An Early Spring at the Bronx Zoo

E was on spring break last week, so instead of going to campus to read cases and apply for jobs, he did it from the comfort of our living room. There was a vacation pileup in my department at work, so I could only manage to sneak out for a day mid-week. Luckily, that day was the last of the 70-degree early spring days we had, and E and I took advantage of the weather by heading up to the Bronx Zoo. I had never been before, somehow, and I was eager to join the mostly-local crowd (lots of kids in school uniforms with their backpacks and parents) on the unseasonably mild afternoon.

 

 

I admit that I was disappointed by the zoo. I think that my high expectations, the fact that it was, actually, really early in the season for zoo-going, and my inability to avoid checking my work email account conspired to dampen the experience. There were several large exhibits closed, and many of the exhibits that were listed as open were mysteriously empty of animals. The infrastructure was pretty run down, and nearly all of the snack stands, sundry shops, and other amenities aside from the main cafe and gift shop were closed. And, in contrast to the Central Park Zoo, which I think has done a wonderful job updating its exhibits while respecting the historic architecture and infrastructure, the old animal houses at the Bronx Zoo were full of tiny, dark, labyrinthine habitats where bored animals paced or slept. Truth be told, we didn’t spend any time in the Congo exhibit, which is lauded as an exemplary zoo exhibit (but there were no animals out, and it was crowded, so we left).  And everything smelled awful.

I love visiting zoos and learning about animals that I will probably never see in their natural environs. I know the challenges and criticisms of the institutions, and I think a lot of those issues were visible at Bronx Zoo. Many of today’s [American] zoos are evolutions of a form devised several hundred years ago, one that didn’t really work for the animals or the patrons. If we could divorce the zoo from its original forms, and imagine something totally new with all the knowledge we have of animals, conservation, and user experience today, what would that zoo look like?

It probably wouldn’t look like the Bronx Zoo.

An Operatic Experience


When I was in grad school, I stumbled upon a class called “Performing Community and Subjectivity” while looking to fill my class roster for the fall semester. Intrigued, I read on, and discovered the class was about opera, and the way that community and social change can be affected through performance. Since I was a little girl, the opera had seemed interesting in a far-off, fuzzy way. I suspect that this initially mostly had to do with the costumes I saw in books and online, and the delicious opera scene shared by Professor Bhaer and Jo March in the film adaptation of Little Women. The idea of going to an opera – of buying tickets and showing up and finding a seat and sitting through hours of performance in a foreign language – was terrifying. I am the person who will eat at the same crappy restaurant every day because she knows how to operate there rather than branch out and try other, potentially amazing restaurants nearby. So attending an opera, with all of its high-brow, fancypants history and associations, seemed sort of crazy to me.

Luckily, my professor was wonderful, and she treated the opera as a totally normal thing. And the best part of the class was that we didn’t have to buy textbooks, but instead purchased tickets to 3 operas over the course of the semester, which we attended together and discussed afterward. Knowing that I had my fellow students, many of them opera-n00bs like myself, as a crutch made all the difference. I loved the operas I saw, and found them flickering and glowing behind my closed eyelids for days after each performance.

I dragged E to the Live in HD Festival outside of the Metropolitan Opera House in the summer of 2010, and we thoroughly enjoyed sitting outside in Lincoln Center on a warm summer night and watching The Magic Flute on a big screen. For Valentine’s Day this year, we finally went to an opera together. We saw Aida, and it was a grand spectacle, with a huge chorus and horses on stage (HORSES ON STAGE) and an amazing set and costumes to die for. And the singing — oh, the singing! E was immediately hooked, and so we found ourselves back in the opera house last night, 3 weeks later, to see Don Giovanni. Another lovely performance, though not my favorite. There’s something so exciting about seeing people right there in front of you belting out these amazing songs, wearing awesome stuff, and performing works that have been around for several hundred years.

The Metropolitan Opera has a wonderful program that we have been lucky enough to take advantage of, through which they sell students tickets throughout the house for 25 dollars per ticket. The day of a performance, they sell any remaining seats to students at that rate, and for certain performances, you can buy student tickets in advance, as well. For Aida, we ended up in $320 seats in the Grand Tier, which provided a magnificent view of the stage. Last night, we sat in the Orchestra, in seats that were valued at $120, and got a different perspective on the performance. Many of the cultural organizations in New York offer similar student discount programs, and it’s a wonderful way to get out and enjoy some of the city’s world-renowned performances without breaking the bank. If you’re no longer a student and have lost that old student ID, the Met also has a rush ticket program for $20 orchestra seats. Even if the opera seems scary, like it did to me, or boring, I suggest finding a shorter performance (some of these shows are 5 or 6 hours long, but there are plenty that are 2 or 3) that looks interesting to you, and go see it! It’s worth the investment to find out if you might love it.

