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The People’s Opera

The Mile-Long Opera, 14th Street

This week in Paris the Opéra National is celebrating its 350th anniversary. Trumpets will play the opening bars of Berlioz’s “Marche de Troyens,” there will be a parade of young ballerinas, gala parties, and of course music, including productions of an opera that had its flashy opening in 1836 (Meyerbeer’s “Les Huguenots”) and a recently completed one that will be having its premiere performance this week (Michael Jarrell’s “Bérénice”).

In New York we are being treated to our own very different but equally exciting opera moment: the deeply affecting “Mile-Long Opera” being performed this week on the High Line by some 1,000 singers from across the city. Their text was a collaboration too, assembled from interviews with New Yorkers about what 7pm means to them. As you walk through the park you pass the performers, a choral group as diverse the city itself. They are old and young; black, brown, white; every gender; professional and amateur. Some stand on little boxes, others sit. All their faces are lit, some by mobile devices, some by very cool baseball hats with LEDs under the visor.

A performer in the Mile-Long Opera

One of the most striking things about this opera is how quiet it is. No trumpets here; no instruments at all, in fact, just the voices of our neighbors, here to tell a simple story. As you walk you hear phrases: I put on my makeup; funny how money changes everything; funny how money changes nothing; everything reminds me of my mother; sometimes he comes home drunk. As you proceed through the park, some phrases repeat themselves in a new singer’s voice. I was powerfully struck by how many of the performers made direct eye contact with me as I passed, forcing me to slow down and listen.

That, for me, was the real power of this event, and it’s something we should all probably do more of. We don’t need trumpets; we have plenty of those. What we need is our neighbors, friends, colleagues, and utter strangers, sharing their stories, looking us in the eye, singing to us as we walk by on a beautiful October evening.

[update: you can now experience the Mile-Long Opera online in the “350 degree video” here. For more information about the creative team behind it, go here.]

The Mile-Long Opera, 22nd Street

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The Data Behind the Noise, Dust, and Glare Next Door

Sometimes words needs a holiday too.

Here’s a picture that captures what’s happening in New York City right now, courtesy of the Building Department’s recently launched, data-fueled online mapping tool.  It gives new meaning to phrase “built environment.”

NYC Dept. of Buildings Active Major Construction map

I’d like to thank the DOB for giving my words a much-needed rest.

You can check out the map and get details about the active projects going on in your neighborhood. But it might be better to watch Netflix instead.

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Goodbye, Lumberyard

During the era of the Industrial Revolution, the way-West Side of Manhattan was exploding with enterprise: ironworks, grain elevators, lard refineries, stockyards, abattoires, printing presses, candle factories and manufacturers of everything from cigars to pianos. The trains of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad rumbled up Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues, carrying many of these goods north along the Hudson River towards Albany, where they eventually connected with the newly-laid tracks of the Transcontinental Railroad and would make their way to towns and cities across the country.

The machines of the Industrial Revolution ran on steam, and in our neighborhood there were acres of lumberyards with steam-powered sawmills. One of the most common sites, as described by a New York Times reporter who made an excursion through the ‘hood in 1883, was “endless piles of lumber.”  He observed that “the Leaning Tower of Pisa has been copied as nearly as possible in the architecture of these piles.”

In my book about the High Line I described this area as “New York’s Lumberyard,” and there was a factory just half a block from the park on West 22nd Street. I’ve written about ghost signs before on this blog, and the one for “kiln-dried lumber” on the side of a condo known as the Eagle Building has long been one of my favorites. When I moved here a decade ago there was a short, nondescript, brick building occupied by the Balenciaga fashion company. A neighbor on the block used to stand on the loading dock and hurl a tennis ball up the cobblestoned street — then basically (blissfully, I should say) free of vehicular traffic — for his dog to fetch.

542 W. 22nd Street in 2012, © Google Maps

That low-slung building was recently torn down and the lot is now an active construction site. I’ve been photographing the old ghost sign over the past few months as the floors of the new building rise to cover it. Which, floor by floor, they now have done:

542 w. 22 Street, site excavation, July 2017

542 W. 22nd Street, June 2018

542 W. 22nd Street, July 2018

542 W. 22nd Street, 3 days later in July 2018

542 W. 22nd Street, August 2018

Adieu, friendly ghost sign.

