New York City Wanderings

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Sculpture at Astor Place. I loved and still love coming upon sculptures in public spaces in New York City. This one is near the subway station exit at Astor Place.

Growing up in Brooklyn I was always excited to go “into the city,” which meant going to Manhattan. Technically all five boroughs comprise New York City, but we knew Manhattan was really The City. Not everyone shared my excitement. There were many people in the outer boroughs who were as unfamiliar with The City and its attractions as people from say Oshkosh. My father fell into that category. He wasn’t unfamiliar with it, after all his two sisters lived there, but, somehow he failed to see the charms of the traffic, grime, and general hassle of getting around Manhattan. My Mom, on the other hand, focused on the museums, theater, and creative energy. I inherited my mother’s perspective.

Over the years I relished wandering around the different neighborhoods within Manhattan. I remember my first trip without adult supervision. My next door neighbor and friend, Deborah, and I were 12 years old when we plotted our adventure. Our plan was to explore Greenwich Village, stopping at the many bookstores that were there at the time. We studied the map of the subway system and reviewed our plan with my mom. We took the bus to the LL, the LL to Union Square and then switched trains to the 6 and got off at Astor Place. We were careful to read the signs so we got on the subway headed in the right direction. We were proud when we made it to Astor Place without any detours.

We started up the stairs to exit the subway station and we heard chanting from the street. We couldn’t make out the words, but it didn’t sound like the Hare Krishnas (a religious group – cult? –  that would sometimes dance and sing on city streets). Deborah and I looked at each other and wondered what we were going to see when we got outside. When we emerged into the daylight we saw a demonstration going on across the street. People were carrying signs and marching around in a circle. In keeping with our instructions for visiting The City, we didn’t get involved – we didn’t stop long enough to really look at what the protest was about. We were delighted by it, though. Our first trip into the city unaccompanied and we arrived at a protest! In that day and age (1972) protesting was a daily occurrence. It could have been women’s lib, civil rights, the Vietnam War or a labor dispute. It didn’t matter much to us – it was exciting, but we were also a little nervous. So, we got our bearings and kept walking.

Much of what I liked best about going to the city was walking aimlessly, taking in the scenery, looking for interesting shops, and people watching. Of course some neighborhoods in the city weren’t what they are today. SoHo wasn’t filled with art galleries, trendy shops and expensive restaurants. In fact it was unlikely that we would have ventured south of Houston Street, since the Village was filled with coffee houses, head shops and other interesting stores. It wasn’t expensive to walk and window-shop, there was lots to see.

In the early 1970s the MTA (the city transit authority) ran bus routes called culture loops. It was like the ‘hop-on, hop-off’ buses that many cities offer today, but it was the cost of a single fare. I took full advantage of the service and rode the different loops many times, sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend.

When I was in college I worked summers and breaks for a perfume company that was located on 57th and 5th Avenue. I did secretarial work and some bookkeeping. I was also a messenger of sorts. The owner of the company did quite a lot of business in the Middle East and he traveled to Dubai and Kuwait pretty frequently. There was paperwork that needed to be delivered to the applicable country’s consulate, located near the United Nations, which is as far east in Manhattan as you can go. The perfume company gave me cab fare, which I would pocket and walk instead. I took a different route each time – walking as quickly as possible. I covered probably every street between the office and the different consulates – usually about 1.5 miles each way.

I still love walking in the city. My most recent visit took me on a trek from the Flat Iron district to and along the Hi Line.

The Hi Line is an elevated walkway on the site of old railway tracks that were reclaimed as public parkland. It winds its way on the west side of Manhattan from around 12th to 34th Street. I have walked the path a couple of times before, always delighted to find sculptures and other art installations throughout the walk (see pictures below from my recent walk).

After 30th street the path of the Hi Line swings out toward the Hudson River, looping around the Hudson Yards, where trains pause or sit before entering or leaving Penn Station. A few trains rumble slowly into position, most sit silently waiting.

