Something has been missing from the New York night-and when I found out, I felt responsible.
I should have been more attentive. I should have gotten up earlier. I let my guard down. I let the city down. I felt that I-literally-let the lights go out for at least a year without taking action. But now I’m on the case, and I’ve already got results.
The lights I’m talking about are the Chrysler Building lights, those luminous spikes on that lovely spire. The most beautiful sight in the New York night.
I might not have noticed what was missing if it hadn’t been for the all-night Dunkin Donuts that opened across the street from me. Not the most beautiful sight in the New York night, but a pleasant one and an incentive to make my already early-rising workaholic habits take a giant leap backward. I began getting up around 4 a.m. and shuffling zombie-like over to D.D. to get my large coffee and a whole-wheat doughnut (organic all the way for me).
Anyway, one of the first things I discovered, to my shock, during my pre-dawn D.D. trips was that the Chrysler Building spire was dark. Maybe you don’t care, but I had not just a civic, but a personal investment in that lovely late-night/early-morning glow.
Back in 1998, I got the Chrysler spire lights kept on all night long. It was one of my proudest achievements as a columnist. For many years prior, under its previous owner, the lights of the Chrysler Building spire-those supremely elegant triangular spikes of near-spiritual luminosity-had been shut off at 2 a.m.
Then, that year, two things happened: I moved into a new apartment and the Chrysler Building came under new ownership. My new apartment featured a beautiful view of the Chrysler Building’s upper floors and spire-to me, the quintessence of New York City’s luminous nocturnal elegance. I’d go to sleep bathed in its glow, but wake up, as I usually did around 5 a.m., to see it dark as death. A dull leaden shadow that was like a distillation of all the negation of night and lost light.
So I wrote a column for The Observer, a plea to the new owners, Tishman Speyer Properties, to keep the Chrysler spire lit till dawn. The column (“Come On Tishman, Light My Spire,” Feb. 23, 1998) actually worked! The new owners read the story and the letters from my readers, and in an unusually enlightened gesture, decided to keep the lights all night long-anyway, till six in the morning.
It was not only satisfying in a power-of-the-press sense (almost as satisfying as my success in getting Charles Portis’ novels back in print), it was rewarding for the pure beauty it gave back to New York. Particularly as the night grew closer to dawn.
The restoration of that lost light meant more than giving back to the city the up-all-night glamour and excitement that a lit-up spire represented. It gave us back that magic hour when light begins to filter back into the sky, that deliquescent moment when the illumination of the light sabers on the Chrysler spire are overtaken by the glow of dawn and suddenly, at 6 a.m., the spire-having guided us across the bridge to dawn-faded back to black. Some might savor the moment when the lights went on; for me, it was the drama of their departure.
This loveliness lasted for a little more than four years. And then the picture changed about a year ago: Once again, the lights began to go off at 2 a.m.-about the time the drive-in window at the Wendy’s in Podunk shuts down. A call to Tishman Speyer representative Steven Rubenstein yielded the depressing information that the change had come last summer, when the Mayor’s fulminations about an energy crisis led the building’s owners to turn off the lights at 2 a.m., returning us to the dark ages.
I don’t fault the building’s compliance at the time of the crisis. But I do blame the Mayor for his penny-wise, pound-foolish puritanical attitude, which now has extended from no-lighting-up to lights-out everywhere . Get this: According to a recent report in the Post , some idiot city official has-to save a whopping $75,000 out of a $280 million annual Department of Transportation budget-ordered the shut-off of the lights strung along the lovely, curving cords of the Brooklyn Bridge (and the structural silhouettes of the Williamsburg, the Manhattan and the 59th Street bridges, too).
There is nothing in New York City-with the possible exception of the Chrysler Building spire-that defines the New York night more beautifully than the string of pearls that stretches so languorously and tautly across the river on the Brooklyn Bridge. Gone now. Out. As I pointed out in my initial 1998 column that got the Chrysler spire turned on all night, this is about the spirit of the city, an asset more valuable than any single piece of real estate. An asset that underlies, gives value to real estate, to tourism, to our very identity as a metropolis. The bridge blackout is so shortsighted, so small-minded. As I suggested back in 1998, people come to the city from all over the world because they want to “wake up in the city that never sleeps” (as Sinatra put it), not because they want to wake up in the city that declares “Lights out!” at 2 a.m.-or, in the case of the Brooklyn Bridge, no longer cares to turn them on at all.
No lighting up in nightspots, no lights on our bridges-we might as well be living in a convent.
So I decided it was time to mobilize again. We need these lights to keep our spirits up in the lonely hours and the dark nights of the soul. Perhaps some philanthropist can make himself a civic hero by shelling out the $75K to light up the Brooklyn Bridge again. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz has been on the case, calling for the bridge lights to be turned back on.
And I can report a gratifyingly prompt response from the Chrysler Building owners: They’re turning the lights back on till 6 a.m.! Once again, this column gets results! Thank you, Tishman Speyer, for understanding what an invaluable intangible poetic asset those lights are.
Speaking of poetry, there’s a centuries-old literary form you may be familiar with, the aubade , the dawn poem. The lines that lovers in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and, more recently, in Auden, Lowell and Larkin utter to hold back the grim reaper of dawn.
Traditionally the lovers protest or deny the coming of light, which will mean separation. Often they rhetorically attack the cowardly night for fleeing, or the intrusive first light of dawn for over-hasty peeping. The Chrysler Building spire’s light is a way of telling us the night has not yet fled (Juliet: “Yond light is not daylight … it is some meteor that the sun has exhaled.”) There’s still time to dream (and get busy). The lit-up spire at the moment of dawn captures the graceful urgency, the surprising sadness of first light. The lit-up Chrysler Building spire captures the spirit of the New York night with the urgency of a beautiful urban aubade .
Now it’s time to kick ass and get the Brooklyn Bridge lit up, too. In an e-mail to me, Brooklyn Borough President Markowitz declared: “We shouldn’t keep our beloved bridge in the dark any longer over such a small amount of money.” Amen.
So call the Mayor at 311 or e-mail him (http://nyc.gov/html/mail/html/mayor.html). Email the Department of Transportation’s Commissioner Iris Weinshall (firstname.lastname@example.org). Tell them to reverse this misguided decision and light up the night again.
Meanwhile I can’t tell you what a thrill it was to wake up at 4:30 or so on the morning of Aug. 5, and see for the first time, through a halo of mist, the sight of the Chrysler spire lit up again in the dawn’s early light. “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” It’s our light-spiked spire giving us its all-night glow again.
Now if I ever get run over by a truck stumbling my way to the new Dunkin Donuts at 5 in the morning, I feel like those restored four hours of Chrysler spire light will be a kind of legacy. Keep them shining on.