Summer Streets: Putting the Park in Park Avenue

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Last Saturday, I got up early and headed into Manhattan to play on Park Avenue as part of Summer Streets, three consecutive Saturdays when the city shuts down motor vehicle traffic on nearly 7 miles of Park Avenue from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park. Instead of the whir of engines and the smell of exhaust, the streets are full of the sounds of bicycle bells and feet on the pavement.

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I joined the pedestrian traffic heading north at 23rd Street. There was a steady stream of people, even at about 7:30 am, and many organizations were present to teach people about bike safety, give out samples of food and energy drinks, and help out with our new bikeshare program, Citi Bike. There were many bicyclists, runners, and training teams, as well as a fair number of people just out to enjoy the morning with a leisurely walk, like me.

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One of the major draws for me was the Voice Tunnel, an interactive art installation in the Park Avenue Tunnel. Running from 33rd to 40th Streets, the tunnel is usually closed to pedestrians. For Summer Streets, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer created a light and sound installation where visitors record messages at the center of the tunnel that are then played on speakers synchronized with spotlights at about 10 foot intervals throughout the tunnel. It’s loud in the tunnel, with variable lighting conditions and moments of total darkness that can be very disorienting. However, the chance to walk through the tunnel was enough of a draw for me, and the artwork was an interesting bonus.

The Park Avenue Tunnel was originally built to carry the New York and Harlem Railroad, and then a streetcar line. Originally an open channel, the tunnel was roofed over in the 1850s with granite from the original railroad track below 14th Street. Now, it carries one lane of northbound automobile traffic.

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Emerging from the tunnel at 40th Street, I continued on the elevated roadway up to and around Grand Central Terminal. The facade of Grand Central is lovely and detailed, but because of the elevated roadway it’s usually impossible to really get a good look at it. Luckily, during Summer Streets, you can.

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I walked up to 60th Street, where I got on the subway back out to Queens. Summer Streets will be happening again tomorrow and next Saturday, with 7 miles of streets to explore, rest stops with activities for kids and adults alike, and a great opportunity to have enjoy a new perspective on familiar New York City streets. The event runs from 7 am to 1 pm, and you can get more info at the NYC website.

 

An Overdue Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge

When the Brooklyn Bridge opened 130 years ago, it was a technological marvel – the longest suspension bridge in the world! – and people didn’t know if they could trust it. A few days after the bridge opened in May 1883, a rumor that the structure would collapse caused a stampede that killed 12 people. P.T. Barnum, ever the master showman, saw an opportunity to promote his circus, and renewed an offer –  already once turned down – to stage a spectacle on the bridge. This time, with the recent deaths and persistent mistrust of the bridge at top of mind, officials allowed him to. The following May, he marched 21 elephants, including that gentle giant, Jumbo the fucking elephant, across the Brooklyn Bridge.

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Look, I go to a lot of zoos, and that is one seriously huge elephant.
(Image from the collection of the Barnum Museum)

Obviously the Bridge is still standing, so we felt it safe to join the throngs crossing it by foot one beautiful spring day a month or so ago. Somehow, despite living here for the past few years, visiting the city many times before living here, and having worked in lower Manhattan several times each, neither of us had ever walked across the bridge. It was time to make like Jumbo the elephant.

A walk across the Brooklyn Bridge is just over a mile long, with a pedestrian walkway and bike lanes suspended above the car traffic. The views are lovely – the soaring towers of lower Manhattan on one side, Brooklyn looming straight ahead, and my favorite harbor bridge, the Manhattan Bridge (it’s true!), off to one side.

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Attached to many surfaces were Love Locks, or padlocks that couples attach to bridges while making a wish for everlasting love, and then throwing the key into the river. This is another reason not to eat anything anyone catches in New York City’s rivers: it probably has a key in its belly from one of these clowns.

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When we made it over to Brooklyn, we waited in line for half an hour to eat Grimaldi’s pizza (I hate waiting in line for things, but I will admit that this was absolutely worth the wait! There was a pizza-shaped hole in my heart, and Grimaldi’s filled it.) and then wandered into Brooklyn Bridge Park, where E and our friend D played catch on a tiny patch of unoccupied lawn.

