Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Walk On The Lower East Side

The Lower East Side had been on my list for months, and a few weeks ago I finally had an afternoon to explore, with C as a game accomplice. 

LES has a reputation for grittiness, at least in comparison to many other neighborhoods.  It's had its own version of gentrification, though, and I was soon to learn that many of the 'old-timey' stops have closed their doors.  There was still plenty to see for an afternoon, and I definitely need to return.  But come along on my first foray...

I was to meet C at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.  I walked east, and was startled to pass the Bowery and see this, the grand entrance to the Manhattan Bridge:

I continued walking, past the rest of Chinatown, and finally made my way to the Tenement Museum.  The museum tells the story of immigrants who lived at 97 Orchard Street in 1863.   The building had been shuttered for fifty years, due to a landlord that couldn't pay for the renovations required by laws passed in the 1930s.  It became a time capsule, and ultimately the perfect setting to tell the story of the families who had lived there.

We went on the tour featuring the Moores, an Irish Catholic family who moved into the building.  We learned that the neighborhood and the building was heavily populated by Protestant Germans, and that it's likely that the Moores moved there to escape the Five Point slum, an adjacent neighborhood where many Irish and other immigrants lived when they first arrived.  Sadly, one of their children died at 5 months old; the family moved out soon afterwords.  We were able to see the apartment that they had rented, decorated in a manner much as it would have been at that time.  No electricity, no water, on the fifth floor.  Water pump and latrines down below in the garden.  It was a sobering journey, especially as I reflected upon my own Irish Catholic ancestors, and led me to wonder anew about the challenges they faced when they arrived on the American shore.

A tour on a hot day leaves one a bit peckish, and I had done my research ahead of time.  I wanted to taste my very first knish, a treat that was particularly popular among Jewish immigrants. (For those of you rolling your eyes and thinking... how is it that this girl made it through life not eating a knish until now?  I say to you: I grew up in a midwestern town in which the Protestants were our (the Catholics) version of diversity.)  I did it in style, at Yonah Shimmel, a knishery that's been open for 100 years.  What's a knish, you  non-New Yorkers ask?  It's a sort of doughy bun with a filling-- we ordered a classic, potato:
It was so good-- steaming hot, doughy, moist, perfect with a touch of mustard.

Satisfied, we continued our walk towards 190 Bowery, a 72 room bank-turned-home & photography studio that has become famous for the gorgeous interior and also the street art decorating the outside-- it very much looks like an abandoned building, but this article tells the real story: 190 Bowery

For those of you who have read previous posts, you won't be surprised that I was curious about the street art:

And one of the building's entrances... who would ever guess that beauty lay within?
Although interesting, I was most excited about stumbling across a Shepard Fairey installation that was a couple blocks north, one that I had read about but not yet seen:

It was a visually interesting day, but there was one spot that refreshed like no other:
Yes, this little sanctuary is right on the corner of a major intersection.  Small green spaces like this can be found sprinkled throughout the city.  This one, the Liz Christy Community Garden, was the first community garden in NY, and it's named after the woman who started the Green Guerrilla movement in the city.  The garden is unexpectedly long, and lush and lovely and shady and absolutely beautiful.  Benches and meandering paths abound, with gorgeous flowers and little treasures such as shells and curious stones tucked in numerous corners.  It is a magical place.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

In the footsteps of Madeleine L'Engle

I walked past a silver-haired woman this week, and she looked very much like my favorite author, Madeleine L'Engle.  Madeleine passed away four years ago after a grand and long life, but her work and spirit live on in many people's hearts, including my own.

I was first introduced to her books through A Wrinkle In Time, a novel for young adults.  I must have been 10 years old or so.  I liked it, but didn't immediately become hooked.  The title that truly enthralled me was A Ring of Endless Light, one of a series about the Austin Family.  I became obsessed, and read every L'Engle title I could get my hands on, including the ones intended for adults.  I loved her heroines, all of whom were smart and principled and from strong families and a little outside the 'popular' circle.  Her writing had a profound influence on me, and fostered my confidence that I could also be outside the popular circle and still be okay.  Apart from my parents and extended family, L'Engle had more influence on how I viewed the world than any other individual.

When I saw the silver-haired woman, I remembered that L'Engle had lived in New York City, with a second home, a farmhouse, in Connecticut.  The Connecticut home sounded idyllic to me, and I had never understood why she would also be so attached to NYC.  I understand now, of course, and decided I would track down her NYC home and wander around her neighborhood.  With a little luck, I found her old address:

It is a nice but not overly fancy building on the Upper West Side.  There's a sweet and tiny park just north of her street:

Today they were filming a movie just adjacent to the park:

I had done some research on the neighborhood before traveling there, and decided to stop at the Nicholas Roerich Museum, located in a townhouse on West 107th.  Nicholas Roerich was a Russian artist who lived from 1874-1947.  I am ashamed to say that I had never heard of him, and had never seen images of his art.  I immediately fell in love with his paintings, and came away incredibly impressed with his life story (he spent time in India, the Himalayas) and accomplishments. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.  For more, see:
Nicholas Roerich Museum and Wiki entry for Nicholas Roerich

There weren't more than 10 people in the museum when I was there.  It's open every day except Monday from 2-5pm.  If you are in NYC and looking to do something that is unique and inspiring, I highly recommend a visit.  Here are a few photos (taken with permission):

I *love* stumbling across things that are totally new to me.  Had I just seen this one museum, I would have felt utterly satisfied.  But wait, there's more...

Madeleine wrote often about the nearby St John The Divine Cathedral, where she was a volunteer librarian and writer-in residence.  I walked north to find it.  It's enormous-- here is the facade:

It's so freaking big I couldn't back up enough to get the whole thing.  Apparently the ceilings are so high that the Statue of Liberty could fit comforably inside.  Really.
I arrived just before 4pm, serendipitous timing as Evensong was about to start.  A choir from St. Andrews in London was the featured guest.  I sat in one of the available seats in the choir stalls, and immediately regretted it.  It was unbearably hot, so much so that I had to concentrate on my breathing so as to not faint.  My discomfort vanished the moment I heard gorgeous voices, floating through the air.  I couldn't see the choir-- they were out of sight in the ambulatory, opening the service with their sound but not their visual presence.  It was electrifying.  I thought of the countless times that Madeleine L'Engle had attended such a service and the solace she found in this magnificent place, and felt blessed to be there in her memory