Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I’m Dreaming of a New York Christmas Part 3

This is part 3 of a three part post, part 1 is here.

Snow is covering the bench lined path which leads us to an exit. We cross Fifth Avenue which is no longer a commercial street once the park begins. Instead prewar apartment buildings, clubs, mansions, and museums face Central Park. We walk briskly east along cross streets lined with brownstone houses and small art galleries. We pass Madison Avenue, another of the City’s many commercial streets.

Then Park Avenue opens before us. A wide boulevard that runs north from Union Square at 14th Street to 132nd Street in the North, Park Avenue is usually a major thoroughfare with heavy traffic, but this afternoon the snow has kept many cars off the street. Islands of grass, bushes and trees, now covered in snow, divide the North bound traffic from that heading south. Christmas trees slowly being decorated with snow are at each end of the islands. The money for them was donated by a family that lost their son during the Second World War. The lighting of them each year is proceeded by a Christmas carol sing at 91st Street and the playing of taps.

We head south on Lexington Avenue stopping at a push cart to buy hot dogs covered with sauerkraut and onions in paprika. The meaty salty sweetness of the hotdogs blend in our mouths with the sour of the kraut and the spicy savor of the onions as we stroll south until we reach the Citibank building, a silver tower balanced atop five pillars. We carefully descend the snows slick steps into the court yard in front of the building. In the mall beneath the building is one of my favorite New York Christmas displays. A huge model train display.

We join a line of businessmen stealing a moment to enjoy one of the pleasures of the season, parents with excited children, and many other people. In the first of the dioramas, the trains wend their way through Newark, New Jersey with the Manhattan skyline in the background. Then heading north along the Hudson Valley, they run through a diorama of a 1950s suburban landscape. I point out fast food joints, a circus, and a drive in movie theater complete with a working movie screen. The trains then climb into the hilly terrain further north with a lumber mill cradled in a valley. Then they descend into the farm land of upstate, with barns and farm houses. Finally the trains run through a winter wonderland of the far north thick with snow before curving out of sight.

We are not required to brave the winter wonderland above, but proceed through tunnels to the 51st street train station of the six train. We hop on a south bound train and look at the great variety of people sharing the car with us. New York has long been a melting pot with people from many different nations living in the city for a time before moving on to other areas of the country. I point out the closed 18th street station barely lit as we speed by. After a 15 minute ride we get off at City Hall.

We surface in a small park. The white neo-classical bulk of City Hall where the 51 member city council meets and the mayor has his office is surprisingly small for such a large city. Across the street is the neo-gothic Woolworth building, once the tallest building in the world, covered in beautiful carving, enamel work and statuary. We stroll south on Broadway into the downtown financial district.

Here the buildings are older than at midtown, since it was the original main business district in the city. Even today, it is the third most important business district in the country and the second largest in the city after midtown. The brownstone bulk of Trinity Church emerges slowly from the swirling snow. This is the oldest Episcopal church in New York and the richest in the country since it owns most of the land on which the surrounding financial district is built. The parish still pays the Queen of Great Britain a rent of one peppercorn per annum. Snow is starting to drift against the grave stones in the church yard. In warmer weather it would be pleasant to look at the old graves but in the cold of this winter afternoon we turn east into the shelter of the canyons of the financial district.

The streets here were laid out hundreds of years before the invention of the automobile, so they are much narrower than those in the rest of the city. The early skyscrapers here seem to close out the sky. After passing through a very narrow block, the street opens slightly.

To our left is the short six story stone bulk of the Morgan Bank building, still pockmarked by the blast of an anarchist bomb that detonated outside in 1920. To our right is the federal building with a statute of George Washington elevated on a plinth before it. It was upon this spot that Washington took the oath of office and became the first President of the United States.

Before us is the New York Stock Exchange one of the most important financial markets in the world. A large Christmas tree stands before it slowly collecting snow. Inside, drifts of paper are accumulating on the floor of the Exchange’s main trading room. Even in this day of computers, the exchange generates frightening amounts of waste paper every day.

