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A field guide to NYC’s unseen infrastructure

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Photographer Stanley Greenberg’s latest book is a “plea for everyone to just look up and see what’s around them”

Photographs by Stanley Greenberg/Courtesy of The Monacelli Press

There’s no shortage of coffee table books about New York that show off the unmitigated beauty of the city, whether it’s new buildings (or ones that have been lost forever), striking interiors, or simply really pretty pictures of the changing seasons.

Photographer Stanley Greenberg’s latest tome, Codex New York: Typologies of the City (Monacelli Press, $50), does not depict any of those things. But the New York that it captures—Manhattan, specifically—is no less beautiful, albeit in a more humble sort of way.

Greenberg’s New York is filled with the ordinary items that New Yorkers pass every day, and probably don’t spare a second glance: small, abandoned lots; tiny alleys and dead-end streets; cemeteries nestled in between buildings; exposed pieces of the schist that Manhattan is built upon; and dozens of squat parking sheds.

Codex New York catalogs 19 such pieces of the landscape, which Greenberg refers to as “typologies”; in the book’s introduction, writer (and Curbed contributor) Karrie Jacobs calls it a “visual taxonomy of the city, an effort to isolate and appreciate some of its component parts.” While some of the typologies Greenberg identifies are no doubt familiar—it’s hard to miss bridges or the waterfront—it’s the way he captures them that he hopes will catch readers off guard.

“There are these little signs of enormous infrastructure underground that nobody pays any attention to,” he explains. “And I was thinking, all right, what are the things that people don’t notice because they’re on their phones? Which is basically everything.”

Greenberg started the project with the intent of documenting “big open spaces in Manhattan where buildings had been torn down,” as he puts it, in an effort to show how infill would change the urban landscape. In 2012, he set off on a walk to start the process, with camera in hand, but quickly realized that his ambition—and curiosity—was bigger than the original idea.

“I started at the Battery and within a half hour I thought, well, I’m just going to walk the whole island,” he explains. “There were just so many interesting things—I didn’t know where all the interesting buildings were. I didn’t know the topography of upper Manhattan. There’s so many things I didn’t know.”

All told, Greenberg spent 31 days over a period of six months exploring and photographing the island, capturing parts of Manhattan that are both obvious and unsung. The “little streets” section, for instance, includes Minetta Lane, a well-known alley in Greenwich Village, but other sections, such as “parking lots” and “vacant spaces,” include spots that are more mundane. Many of the items, such as buttresses holding up buildings or manhole covers, are things that New Yorkers likely don’t notice, or take for granted.

But for Greenberg, the less noticeable parts of the urban landscape are no less important than, say, the Manhattan Bridge or the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment plant, both of which are also featured. The goal in including these items was the same: getting people to pay attention to their surroundings—particularly in a city like New York, where change is a (frequently lamented) constant.

And together, these 19 typologies create what the publisher calls an “idiosyncratic field guide,” one that Greenberg hopes will inspire New Yorkers to feel a similar curiosity about their surroundings—no matter how humdrum those may seem.

“This book is a plea for everyone to just look up and see what’s around them,” Greenberg says. “Not only is it interesting, but they should be paying attention to what’s happening to their city—in good and bad ways.”