New York City Isn’t Dead

Based on media reports one might think New York City has become a hell hole. My recent visits have not borne that out. Obviously, my experience is just that – mine. Anecdotal – limited to the times and places I have been. That time has been spent on the Upper West Side, which according to some reporting has been the site of a mass exodus. Data may reveal a decrease in population, but you never would have known it by walking through the neighborhood and strolling through Central Park this past weekend.

Gary and I celebrated my birthday in the city, joined by our daughter and son-in-law-to be. We traveled down on Friday evening. It was a beautiful, clear evening. A huge full moon hung over northern Manhattan as we crossed the George Washington Bridge. Leah and Ben, after taking a half hour to find a parking spot, arrived at our apartment. With so many Citi-bike stations and a wider bike lane eliminating parking spots from one side of Central Park West, street parking, which was scarce before, is now almost impossible to find. It is one of those trade-offs of urban living; convenience for car-owners versus encouraging eco-friendly biking. At least once a spot was found, we didn’t need our cars for the rest of the weekend.

Saturday was my birthday and Gary, Leah and Ben wanted me to choose our activities. I considered our options. Given how bike-friendly the city has become, renting bikes seemed like a good idea. The weather was supposed to be great. But many other people might have the same idea and I didn’t relish the idea of navigating heavy traffic. I looked up the Metropolitan Museum of Art, thinking if it was open, maybe it wouldn’t attract too many people. The website indicated it was open and explained the COVID guidelines – tickets were available for specific times, there would be a temperature check before entry, masks were required and guards would be ensuring compliance, sanitizing stations were placed throughout. The Met is a huge building. It seemed like it could be a safe space. We all agreed, and I bought tickets for a 2:00 entry.

We had a relaxing morning in the apartment. Gary and I went out and picked up bagels. That walk revealed some of the toll of the pandemic. A number of retail stores and restaurants were closed. There were more homeless than there had been before, but there were still families out and about and a lot of stores were soldiering on. Lenny’s, the bagel place we favor, had a line (properly spaced) out the door, and we didn’t encounter any aggressive panhandlers. The streets looked a bit battered, with the closed businesses and more trash, but nothing like what I remembered from 1980 when I was attending graduate school. The city may be staggered, but it isn’t on its knees like it was then.

We returned to the apartment and had our bagels and coffee and chilled out. We left at 1:00 so we could take our time getting to the museum, taking a scenic route through the park. We only had to traverse about a mile and change.

We entered the park at 100th street, hearing peals of laughter from the nearby playground. The vast majority of people were masked (with both nose and mouth covered!), including the children. Families were picnicking. A father was teaching his son how to play badminton. We passed cyclists, runners and rollerbladers – or more accurately they passed us. I noted many interracial couples, heterosexual and gay, of every age. We saw and heard musicians (jazz and classical), exercise classes and softball games. We even saw a group of dancers, wearing flouncy black skirts trimmed in vibrant colors, doing what appeared to be salsa. We saw birthday parties, a bridge table set up in the grass, paper table cloth flapping in the breeze, balloons tied to chairs. It was an extraordinary tableau, vibrant with life. Some may not have been socially distancing, it was hard to judge whether groups are families or households, but other than people who were eating, most were masked, and many were clumped in small clusters which suggested they were trying to maintain appropriate distance. We were able to walk with enough space to feel comfortable. The sun was shining, the air was crisp. It felt like life – maybe not normal but affirming.

I was reminded that life wasn’t normal by the persistent feeling that a hair was trapped between my mask and my lips. I stopped twice, moved to the side next to a tree, removed my mask and inspected it for the stray hair. I rubbed my fingers over my lips. I never did find it – it just kept irritating me. But I kept my mask on.

We arrived at the museum at the right time, had our temperatures taken and our tickets scanned. Some spaces were more crowded than others, but we still took in their extensive Impressionist collection. People were mindful of spacing, we found ourselves doing a dance to allow access to the works. They thoughtfully reprinted the identifying information cards in larger font so you could stand back farther and still see the artist’s name and description of the piece.

I have been to the Met a number of times over the course of my 61 years, but I am hardly a regular there. Each time I respond to the paintings and sculptures differently. One of the things I have come to appreciate more recently is the spaces that museums provide. The Met has a number of courtyards with walls of windows that offer views of Central Park and high ceilings so that it feels airy and open. The sculptures in those areas may not be my favorites, but I love the overall effect.

I had read a bit about an installation on the rooftop garden that I wanted to see. You had to take the elevator to the fifth floor to get there. They were regulating the flow of people, limiting the number in the elevator and preventing crowding on the roof. We found a long line to get on the elevator, with markings on the floor to designate proper distancing. The line wound itself around a room. We wondered about waiting, decided it appeared to move quickly, so we got on. It was well worth it – both because the room itself had some interesting pieces to look at and because the rooftop was fabulous. The installation, called Lattice Detour by Hector Zamora, was a wall made up of blocks that left open spaces, hence the name of the piece. It may not sound all that special, but it created cool shadows and great photo opportunities. The view up there was spectacular. The park and the city skyline were lit by brilliant sun against a pale blue, clear sky, with just wisps of clouds.