We walk east down Wall Street passing office buildings housing some of the worlds most important financial companies. 40 Wall Street on our left was the tallest building in the world for a few months before it was supplanted by the Chrysler Building in Midtown. When I was a boy my father had his office on the 60th floor of this building.

A few blocks later we arrive at the old brick structure of Fraunces Tavern. It was here that General Washington said farewell to the officers of the Continental Army before returning home to Mount Vernon like Cincinnatus returning to the plow. We take a peak inside and look at the historical exhibits. Paintings, Washington’s false teeth, and a number of artifacts of the Society of the Cincinnati.

Leaving the old inn, we walk the through the snow to the Fulton Street station of the A Train. The wind and snow follow us down the stairs. The trains of this line are wider and longer than those of the six train, because it was built later by the city to the train specification of the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit Company, the IRT’s rival. We ride north for more than 40 minutes as a kaleidoscope of humanity parades before us. Something of the neighborhoods above can be cleaned from the dress, and ethnicity of the people who board and exit the train at each stop. At 190th Street we get off and take an elevator to the surface.
The elevator opens into a small stone building. We refasten our coats and put back on our hats before exiting into Fort Tryon Park. We stroll to where the park ends at a bluff overlooking the Hudson river. We can hardly see the far shore through the heavy snow, but if we could we would see woodland. This is because John D Rockefeller Jr. gave the land on the far side to the State of New Jersey as a park so that the land we are standing on which was once his estate would always have a country view across the river.

A few minutes walk brings us the gothic buildings of the Cloisters. This northern outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is made of abandoned French monasteries disassembled and transported to New York where they were reassembled. It holds the Museum’s Medieval Collection, most of it, like the land it stands on was donated by Mr. Rockefeller. We enter the building and ascend a dark stone staircase to the main floor.

We look at the famous tapestries depicting the hunting of a unicorn then step out into the colonnade of the cloister where snow is gathering on the rose bushes. In the summer this is open letting people stroll through the rose bushes planted there, but now we are grateful that temporary glass windows are fitted to keep in the heat.

We walk down a few stairs and look at the gold religious objects in the treasury, then step through an open doorway into the garden. Hops now dormant for the winter cling to one wall. A Pair Tree has been trained into a fork like shape against another wall of the building. Other fruit trees now bare of leaves stand in the middle of wilted garden patches now covered with snow.

The snow fall has temporarily lessened so we are able to see a distance south across upper New York. Since this is the highest point in Manhattan, in better weather we would be able to see all the way down to the financial district 13 miles to the south, but this afternoon as the sky darkens only a mile of two of the city is visable. We retreat into the warmth of the Cloisters for a few more minutes looking at the coffins of crusaders laid out in a small chapel.

Leaving the museum we stroll through the park back to the subway station. The snow drifts around us as we walk through the darkening winter afternoon. The elevator lowers us to the station and we walk to south end of the platform so we can look out of the front of the southbound train.

With a roar and a blast of wind the train enters the station. Standing at the train’s front window, we can see the track ahead and the green, yellow, and red signal lights that tell the operator to go, slow, or stop respectively. Just before the 145th Street station we see the B and D tracks curve in and join with the A line. At 125th Street we get of the train to wait for the C or B trains which run as local trains for this part of the route.

The C pulls into the station and a few minutes later we are exiting at the 81st Street - Natural History Museum station. The station is decorated with mosaics of dinosaurs and more modern animals. We climb the stairs to the surface.
Before us is the great granite and marble bulk of the Natural History Museum. Inside are wonders from the world’s largest star sapphire to African and Asian mammals in display cases with the trees, bushes, and grasses of their habitat used to make realistic dioramas with exquisite paintings in the background. It would be wonderful to stop and explore, but we have one more Christmas stop before heading home and the late afternoon dark is closing in.

We jump on a cross town bus which enters the viaduct across central park. The stone blocks of the walls flash by and at one point we pass through a tunnel carved from the naked rock of the park. Three minutes later we exit the bus, once more on Fifth Avenue.

