I’ve learned to notice that leaves change color as much in spring as fall. For a few short weeks in May, I walk under sky fields of fresh, lime-green leaves that will continue to darken and thicken into summer. Right now they’re babies, really, with tender tight-balled fists that unclench a little more each day. Each year I try to spot the instant when they open fully in the nurturing sunlight. It’s a fool’s game really, impossible to win. But I think if you or I can see it, we will forever hold the moment rich.
Knitfiti is the inspired practice of wrapping urban elements—from bike racks and benches to stop signs and tree trunks—in colorful 3-D yarn. Also known as “yarn bombing,” it’s traditionally performed in stealth. Anything is fair game. I’ve seen tree trunks, bikes, fire hydrants, stop signs and ugly scaffolding all brightened by cheerful knitted or crocheted tubes.
Poetry bombing is less of a thing. Until now. A mysterious poet-tree lover has been glorifying the Upper West Side’s blossoming cherry trees with A. E. Houseman’s poem, “Loveliest of Trees.” My first sighting (above) was tied with purple ribbon to a townhouse iron fence; my second (below) hung off a mighty branch in Riverside Park. Both were printed on three hole-punched binder paper, protected by a plastic sleeve, and blotched purple from the morning rain. I stopped to read the poem and admire the tree in both locations. It was urban “Versifiti” at its best.
This city used to run on coffee and conversation, but now it’s WiFi and the cloud. On bus and subway, citizens make personal space silos by plugging eyes and ears into smart phones. Today’s news is cleanly streamed and scrolled, not folded. Down at the new and shiny Hudson Yards, the neighborhood of the future presents an immaculate plaza, gleaming supertall glass towers, and a mirrored copper-clad staircase to the sky.
Undaunted, old New York standbys like graffiti and clutter persist on uptown streets like hardy weeds. Phone booths and large stacks of Sunday papers may be almost gone, but sidewalk boxes manage to hang in. So do random funny moments in an unexpected street scene. Here, four giveaway newspaper boxes line up like sentinels around a mailbox. Behind them, a big-eyed mollusk painted on a parked truck seems to grab the old print freebies. Only in New York: an octopus has snatched three dinosaurs.
New Yorkers are fussy about dirt. Too little is the suburbs. Too much is the country. Just the right amount, say, on a stroll along Broadway in the West 90s, is the real New York. Some old-time city residents even mourn the super-grimy, edgy, “I’m walkin’ here!” aura of last century Times Square.
So I wasn’t surprised when the city’s critics threw mud at the $25 billion new luxury development, Hudson Yards, now open on Manhattan’s far West Side near 34th Street. For The New York Times’s Michael Kimmelman, the design was “at heart, a supersized suburban-style office park, with a shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo community targeted at the 0.1 percent.” New York Magazine’s Justin Davidson said, “too flat, too clean, too art-directed…I can’t help feeling like an alien here.” The New Yorker’s Ian Parker described the site as a “Doha-like cluster of towers on Manhattan’s West Side.”
Translation: it was too damn clean.
When I visited on opening weekend (March 15-17, 2019), I, too, was overwhelmed. Every surface, from the glass-and-steel supertall towers (one of which, 30 Hudson Yards, is now the fifth highest building in the U.S.) to the luxury retail mall’s walls and floors, gleamed. The plaza’s objet d’Instagram, “Vessel,” glowed like a penny in the sunlight and threw warm coppery reflections onto the white retractable shell of the adjacent arts complex, The Shed. The only dirt I could find was in the specially designed “smart soil” in the vast planters filled with gorgeous purple pansies. Even that dirt was clean.
Did anyone notice? Thousands of visitors filled the 5-acre plaza, lined up to climb the 154 flights of stairs in the Vessel, flowed politely onto the seven floors of escalators at The Shops and Restaurants mall housing the city’s first Neiman Marcus, and ate snacks in the bakeries and food shops. The hordes were diverse, local, young, excited and curious. They were having fun. So was I.
Then I realized what the critics missed. The futuristic new neighborhood does fill a niche, and not just for the .1 percent. It’s a vacation from grit! Available to all, and just a subway ride away. A neighborhood with free Wi-Fi, 28,000 plants, 200 mature trees, specialty snacks under $10 and public revolving art exhibits? In close proximity to the High Line park? All sorts of people, from locals to tourists, will come for a clean getaway. By force of nature they will humanize it and, over time, it will acquire a unique patina all its own. If not from New Yorkers, then leave it to the birds.