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We wandered through Smorgasburg in the Tobacco Warehouse, and then headed back to the subway. This was, in all honesty, probably one of the most lamely touristy excursions we’ve ever made in the city (and I hope I’ve made it clear that I love doing touristy shit), but I admit it was fun. It’s always good to get a new perspective on your city, and a slow journey across a very large bridge is a really excellent way to do so.

I still feel like we maintained a bit of our insider cred, though. We stayed on the downtown 6 train after its last stop at the Brooklyn Bridge – City Hall station and looped on through the abandoned City Hall subway station to show our friend D. And the lights were on. So, I mean, that must count for something, no?

Transportation Remnants on National Train Day

Last Saturday, after a disappointing afternoon running errands in Manhattan, we descended into the subway system at Times Square to head home, and stumbled on an antique subway train on the tracks. The three-car train represented three different moments in the city’s subterranean history, and was full to brimming with excited passengers waiting for the doors to close and the journey to Grand Central Terminal on the shuttle line to begin. E and I deliberated for a moment before deciding a trip onboard was worth a slight detour from our route, and jumped into the R10 model car.

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 Saturday was National Train Day, and we had gone to Grand Central that morning hoping to see the “Parade of Trains,” a gathering of antique trains on some of the tracks in the station, including the 20th Century Limited. When we got there, the line to see the trains was 2-3 hours long, and they reportedly had to cut the line early to ensure that people in line would be able to get in. The antique subway train on the shuttle line was part of the festivities, but not a well-publicized one.

These chance encounters with historical objects are successful because they are surprising. In a city with as many layers of history as New York, it’s easy to forget about everything that has happened on the spot where you stand before you got here. Every day I walk on streets and work in buildings and ride through tunnels that are many, many decades old, and yet most of the time I’m more focused on what I need to pick up for dinner than I am thinking about the human drama that has played out on this set. And then I see a subway car from another era in a station that I regularly pass through, and it jars me out of the mundane.

Riding on a train allows you to understand it, and how it works, much better than looking at pictures, reading about them, or even boarding a train as it stands still. The conductors on Saturday were focused on running the trains, and there wasn’t any additional interpretive layer. Still, riders learned things firsthand: without air conditioning, subways were hot; they were noisy, because the windows were usually open to try to generate a breeze; for the same reason, they smelled; and riders in the past had a much more intimate experience with the subway tunnels thanks to those open windows.

At the New York Transit Museum (one of my favorite museums in a city of wonderful museums), you can board any of the trains I rode on Saturday as they stand inert on the tracks of a disused subway station-turned-museum. It’s a fun and interesting way to spend an afternoon, but it sort of feels like visiting ghosts in a forgotten place. Trains come alive when they are in motion. True, without interpretive labels you didn’t have the benefit of knowing when the trains were in service, or particulars about their design, technology, and construction, but most of those facts are immediately forgotten by all but the most devoted of train enthusiasts.

The NYTM takes several opportunities throughout the year to roll its stock onto the active tracks of the subway system and delight MTA riders. I have boarded the holiday “nostalgia train” in December, letting modern trains pass me on the platform while I waited anxiously for it to arrive, brandishing my camera gleefully as I rode to Rockefeller Center for some classic NYC holiday fun. But then, I planned my trip, and I felt like I was in on the joke. I loved watching the reactions of people on the platform as this ghost clambered into the station and people boarded a train they may have recognized from their childhoods. On Saturday, I got to experience that surprise and delight along with many of the other people on board the train.

I didn’t get to see the assembled trains at Grand Central, but I still got to celebrate National Train Day, and it was a lot of fun.

Winter Winery Visits in Connecticut

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This past weekend, E and I had plans to visit friends in Connecticut for dinner on Saturday. E likes to escape from the city — to “decitify,” as he says — regularly, and since we hadn’t disappeared since Christmas, we booked a hotel room and hopped in the car.

To kill time before we were due for dinner on Saturday, we decided to punctuate our drive north with visits to two wineries. For such a tiny state famous for its crappy soil, Connecticut has an unexpectedly robust wine industry. For my bachelerotte party, I was lucky enough to spend a day in a limo touring wineries with friends, and since then I’ve visited a bunch of other vineyards. This Saturday, we tried one new-to-us winery and revisited another.