We cross 79th Street and walk two blocks north to the grand Beaux-Arts building of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We climb the broad stone steps and enter in the great lobby. Huge urns full of seasonal flowers stand in niches on the wall. The money for the flowers was left by a long time patron in her will. We give a donation then stroll through the Byzantine art. We stop and examine a bible bound in gold and gems before walking into a large hall constructed to look like a church so that a gorgeous rod screen could be displayed.

However it is the not the screen that grabs our attention, but the Christmas tree decorated with a swarm of porcelain angels with flowing silk robes. We join the crowd of holiday visitor waiting to get a closer look. At the base of the tree is a crèche with beautiful figurines of the holy family, the wise men, and the shepherds. The tree which is an annual Met tradition is composed of hundreds of figurines from three separate crèche sets made in Italy during the 17th century. As we get closer I point to one of the angels holding a censer. When we get close enough we can see the wise men riding on elephants, camels, and horses. Regretfully we have to move with the flow of people and are soon moved past the tree.

On the way out we swing by the Temple of Dendur a gift from the government of Egypt to the United State for the help given to move it and several other ancient temples when the High Dam at Asswan was built. Without the aid of the United States, the temple would have been flooded by the rising waters behind the dam.

We put back on our hats, coats and scarves before leaving the shelter of the museum. While we have been inside darkness has fallen. This reveals one of the glories of a New York evening snow fall, the way the lights from buildings light the snow. In the country one can’t see the great volume of snow in the air because there is no light to illuminate it except at ground level. The tall buildings of the city serve to light the snow hundreds of feet in the air.

We walk down 82nd Street enjoying the falling snow. I point out my favorite parts of the Upper East Side as we pass them, my sister’s apartment, a bar that our friends meet at during the holidays, and my favorite pizza place. Ten minutes later we arrive back at my parent’s apartment building.

I have to hurry because one of the other joys of Christmas in New York is the large number of parties in the two weeks before Christmas. During Christmas even the lawyers and investment bankers who work unbelievable hours take time to attend holiday gatherings and youngsters back from boarding school and college are eager to be reunited with grade school friends. Any big city is really just a large number of overlapping communities and that is never so apparent in New York as at Christmas.

During the holidays, the city that never sleeps turns its attention temporarily from the creation of wealth to the enjoyment of it. People take the time to realize what an extraordinary place we call home. Most of all we reunite with friends and family and so in that way at least a New York Christmas is not so different from Christmas anywhere.

To say more would be to parade my friends and family in their intimate moments before the public eye, so at the door to my parents home let me wish you all a very Merry Christmas!

Some videos of New York snow Storms here, here, and here.

UPDATE: Typo corrected

I’m Dreaming of a New York Christmas Part 2

This the second part of a three part post, part 1 is here.

Offices of all sorts line the street. I point to the wreaths hanging on the buildings. Wreath however is a pallid word for these adornments. A wreath is in our minds 18 to 36 inches in diameter and made of fir branches. That some of these are constructed of evergreen branches is the only point of comparison. To show as anything but a token acknowledgement of the season when mounted on massive buildings, the wreaths have to be on a similar scale. Are the smallest four feet across or six? It is certain that the largest is more than a dozen feet across. Not all are made of fir. Red, silver or gold Christmas tree ornaments are often used instead. As the afternoon darkens all are highlighted with snow.

Unseen on the side streets as we continue north are the Harvard Club, the New York Yacht Club, the Century Association and other bastions of wealth and comfort, no doubt made the more cheery by the cold and white that swirls around us.

We pass the faux log entrance to the Philippine building and soon thereafter the sandstone art deco buildings of Rockefeller Center appear on our left. Snow clinging to the sides of the buildings where the wind has plastered it on like stucco.

We turn and look down the mall between the French Republic Building and the British Empire Building. This latter if urban legends are to be believed would have been the British capital in exile if the battle of Britain had gone differently. At the far end of the mall, the RCA building rises like the cliffs of Dover from the sea. These are but the frame for a double row of white angles trumpeting the good news. Is it the news of the messiah’s birth or of the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. This is left ambiguous.

