By Cady Kuzmich
Clifton Park — Joe Macken grew up in Queens, across the river from Manhattan, with The New York City skyline as the backdrop to his youth. A kindergarten class trip to the Queens Museum where he first saw a replica of the New York City left a marked impression on Macken. From that day on, he knew he wanted to make a replica of his own.
He began carving Rockefeller Center out of a piece of balsa wood in May 2005 after moving to Clifton Park with his family. Now, at 53 years old, Macken has built a city of his own — or a borough, to be exact. While he has started with Manhattan, he eventually hopes to build the entire city, with the exception of Staten Island — a project he expects to take another 15 years. Macken noted the whole city makes a nearly perfect square without Staten Island and said he simply didn’t have the space to include the fifth borough.
“I never really thought I’d finish it but I wanted to try,” he said while setting up his 30- foot long replica of Manhattan in the Daily Gazette news office Monday afternoon. “I kept going back and forth and finally decided to just do it and let what happens happen.”
He assembled the entire replica for the first time in the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library this fall. “That first time at the library I was sweating it out,” said Macken, who wasn’t sure if the replica would fit together like he had planned. He had only worked on it in pieces in his Clifton Park basement beforehand. “When I finally put it together, it was the biggest relief,” he said.
Macken will be assembling his replica in the Capital Region twice this April – once at the Viaport Rotterdam Mall April 9 and again at the Clifton Center Mall April 30th. Both showings will be all-day events beginning around 11 a.m., according to Macken.
When asked why he hasn’t included the Bronx, Macken laughed, “The problem with the Bronx is that my wife won’t let me build anymore.” He and his wife, Patricia, have three kids — Erika, 13, Christopher, 8, and Jessica, 8. Christopher has taken an interest in his father’s project and helps from time to time.
For the past nine years, Macken has worked as a truck driver for DeCrescente Distributing Company in Mechanicville, often getting out of bed by 4:30 in the morning, leaving little time to devote to his project. “A lot of this was built after I put my kids to bed in dribs and drabs,” he said. Though he admitted to pulling a couple of all nighters, too.
Of the 40,000 buildings he’s made, he thinks the toughest one was the Bank of America. “I had to do it four times because I wanted it to look as much like the real thing as possible,” he said. The Empire State Building was his favorite to work on since it’s one of the city’s most recognizable buildings.
“This whole thing fits in my van, believe it or not,” he said. Macken estimated the whole project cost about $1,200, using balsa wood, 30 by 20 inch pieces of styrofoam and exacto knives. He decided to work with styrofoam and balsa wood because the lightweight materials allow him to transport the replica more easily.
If Macken could display his work anywhere, it would be the New York-New York hotel in Las Vegas or The Skyscraper Museum in Manhattan. He said he would love to leave it somewhere if it could be protected somehow.
As if giving an impromptu tour of the real city, Macken pointed to various buildings throughout Manhattan, saying, “This is the Dakota where John Lennon lived. That’s Columbia and that’s the Museum of Natural History. That one, there, is the Woolworth Building which was built in 1913 and was the tallest building in New York City until 1930.”
Whenever he visits his mother in the city, he looks around to see if there’s anything he missed.
While he finished his replica in September, he hasn’t stopped updating it, adding or expanding buildings to keep up with real-time Manhattan. The next task at hand for Macken is building the Tri-Borough bridge and eventually adding boats and ocean liners.
Having grown up in the city, this replica is more than a collection of buildings and roads — in some ways, it’s a landscape of memories. The bridge from Queens to Manhattan took him three weeks to finish. “I totalled my drivers ed car on that bridge. Hit a garbage truck,” recalled Macken.
Macken looked at the Manhattan skyline almost every day as a kid growing up in Queens. Now, though hundreds of miles away, he stands above the city with a bird’s eye view. Standing above his work, 11 years after he began, Macken said, “At six feet tall, it’s like flying over at 8,000 feet.”
That day in the Queens Museum, with his kindergarten class, remains fresh in his mind. “That was 40 years ago and it’s still in there,” he said.