by Deborah Harley
Ever have a New York Moment? I bet you have if you have spent any amount of time in this city. A New York Moment can be many things. It is usually serendipitous, surprising, and always memorable. A New York Moment is wonderfully intimate, fusing a connection between the city and its people. I have had many New York Moments, and I love to give others theirs.
For example, a while back, my husband Bill and I were hosts to two members of his extended family – Rob and his 14-year-old daughter Kayla. They had traveled in from a small town in Eastern Pennsylvania to see a Yankees games – a birthday gift to his daughter. Bill and I gave them a whirlwind tour of Manhattan before chauffeuring them on the subway to their afternoon game in the Bronx. As we jostled through Midtown, I kept hoping to find that special something that would make their trip really memorable.
Afterwards, we met again in front of the stadium and escorted them on round two of Manhattan. It was already dark as we strolled through Bryant Park and up Broadway to show them the spectacular, albeit gaudy, lights of Times Square. Midway through the chaos I suddenly realized that we were about to encounter a situation that demanded my immediate intervention. With an audible “Oh s___!”, I abruptly turned to Rob and deadpanned hastily, “Oh, by the way, before we go any further, I need to tell you that it is perfectly legal for women to go topless in New York City.”
“Who? What?” Rob crumpled his forehead. Why would I even mention such a thing at that particular moment? But as I stepped aside, Rob’s baffled look transformed into a gaping, wide-eyed, and embarrassed stare as he found himself face to face with a buxom young woman with blue-painted breasts. Noticing the shock that was engulfing him, I quickly managed to whisk everyone away from the craziness. But I have to admit, as we made our escape through the crowd, I found myself sporting a satisfied smile. Rob had experienced his New York Moment.
But that’s not the only New York Moment that I want to tell. That came as a result of reading an article in The New York Times about Evan Shinners, a young Julliard-trained pianist who was on a spiritual quest to better understand the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. To accomplish this, he decided to spend a month playing marathon sessions of Bach in a rented public venue.
The very next day, as I desperately sought shelter from a cold, rain-drenched afternoon, I found him. The storefront room was large, clean, and starkly white, surrounded on two sides by floor-to-ceiling windows. “Come in and listen,” the sidewalk sign beckoned. A red neon “Bach” glowed in the window behind it. The room was empty except for a scattering of folding chairs and stubby stools on one side of a baby grand. On the other side were two harpsichords and an extended quote printed in large, blue, block letters referencing a rejection letter that Shinners had received from Pierre Hantaï, a French harpsichordist and notable Bach interpreter. Shinners had hoped to study under him; however, Mr. Hantaï had dismissed Shinners efforts and expressed concern that he lacked the spirituality that Hantaï felt was essential for performing and appreciating Bach’s work. Thus, Shinners would be forced to face the quote daily as he sought to elevate himself spiritually.
I was so enchanted by the intimate setting that I told my husband about it. That Saturday, Bill and I headed to W 56th St & Broadway. Because it was lunch time, we picked up some soup nearby to enjoy while listening to Bach. However, instead of Shinners on the piano, we were first greeted by a performance of a young violinist -- playing Bach, of course. More audience members wandered in while we finished our lunch and sipped our complimentary coffee. My husband sat astounded by the experience. Where else but in New York could you stumble across such a thing and right off the street: a spiritual journey attainable only through the sharing of it with strangers. It got me thinking: New York has so much freely available for everyone to enjoy. All you need to do is step outside your door. It’s only then that you’ll truly experience this wonderful city.
By the end of our lunch I had realized that Bill had found his New York moment.
By Laurie Lewis
Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park opened in 2012 at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, a narrow strip of land in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. The park is situated on a four-acre triangular plot of landfill. Renowned architect Louis I. Kahn envisioned this memorial shortly before his death in 1974.
A row of five copper beech trees separates the landmarked ruins of the Smallpox Hospital, designed in 1854 by James Renwick, Jr. (architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral), from a white granite staircase leading to the FDR memorial. The view from the top of the stairs is spectacular: the Midtown Manhattan skyline to the right, Queens to the left, and a wedge-shaped lawn lined on each side by sixty little-leaf linden trees.
The tapering lawn points to the centerpiece of the memorial. A larger-than-life head of Franklin Delano Roosevelt greets the visitor. Enlarged from a bust that sculptor Jo Davidson made of the President in 1933, this bronze head is six feet tall and weighs 1,050 pounds.
Granite slabs behind the FDR image contain words from his eighth State of the Union address, known as the Four Freedoms speech. The President spoke of what every place in the world needs: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
More granite slabs create walls perpendicular to the stones engraved with the excerpt from the Four Freedoms speech. Architect Kahn called this granite rectangle the “Room.” The Room is open at the south end and on top—perhaps suggesting a world open to possibilities?
I have been to the Four Freedoms Park several times. Each time, I have been amazed by the serenity; even on weekends, it is not crowded. The most impressive aspect is the view, especially of Manhattan from a perspective that otherwise can be obtained only from the Queens side of the East River. The United Nations is directly opposite the Room, and iconic New York structures like the Chrysler and Empire State buildings peek out from the background.