People bring big dreams to this big city, but they live small to survive. They rent studio apartments with tiny kitchens. They walk diminutive dogs. They work in cramped cubicles. They do little gigs. They have trivial arguments. They eat microgreens.
Wee is us. And this mini snowman—about 18 inches high—was right on trend. He popped up on a townhouse railing after a March snowstorm that was slighter than expected. Tidbit accessories completed his look. Baby carrot for nose, celery scraps for hair, pebbles for eyes and the spindliest of twigs for arms.
And yet, small is beautiful. The frosty sculpture had presence. Think Billy Porter in his velvet tuxedo gown at the Oscars. Think Constantin Brancusi at the Guggenheim. Under its anonymous creator’s hands, the ephemeral snowman disrupted the three-circle cliché and turned a simple brown railing into a majestic pedestal. It was something all together new and fresh.
True outsider art. Or at least outside.
In the dead of winter, candles are alive. I light them every morning to wake up to beauty. Outside my window, unbroken grey wraps sky and sidewalk in an enervating hush. The city is in hibernation. At the kitchen table, my slim candle flames dance to their own music. A wax pinecone sinks inside itself, preserving its brown spikes and spirals as it melts. Another, “Feu de Bois” from Diptyque, sends out a wood fire scent. A few are just glass votives, because, why not?
By mid-February, things are looking up. Daylight begins to stretch. Some afternoons are still too grim and dark and cruelly cold. Others hold surprises. Walking in Central Park toward dusk, I see black trees lined up like logs against the urban skyline. Glass buildings shoot gold and orange embers at the sinking sun. Everything is lit. Warmth spreads. It’s a fireplace in the sky, New York style.
I’ve never forgotten the joy of finding my homemade second grade mailbox (aka slotted shoebox) stuffed with Valentine’s Day cards and SweetHearts Conversation Hearts. Admittedly, it was an easily won popularity as the teacher’s rule was give to one, give to all. I learned to see the kitsch in paper hearts and candy sentiments, but my original enthusiasm for the day never waned.
Now I search for ways to mark the day in proper urban style: Ironic, dressed in black and self-obsessed. Scrolling through my inbox, I see endless local V-day options.
Instead of buying or receiving roses, I’ll adopt a Highline plant in Manhattan. Or shed my pants at Cupid’s Undie Run for charity. With the Naked at the Met Scavenger Hunt, the nude is in the art. Still too cloyingly romantic? In Queens, My Bloody Valentine Haunted Attraction bleeds red with two floors of scary stalking. Brooklyn’s Littlefield hosts a series of hipster events: “It’s Friday and I’m (Not) in Love, ” (a wear black Anti-Valentine’s dance party), “Mortified!” (share your teen-angst memorabilia) and “Tinder Live with Lane Moore” (watch her swipe right in onstage improv).
You name it, there’s a class for it. Teachers around the city are primed to instruct in making heart-shaped chocolates, cakes, soufflés, floral bouquets, lollipops, linoleum prints, and so on. My favorite? “Self-Love Hand Lettering” at Parachute Home, where you make a card to “celebrate the one person most important in your life…you!”
I take a walk to clear my head.
An overflowing Valentine’s window display at the independently owned store, More & More Antiques on Amsterdam Avenue, calls out to me. I realize I can’t complain about national chain stores and shuttered retail fronts ruining the streetscape unless I start to put my money where my mouth is. I wander in and buy a tiny hand-painted figurine with a winsome heart-shaped face. Something about it is slightly off, but it promises to be “All Mine.”
XOXO, Cutie Pie.
This New Year’s Eve in Times Square was a soggy mess. The television broadcasters looked wet and miserable. The entertainers looked downtrodden. Then, as the hyped Waterford Crystal Ball began to drop, a cloud moved in front of it. Three days later, the rain was long gone but the confetti remained. It spun with the wind in colorful spiral updrafts. It played catch me if you can with children. Bicyclists and cars raced through it like winners at the finish line. One woman held her arms high in victory so that her friend could photograph her with the swirl behind her. A normal January afternoon in Times Square became an extended celebration. Sometimes the best party is when you least expect it.
My childhood dream was to own a lollipop tree. I figured if I could grow my own, I’d have pops all year. The landscaper at the garden shop promised me a seedling by Christmas. When the day came, I was too old to be fooled by the scotch tape fixing lollipop to branch, but I did love the effect.
Decades later, I’m still a sucker for genius confections. This year’s holiday windows at Bergdorf Goodman take the cake. Themed “Bergdorf Goodies” and up until January 3, 2019, the windows contain fanciful chocolate bears, licorice zebras, gingerbread clocks, and macaron giraffes in vibrant candy and fashion tableaux— no scotch tape visible. To see all, watch here.