We stroll along the mall and peer over the railing that marks the edge of the sunken court yard. A small mob zips across the icy surface of the skating rink built here during the winter. The skaters seem almost to be performing a temple dance before the gold statue of a languid Prometheus delivering fire from the heavens. This brings to mind the pagan origins of the Christmas tree, but the tree itself has never been far from our thoughts towering as it does 50 feet above us.

A glass elevator lowers us through the sidewalk to the underground level of the huge complex. As we sip Starbuck’s coffee on chairs in their shop facing out onto the town square of this subterranean city, I tell you about the passages that radiate out from this spot.

You could travel three blocks west and about eight blocks from north to south . Restaurants serving formal French cuisine rub shoulders with McDonalds. Florists sell plants from stores that never see the sun. Candy shops, ice cream parlors, and book stores cater to the whims of people hurrying to the two subways that link this looking glass world to the rest of the city.

Most ubiquitous are newsstands and outlets of a local chain of drug stores. These latter hint that despite the inviting shelter and warmth of this underground mall, breathing the recycled air of tens of thousands of others is less healthful than the brisk winter above.

It is with regret that we leave this warmth and again board the glass elevator for the surface. As we exit we tuck our scarves more securely under our chins and look again into the sunken plaza. The dance continues, but snow is gathering incongruously on the flames of Prometheus’ gift to man.

We turn and walk back past the trumpeting angles. Looming out of the swirling snow, is the storefront of Saks Fifth Avenue. The façade of the building is lit by electric snow flakes that light in turn, coordinated with Christmas music that tinkles from speakers mounted around the building. (Video here) We cross the street and pause briefly to enjoy the smell of roasting chestnuts sold by a street vendor, then plunge into the famous department store. Artificial, but beautiful faux snow covered tree limbs punctuated with white lights decorate the interior creating a winter wonderland effect that seams to compliment rather than clash with the perfume and jewels being sold.

We pause but for a moment here. Upstairs we could buy goods ranging from rugby shirts to diner jackets, but it was the white splendor of the first floor echoing the weather out side that we wanted to see. Leaving this temple to mammon, we are confronted by its rival, St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

This gothic building looks as if it was transported intact from France. When the land was first bought and construction commenced on this second Catholic cathedral of the city, it was called the bishop’s folly because people thought it so far north that no one would ever come. It covers an entire city block and is a testament to the importance of Catholicism even in this very protestant country and to the faith of the immigrants who‘s earnings financed its construction.

As we head north once more, the people thronging the street are thrust before us. Unlike most of the city, here it is the prospect of spending money rather than making it that draws the largest part of the crowd. The two groups are very distinct. Clothing is one mark that distinguishes them, but under winter wraps this is less plain than it would be in summer. But these obvious marks are not necessary. One can tell them apart by how they walk and the set of their face. Are they seeing what is in front of them or what is around them? Do they walk briskly or stroll?

We chose the later option in both cases and so it takes a little longer to reach the Anglo-Norman bulk of St. Thomas’ Church, the Episcopal entry into the Fifth Avenue large church competition. We turn in to look at this monument to the Anglo Catholic. In the narthex is a mosaic that celebrates the end of the second world war. The arms of the big four, the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union are at the four cardinal points of a circle that includes the arms of the other allies.

The sound of singing draws us into the nave where we can see the church’s famous choir of men and boys practicing. The beautiful high notes of the trebles and the stirring rumble of the bases blend into a heavenly sound. The boys in the choir attend the St. Thomas Choir School a boarding school run by the church for the choristers. We sit in a pew for a few minuets listening, then get up and look at the side chapel, the statue of the virgin, and stand quietly before the carved list of the parish’s war dead. We reflect for a minuet on the lives cut short that we might live in freedom, then we head back outside.

Before leaving the shelter of the church steps, we rebutton our jackets and adjust our hats. Then we step into the snow covered streets and head north once again. Through the swirling snow we see Cartier’s store rapped like a giant present. The scaffolding that protects pedestrians from falling debris from work on the building had been transformed with the use of pine boughs into a forest of pine trees Cleverly placed speakers serenade us with Christmas carols as we stroll by the sapphires and diamonds. Even Brooks Brothers has a few Christmas decorations hidden among the preppy cloths.

