The World Keeps Spinning, but the Astor Place Cube Is Stuck in Place
Good morning. It’s Monday. We’ll look at why the Astor Place cube no longer spins — and what the Transportation Department is doing to get it going again. We’ll also get details on the New School’s new contract with part-time faculty members, who have ended a three-week strike.
When a renowned piece of public art has problems, whom do you call?
The bridge engineers, of course.
The piece in question is the 1,800-pound installation known as the Astor Place cube. It stopped twirling late last year after spending “more than half a century being spun by drunk N.Y.U. students and curious tourists,” as Curbed put it.
The cube is maintained by the city’s Department of Transportation, which is responsible for 22 art installations around the city. When officials in the agency’s art unit heard that the cube was not spinning smoothly, officials thought, in effect, that they didn’t know about ball bearings and gears and rotating mechanisms, but they knew people who did: the engineers who maintain the city’s bridges.
The engineers converged on the cube and warned that it was going the way of the Tower of Pisa.
“They noticed tipping,” said Michelle Villar, who oversees the art unit. “I don’t know that we were concerned that it would fall over entirely, but it was not true to the aesthetic of the design.”
The cube was “not in immediate danger,” she said, “but it was looking like it could become a danger.”
And as for spinning, “it’s not that it couldn’t spin,” she said. “It couldn’t safely spin.”
Officials from the art unit worked with the engineers on “options for some type of temporary fabrication that would support the cube, knowing that we would need to go into full-fledged active conservation to bring it back to glory,” Villar said.
The engineers designed a cradle to steady the cube, horizontally and vertically, and stop it from rotating — or even trying to. “They designed it keeping in mind that this is a historical work, not a bridge,” she said.
The cradle was noticed, and not just by drunk N.Y.U. students. A nonrevolving cube-in-a-cradle “wasn’t what people expected,” Villar said. To see the cube is to want to spin it, she said: “It’s part of the New York experience.”
An accidental part. The artist who created the cube, Tony Rosenthal, did not have a whirligig in mind when he designed it.
“I actually thought we would put it on this post and we’d turn it to the position we wanted it and then stick it like that,” he told New York magazine in 2005. But for reasons he did not explain, the sculpture was never locked in place, an unexpected twist — pardon the expression — that apparently pleased Rosenthal: “I did not realize that the turning was such a factor in people’s enjoyment of it.”
It has been restored a couple of times in its 55-year life, which is 54 years six months longer than Rosenthal expected it to last. Its planned six-month stay turned into permanent residency after a petition drive from local residents persuaded city officials to leave it where Rosenthal had installed it. Ada Louise Huxtable, the longtime New York Times architecture critic, wrote in 1974 that it had “elevated its ordinary ‘found space’ setting from mere traffic flow to public space.”
Some fans of the cube, unhappy that the repairs are taking so long, said the Transportation Department was moving with all deliberate speed. “This thing is stuck in a sadistic metal girdle while we await some plan nobody knows about,” said Adrian Untermyer, an attorney and preservationist. “If Lady Liberty’s torch fell off, we’d find a way to fix it quickly. Why are we neglecting this modern art landmark?”
Transportation officials said the department was committed to preserving the cube. Villar said the agency was working on a conservation plan that would be reviewed by the city’s Public Design Commission, which has the final say over art at city-owned properties — and an approval process that must be followed.
“We can’t just airlift the piece away and bring it back repaired,” she said. “We want to go through the proper steps to have the piece restored.”
Expect possible snow in the early morning, with temps near the low 40s. The evening is mostly clear, with temps dropping to around the high 20s.
In effect until Dec. 26.
The latest New York news
Housing for formerly homeless people: Mayor Eric Adams estimated that 25,000 hotel rooms could be turned into supportive and affordable housing, but only one building has been converted so far. And it was in the works before the mayor’s plan.
A shift on mental health: The psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey has been calling for tougher involuntary psychiatric treatment policies for 40 years. Now his ideas are animating policy shifts.
Arts & Culture
Holiday events: The holiday season has arrived in New York City. Here’s a list to get you in the spirit.
Another Broadway show will close: “Ain’t No Mo’” will close on Dec. 18, a little more than two weeks after opening. It’s the third show this fall to truncate its planned run based on poor ticket sales
Walkout ends at the New School
It’s back to school at the New School. Its part-time faculty members ended an acrimonious three-week strike over pay and benefits after reaching an agreement with the university on Saturday.
My colleague Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura writes that the walkout had left the school at a near standstill: Classes were called off because there was no one to teach them. The part-timers — untenured adjunct professors and lecturers — make up 90 percent of the faculty. Some angry parents sued the school and threatened to withhold tuition payments or transfer their children to other schools.
The instructors had argued that they had received only a small salary increase in recent years as the pandemic and inflation made living in New York more expensive. They also asserted that a disproportionate amount of the university’s payroll went for administrators’ salaries.
Members of the union representing the part-time faculty, ACT-UAW Local 7902, said that under the new contract, the best-paid adjuncts would receive a 13 percent pay raise in the first year of the five-year deal. An adjunct being paid $5,753 over a semester for a three-credit course — the ceiling until now — would earn $6,520. By the fifth year, the adjunct would receive $7,820, a 36 percent raise.
Some adjuncts at Mannes Prep, the conservatory that is part of the New School, stand to receive a 31 percent raise in the first year of the contract, a jump that reflects the relatively low starting rate that adjuncts were being paid.
During the strike, the school argued that it did not have the financial wherewithal to cover big raises because it lacks a large endowment and relies on tuition. The total cost of attending the New School, including tuition, fees and on-campus living expenses, was $78,744 in 2021-22, an increase of 7 percent from the previous year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Students typically pay significantly less when financial aid is factored in.
‘Let’s stay together’
Every week since 1976, Metropolitan Diary has published stories by, and for, New Yorkers. Now we’re asking for your help picking the best Diary entry of the year. The voting closes on Dec. 19 at midnight.
I was walking along the path by the East River near 20th Street when I encountered a man playing the saxophone. I told him he sounded good and asked if he was practicing.
“No,” he said. “I’m working.”
I was confused because he had no tip jar for those who might want to give him something for his playing.
“How are you working?” I asked.
“A man and a woman are going to come jogging down the path,” he said. “And when I see them coming, I’m going to start playing. And when they get to me, the man will stop running and get down on his knees and propose.”
Then he pointed toward a couple in the distance who were running in our direction.
“Look, here they come!” he said. “You’d better walk away now.”
I hurried to a spot about 50 feet away where I could still see and hear everything. The sax player started into what seemed like a perfect song for a proposal: Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”
As the couple got closer, I got excited at the prospect of witnessing this very special, intimate scene.
Finally, they arrived exactly in front of the sax player — and then they just kept running.
Had the man gotten cold feet and changed his mind? Had the sax player been pulling my leg with his story about a proposal? Before I could ask, he walked off, and I was left with “Let’s Stay Together” playing on repeat in my mind.
— Allan Yashin
Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.
Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.
Melissa Guerrero and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team email@example.com.