“I’m almost dead.”
I realized after a second that the skateboarder rolling slowly to a stop near me was calling to his friend about battery power. Not health.
I see the future and it is e-assisted. Soon we will have bionic hands and plug-in feet and chip-implanted brains. Until they arrive, we are in the clunky appendage boom. We strap smart watches to our wrists. We cradle iPhones. We pedal-assist our bikes, Li-ionize our scooters, electrify our skateboards. In cities across the U.S., dockless Bird and Lime e-scooters duke it out with pedestrians and local laws. Personal transporters ‘R Us.
I snapped these two night riders at Columbus Circle just as dusk began to fall. Their boosted boards sent small cones of light ahead like tiny lighthouses across a pavement sea. Intrepid but practical, they were sensibly geared up in helmets, heavy jackets, gloves and backpacks. I figured the fellow with knee pads and fierce red tail-light had fallen once. His talismanic level of protection spoke to me of caution born of experience.
I was curious to know where they had started and for how long they had been going. I wanted to hear what brand they were riding and if they had tinkered with the design. But before I could get my nerve up to ask, the traffic light changed. They leaned back, tilted up, and off they went, across the circle and into the muffled velvet dark.
Attracting attention in the chaotic neon crossroads of the world is nothing short of a miracle. But if you load two men and a giant menorah into a pickup, play Hanukkah songs from booming loudspeakers, and dance along exuberantly in shirtsleeves in freezing weather, people might just notice.
Even in Times Square.
And if your truck back bounces up and down in glorious rhythm as you rock it out, you might uplift local drivers stuck in standstill traffic and international tourists jostled by crowds. As they smile and snap videos to upload around the globe back to their friends, they amplify your contagious message of joy and celebration. Even singleminded theatergoers might stop hurrying to their curtain times and pause for a minute to watch your al fresco musical. I did.
It takes a lot of chutzpah to drive and dance across the city singing, “Hey, it’s Hanukkah!” But in New York City, where public menorahs are, let’s say, not exactly in short supply, creative swagger is essential. You have to put yourself out there.
Joy to the jammed! Even a nearby Sephora billboard got into the celebratory spirit and put “HORA” in my photo. Seriously. There’s no business like show business.
There they are, lined up like sentinels behind the scaffolding. I am always excited when the Christmas trees come to town, even if I never buy or own one, because they transform barren concrete sidewalks into magical tiny forests. Every time I walk by the fragrant firs, pines and spruces, I am transported from grey New York to my own private Narnia. Arriving around Thanksgiving and lasting until Christmas Eve, the seasonal trees elevate mundane places and turn routine chores into an adventure. You never know who might run out for a tube of toothpaste to a 24-hour drugstore at 2 a.m. and come home instead with a ten-foot spruce. And I can’t help wondering, are these truly just trees, or maybe—for those with special vision—a line of deep green uniformed soldiers guarding a dark red castle? Each time I walk by, I breathe deeply and stand a little straighter. You never know who might be watching.
Fall put up its own form of resistance this year. Days stayed warm into late October. Leaves refused to turn. I looked everywhere for seasonal progress but couldn’t find it in the usual places. A trip upstate to hunt color on Columbus Day disappointed. In the city, crews strung holiday lights around trees with bright green leaves, as if they were in Florida or California.
The day before the midterm elections, change blew in overnight. Locusts and lindens filled the streets with their golden glow. Ocher leaves lifted and scattered in the wind. Coming up from the grimy subway underground, I entered a forest of light. It was a harbinger.
It’s common to walk around carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. What about on your feet? Would the world feel a little lighter?
In our current political realm of black is white and up is down, maybe the most appropriate response is to upend yourself. Artist Kathy Ruttenberg does that with her dreamlike sculpture of a woman on her head balancing a luminous globe in the Broadway median at 117th Street. That location is purposely centered between the gates of Barnard College and Columbia University, where I studied real news journalism. The cast silicon bronze, “Topsy-Turvy,” expresses the artist’s belief that pursuing knowledge can create a better world.
The fantastical sculpture is one of six from Kathy Ruttenberg on Broadway: in dreams awake, on the Broadway Mall medians from Lincoln Center at 64th Street to Washington Heights at 157th Street (until February, 2019). To see a video of all six, click here.