Towering out of the white is the glass and bronze of Trump tower. We walk under the large wreath hanging over the entrance and enter into the pink marble and brass atrium. Water cascades five stories down one side of the atrium with plants growing in niches along the wall. We could go up the escalators for coffee or down them for a cocktail, but we have a long way to go before reaching home.

Next door, is Tiffany & Co. who’s windows have charming holiday still lives, studded with the firm’s jewels. As we continue north, the Plaza Hotel emerges from the swirling snow. The building is now under renovation and conversion with some of the floors being converted into condominiums for the rich and famous.

We cross the street to where an equestrian statue of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the artist who designed the twenty dollar gold piece, guards the entrance to Central Park. We duck down a flight of stairs into Central Park and all of a sudden we seem to be in the country.

Trees hang over the path which circles a pond slowly accumulating a rime of ice. Bushes poke their branches through the rapidly thickening blanket of snow. As we stroll along the sound of music draws us further into the park.

Dogs frolic in a snow covered field just before we reach one of the few roads that run through the park. Horse drawn carriages and pedecabes carry tourists through the park. The music we have been hearing seams to be coming from behind a rock ledge. The rock slopes up so we are able to clime it without difficulty. When we reach the top a splendid view opens before us.

Below is the source of the music, Wolman Rink. Hundreds of skaters promenade on the ice in a counter clockwise circle. White puffs of smoke stream from the rosy faces of the skaters as they move with the Christmas music.

The trees surrounding the rink make it look like a pond in the woods used for winter sports, but if one looks up, the buildings of Central Park South tower above the scene. It is the epitome of Manhattan an island 14 miles long that has been transformed for the enjoyment of man. Apartments and offices of a highly urban character over looking a park of lakes, trees, and meadows. Elsewhere in the park are a merry-go-round, a restaurant, sports fields, and a zoo, but we have miles to go and the snow is getting deep.

Part 3 is here.

I’m Dreaming of a New York Christmas Part 1

With my law school exams more than half over and my departure from Florida for New York imminent, I am starting to look forward to a New York Christmas and hoping it will be a white one. For those of you who have never been to New York for Christmas (you poor benighted souls) and to get myself into the spirit, I have written that which follows.

The first thing that charms about a New York Christmas is the blatant and unashamed commercialism of the entire affair. I know some hate this, but frankly I can’t understand why. Granted that some people go crazy on Black Friday (when don‘t they), but in New York it is mostly just fun and profit. The obvious fact is that ours is a free and liberal, that is to say, capitalist society. It stands to reason that our holidays are going to be commercialized and New York fortunately doesn’t waste time pretending otherwise. Every store of note has its Christmas display. Windows are turned into celebrations of the season.

Another great thing about a New York Christmas is that if you are lucky enough to have a white one, it is really beautiful. Most probably don’t think of New York City as a very snowy place. It is the reds, browns and grays of concrete, stone, and brick, not the white of snow that New York usually brings to mind. However every few years New York gets a good snow during the holidays and the city is transformed.

I want to try and share with you why I love New York especially at Christmas, but all the year round. To do that I am going to go on a tour of the city with you. Since this is a fantasy lets suppose it is a few days before Christmas and the conditions are just right.

It is about half an hour before noon when we take the elevator down from my parents apartment on the east river in Manhattan. The lobby is decorated in what has become something of a winter holiday tradition for our building with a Christmas Tree and an abstract Menorah. We say good afternoon to Joseph the doorman and walk out under the green awning just as the first flakes start to fall from the steel grey sky.

We walk a block south to 79th street where we jump onto a cross town bus. This major cross street is largely residential but as we proceed west we pass York Avenue (named for Sgt. York if you were wondering), First Avenue, Second Avenue and Third Avenue, the heart of Yorkville. These north-south avenues are full of shops and restaurants. Most are small family businesses, but many are larger corporations or chains. If we continued further west we would pass the mansion of Mayor Bloomburg, but we don’t.

