Yes, I enjoy entering Times Square at the “Katharine McPhee Subway Entrance” on 43rd, and yes, I quietly moan “Let Me Be Your Star” each time I ascend those steps.
Not weird at all.
Just when your daily commute seems so predictable—when internal GPS takes over and nary a blaring traffic snarl can lift your gaze; when New York becomes nothing more than work and subways and sleep—that’s when the city throws a curveball and bends unexpectedly, when, POW!, a shocking, wonderful incongruity sprouts from the pavement and startles you into smelling the organic, fair-trade artisan coffee.
Take one false step in the roaring canyons of the Financial District and you’ll find yourself on one such jarring sprout. “Stone Street,” as it’s called, is a tiny 19th century holdout amidst the soaring corporate jungle on Manhattan’s lower tip, a bizarre slice of human-scale antiquity that sticks out like a small, cobblestoned thumb. No more than a few blocks of old-world, three- to six-story brick buildings, Stone Street is less remarkable for its quaint charm than for the way it contrasts with its infinitely taller and more severe neighbors. How did this place survive? you think on your way to, say, Goldman Sachs. What kept the skyscrapers out?
It was, predictably, a combination of public and private efforts that kept Stone Street from total decay on the one hand, and expensive construction crews on the other—read more about that story here. What remains, then, is a remnant of the haunts from Dutch settlers and the generations of builders that followed them.
But somewhere along the way, as other streets kept changing, Stone Street froze, and what’s left behind is a kind of screwy anachronism, a visual lesson in mankind’s endless sprint from past to future. Inviting stoops here, 100-story pillars there—a clear reality gives way to an odd optic scramble.
Such is the stuff as plays are made on. Mission Drift, the latest work from The TEAM, is a mixed-drink of a show with a similarly bi-cultural, split-focus sensibility, one part 17th century New Amsterdam, one part 2008 Las Vegas. In this rock musical, the story of a Dutch couple (“Catalina” and “Joris”) gets intercut with the more modern blues of an unemployed waitress (“Joan”); the resulting patchwork is a stab at determining the roots and nature of American capitalism.
A little lyric from “In the Heights” wiggles into my mind whenever I approach my neighborhood subway:
Now, You’re probably thinkin,
“I’m up shit’s creek
I never been north of ninety-
It’s a goodhearted dig at upscale Broadway audiences. It’s also the momentary jingle of my commute to and from 96th Street.
Musical landmarks litter New York, but the conductor of my brain never tires of this musical flash.
Ticket prices got you down? Head to the High Line above 10th Ave for a free show where New York herself is the star. This park, a repurposed elevated track, is an exercise in “city as theater:” By framing and focusing our otherwise scattered attention, the High Line reveals New York as the glittery, every-changing diva she really is. Walking along this shrubbery promenade, you stop, breathe, and really see where you are. Is this not the highest task of art? Continue reading »
Fleet Week is the unofficial opening day of summer in New York. Uniformed sailors float in for sweaty city fun, wandering the streets in search of a sweet, tangy bite of the Big Apple. The men and women are homogenous émigrés in sea of dissonant color and style, beacons of sameness in a city that idolizes individuality.
Paradoxically, it’s those very uniforms that stand out most in a crowd, a fact apparent at a Fleet Week performance of “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” I attended.
A recent Times article commemorated the 200th birthday of “The Grid:” that hard-knuckled, 90-degree matrix that set New York’s streets in unsurprising, rectangulinear order. Excepting some of downtown’s eccentricities, the feature tells us, the grid “gave developers and, later, tourists order, access and predictability.”
How very Newtonian, Tom Stoppard might say. His “Arcadia,” a revival of which just opened on Broadway, explores similar ideas of order and chaos, predictability and chance by alternating between two periods, ultimately tracking physics’ and philosophy’s journey from optimism (in 1809) to a more complicated, less organized universe (in 2011).
The New York Grid could be said to represent classicism, or 1809 “Arcadia:” It’s reasoned, clear, and lucid. It’s the ordered cosmos Thomasina, “Arcadia’s” brilliant, young heroine, is taught to see. Whether it’s Fermat’s last theorem, advanced algebra, or any of the other brain-cramping topics her tutor brings up, order is the final, reachable goal. Surprise is tamed by logic and structure.
New York’s city commissioners, working a mere two years after the fictional Thomasina, operated under similarly classically based, optimistic principles. Sam Roberts (author of the Times article) writes, “The urban grid goes back beyond Hippodamus of Miletus, the Greek urban planner, who, like the street commissioners, viewed the matrix as a manifestation of ‘the rationality of civilized life.’” City structure could manufacture personal integrity, officials believed.