And now I’m going to get out and enjoy my lunch break on this beautiful afternoon here in New York, with that triumphal march from Aida stuck in my head once again. There are worse problems to have!

We Do New York: Local Queens Fun

Things have been sort of bananas lately. Work has been crazy, and nearly every weekend has been chock full of travel, or visitors, or both. This weekend we had blessedly little on the docket, so we took the opportunity to spend time with some local friends and finally give the apartment a fraction of the TLC it’s been missing out on while we’ve run all over the place. While I was waiting for the Chinese food delivery guy (hey, I never said we were superheroes) to run up the stairs with our order, I looked at our newly clean living room and thought to myself, Hey, this place is actually pretty nice when it’s in some kind of order. I tend to get pretty negative about our apartment and everything we hate about it, but we’ve lived here for 2.5 years and it is most definitely a reflection of us, if nothing else.

So, about that whole hanging-out-locally thing. As residents of an outer borough, it is somehow very gratifying to spend an entire weekend without crossing that body of water that separates our home turf from Manhattan. The trains are basically always messed up on the weekends, and, well, it just seems so much further away if you have to go underground (the subways out here are elevated).  E and I spent Saturday during the day wandering around the old world’s fairgrounds further out in Queens, enjoying the beautiful 50 degree weather. The former fairgrounds are now a park that is in some disrepair, and is peppered with the remnants of New York’s 1939-40 and 1964-65 world’s fairs. Being something an enthusiast for theme parks and world’s fairs, this park was one of the things that made me excited about moving to New York when I was generally pretty unhappy about the deal. When we rented our apartment, we had to drive to a bank to take out cash to give our landlord, and we passed the fairgrounds on the highway. I saw the top of the Unisphere poking out above the trees and was immediately excited to visit, and that’s still true today.

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As usual, we wandered around the New York state pavilion, and did some people-watching by the Unisphere. We had grand plans to go to the Queens Zoo, also in the park, but it was chillier than we anticipated, so we ducked into the Queens Museum of Art (recently — and oddly — featured in the movie New Year’s Eve) to visit our old friend, the Panorama of the City of New York. The park remains one of my favorite off-the-beaten-path sites in the city, and if you have the time to trek out there, I highly recommend it. I’m hoping to use a Mets game as an excuse to get back out there again in the coming months, to drink some beer and heckle some baseball players who make way more money than I ever will!

Saturday night, we met friends at a speakeasy-style lounge in Long Island City called Dutch Kills. No one in our group had been there, but it was a fun bar with a great vibe and fantastic cocktails. We got there around nine and were able to get a table right away, and all night the place was just the right amount of busy — you felt like there was a lot going on without being overwhelmed. I am not generally a mixed-drink kind of gal, but this bar was a delicious exception.

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Something we all oohed and ahhed over was the fact that each drink was chilled with hand-cut ice to suit the needs of that beverage. Above was my drink for most of the night, the Marie Antoinette, with its tiny little cylinders of ice. Other folks at the table had drinks “on a rock” — with literally one large chunk of ice — or “served long” in a tall glass with a single long, cylindrical piece of ice. Definitely cool (pun not intended, but appreciated). They also include the recipes for their cocktails on their menu, which you can download from their web site. That kind of inclusiveness helps counteract the pretentiousness of a bar this young masquerading as a speakeasy, and makes me pretty excited to try to recreate some of our favorite sips from the evening.

E and I both slept off our booze this morning, which was well worth it for a lot of reasons. We’re gearing up to watch the season finale of Downton Abbey tonight, and I am more excited than I probably should be. I want to run out and get some snacks for the viewing, but can’t think of anything themey, and the whole point of watching television is themed snacks, am I right? Okay, so maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I was pretty stoked that time I made “fish biscuit” sugar cookies for a Lost viewing party. I do have a bottle of sparkling wine in the fridge. I mean, fancy wine is appropriate, no?

We Do New York: City Hall Subway Station Tour

Visiting the abandoned City Hall Subway Station has been high on the list of New York Things to do since E and I moved here. This year, days before E’s birthday, I discovered that tickets for a tour were about to go on sale. E usually blows me out of the water with birthday/holiday gifts, so I was excited to finally have an awesome gift in the works. The City Hall subway station was designed to be the crown jewel of the NYC subway, and it had vaulted ceilings and skylights, lovely mosaics and an ornate wooden ticket booth.  It was abandoned in 1945, when changes in the design of trains made continuing to use the short, curved platform unsafe and impractical. Nowadays, subway riders can catch a glimpse of the station as the downtown 6 train loops through it when turning around to go uptown, or you can go on a tour of the station with the New York Transit Museum (which, incidentally, is one of my favorite museums in New York! Vintage trains! That you get to hang out in!).