Yet as magnificent as the views are, the Four Freedoms Park lacks something, in my opinion. Perhaps it is a matter of semantics. To me, a park must be green. Aside from the tree-lined lawn, this is predominantly a white stone place. In a park, the eye should be drawn to its elements—not away to scenery beyond its borders. A park should entice visitors to relax and linger. Little seating is available for this purpose, except for flat granite slabs in the Room; the lawn and shady border lack benches. Perhaps this is why the park has so few visitors compared with more perfect retreats like Central Park and Bryant Park.
Even if Roosevelt Island’s Four Freedoms were considered a memorial rather than a park, it falls short of the FDR memorial in Washington, DC. That structure tells multiple stories, with many quotes and statues. The Roosevelt Island tribute to the four-term President is an example, as I see it, of less not being more.
To learn the history of Roosevelt Island and how it is eco-friendly, see the September 2018 newsletter.
by Deborah Harley
I decided to take a walk through Central Park’s North Woods the other day. I knew the Central Park Conservancy had completed a renovation of the area and was curious to observe the results. My reaction was “Wow!” If you haven’t been there lately, you are overlooking what I feel is the most spectacular landscape of the park. For one, the Conservancy has widened the Loch, the rivulet that runs through the woods, and restored it nearer to the size that Olmsted and Vaux had envisioned. It had dwindled to a thin stream over the decades. The Conservancy has also added natural paths that allow you to wander closer to the water and deeper into the woods for a more immersive experience.
The North Woods is a unique landscape in the park, and Olmsted and Vaux designed it with a particular purpose in mind. During the mid-19th century, several influential cultural movements were introducing some radically unfamiliar ideas into the American consciousness. These included a new emphasis on the value of each person, a more profound appreciation of nature, and an increased ethical awareness. It was the time of the Romantics.
Central Park was a product of these times, and its builders incorporated these new values and ideals into its design and construction. As the first built public park in the United States, everyone – whether rich or poor – was welcome. Nevertheless, the lower classes were the key beneficiaries of the park’s underlying egalitarian philosophy. For example, Vaux and Olmsted designed the North Woods to resemble the Adirondacks in upstate New York. As wilderness country, the Adirondacks became a popular destination for the wealthy seeking to escape the city. The upper class could travel there whenever they wanted, because they had the time and the means. The lower classes, however, had neither – especially considering they had only one day a week off, if they were lucky. Their lives were limited to the crowded confines of Manhattan, living and laboring under appalling conditions.
Therefore, Vaux and Olmsted provided the lower classes with their own Adirondacks. Now even the poorest New Yorkers could experience nature – some for the first time in their lives. Central Park offered them a chance to walk through the woods, to breathe healthy fresh air, and to enjoy all the benefits that nature had to offer. For the Romantics, those benefits meant nothing less than a complete revitalization of one’s body, soul, and spirit.
Think about this. Central Park was not built for the wealthy. It wasn’t built to make someone rich, inflate an ego, or build a reputation. It was built for all New Yorkers to enjoy, and through that experience become happier and healthier. This was a radical idea. How lucky we are that we can still experience this in the same way as New Yorkers did 150 years ago.
Do yourself a favor. Take a walk in the North Woods and be refreshed. Come on our tour Central Park: Marvels of the Northern Half. We offer it often on our public tour schedule, or contact us to book a custom tour that fits your own schedule.
by Alan R. Cohen
My awareness of the Audubon Mural Project grew from an accidental encounter with what is now my favorite piece. As I was preparing a tour of Lower Washington Heights that would end at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, I was looking for the most interesting route and noticed a brightly colored facade in the distance. From afar, I could see it was iridescent with shades of blue and purple, but I had no clue what it was. When I approached the mystery, I was delighted to find Tri-colored Heron, a nearly five-story-high depiction of three herons competing for food. At the bottom on the piece was stenciled audubonmuralproject.org and the artist’s name, Iena Cruz.
Tri-Colored Heron, by Iena Cruz
The fun of being a tour guide includes the endless opportunities to learn more about the city and to pursue multiple, divergent, and interesting paths. Tri-colored Heron gave me one such path to follow. Upon visiting the project website, I realized that two of the murals on my M4 bus ride north to my apartment in Washington Heights are part of the project. As the bus goes north on Broadway at 155th Street (just past Trinity Cemetery), you can see the four-story-high Fish Crow, with splashes of yellow and orange against a terra-cotta background, on the south-facing side of an apartment building just past the gas station.
Fish Crow, by Hitnes
If you look to the east as the bus approaches the same intersection, you see another mural. This magnificent piece depicts the Swallow-tailed Kite and twelve additional bird species painted within the outline of the kite.
Swallow-tailed Kite and Others, by Lunar New Year
Now that I was officially obsessed with the art, I had to find out more. I learned that the project serves two major purposes: to call attention to endangered birds while simultaneously beautifying the neighborhood.