 

 

 

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Consolations

The ubiquity of construction along the High Line and all its attendant noise, fumes, shadows, blocked views and dark spaces have been disconcerting for some years now. New projects large and small have transformed this once quiet, meditative place into an alley of incessantly loud, commercial energy. Real estate, New York City’s oldest business, is flourishing everywhere you look. The little surprises that made the High Line such a delightful place have slowly faded into the background of shiny, zesty new architecture.

But every so often you get lucky, and it happened to me this evening. It was a crazy windy day in New York. There were little waves on the Hudson River — a surfer’s paradise for small, watery creatures. On the High Line, which is always windier than street level, it was like being in a rainless squall. I was walking toward Gansevoort Street and just as I emerged from the 14th Street Passage there was a wonderful cacophony coming from the construction site at 40 Tenth Avenue. It was a little orchestra of clanging tones generated haphazardly by the the metal ends of those straps that hang from ceilings in construction sites nowadays. They were flailing around, hitting each other and making little bell-like sounds, sometimes in unison, sometimes in crazy rhythms that you might hear in a jazz club. This video captures just a moment or two:

There’s a story about Dave Brubeck that Stuart Isacoff tells in his book A Natural History of the Piano. Brubeck was famous for his improvisations in unorthodox meters, and according to Isacoff, his childhood experiences growing up on a 45,000 acre ranch were the source of his weird time signatures. When “your father sends you to fix a fence or start an engine, you are alone,” Brubeck recalled. “The sound of those little gas engines—Chu Chu Chu! Gitcha! Gitcha! Bu Ah Uh!—you never knew what they were going to do next. And when the horse would bring me somewhere, there was no one to talk to. So I became aware of the gait of the horse.” Isacoff says “He simply tuned in to all the rhythmic play going on around him.”

Somewhere in New York City, now that the sun has set and the night is young, a musician is channeling the weird beauty of a construction site along the High Line.

That’s a consolation.

 

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Marching for Their Lives — in 1908

One hundred and ten years ago 500 children “no bigger than the flags they carried” marched against a danger to themselves and helped make life safer for other kids.

The march was held on Saturday, October 24, 1908 in response to the gruesome death of a 7-year old named Seth Low Hanscamp. According to the Times, he was playing “Follow My Leader” with a group of friends, climbing on and over the cars of a freight train that had stopped in the middle of 35th Street and 11th Avenue, in violation of city law. Neither the conductor nor the brakemen were in their proper places when the train started up again and Seth fell beneath the wheels and was crushed. Nevertheless, the city coroner exonerated the train crew and blamed the accident on the child. According to one report, 198 young people were killed by trains on Tenth and Eleventh Avenues — collectively known as “Death Avenue” — over a ten year period beginning in 1888. During the darker afternoons in November, December, and January, there were on average three deaths of school children per month. According to the New York Times, many of them were crossing the train tracks in order to carry dinner to their fathers at work.

That night in 1908 the kids marched mostly in silence and carried placards demanding that all freight trains be prohibited from their city streets.

The effort to completely remove street-level trains from Manhattan would take another four decades, and it began in earnest with Robert Moses’ 1920s plan for the West Side Improvement. That master scheme included construction of the High Line, the elevated freight viaduct that was designed, in part, to get those long, dangerous trains off the street. It operated from 1934 to 1980, and is today a world-class park.

Young Seth was named for a New York City Mayor, Seth Low, who held office between 1901-1903. His promising life was cut short in a tragic accident, but his friends rallied in the streets to bring major change, resisted by legions of grownups, that would end up saving the lives of scores of other children after him.

It worked.

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Rocket Men

High Line Innovators: Nathan Bartholomew & Kaspar Wittlinger

Today is opening day of Spring Cutback on the High Line, the ninth since the park opened in 2009. Visitors marvel at the annual ritual: teams of volunteers from all over city working in shifts through the month of March to cut back the stalks, sticks and branches that dazzled us in a multitude of colors as the seasonal wheel turned through spring, summer, fall and winter. The Cutback is an existential part of the High Line, the result of its design philosophy. Most gardens are clipped and pruned at the onset of Fall when cold weather arrives, but here on the High Line they are left alone to complete the full cycle of their lives. Piet Oudolf, the horticultural artist who created these gardens, believes that plants are interesting and beautiful throughout all the stages of their life, from the soft, bright colors of springtime youth to the dark, spiky textures of a wintry old age.  “Dying in an interesting way is just as important as living,” he once said. That’s why every new walk on the High Line is different from the last one. The gardens manifest a constantly changing, vibrantly living — and then, when the time comes, dying — landscape. [continue reading…]

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