I once had a customer from Sweden who made a comment that had a lasting impression. I have many international customers and I am frequently curious about their impressions of the city. So when I asked "What do you think of New York," there was a pause and I could see that he was looking for a very diplomatic answer. "Very practical" was his response.
Now I knew immediately what he meant. My mind's eye raced around the city streets as I visualized those things that could be best described as "very practical" looking - our trash cans, lampposts, heavy chains around bikes, steel-reinforced concrete curbstones, roll down gates - so many things where function triumphs and utilitarian is the operative word.
Virtually everything on the city streets of New York is designed with the lowest common denominator in mind and in the biggest city in America, that denominator is very low. The key concerns that define the design and construction of most things accessible on the streets are vandalism and theft (not to mention heavy wear and tear). Don't be misled by articles and statistics on low crime rates in NYC. Much of this is not due to any inherent improvement in the goodness of people, but rather by the actions of law enforcement and protective measures by individuals and businesses. Also, the general increase in costs of living in the city has changed the demographic - where's a heroin addict to live?
One big thing that we residents tend to overlook is not so much what is as what is not - decorative elements and architectural details. These are found primarily in those things which benefit from historical treatment. This can be easily seen if one compares post war and prewar buildings. With enough time spent here, these decorative deficits and the triumph of the utilitarian become so inculcated that it takes a fresh eye to really notice.
I found the tree guard in the photo to be one of the most hideous examples of the practical I have ever seen. Even more surprising, it is located in central SoHo, one of the most upscale neighborhoods in the United States. But the tree needs protection. The solution may not be attractive but it is very practical ....