Driving toward the Lincoln Tunnel on Route 3 East, there’s a few larger, sloping hills where you get this stunning view of Midtown and the whole City looks gargantuan. In the early evening with the sun dancing off the glass, you can even catch the colors of the Empire State with ease. It’s decidedly one of my favorite views in New Jersey.
That viewpoint, though, is actually due west of my house about a mile, but for some reason, even though I’m closer to New York, the City looks much smaller from where I live. The best view nearby is a cemetery two blocks away with about a twenty or thirty foot drop-off to the Meadowlands. From there, you can see not just Midtown but everything from the Bronx to the Battery.
With that view in mind, the buildings themselves seem tiny. The Empire State Building and One World Trade dwarf everything else. The difference is startling, actually. From that grand, Route 3 view farther west in New Jersey, the Empire State looks like any other building among many skyscrapers, but from the right angle looking at the whole City, you could be lead to think New York is actually lacking in skyscrapers – few enough to count them on one hand. You certainly get a sense of how much New York sprawls and is much different from, say, Chicago.
It’s something that I’ve loved and been perplexed by ever since I moved here, the power of perspective and perception. I spend an absurd amount of time just trying to find a new angle to grab an unexpected picture of the same old buildings.
Last week on a day off of work, I took a trip down to Governors Island, a small and quaint little island some eight football fields from downtown Manhattan. It has been home to the Continental Army, a US Army post, the US Coast Guard, and now, it serves as a kind of oddball green space accessed only by ferries from Brooklyn and Manhattan.
While there’s much I could say about Governors Island, I think what struck me most was the way I felt transported in time and space. Here I was still in this City of over eight million people, and the best way I could describe this little island to you is to say that it felt more like a southern afternoon on some kind of Louisiana plantation-turned-Children’s Museum than a New York City park. Old colonial-style homes, brick barracks decorated in modern art, a castle and a fort on the water, a fifty-eight foot slide, labyrinthine gardens with hammocks, and the endless sounds of crickets chirping can all be kind of dizzying when you were walking on Wall Street less than an hour ago.
Depending on the elevation, you can almost always get this stunning view of Lower Manhattan, and again, parts of the park can make some buildings seem huge while other angles can test what you saw ten minutes earlier. I caught a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty at one point that made it seem like an ant – even though I was much closer to it than I had been in Lower Manhattan.
This change in perspective is a lot like the moon illusion, actually – you know, where the moon seems like it’s huge when it’s closer to the horizon. We always seem to notice this when it’s a harvest moon. Apparently, this lie has to do with how our mind’s process the objects nearer what we’re viewing: the horizon makes the moon appear closer to us, and thus larger. But the moon is the same size as it’s always been.
A good illustration of this effect is the Ebbinghaus illusion, as optical illusions go. Whatever truths we encounter are always influenced by whatever surrounds them. But while the influencers change our perception, they don’t change reality. In a day and age where truth can seem so relative or where fake news is the new favorite catchphrase of our moment, maybe what’s most striking to me is how easily we can be manipulated by lies because one big truth was surrounded by them. I think it’s important to trust your gut. It’s one of the hardest things for me to do, and I need to do more of it. But can we trust our gut at the expense of reality especially when reality can be the opposite of what we see right in front of us clear as day? Can we trust our gut just because it might show us the prettier picture, conveniently hand us exactly what we want to see? Or do we have the harder task before us: to look at all the different angles so we do what we can on our life’s search to confirm not just our biases but the hard truths we must carry with us. If we make that harder journey, we’re sure to snap some pretty pictures along the way.