A grey-haired woman sitting in the Broadway median stares intently at me as I cross. Does she really see me? Or am I just a shadow of someone she once knew? Her eyes burn cigarette holes in my coat sleeves. Farther down, a pug squats, then scrapes. A mother bends to tie her child’s kicking sneaker. Up and down it goes, a tiny bow compass drawing arcs in air. A homeless man sleeps but hangs on to his hand-held sign: “Today’s my birthday.” His long hair and beard, his tilted face, sing like Jesus. Cars are lined up along the curb, nose to toe. In the windshield of a white Ford van, I see an etched universe of branch and sky. The intricate reflection stops me in my tracks. Everywhere I look, there’s opportunity to color in the blanks.
I don’t want a Maserati, I want a flying car. Ever since reading Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I’ve dreamed of a vehicle I could drive over gridlock, through rivers and under mountains. Maybe that’s why I’ve always loved these ingenious outdoor car parks. I like to imagine that the cars have swooped into their individual resting spaces like swallows into nests. I love seeing big metal machines stacked tidily like spice or wine bottles, two-ton weight be damned. At the push of the button they come carefully down, though there may be a wait if you’re the guy at the top. Even if cars can’t fly yet, they can still always pile up, up, up.
Like its ambitious citizens, the Manhattan skyline is always reinventing itself with an eye to the competition. The newest super tall skyscrapers—some still with cranes—look like fishing lines to the stratosphere. Are they trying to catch birds, helicopters, clouds? Here are views for billionaires (and maybe global criminals) who need to show they are on top of the world. Not just the one-percent, but the one-upper percent—the “my treehouse is higher than yours” club. Like NBA basketball players or super models, the towers look down imperiously on older buildings. The formerly imposing now looks short and squat. But reflected in the dimpled water of the Central Park Reservoir, the Super Talls shrink like Legos and belong to everyone. Nature brings them down to size, and wins.
My immigrant great grandparents ran a small grocery on the Lower East Side. It was essential that my Grandma Mary drop out of school at age sixteen to help in the store so the family could save money on staff. Her educational sacrifice paid off in helping “the boys,” her brothers, go on to college.
Since then, all of the siblings’ future generations, male and female, have graduated from fine colleges and universities. And the Lower East Side has morphed into a chic destination that contains expensive condos, craft cocktail bars and artisanal ice cream shops. The pushcart past has pretty much disappeared but can be glimpsed in a visit to The Tenement Museum on Orchard Street or during a historic walking tour of the old neighborhood.
My brilliant grandmother went on to educate herself through wide reading and concert-going. She was highly self-disciplined and aspirational and always rued her lack of higher education. One of the many things she did out of pride was train herself to pronounce “th” and “r” properly. Others might say “toity-toid” (Thirty-third) Street, but not her.
I can only imagine how she might have loved this trendy CornerGrocers at Delancey and Rivington that looks like a home refrigerator on the lam. Whoever stocks it has a keen eye for display—it’s organic street art. And best of all, perhaps the convenience of the self-service aspect (though you have to pay inside), has allowed future Marys to stay in school.
It took me decades to figure out that the New York City summer ends emotionally, but not literally, at Labor Day. Back to school supplies, best-of-fall media previews, and chilly boutiques stocked with winter coats all conspire to convince me that fall has started. In reality, it's still wretchedly hot. The summer sun continues to laser the concrete, my iPhone says it "feels like" 100 degrees, and a short walk outside is an act of faith and resilience. Inside, high humidity swells all my apartment doors so that they jam their jambs. They grunt with complaint.
The dog days of September?
I dial back to the August morning I awoke at a friend's beachside cliff house in Encinitas, California. From my perch on high, I watched a dog race joyfully through the surf while his owner trailed languidly behind with leash and morning coffee. A great splash of ocean lies between them. It's that cool, empty space I jump into now.
One of the strangest interviews I ever did as a cub reporter was at the Russian & Turkish Baths. It was done entirely in the nude. It came floating back to me as I watched my dusty car get soaped up at another cleansing New York City institution: the West Side Highway Car Wash. Here, cars of all makes and models—from proletarian to presidential—get spanking clean while drivers watch through a plate glass window. Colorful neon lighting gives a happy disco feeling to each cleaning cycle. The car wash is 71-years-old and has a vintage electric sign, but it continues to innovate with eco-friendly products, water recycling and surprisingly artisanal snacks. Delicious Underwest Donuts operates a small coffee shop inside and makes fresh donuts in flavors like "car wash" (lavender-vanilla) upstairs. There's always a line at this popular destination. Which all goes to show that in the naked city, grime actually does pay.