The National Audubon Society has long been concerned with environmental threats to bird populations. Data published in 2014 revealed that at the current pace of climate change, 314 of the 588 North American bird species studied face changes to their natural habitat so major that if the species cannot adapt, they would decline significantly or possibly face extinction by 2080. Detailed reports from the scientists and an executive summary are available on the Society’s website (http://climate.audubon.org). The National Audubon Society wanted to find ways to sound the alarm and spur action.
Around the same time, a native of Washington Heights, art collector and gallery owner Avi Gitler, was determined to bring art to Upper Manhattan. Realizing that there were no serious art galleries north of 125th Street, Gitler decided to open his own gallery on Broadway between 149th and 150th Streets. The space is a relatively small storefront, easily missed by the casual passerby. To call attention to his gallery, Gitler thought that murals on a roll-down gate might do the trick. In cooperation with his landlord, Gitler began with two adjoining stores. Given that his new gallery was a stone’s throw from John James Audubon’s former estate and Audubon’s final resting place in Trinity Cemetery, birds seemed a fitting subject for those first murals. An artist Gitler recruited, Tom Sanford, connected him with Mark Jannot, an executive of the Audubon Society.
John James Audubon Contemplating the Cerulean Warbler,
by Tom Sanford
Through this serendipitous chain of events, the mural project was born. Gitler is the curator of the art. Artists from all over the world, including many locals who want a little publicity, apply to paint one or more of the endangered birds. As of this writing, more than 82 of the 312 endangered birds have been painted. Other birds are being added as permission and funding allow. Through Gitler, the Audubon Mural Project provides the funding. The costs for the smaller projects, which often are completed in one evening, are just for the paint and maybe a small honorarium to the artist. The larger projects—those on the sides of a building or sometimes multiple buildings—can take a week to complete and require the rental of cherry-pickers or lifts to serve as platforms for the artists, and they can consume a lot of paint.
Gitler gives the artists wide latitude for depicting their chosen bird(s). The only requirement is that the piece be representational. While abstractions or swaths of color might be interesting art, only murals that look like a bird are allowed. Accordingly, some artists choose to present their bird realistically, painting the shape and coloration of the bird fairly accurately. Other artists may depict the bird’s form accurately, but not its color. Some artists go for a cartoon-like representation, while others tell a story by bringing in the bird’s habitat or diet.
Bald Eagle, by Peter Davington
Pinyon Jay, by Mary Lucy
The mural project began with five murals painted in 2014 on the block that houses Gitler’s gallery. Currently the murals can be found from 134th Street on the south to 165th Street on the north and from Riverside Drive on the west to Edgecombe Avenue on the east. Most of the murals on drop-down gates are located on Broadway. Amsterdam Avenue has a fair number, and the side streets throughout the neighborhood have some “must see” murals as well. To find the most murals, you need to go birding when the gates are down—in the evenings or on Sundays. However, many murals are always on display on sides of buildings. Much like actual bird-watching, you never know which birds you’ll see. Some birds have been covered due to construction projects. One mural of a hummingbird, on a panel secured to a building, was stolen (it is reportedly being repainted). Yet other birds, newly painted, seem to suddenly appear as if blown in on the winds of a storm.
Together We Rise, by ANJLNYC
(depicting the yellow-billed magpie and American pelican)
According to the staff at the gallery, local police have been impressed with the effect of the murals on the neighborhood. Not only have the murals drawn many “birders,” including families, to the area, but graffiti (that is, unauthorized street art) is on the decline. While tagging continues on unadorned surfaces, the murals themselves have not been tagged or defaced. Whether the murals will result in action to curtail or slow climate change is an open question, but it seems clear that the project has brought beauty and interest to this part of Upper Manhattan.
Black-billed Magpie, by Andre Trenier
The Audubon Society offers a tour of thirty murals on Sundays. Or, if you’d like me to share my favorite murals and give you a bit of history of the neighborhood as well, contact me for a custom tour (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Townsend's Warbler, by ATM
On Saturday, May 5, we offered our tour Central Park: Marvels of the Northern Half as part of Jane's Walk, an international event in which people show off their favorite area of a city. We were pleased to have about 20 people select our tour from among 40 walks starting at the same time.
We began with features of Central Park that many New Yorkers know, including a playground and the Reservoir. Then we took the group into lesser-known territory: the tranquil Pool and the North Woods. Everyone was amazed at the beauty of the area and how much it contrasts to the noise and grit of the city despite being smack dab in the middle of the city.
Emerging from the woods, we saw the large body of water at the northeast corner of Central Park, the Harlem Meer. From the high bluffs overlooking the Meer, the group could clearly see the usefulness of the area for a string of fortifications during early American wars.
Spring flowers accompanied us everywhere on this lovely May day, from the cherry blossoms along the Reservoir to the colorful tulips in Conservatory Garden, where the walk ended. The area is beautiful year-round, but it is truly a marvel in the spring.
It's not too late to take a walk in New York's fabulous spring show in the northern part of Central Park. Join us for a repeat of this tour on Sunday, May 20, at 2 PM. We are offering it at a special price, $20 per person (a 20% discount from the usual price). Please sign up here, and we'll email you with the starting location.
Photos by Harvey Kopel.