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Seen

Lincoln Center Plaza
New York City

The world’s iconic image of Lincoln Center is its plaza, an ersatz Campidoglio bounded by three temples to high culture. My image is a bus shelter at 65th and Broadway.

It sat in an odd and unlovely eddy: the plaza’s back side, formed by a blank travertine wall at the base of Avery Fisher Hall and the Juilliard School. Their pedestrian plaza covered a monstrous underpass at the sidewalk below.

When I lived on Manhattan’s East Side, this was my spot to catch the crosstown bus. Arriving at 9:30 or 10:00pm meant the company of sixty-something couples, playbills in hand, to wait in the dark.

The yawning maw of that cave (big enough for tractor trailer trucks) was the moment when Lincoln Center’s confident midcentury urbanity gave way to the facts of its creation. A 14-block terrain — home to over 6,000 families and 700 businesses — had been swept away, with no little protest, for this artistic acropolis. In 1960, scenes from West Side Story were filmed in the condemned blocks. By the time the film reached theaters, the neighborhood existed only on screen.

The underpass is gone now, replaced by a grand staircase and a destination restaurant covered by lawn for public lounging. There will be a new bridge, a tendon of glass and steel designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, whose remaking of Alice Tully Hall was the first, much welcomed salvo against the superblock. The past few years have also brought redesigned plazas and strikingly renovated performance halls. Across from my old bus stop is an upturned wedge with seating.

The recent interventions are a worthy example of the way great urban neighborhoods improve upon their past indiscretions. But I miss the link to the place’s underlying contradiction, the literal dark underbelly of the shimmering city.