The first place we stopped was McLaughlin Vineyards in Newtown. The property is a few miles off the highway in the middle of a residential area, but we found it pretty easily. We did a tasting ($10, with souvenir glass) and sampled 5 different wines, all good. The woman conducting the tastings told us about all of the classes, concerts, and programs at the winery. On Sundays in the summer they have live music under a tent in the fields, and people bring picnics and drink wine, which sounds like a pretty awesome use of a Sunday to me. She was very excited to support other Connecticut businesses (she served one of the reds we tried with a Connecticut-made chocolate, and had soda from a tiny soda company based in my hometown for sale in the shop). We also got to meet Misha, the winery dog, who seemed to have a pretty awesome life: sleeping by the fireplace, following her owner around, and making lots of [tipsy] new friends.

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Unfortunately they were out of the Chardonnay we both liked until March. We took home a bottle of Vista Muse, a Seyval Blanc, instead, which I am pretty excited to enjoy with some seafood once the days are a little longer.

Our second stop was a return visit for me. We popped into the bustling tasting room at Haight-Brown Vineyards in Litchfield. We opted for the basic tasting ($9, no glass), since my companion can eat neither cheese nor chocolate, and grabbed a seat at the bar on the second floor. The servers here were a bit overwhelmed, and we had to wait a long time between samples. Everything we tried was good, we just ran out of time before we got to the end (and we weren’t super excited about the fruit wines, anyway). They felt bad that we didn’t have time to try everything and didn’t charge us for one of the tastings, which was nice.

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We left with two bottles of the Picnic Red, which folks at dinner enjoyed, and a few bars of decent dark chocolate, because why not?

The rest of our weekend in Connecticut was spent hanging out with friends and their families, wandering through very old graveyards, and sleeping in at The Litchfield Inn, which had most of the charm of a New England bed and breakfast, but with private bathrooms and no forced communal meals (so it was great for me).

I’d like to turn more of our trips north into mini-vacations, and this was a good start to that. Next time we go to a winery, though, I’d rather have a picnic outside than have to huddle inside by a fireplace. Soon enough!

Another Weekend, Another Abandoned Train Station

Friday, I took the train up to my hometown in Connecticut, where I explored a 100 year-old train station that is only open about 8 hours a week. Amtrak still stops there, but only a few people get on and off. Rumor has it that this station will be renovated soon, and some of its magic will undoubtedly disappear, but it’s better that it be updated and in use than left as is and abandoned. I remember occasionally driving people to or from this station as a child, and watching the big trains appear around the bend and then chug off into the distance always seemed so exciting to me. It still does, really.

Connecticut By Commuter Rail

Sunday, I headed up to Connecticut to attend E’s little cousin’s 4th birthday party. E had gone up the night before to go to the UConn basketball game at his alma mater, so I got to train up by myself. There’s something lovely about train travel, even just the commuter rail (on the weekend, when there are no commuters, of course). Things around here have been crazy, both in our apartment and in my head, and I was happy to have two and a half hours to myself to listen to music, read a book rather lazily, and mostly just watch the backs of abandoned riverside factories pass by. Oh, New England.

One of the things I love most about MetroNorth is my departure point from NYC: Grand Central Terminal.

It’s a beautiful train station, with a ceiling to die for, and it’s always bustling with people on their way to or from not-so-distant places.

And, if you’re ever lucky to be there with my darling husband, he’ll spend the entire visit talking your ear off about what a shame it is that they tore down the old Penn Station. And, I mean, he’s right, but I prefer to just appreciate GCT for the jewel it is.

When I got on the train (where I was one of 3 people in my car — ahhhh, Sunday morning commuter rail trips!), I realized my nails matched the ceiling at GCT — teal with gold flecks, and I had to document the serendipity. I decided to try out the combo the night before after thinking about it for a couple of days, and it’s one of my favorite manicures of recent date!

Once I got off the train, I wandered around the abandoned station house for a little while before hopping in the car to visit with E’s family.

It was a lovely day, and in the evening we drove (which, as a gal who takes mass transit everywhere, was its own transportation-glee) home in time to watch the Oscars. This weekend ahead, I get to take the train twice more, and I’m excited to sit back and let someone else do the… driving? Conducting? Whatever, I just know I won’t have to think about it.