It’s a wonderful town

We recently spent a few days in the Big Apple, and the fact that the only souvenir we brought back was a bag of Nicola potatoes probably tells you all you need to know about us and our priorities.

Basically, I find New York completely overwhelming. We stayed mostly in midtown and downtown Manhattan, and my reaction upon venturing forth onto the chaotic streets and teeming sidewalks was always the same: Great googly moogly! Get a load of all them tall buildings, Maw!

You have to understand that I don’t know the city at all. The last time I spent any time there was during college, when we used to make occasional forays down from rural western Massachusetts in search of live jazz, cocktails, and the illusion of sophistication. Back then—I’m talking thirty years ago or more—New York seemed a really menacing place, which of course was part of the attraction; taking the subway in the middle of the night made us feel, well, dangerous. Even though we were actually just, you know, stupid.

On this trip, though, I discovered another Manhattan, one that exists behind or along with the gray concrete canyons and jostling hordes and schools of predatory taxis. The principal element of this greener, gentler Manhattan is, of course, Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park, the true heart (or perhaps I should say lungs) of the city.

Even when it’s jammed with pedestrians, as I imagine is usually the case in the spring, Central Park, with its forsythia and cherry trees blooming and its undulating serpentine walkways, is a true oasis from the frantic sensory overload that surrounds it. Even the constant din of car horns—the true soundtrack of any New York experience—seems muted and distant. I love Zilker Park in Austin, and Golden Gate Park in my native San Francisco, but neither of them seems as necessary as Central Park.

The hidden Manhattan also includes the High Line, an extremely cool elevated park on the West Side. Talk about creative use of space! On an island such as Manhattan, all the empty spaces in the grid have long since been filled in. But Rob Hammond (the son of our San Antonio friends Hall and Pat Hammond) had the bright idea of turning a disused elevated railroad track into a park. Walking above the streets of Chelsea opens up unexpected vistas; you look down into the surrounding neighborhoods, over the Hudson, and into New Jersey from above, and see them as if for the first time.

Another component of this city-within-the-city is the Union Square Greenmarket, an enormous (140 vendors) farmers market that’s open Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays and brings all manner of stuff—meat, vegetables, fruit, flowers, bread, wine, cider—from the surrounding countryside into the heart of the city. (That’s where we bought the potatoes.) According to one of the vendors we talked to, Sarah Shapiro of Hawthorne Valley Farm, the Union Square market is one of about forty in the city. By my extremely rough calculations, given an estimated New York City population of circa 20 million, that works out to about one market for every 500,000 people in New York.

Speaking of food, we had lunch on Saturday at the Green Table, a tiny sustainable eatery tucked inside Chelsea Market, in the old Nabisco plant on Ninth Avenue. And we had a wonderful Easter dinner with friends at Savoy, a charming little Soho bistro specializing in fresh, locally sourced ingredients. It was all delicious.

I guess you really can find anything in New York, from a cast-iron Chrysler Building lantern to overhead parkland, if you just know where and how to look. Funny how a city that, to me at least, has always symbolized traditional, even obsolescent, urban culture—the subway! Radio City! the Brooklyn Bridge! Broadway! Grand Central!—can turn out to be so full of innovation. Those potatoes we brought back were darn tasty, too. Maybe in another five years or so, when we’ve recovered from this visit, we’ll be ready for another!

What we’re reading
Alexander McCall Smith, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built
Martin: Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir

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