After enjoying the fresh air and views, we walked down the stairs instead of using the elevator, careful not to touch the bannisters. We were alone in the stairwell, just the four of us.

I got us lost looking for the American wing, but we found great pieces of modern art. It was nearing closing time. Leah and Ben were determined to find George Washington Crossing the Delaware, my left heel said it had enough (we had already walked five miles and still needed to walk home – a cab was not an option). We agreed to meet in the gift shop. Another thing I love, museum gift shops!

I picked out some gifts, paid for them, and went to sit on the front steps (those iconic steps) to wait for everyone else. The beauty of cell phones, I texted everyone where I was, so I wasn’t concerned about being separated. I people-watched as I waited. Again, the variety that is New York presented itself. One woman, dressed in a body-hugging black outfit, thigh high boots, blond hair blown dry to perfection, gold earrings glinting in the sunlight, confidently posed for her partner as he snapped pictures. Vendors were selling pretzels and hot dogs and people were buying.

It wasn’t too long before Gary and the kids joined me. We sat a bit longer, criticizing those who were not masked properly, but also noting how many more were. We began our trek back to the apartment.

Having been out and about for the whole afternoon, we decided we had enough exposure to the elements and ordered food in. So many choices! Once again, they deferred to me. We ordered Chinese from Red Farm. I poured some wine while we waited and reflected on the day.

Thank you, universe, for giving me a beautiful present. The only thing that would have made it better was having Dan, Beth and our granddaughter with us, but I had a FaceTime visit first thing in the morning. I was beyond grateful for the gift of the day. And, I was relieved to find New York City doing its thing in this new reality.

Revelations

One of the things I have done during this period of quarantine is watch a variety of videos: music, movies, t.v. shows. Some are homemade that pop up on my Facebook or Twitter feed; others have been made available by professional artists or companies. All of them provide a welcome diversion. I received a link to one such performance from my daughter Leah. She knows I am a fan of the Alvin Ailey Dance troupe and they released Revelations, which was filmed at Lincoln Center in 2015, so that it could be viewed for free. [Note: The link she provided is no longer active. Apparently, Alvin Ailey has created a free All Access streaming service that rotates programming. Here is the link. Hopefully they will offer Revelations again. Their other works are well worth viewing, too.]

Watching the piece brought back memories. The first time I saw Alvin Ailey was in the early 1970s. It was a powerful experience

Aunt Clair, who I wrote about here, invited me to join her to see Alvin Ailey at City Center. I was excited. I was a fan of dance as an art form. During my teen years Mom and her sister (Aunt Simma) had a subscription to the New York City Ballet (NYCB). They took their daughters, me and my cousin Laurie, to three or four performances each season. The four of us would meet for lunch beforehand and then go watch the ballet. I loved those afternoons. Although I could not imagine myself as a dancer, I was moved by the athleticism, grace and strength displayed. Sometimes the music was even more beautiful than the choreography. Taken together, the music and dance were breathtaking. Some might find classical ballet boring, but it was rare for me to think the piece dragged. Most often I was captivated by the expressiveness of the human form – sometimes it told a story, but sometimes it was just raw emotion.

Alvin Ailey would be a different experience on several levels. We were going at night; not to a matinee. That meant being into the city after dark, which brought a different energy. Plus, it was the holiday season so Manhattan would be more lit up than usual. I didn’t know what to expect from the dance itself, but I did know that Alvin Ailey was not the classic approach offered by NYCB.

It also meant getting dressed for an evening at the theater and going into ‘the city.’ Though I lived in Brooklyn, which is in fact part of New York City, we didn’t think of it as the city. When we went to Manhattan, we said “We’re going to the city.”  I  also would be spending time with my Dad’s sister, my adventurous, independent and always interesting Aunt Clair.

Though I did not ordinarily focus on my wardrobe, this was an exception. For one thing, I was feeling a bit better about my body. For a brief time during high school, after having some success at Weight Watchers and staying quite active (I played basketball on my high school team), I was in reasonably good shape. Mom and I bought some clothes that I felt good in.

I chose my high-waisted, plaid, bell-bottom slacks. They were red and black with a thread of yellow, quite stylish at the time. I put on a black turtleneck sweater. I had to decide whether to tuck the top in or wear it out. I modeled for my mom and she suggested I go upstairs and ask Uncle Terry what he thought. Maybe Dad wasn’t home at the time. I was nervous as I climbed the stairs. Uncle Terry gave me a thumbs up for either way. If I tucked it in, I felt like it emphasized my chest. I wore the sweater out. Though I felt more comfortable in my body, I wasn’t ready to make that statement.

It was winter and holiday lights made the theater district even more festive than usual. I don’t recall how I got to the city – if Aunt Clair picked me up or if my Dad drove me in. I know I would not have taken the subway by myself. At that time, taking the LL in the evening alone was simply not an option – too dangerous.  Either way, Aunt Clair and I arrived at the theater and found our seats along with several thousand others. The theater was packed. Our seats were in the center in the lower balcony – perfect to see the whole stage, the dancers’ full bodies and the patterns they formed.

