There are a number of reasons why I am proud to be an American, and one of them is that Edgar Allan Poe was our compatriot. Most people, alas, know him only as that fiendish figure of fun who occupies the national imagination through the high camp of sundry films starring Vincent Price. But he was far more than that.
In addition to being a really excellent writer, he developed various aesthetic theories and positions that were of the utmost consequence for the emergence of Modernism in Europe in the decades after his death in 1849. And no student of urbanism — which is what concerns us here — can afford not to read one of Poe’s most seminal, if least known, works, “The Man of the Crowd,” first published in 1840.
Ostensibly, it is a simple tale in which one man follows a stranger, to the point of monomania, for hours through the streets of London, as he moves through markets and parks and bustling thoroughfares. In the process, Poe defines radically and for the first time the intense interaction of the individual and the city that surrounds him. No earlier writer that we know of, no earlier philosopher, had bothered to discuss, or even to notice, that quintessential urbanness of cities, especially great ones like London and New York.
The epigraph to “The Man of the Crowd” comes from the 17th century French essayist Jean de La Bruyère, which is translated loosely to mean: “How sad it is not to be able to be alone.”
Poe must have felt that at 5 West 3rd St in Greenwich Village, where he lived from 1844 to 1845, when it was a bustling midtown. Soon afterwards he moved to a small cottage far to the north, in the Fordham section of the Bronx. Here at the corner of 192nd Street and Kingsbridge Road at 2640 Grand Concourse in what was then very nearly open country, Poe spent the last few years of his life (though he died and was buried in Baltimore).
Miraculously, this white and otherwise unremarkable cottage, built in 1812, is still standing, even though few people seem to know about it or ever bother to visit the place. It is now undergoing extensive repair work and, under the aegis of the Department of Parks and Recreation, a 2,700-square-foot visitors’ center is nearly complete about 160 feet away, in the surrounding area known as Poe Park.
The Poe Park Visitor Center is a gray, one-story structure designed by the architect Toshiko Mori. To say that Mori was not interested in contextualism is putting the matter politely. This gray, angular structure look like nothing so much as a diminutive homage to Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s masterful revision of the Julliard School on Broadway and 65th Street. Its austere geometry is accentuated by its sullen use of what looks like darkened cinder block in the body of the building, and a paler gray in the metallic roof.
There is something two-in-one about this project: from certain angles it resembles nothing more than a functional gas-station; from others is appear to be a rather sophisticated piece of contemporary architecture. Nothing, however, could possibly look more foreign to these parts, either to the nearby wooden cottage or to the fin de siecle and art deco buildings that predominate in this area of the Bronx. But if it succeeds in drawing visitors to a relatively underserved section of the city– and if, in the process, it fosters an enhanced respect for a great, if decidedly eccentric American — then its effect will be entirely to the good.
James Gardner, formerly the architecture critic of the New York Sun, writes on the visual arts for several publications.