildings. Rather than selecting an apartment near our workplace, many of us choose to live instead in neighborhoods farther away that express who we are as a human being. A person walking through the Art Deco lobby of the Century on Central Park West on the way to their apartment is surrounded by an esthetic that fits their own, and that is different but no less personally valid than that of someone entering their loft in Metal Shutter Houses in West Chelsea.

Real estate involves money and can be thought of as an investment, but unless you are buying solely to invest, the choice of what apartment you decide to live in speaks to so much more than a rational financial decision. We as humans need to express ourselves creatively, and we do so when we decide only to look at pre-war apartments with working fireplaces and moldings, or only on the Upper West Side park block with a terrace, or only downtown in a modern building with a view of the High Line. A good real estate agent will listen to what you want in the way that a search engine cannot. You can run a search for a two bedroom/ two bathroom apartment in a certain price range in a certain neighborhood and come up with some possibilities, or a good agent can listen to the creative desires being expressed and select apartments that are an excellent place to start looking. Sometimes you may even be introduced to a new neighborhood that you didn’t initially consider but that the agent thought you might like, based on what kind of apartment, and building, and neighborhood, you are looking for.

Pablo Picasso once said, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of our daily lives off our souls.”  I can’t imagine a better way to wash this daily life debris off our souls than returning at the end of our day to a home that reflects our own sense of what is beautiful, from the external architecture of our building to the layout and décor of our personal space.


A ride on the Staten Island Ferry


How much would you expect to pay for an iconic boat ride with spectacular views of lower Manhattan, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty? If you want to pay, there are vendors who will allow you to do that, but a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, which delivers those views roughly every 30 minutes (more often during rush hours) throughout every day and night of the year, is entirely free. Twenty-one million people take this trip every year, and most are residents of Staten Island, which may be the borough in New York City most likely to fly under the radar. Whether you take the ferry ride to explore Staten Island as a potential home within the city, are a visitor to NYC looking for fantastic photo ops, or are a New Yorker with the need to experience the sensation of feeling a sea breeze blow past your face as a boat sways under your feet, this bargain experience is not to be missed.


For my trip on the ferry, I began by emerging from the Battery Park subway stop and walking a block or so to the Whitehall Terminal. Redesigned in 2005, the terminal is bright and airy – I particularly like the quotes on the walls by Edna St. Vincent Millay (“We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry”). There aren’t too many places to eat at this terminal, but there are benches and restrooms, and it’s very easy to figure out when the next ferry is coming and from which area you will embark.


Walking onto the ferry, if you are looking for photo ops of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, head up the stairs (the windows on the lower level are foggy) and go outside, to the right of the ferry as you enter. As the ferry pulls away, look behind you for fantastic views of lower Manhattan. If you happen to instead be on the left side of the ferry, you will also get views of the East River and the bridges – most famously, the Brooklyn Bridge – connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn. On the right side of the ferry, however, are the views most people are on the ferry to appreciate.


First you can see Ellis Island, processing center for scores of immigrants entering the United States, now a museum celebrating the immigrant experience and contribution to American life. Continuing on from Ellis Island is the symbol that represents New York, and in a larger sense, the United States, to so many: the Statue of Liberty. A gift from France (its official name is La Liberté éclairant le monde, or Liberty enlightening the world), this statue (actually much closer to New Jersey than to New York!) is described in Emma Lazarus’ famous poem as one that “glows world-side welcome” to immigrants all over the world. Whether that has always been the case or not, it is certainly a noble and aspirational sentiment for this ultimate melting-pot city.


Approaching Staten Island’s St. George ferry terminal, the 5.2 mile, 25 minute ride slows as the boat docks, giving one a great opportunity to photograph the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island. It is almost impossible to catch the next ferry immediately (and you are required to get off the boat and re-enter), so consider having a bite to eat in the terminal. Staten Island is best accessed by car, so without one (and they aren’t allowed on the ferry any more) there isn’t much to do or see outside the terminal itself.


When making the trip back, go to the opposite side of the ferry to see what you missed on the way over. The Staten Island Ferry is featured on so many TV shows and movies (“Sex in the City” and “Working Girl” as examples) that you feel a bit like an extra on a TV or film shoot while feeling the breeze blow your hair with such iconic views to be seen. New York City can be an expensive place, but the Staten Island Ferry is one of the few classic city experiences that only costs you a few hours of your time.