We saw three pieces: Blues Suite, Cry and, the finale, Revelations. I was enthralled by each one in turn. The program took us through the range of human emotion, from despair to joy, from anger to triumph. The audience was totally immersed in the ride. Revelations uses spirituals as its spine and the theater felt like what I imagine to be a revival meeting in a black church. Being a white, Jewish person, I had no point of reference for this, but I loved it. The heart of the dance was universal, showing us the human spirit in all its dimensions, but calling upon the specific experience of African-Americans. When the performance concluded, the audience, which represented a cross-section of New Yorkers, kept clapping, stomping and singing – even when the lights came up. No one wanted to leave, no one wanted to break the joyous spell. Eventually, after many minutes, people started to make their way toward the exits. Aunt Clair and I were exhilarated.

I have returned to see Alvin Ailey many times since. Though not all performances elicited the excitement of that first one, I have always been moved and grateful for the opportunity to see so much talent. I come away amazed at what the human form can communicate. Once we get through this period of social distancing, I can’t imagine a more perfect choice of performances to see than Revelations. If you have an opportunity to see it live, take it.

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And, thank you, Aunt Clair for opening my eyes to what dance and theater could be.

Art or Not

On Saturday Gary and I met friends and went to Dia, an art museum in Beacon, New York, in the Hudson Valley. The building was repurposed, it had been a box factory for Nabisco. It featured large spaces that housed huge installations – sculptures, paintings, arrangements of stuff. We were told it was 30,000 square feet. We took a guided, one-hour tour.

The docent introduced herself, offered some history of the building and explained that she was an artist. Gary whispered to me, “Duh!!” From her theatrical manner to her inability to remember dates to the words she used to describe the art, she was what you think of when you imagine an ‘artist’ – creative and airy.

We were a small tour group. As we gathered to begin one gentleman coughed, a phlegmy, worrisome sound. Everyone took a step back and looked at each other. Coronavirus was on all our minds, but we were not deterred. During our visit we stopped once to wash hands at the restroom and later Gary passed around his travel sized bottle of Purell.

The first installation we looked at consisted of numbers painted on the walls of the gallery with a straight red line connecting them. The line and numbers were above my eye-level (I’m 5’6”). The docent explained that the numbers corresponded to the measurement of the space and the height of the line was the eye-level of the artist. She talked about it as a blueprint brought to life, bringing our awareness to the structure in which we stood. I thought it was interesting and gave me food for thought. I caught two of my companions rolling their eyes – they were not enthralled. Another person on the tour was moved to point out that the space wasn’t made up of perfect squares – the measurements across from each other weren’t exactly the same. The docent and that person engaged in some discussion. I was getting less interested by the second. Finally, we moved on.

The second room, see picture below, was comprised of a white dust arrangement on the wood floor. We were asked what we thought the substance was – we took some guesses. It was chalk. I liked the look of it – the wave-like pattern. Gary found this more interesting than the last room, but not by much.

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We continued walking through galleries. We came upon rusted structures designed for people to walk through and another area with free-standing discarded car parts, and a space with colorful fluorescent lights. We went outside to a garden where there was a soundscape – an artist had manipulated bird calls. The docent explained that the artist, a woman, was commenting on the fact that, other than her, when the museum opened all the exhibits were made by male artists. The sounds were the names of those male artists, distorted through a computer. If I hadn’t been provided that background information, it would have sounded like random noises. It wasn’t unpleasant, but I wasn’t sure it added to the experience either. Instead, I noticed that there were buds on the cherry blossom trees. A welcome sign of Spring.

After the tour, our foursome continued exploring the museum.

After about another half-hour, we agreed it was time to move on. One of my companions commented that the art had not moved him – he said he didn’t get it. Gary agreed. I was asked what I thought. I explained that I didn’t know if I ‘got it,’ but I enjoyed a lot of it. Some things amused me, in other pieces I liked the play of light, shadow and reflection. Without the docent’s explanation, I found some pieces pleasing even if I didn’t understand the artist’s intent, while others didn’t do anything for me.

Here are samples of pieces I found interesting (I didn’t take photos of those that I didn’t, which made sense in the moment but as I wrote this post I realized might have been useful to contrast. Of course I probably would have felt bad posting an artist’s work that I didn’t like.)

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It is interesting to me how my taste in art has evolved over time. When I was a teenager and young adult the art I appreciated were Impressionist paintings, like Monet’s Water Lilies or realistic depictions, like Andrew Wyeth’s. I was mostly interested in ‘pretty’ landscapes. I still like Monet and Wyeth, but my appreciation for other things has grown. Now I see nuance, depth and skill in a portrait – I especially like John Singer Sargent. I can also enjoy an abstract arrangement of colors that simply pleases my eye. I enjoy outdoor sculpture gardens, especially whimsical pieces.

Art is clearly in the eye of the beholder. For two of my companions yesterday, there wasn’t much art to behold. They enjoyed the light and wide-open spaces of the building, and the scenic views of the Hudson River but didn’t get much from the pieces displayed inside. They were good sports about it, and we had plenty of laughs (especially at the phallic sculptures – which I did not photograph :)).  Our visit was a success. But, it begs the age-old question: what is art?