Bright lights, little city

Get a bird's eye view of Gotham at New York's Mini-Me

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BUILDING BLOCKS Take in the sights at the QMA’s replica of the Big Apple.

BUILDING BLOCKS Take in the sights at the QMA’s replica of the Big Apple. Courtesy Queens Museum of Art

Encompassing 320 square miles, New York is a mammoth city. And though strolling along the concrete canyons of Midtown or the Financial District may give you a sense of how big this place is vertically, a trip to the top of the Empire State Building or Rockefeller Center is about the only way to really grasp its horizontal scope. Even from that vantage, aside from a few recognizable landmarks, most of the city appears as an indistinguishable mass of apartment buildings and high rises. To really get a handle on the city landscape, head to the Queens Museum of Art and take in the Panorama of the City of New York, an exact scale model rendered in astounding detail.

More than 40 years ago, Robert Moses commissioned the Panorama to serve as the centerpiece of an amusement park ride at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens. Visitors clambered aboard gondolas to gawk at Lilliputian versions of Gotham landmarks: the Statue of Liberty, the TWA terminal at JFK, the George Washington Bridge, the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island. The project took 100 workers three years to construct, and attracted nearly six million people in its first two years.

Though the gondolas were eventually removed, the Panorama was regularly renovated through the 1960s. (It was integrated into the Queens Museum of Art when the institution opened in 1972.) The last update occurred in 1992, when approximately 60,000 of the 895,000 structures were refurbished. After that, the Little Apple sat neglected, a half-remembered relic of civic pride.

But after being closed to the public for the latter half of 2006, the Panorama has undergone a long-overdue upgrade. An updated lighting system now mimics the arc of the sun as it passes over NYC, while a new 13-minute multimedia presentation explores the Panorama’s construction and spotlights various NYC attractions, including Shea Stadium, Times Square and the Triborough Bridge. A new audio track includes a symphony of urban sounds—traffic jams, the rush of the subway, the orchestra tuning up at Lincoln Center.

Despite the improvements, one part of the Panorama remains decidedly untouched—the Twin Towers still stand proudly, albeit one twelve-hundredth their actual size. “We debated whether to keep them, but ultimately it’s a historical representation from 1992,” says QMA spokesperson David Strauss. “It gives people a chance to reflect on how much things have changed.”

David Lackey, who oversaw the Panorama’s audio-video enhancements, is proud of how the project turned out, though he admits for a time it consumed his waking life—and then some. “One night I dreamt I was a giant, stepping over skyscrapers and walking between boroughs in a single bound,” he says. “Of course, the next morning I was stuck in traffic for more than hour.”

Guided tours of “The Panorama of the City of New York” are held Sat and Sun at 3:30pm at the QMA. See queensmuseum.org.

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