Years before I lived in New York City and worked at the Empire State Building, I was a new tourist, navigating the overwhelming streets for the first time, my head continuously tilted back to take in the towering view above me.
My first stop in the city was the top of the Empire State Building. My mom and I got up early to be at the front of the line for the ear-popping ride up 86 floors. Immortalized in movies from King Kong to Sleepless in Seattle, the classic art deco icon stands so tall, you can walk past it on the street level without noticing. But from far away, it is a beacon, marking midtown and standing as a reminder of New York’s grand past when tall buildings, such as the Chrysler Building and 30 Rockefeller Center, were shaping New York’s skyline. In New England towns, it’s the church steeples that stick up above the rooftops and connect a town to its past – in New York, it’s the radio spire of the Empire State Building.
Now I work in the 34th floor of the Empire State Building, and the platform at the top is one of my favorite corners of the city where I frequently take visiting friends and relatives. It is on this level that you can go outside into the New York breeze above pigeon level and water towers and skyscrapers. The entire city is stretched out to the horizon and up into the sky. The old-fashioned view finders stand at the corners, witnesses to how many people must have gazed out over the city, trying to spot the distant figure of the Statue of Liberty.
Yellow dots of taxis fill the narrow streets below. You can pick out the bridges to Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and New Jersey, and point out rooftop swimming pools and restaurants. Central Park is a patch of green against the city gray; the curve of Madison Square Garden peeks around 34th St.; 30 Rockefeller Center stretches high; the top of the Chrysler building gleams. And through the buildings, just a flicker of Times Square lights flash. You can see how the skyline dips lower between the skyscrapers of Midtown and the tall buildings of downtown. At night, the lights spread for miles. In the winter, tiny moving figures glide across the skating rinks in Bryant Park and Central Park.
Tourists from around the world gather to pick out their favorite sites in Manhattan, or to see the sites for the first time – from over 86 stories up.
This is not quite the top, though. Another small, old-fashioned elevator goes into the needle. An elevator operator pulls the gate shut and takes visitors up 16 stories, answering questions if there are any. One kind operator even held my friend’s hand as she braved her way to the top, although she was terrified of heights.
The needle is smaller, enclosed, and quieter. I find it to be the most peaceful place in the city. You duck around steel beams to get a 360 degree view out the windows of the city spread below. The taxis are even smaller, the harbor even further. It is truly the highest spot you can go in the city – and the swirl of the streets is that much farther away.
I found a postcard of the Empire State Building from my grandfather to his father in 1936, describing in his yellowed cursive being above the clouds after the fog rolled in and covered the “wonderful view.” I imagine the view from the Empire State Building has changed dramatically since he was there – buildings have risen and some have fallen. But the Empire State Building itself seems to never change.
I often leave work late, through the quiet, polished lobby where men are buffing the floors and shining the classic adornments. They are prepping the building for another day, keeping it fresh for the next batch of new faces to pass through the halls.
Drake Lucas is a former journalist based in Brooklyn, now working in communications for a non-profit organization. She loves a good travel adventure wherever it comes, whether it’s a spontaneous safari in India or stumbling onto a movie set during a hike in Yosemite. Follow her on Twitter: @drake_lucas.
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