On Saturday, September 24, we gathered on the downtown 6 train platform at the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station to wait for the tour to begin. It’s uncomfortably warm in the subway from April-October, so we were quickly annoyed by the heat and the grime and the noise down there, but what are you going to do. They gave us earpieces and radios so we could hear the tour guide on the platform.

And we waited. And waited and waited and waited. The tour was supposed to begin at noon, but the tour guide was late. At 12:15, they sent somebody above ground to call the guide. At 12:30, they said we could go to the abandoned City Hall station with the facilitator from the Transit Museum, which most of the group elected to do. She imparted what she knew about the station, but we didn’t have a formal tour — mostly we just hung out on the platform and took photographs.

It was disappointing to not get the full tour experience, especially given how pricey the tickets were (and, since the tour was only open to museum members, I had to buy a family membership as well), but the museum has said they’ll try to accommodate folks on their December tours. And, at the very least, the staff of the museum are to be commended for their flexibility and customer service. It wasn’t their fault that the tour guide, who I believe was independent of the museum, did not show up. Hopefully we’ll be able to attend the December tour and give a review of the tour content beyond just OMG THE STATION IS SUPER COOOOOOL. Which, if I haven’t said it yet, it was.

I don’t pretend that I am anything of a photographer (for some perspective, my camera is so old and crappy that my iPhone takes better pictures than it, like 90% of the time), but here are a couple snaps:

A view of the curved platform. Check out the chandeliers and skylights!

Skylight above the stairs to the ticket booth area. Instagram'ed, of course.

One of the reasons the station fell out of use: the huge gap between the car and the platform! When the station was first built, the trains only had entrances at the front and back of each car, but now there are doors in the center. We used a ramp to get from the train to the platform.

 

We Do New York: Stillspotting NYC

One of my priorities as I enter my third and possibly last year of living in New York City is to experience as much of the city as possible, as cheaply and meaningfully as I can. This means about a million things, from taking advantage of free admission days at local museums, to using the heck out of our museum memberships, to prioritizing those activities that are worth paying for that allow me to see the city in a new way.

One activity that fell into the lattermost category (but that I didn’t have to pay for myself since I went on a field trip with work, score!) was the To a Great City tour, part of the Guggenheim’s Stillspotting NYC, a series of installations around Lower Manhattan.

The staging of five recorded works by Pärt gradually transports visitors from the hustle and bustle of the streetscape to an elevated urban experience that makes them newly aware of their sense of hearing. Visitors can experience this confluence of music and architecture at five separate locations downtown that quietly celebrate the city, ten years after the September 11 attacks. Traveling through sites along the periphery of Ground Zero, participants encounter a green labyrinth created by the Battery Conservancy, reflect in an underground chamber at Governors Island National Monument, and enter otherwise inaccessible spaces in landmark skyscrapers. The stillness and seclusion of these spaces heightens awareness and recalibrates the senses. Over the course of a day, participants may visit each space multiple times at their leisure to understand how their perception changes based on circumstances such as time, stress, appetite, and sleep. Listeners become increasingly sensitized as they are drawn in and ideally are transformed to a focused and tranquil state.

We were able to hit 3 of the 5 sites (the other 2 located on Governors Island had to be skipped because we missed the last ferry of the day, boo), and so we got to walk a labyrinth in Battery Park, check out the view from the 46th floor of 7 World Trade Center, and hang out in the Woolworth Building. In each location, music helped to quiet the world around you and focus your attention.

I’d say, overall, the project wasn’t super successful. The coolest thing about it was getting access to non- or semi-public areas, and most often the music felt rather forced and awkward. I would have liked to have seen more spaces that New Yorkers take for granted (the labyrinth in Battery Park, for example) given a soundtrack for download and personal use. How cool would it be to be hanging out in Battery Park and see a few people walking the labyrinth with headphones on, participating in something you don’t know about yet, but want to find out about?  As it was executed, it felt rather stiff and formal.

That said, I was glad to have done it, and would have paid the $10 ticket fee myself. The inside of the neo-Gothic Woolworth Building was insanely detailed and beautiful (This photo hardly does it justice), and the views of the newly opened 9/11 Memorial from 7 WTC were lovely. I only wish we’d been able to see the sites on Governors Island to round out the experience – that might have changed my impressions of the tour overall.

Tours for To a Great City run from Thursdays to Sundays, September 15–18 and 22–25, 2011. Hours of operation are 11 am–7 pm, with the last ticket pick-up at 4 pm (but try not to miss the last Governors Island ferry!). Information available here.