One day, the sun peeked out of the snowdrifts. And off I went with my greeter to “The Village” – Greenwich, the Bohemian Capital of the Big Apple, a former tobacco field of Native Americans turned to artists’ haven, birthplace of the Beat and the ’60s counterculture movement.
Twice, I have sampled the free global greeter program in Paris, so I thought I’d try it here (www.bigapplegreeter.org). But you need to request for a greeter via email at least two weeks before your arrival. Donations to the program are voluntary.
My NYC greeter is a retired manager on a 30-year love affair with the Big Apple. She used to have an office in the Twin Towers and was a survivor of September 11.
In the melting snow, we traipsed to the abodes of America’s famous writers – the street where Mark Twain and O. Henry lived and lingered at Edna St. Vincent Millay’s doorstep.
Most of the buildings are ancient. You can tell from the fire escapes zigzagging on their outside walls. Plenty of brown stones too – the setting of Henry James’ “Washington Square”. Here lived John Dos Pasos, Edith Wharton and Edward Hopper.
I marveled at the huge windows gaping out of the basement rooms, displaying intimate details of residents’ lives to passers-by above. My greeter explained, “When they sit down for dinner, those walking by on the streets see if their families are complete, if they wear expensive clothes and eat sumptuous food. It’s a way to flaunt wealth.”
The little crosswise bars between the bottom rails of the stoops piqued me as well. Poop-scrapers she called them. The streets once swarmed with horse-drawn carriages. People step on dung everytime.
A local who overheard us laughed, “Boot-scrapers is more politically correct.”
Emerging behind the Washington Memorial Arch, we sloshed into a snow-blanketed square where a guy was tuning up his grand piano for a morning concert.
I tried to imagine what it was like in 1917, when artist Marcel Duchamp climbed the top of the arch, setting off balloons, proclaiming Greenwich Village as a republic independent from the United States…Isadora Duncan traipsing down the streets haunted by writer William Faulkner, and playwright Eugene O’Neill…
In the 1950’s this place was the stomping grounds of Truman Capote, Marianne Moore, Maya Angelou, Rod McKuen, and Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who collapsed at the Chelsea Hotel and died after drinking at the White Horse Tavern.
At the Hotel Albert lived famous artists and personages…Salvador Dalí, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Augustus St. Gaudens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Hart Crane, Walt Whitman, Anaïs Nin, heaven knows who else…
Now, we walked past little gardens, pockets of green behind churches into New York University, where they used to keep hay for the horses in the lofts, down to a primary school with a famous Brazilian mural, up the High Line – abandoned elevated railways converted to green spaces, complete with benches running on rollers.
A hotel overlooking the path is notorious for occupants strutting nude in the open windows for the benefit of strollers below.
From a High Line deck, I gazed out to the port where they once gathered Titanic survivors, surveyed the Meat Packing district where streets literally ran with blood from slaughtered animals in the old days.
Soon, we’re in Chelsea, the haunt of Sarah Berndhart, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Andy Wharhol shot his underground film “Chelsea Girls” at the Chelsea Hotel.
We ended up at the Rennaissance-style Flatiron building – thrusting out into a skyline reddened by the setting sun, like the bow of a mammoth steamer. This 113-year old wonder is one of the world’s most photographed and most iconic skyscrapers.
Next day, the sun went back into hiding but I strolled down Brooklyn Bridge after the museums closed. It was the first steel-cable suspension bridge and the largest in 1883 – and so beautiful, it inspired poets like Walt Whitman, Hart Crane and Elizabeth Bishop. Painters like Joseph Stella immortalized it in their canvases.
Nice to see the police patroling here too. They keep watch down the subways as well. And cameras are all over the place. Locals chafe at the intrusion to their privacy, of course. It’s Big Brother, always snooping. No matter, it makes me feel safer.
Friends expressed concern about my hosteling in Harlem. Oh, but I’ve seen Harlem two decades ago, when I first came here. I thought I’d give it a wide berth then. But it’s unrecognizable now – with malls and people of all colors stomping about. The Apollo Theater’s still there, holding Amateur Nights as it always had since 1934, before American Idol and Star Search came into fad. Recent performers include Paul McCartney, Patti Labelle and Janelle Monae.
Of course, the one thing which occupied most of my time in NYC was museum-hopping. (I’m featuring each museum in a separate series after this.)
The NY Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the world’s greatest. I saw it five times and can’t say I had enough. The Cloisters, the Northern outpost of the Met, showcases medieval art and architecture, and is much smaller. Still, it took me a day.
Again, a single visit is not enough for the American Museum of Natural History. Its 45 permanent exhibit halls house myriad human, plant, animal, fossil and rock specimens – not counting the temporary exhibits and shows. You get a choice of shows along with the admission ticket. I chose to see all four current shows and raced through the museum highlights in between, but it was a tight squeeze.
If you just concentrate on the paintings and watch a single show, as I did, you can breeze through the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), the most influential modern art museum in the world, for a day. But if you want to digest all of its interesting exhibits, you need more.
Furthermore, I can’t afford to miss two private museums – Solomon Guggenheim and the Frick Collection.
I’ve seen the Peggy Guggenheim (Solomon’s niece) in Venice, so the NY Guggenheim intrigued me. Solomon’s ultramodern cylindrical building, “a temple for the spirit”, merges art and architecture. Its permanent collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, modern and contemporary art as well as its temporary exhibits are impressive. I found its Venice counterpart more intimate, however, because it was Peggy’s real residence and final resting place.
The personal intimacy, I found at the Frick Collection, the magnificent former mansion of steel magnate Henry Clay Frick, who bequeathed his old masters paintings, sculptures and exquisite furniture to the city after his death.
I should have seen more. But there’s always a next time, next trip.