leisure 05.1.06

The Day of the Year

It wasn't that I woke up and thought, let's walk for eight hours today.

Jan Morris wrote in the epilogue of her book Manhattan '45: "…still it was possible, wandering through these streets in the warm of a summer evening, say, with Manhattan's life and hope and color in swarming vigor all around you, to laugh out loud at the happiness of being you. If ever nuclear war were unleashed upon the world this city would doubtless be among the first to go; but even its ruins might prove to whoever came after what splendour men and women could achieve at their best, and what fun they sometimes had achieving it."

That was Saturday. If you missed it, you missed a good one: the air was cool and clear, the humidity low, and the sun a warming anodyne. Perhaps you were out of town, or working at your desk, or your allergies were bothering you, or your partner was, and you didn't get to get out and breathe in this particular day. A pity. There may be other days in the next eight months to recommend themselves (and you could make a case for yesterday), but I don't know if there will be one in which New York will seem more enchanting or more itself, or will brim higher with swarming vigor.

It started, familiarly enough for those of us with dogs, in Central Park, where the sudden advent of spring shortens the sightlines, but compensates generously with cherry and magnolia blossoms, redbuds and crab apples. You could hardly miss the daffodils, the grape hyacinth, or the Dutchman's breeches unless you were caught up looking at the dappled effect cast everywhere by the backlit trees. The dapples looked so artfully arranged that it seemed a theatrical lighting designer working on a Chekhov play had run amok with a big box of gobos.

After returning the dog home, I took a Rosie Ruiz pause on the IRT, getting out at 18th Street in Chelsea. Many of the side streets were closed to traffic, and there were police everywhere, as people made their way to Union Square by the thousands to join the anti-war march. Walking south, I cut east on 10th Street, which presented a Jane Jacobs-worthy scene: one man was building a new wooden tree guard, another man down the block was watering the flowers planted within his tree guard, across the street in front of a townhouse, a photographer was taking pictures of, perhaps, the building's owner, standing next to some tall tulips on their way out. Each new impression only reinforced the what-a-day! cartoon bubble that seemed to hover over everyone's head.

In the East Village, the garage door of the Theater for the New City's scene shop was open; a man was working almost on the sidewalk, as if he, too, couldn't bear to drill or paint too far from the outdoors. I passed the delightfully-named Little Stinkers Shoe Company, a pint-sized place dotted with pint-sized shoes for tykes, and on over to Tompkins Square Park. I always worry when I haven't been to Tompkins in a while that it will receive an inappropriate, gentrifying makeover, so that I won't be able to distinguish it from, say, City Hall Park.

Good news, at least to my eye: it looked well-cared for, but still like Tompkins Square Park, a place that might — possibly — still function as a cauldron for protests or civil disobedience. On Saturday, any such protesters had surely made their way north to Union Square, where the anti-war demonstration was underway. Instead, I found mostly people sunbathing, and the dog run was filled with people sitting on sawed-off tree stumps (uptown it's fancy benches).

Circling through the park, I walked south on Avenue A, drawn into a tiny housewares stores I like. It only takes a minute to make a sweep of the merchandise, and I was on my way out, but the selection on the CD player was Renee Olstead, a singer I had never paid much attention to, singing "A Love That Will Last". It's a very Norah Jones-sounding cut, and it fit the vibe of the day, so I stayed until she finished. The melody stayed in my head until I turned into the Essex Street Market.

The Essex Street Market, an idea of Fiorello LaGuardia's to get some of the pushcarts off the streets, always provides an interesting, disorienting sensation. Among other things, it doesn't smell like anywhere else in New York. A few of the shops were closed for the Sabbath, but the rest of the place was its food-market-from-your-travels self. I had a look at Jeffrey's Meats, which a reader had recently reminded me has been run by the same family for four generations and has great prices and quality.

I turned onto Hester Street and spent some time in the southern end of Sara Roosevelt Park, the part by the school. It strikes me as a triumph of shoehorned land use: a bright, tiny, pleasant patch of sloping green, a hard-top area for kids to play, surrounded (encroached might be a better word) by land that couldn't be more densely occupied with access roads to the Manhattan Bridge, bumper-to-bumper traffic, heel-to-toe pedestrians, stores and restaurants. It's the whole city in miniature, I thought, a case in point.

A few blocks on Canal Street was all I could take, so I threaded my way north and west onto one of my favorite streets — Centre Market Place — that was once the stables behind the old Police Building HQ. I like it because it offers instant respite from Canal Street. Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so: tucked into a corner were a few boys playing cards, sitting on an old tabletop in a corner parking space, impervious to everything (until I snapped a picture). If they had been playing Spaldeen it couldn't have been a more 1950s moment.

Since Despaña , the sleek, new outpost of the all-Spanish comestibles shop from Jackson Heights, was nearby on Broome Street, I decided to stop in and get some salchichon sausage and Zamorano cheese for dinner. Given the number of calories I had burned since daybreak, I made liberal use of their generous tasting plates.

Thus fortified, my feet led toward Broadway. Behind me, Centre Market Street may have held a momentary piece of the 1950s, but on Broadway it was the 1960s redux with the anti-war demonstrators marching, you might say with swarming vigor, downtown. I found the roar of chants by the throng (reported later as 'thousands' but surely 'tens of thousands' was more accurate) quite stirring. The march had drawn a concatenation of causes that included, at least in the brief time I observed, anti-war protesters (Iraq and Iran), pro-choice activists, and those protesting harsh new immigration bills. People carried signs that had Che Guevara on it, on one sign was printed Long Island Says Out of Iraq, and another had George Bush's head atop the body of a chicken.

You could easily spend your day in many parts of New York, virtually unaware that this march was taking place or that there was a Sikh Day Parade in midtown, or the Tribeca Film Festival was screening at various sites, or the Morgan had reopened or thousands of other activities were taking place at the same time throughout the five boroughs. And once again, I thought of Jane Jacobs. Today, I thought, she would have fallen in love with New York all over again.

And that gave me an idea. I worked my way into the West Village, stopping into the welcoming confines of St. Luke in the Fields on Hudson Street. The parish grounds are open to anyone, and it's a genuine sanctuary. I could hear music from the church, which only added to the sense of peace I always feel there.

It was getting to be late afternoon and the spirit to keep walking was willing, but my feet were weak. I walked to Jane Jacobs' old block further up Hudson to pay my respects, and then took the subway home. There, I unpacked my Spanish picnic, opened a bottle of Mencia wine to go with it, and thought about the day. Jan Morris was exactly right — I did, I laughed out loud.

— Charlie Suisman

Jan Morris
Theater for the New City
"A Love That Will Last"
Essex Street Market
St. Luke in the Fields
A Postscript
Sunday morning brought us back to earth with the piece by Nicolai Ouroussoff in the Week in Review called Outgrowing Jane Jacobs, another critic patting little Jane on the head, referring to her as a mother who made some simple, emotional observations about city life. Now, Ouroussoff writes, it's time for the grownups, the real thinkers, to celebrate things like the 'heroic scale' of L.A.'s highways (seriously, is this guy a complete fool?). Hey, Jacobs didn't have an answer for suburban sprawl, so really, come on. It is a dishonest piece of writing (nearly blaming Jane Jacobs for Battery Park City!), giving a shout-out to Robert Moses, who brought us roads, parks, and bridges. In what translation was Jacobs opposed to roads, parks, and bridges? It was the context of those roads, particularly, that was Jacobs' issue. You know, the 'road' that would have destroyed downtown Manhattan. Ouroussoff says Jacobs' death might be taken as permission to move on, but the essay is nothing more than a pissing contest and it is, frankly, disgusting.

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