It was desolate on that December day. Very few people were on this part of the path. The somber clouds, the gray water, the browns and grays of the buildings created a bleak but beautiful landscape. The cold air stung my eyes. I heard the slow screech of train wheels. I heard sea gulls crying. I heard other sounds, too. Was it music?

Plaintive, elongated notes from stringed instruments wove through the ambient noise. I looked around. Was I imagining it? I finally noticed loudspeakers affixed to poles. I was not having an auditory hallucination! Notes harmonized with the trains and the gulls and the traffic of the West Side Highway. It was a powerful soundscape. Eventually I found a small plaque that identified the music (Lachrimae by Susan Philipsz) as part of an art installation. It perfectly captured the sound of loneliness amidst civilization.

You never know what you will see or hear when wandering around New York City.

6 thoughts on “New York City Wanderings

  1. What a wonderful blog you capture.all he things I love about being in The City. For me a trip to any one of the many museums and just picking one of the exhibit s fills me with joy. I even like the people dressed in all kinds of clothes including the naked cowboy (in his underwear) who still greets me with good to see you again. How about on the bus (104) and a bride in her wedding gown, with husband dressed for an anniversary lunch (because I asked as they walked by) to their seats. They got off at Columbus Circle to muted applause from some of the passengers. Sitting behind 2 friends of a very mature age, talking about the
    last time they met at a police station having been arrested for protesting with others

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  2. I loved seeing the picture of the sculpture on Astor Place again. I took the subway from the Astor Place station every week-day to work at the Frick Museum on the upper east side, so I passed the sculpture every day. The sculpture rotates, and every once in a while, I would turn it, thinking it might bring me good luck. One day, right under the Astor Place sculpture, I met Jean-Michel Basquiat. He was doing a colorful spray-painted drawing on the sidewalk. This was before he became famous and sold his paintings to galleries and museums. He was becoming notorious for his interesting graffiti drawings on the sidewalks and buildings in the Village, which he signed SAMO. The drawings always included word messages. I had seen several other SAMO drawings around the Village, and had been intrigued by the art and the messages, so I felt compelled to stop walking and to talk to him. I was thrilled to meet the artist and tell him I admired his work. We talked about his art, what he was trying to express, his ambitions for the future, and the danger of doing graffiti paintings in public spaces. When the graffiti started reading “SAMO IS DEAD” a few months later, I took it literally and was very sad that this talented artist was gone. About a year later, I saw a newspaper article about a showing of Basquiat paintings in a gallery. From the picture of the artist in the article, I realized Basquiat was SAMO. I was happy he was still around and that he was achieveing a goal he had told me about. His paintings were so original and provocative. I was very sad to read that he died (for real) of a heroin overdose in 1988. As someone who loves art, meeting Basquiat is a special memory for me, which I haven’t thought about in years. Thanks for bringing the memory back by posting that picture.

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    1. Wow! That’s pretty cool. I actually remember a time when I visited you at your apartment in the Village and we walked by the cube and pushed it. I’m not sure if my brothers were there, or if it was just us, but I hadn’t thought of that for a long time, either.

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  3. I also remember walking through Greenwich Village with my friend Jeff Zola as a teenager after taking the bus and then the subway into “the city.” It felt like freedom and it was such a strange and wonderful world to explore. And talk about people watching, there was nothing like it.

    Now, of course, the city seems to revolve around “the park” or Central Park which they conveniently placed next to our apartment. That place is also amazing and I don’t have to do any of the landscaping. Just the other day, we walked across the park to the east side on a bright, sunny, crisp winter day to meet our daughter in law and our son at the movies.

    There are innumerable places to explore in our home town. Thank you for bringing it to life on your blog.

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  4. Linda- rest assured I was not with you at Laurie’s apartment…as I was unaware till now that Laurie had lived in the City. You and Mom are peas in a pod.

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