Literary Landmarks: The Dakota

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Literary Landmarks is a series that invites YPGers to visit a place of literary significance in New York City, Boston, or San Francisco. If you would like to contribute a piece, please contact Alex Arnold at alexandra.arnold@harpercollins.com.

 It was at the end of a rainy day that I made the trek up to 72nd Street and Central Park West to stand at the foot of The Dakota, a hallmark of NYC’s architectural landscape and a major locale for many a book. Most of the nitty-gritty details can be picked out of the Wikipedia page, but some of the key facts include that the building was completed in 1884, by Henry Janeway Hederbergh’s design firm. These were the same people that designed and orchestrated the Plaza Hotel, and, clearly, they were not satisfied with merely one city-defining megastructure.

It’s relatively difficult to imagine NYC as anything but a dense grid of concrete and metal, but when the Dakota rose up above Central Park West, it was in solitude. And in addition to pioneering the wild north of New York City, which might as well have been Canada, it did so with impeccable design.

The building looks like it’s grown out of the park, as if its stone walls had decided to rebel and build their own fortress away from the green and wild counterparts. It is not so much a child of Central Park but a younger sibling. It shares the same grand spirit of self worth, but with one major distinction. Unlike the public park is lies next to, which welcomes anyone and everyone (from sunrise to sunset), the Dakota is one of the most exclusive and impenetrable buildings in the city.

My attempts to infiltrate were unsuccessful; I counted no less than three cameras (that I could see) directed at the back entrance, and the front entrance is barred by at least two resolute doorman that seem to share DNA with the bouncers in front of trendy meatpacking district clubs. You can’t stand anywhere near the building, even across the street, without feeling like you’re being watched. I tried to get friendly with the guards, but they refused to answer questions, or talk too much. They too, they whispered to me, were under scrutiny.

The security is necessary; its tenants range from the wealthy to the famous, and getting an apartment within the Dakota involves herculean real estate challenges. And, in 1980, 100 years after construction began, the Dakota was witness to the assassination of John Lennon. (The famed “imagine” circle lies just to the east, only a few meters into the park, for those who want to make the pilgrimage.)

Just living there makes you a part of one of New York’s oldest and most selective club. The building hasn’t aged a day since a bottle of champagne was broken over its metaphorical brow, and this, I’d wager, if I were a betting man, is why it has been the subject of intense literary scrutiny.

Naturally, fiction seems to have come to a certain consensus about the type of person who lives in a building like this: people who deal in secrets. Special Agent Aloysius X.L. Pendergast, the daring imaginary hero of authors Preston & Child, calls the building a home, as does Windsor Horne Lockwood III of Harlan Coban’s Myran Bolitar series. The dashing and dangerous Jack Reacher has made a substantial appearance in the place, and James Patterson’s latest YA thriller made the Dakota the scene of the crime.

Of course, it doesn’t take a murder or a high speed chase to make the Dakota interesting. Visiting the Dakota, looking up at the heavy masonry, worked iron, and gas light lanterns, is akin to a trip back in time. Jack Finney’s illustrated novel Time and Again captures this experience well.

Its central conceit posits that time travel does not require whirling centrifuges, cars with top speeds of 88 mph, or Leonard Nimoy. Instead, all it requires is a peace of mind and an excellent suspension of disbelief. Si, the hero of Time and Again, enters the Dakota and, feeling at one with the history of the building and it’s deep footprint at the past, slips into the previous century.

That’s what a visit to the Dakota is; a trip back in time. The past, much like the Dakota, is something mysterious, and unattainable. The Dakota is Jack Finney’s key to the past, and, ironically, Time and Again is our key to the Dakota.

“You could actually have gone into that strange outmoded old building and seen what now you never can – what was just inside the door.”
For a building you can’t even touch (there’s a moat, did I mention that?), it’s worth the trip. Combine it with a stroll through Central Park on a nice summer day. There’s a nice bar down the block, called, fittingly, The Dakota Bar, that promises a boozy taste of New York’s history.

But next time, I’ll try sneaking into The Plaza. Better odds.

GRADES (on a 1-5 scale):

Fun: 2 (Try to get the security guards to let you in. Think it of it like a game, with only a minor risk of police involvement.)

Cool Factor: 2 (It gets points for location and history, but you’ll have a hard time feeling cool trying to peek your head around the guards. Throw a bonus point on there, though, if you’re into architecture.)

Affordability (on a publishing salary): 5 (This is where it excels. Doesn’t cost a thing. Unless you want to live there, in which case it’s literally impossible on a publishing salary.)

NYC Experience: 3 (Swing into the park while you’re there, and pay your respects at Strawberry Fields, the laureled “Imagine” circle that pays tribute to John Lennon.)

Total: 12

Lukas Fauset is an Associate Web Producer at Hachette Book Group, which makes it all the more baffling that he still doesn’t have his own website. Instead he can be found on Twitter @LukasFauset, which is pretty clearly probably him.

 

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