We hop off the bus at Lexington Avenue and button our jackets against the wind and cold. The stretch of Lexington Avenue just south of 79th Street is relatively less developed. Most of the buildings are about five stories high. To the north the buildings rise higher as one looks towards 86th Street once called “the German Broadway” and still this area’s main commercial street. To the south the buildings rise toward the great midtown business district.

Here at 79th Street it is almost suburban from a New York perspective. We head south on foot as the sidewalk now wet from melted snow starts to catch the first flakes to stick, in cracks and crevices in the sidewalk and in the angle formed by the intersection of buildings and the sidewalk.

Two blocks south at Lenox Hill Hospital we turn west and head down the stairs into the 77th Street Station of the Lexington Avenue Subway. Snow follows us down the stairs riding on a blast of wind. The 6 Train or Lexington Avenue local was built in the early years of the 20th century by the Interborough Rapid Transit Corporation or IRT and some signs of this remain for those who look closely. I point to a small tin sign which you can barely read hanging from an overhead conduit which still bares the name of the private corporation that built the first of the system’s major lines. This one line carries more riders than the Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston rail transit systems combined.

With a roar and a gust of wind, the train comes out of the tunnel and into the station. We board and are serenaded by a trio of mariachi performers who have made their way north from Mexico City to this more profitable ground for street performance. After a sufficiency of Dane geld has been collected they stop playing and move on to the next compartment and we are left in peace to contemplate advertisements for Goosedown Vodka “It tastes more like nothing than brands A, B, & C vodka.”

Three stops later we disembark at the 42nd Street station. This is a major subway station where two important lines cross and a shuttle leads to Time Square and even more subterranean transportation options. We ignore these and head for the exit. A semicircle of devout Catholics stands to one side witnessing for the faith. “Hail Marry full of grace the Lord is with thee.” they proclaim as they finger a bead from their rosary. “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus,” the seasonal thought follows us up the escalator.

We emerge into one of the exit corridors of Grand Central Terminal. Instead of leaving this hub of the commuter railroads running north and east from the city, we head inward, west through the building. It is cold out and a block or two walked in the warmth of the building and its warren of tunnels and passages is inviting.

The passage soon opens into the Terminal’s great hall with its brass information hut surmounted by the famous four faced clock where friends and lovers meet. A huge American flag hangs from the ceiling as it has since shortly after Sept. 11. Its bold red, white, and blue stand out against the sandy stone and the pale turquoise ceiling. We walk through the crowd and back into the pedestrian tunnels lined with shops. As we mount a ramp for the surface the smell of fresh baked pastry tempts us, but we manfully ignore it.

We surface at the corner of Vanderbilt Avenue and 42nd Street. On all sides the building soar upwards to the heavens, but the falling snow softens the stark elegance of their upward thrust. We walk west on the floor of 42nd Street’s canyon mixing with the throng of people busy making money.

Two blocks further on we arrive at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street one is tempted to say, the corner of the world. Looking to our left we see the Empire State Building rising from the street half a mile to the south. To our right is one of the most exclusive shopping districts on earth.

Before us is The New York Public Library and Bryant Park. (a picture of NYPL here) We walk over and stand at the foot of the steps leading up to the entry. If we mounted the stairs we could burry ourselves in the leather and dark wood of the current periodical room or listen to the echo made by wooden chairs scraping on the stone floor of the 297 foot long main reading room.

More entrancing however is the sight of the snow slowly blanketing the two great stone lions Patience and Fortitude which guard the entrance to this Fort Knox of knowledge. In recognition of the season these rulers of the empire of the mind have deigned to have wreaths placed around their necks and now bejeweled in red and green and caped in white, they are a dignified personification of the season.

To our left Macy’s calls to us, but we have other plans and head north along Fifth Avenue. The light is starting to fade under the weight of snow as we walk north, passing Nat Shermans’ Purveyor of Fine Tobacco Products to those willing to trade money and time for a little pleasure.

Part 2 is here.