Story and Photos by Carol Canter.
Summer has turned to fall, and a long New York sojourn has ended, but I’m still in a New York State of Mind. Can’t even stop the words to “I’ll Take Manhattan …” from looping through my brain. New York is more than just a soundtrack, yet the city inspires a musical memory as powerful as a visual one. Hey, it may be heady, artsy, vibrant, a financial, political and cultural powerhouse, and endlessly interesting, but at heart, the Big Apple is just one big sensuous city.
Whether taking a free salsa class on a pier along the Hudson River at sunset with hundreds of wannabe salseros, or stopping to listen to an anonymous street musician (who sounded a lot like blues great Keb Mo) strum his guitar in the bowels of Penn Station as commuters rush by, one finds music everywhere.
We started out one lazy Sunday, heading for a free tribute concert to Jazz Great Art Blakey in the East Village’s Tomkins Square Park. Two older couples dressed to the nines were jitterbugging—“cutting the rug” as they used to say back in the day.
En route to the scheduled concert, we stumbled on a serendipitous happening in Washington Square Park. An old Baby Grand piano stood at the confluence of several shaded pathways. A musician, raconteur and all-around character played a few tunes, then shared the makeshift spotlight with other drop-by talents, including a leggy young opera singer. Dressed in short cutoff jeans, she stepped atop the Baby Grand to belt out “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” – “Love is a rebellious bird” (that none can tame) – better known as the fiery “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen. Splendid it was to be in that New York state of mind.
From that soul-stirring aria in Washington Square, the melodies came fast and furious with opera, dance, Shakespeare, classical, global and emerging music – even accordion, in the free Bryant Park Picnic Performances at 42nd Street behind the NYC Public Library.
The New York City Opera 75th Anniversary Concert was the season finale, a free gala featuring soloists Michael Chioldi, Lisa Chavez, Mark Rucker, Brandie Sutton and other luminaries, backed by a 30-member chorus and accompanied by a 30-piece orchestra. With hundreds of seats set up in the park, those arriving early could settle in close enough to admire the dazzling gowns and jewels, if not to imagine the spurt of blood as Don Jose plunges a dagger into Carmen’s breast.
The sky was clear, the air balmy and the shimmering glass high rises of New York’s dramatically evolving skyline framed the lively alfresco scene. Looking southwest, the sun setting over the Hudson River splashed its rose purple hues on the impossibly tall glitzy futuristic asymmetrical skyscrapers that have sprouted up to the sky seemingly overnight. Eight of the newest are part of Hudson Yards, the largest private real estate development in the United States by area, built over a storage yard for Long Island Railroad trains behind Penn Station.
The first of two phases of the $25 billion Hudson Yards development opened in March 2019, with residences, office buildings, a hotel and a 7-story shopping mall. The centerpiece of the development is a copper-clad beehive-like soaring structure. Vessel, as it’s known, is a vertical climb with 2,500 individual steps leading to 80 landings. Free, time-specific tickets are required, and after a short wait, we scored a pair for sunset. Winding up the spiral stairways leads to lookouts from varying levels in every direction: North past the brand new Hudson Yards subway station at 34th St. between 10th and 11th Avenues, overshadowed by the ubiquitous construction cranes; East toward the shopping mall; South to The Shed, the adjacent eye-catching cultural institution and, best of all, West to the Hudson River. Commuter and tourist ferries, working barges, lone kayaks and private yachts all ply the watery boundary that separates New York from New Jersey, while joggers, cyclists and power walkers turn the riverside pathway into a playground for fitness buffs, romantics and eco-friendly educators teaching about replenishing oysters in the river and more.
While Vessel has been called “soulless with steps leading nowhere,” our interactions with people in many languages from a dozen countries were actually uplifting as we reveled in the breezes and the shared sublime, if sometimes vertiginous vistas. The Shed, billed as a “new arts center for the 21st Century,” is located at 30th Street where the controversial and much critiqued Hudson Yards meets the High Line, Manhattan’s favorite elevated park. For me it was love at first sight when, in 2010, I meandered along the opening stretch, from Gansevoort Street to West 20th and eased on into that New York state of mind. When Billy Joel craved it, he crooned: “I’m just taking a Greyhound on the Hudson River Line – ‘Cause I’m in a New York state of mind.”
Well, the High Line, which opened in June 2009, is a different kind of Hudson River line. It parallels the river, on elevated tracks where freight trains ran for 50 years until 1980. The abandoned tracks are incorporated into the park’s calming and elegant design, emerging from wild grasses and gardens of multi-colored flowers edging walkways of graceful concrete planks. Wood-slatted lounge chairs allow respite from the bustle of the city below, water features allow feet to cool and refresh. A park built three stories high puts one at eye-level with seductive billboards, provocative art installations and buildings old and increasingly new, some designed by noted architects such as the late Zaha Hadid. The perspective offers the chance to peer over flowering rooftops –sometimes right into the living rooms and patios of those living the High Life — and down at the dynamic street life below. Vistas sweep across the city and onto Hudson River piers, both active and abandoned. It’s a floating feeling to rise above the city’s once “mean” streets, now fully gentrified. The markets of the Meatpacking District that supplied the freight trains have turned into trendy restaurants and watering holes along Gansevoort Street, the park’s southern boundary and site of the new Whitney Museum, which moved to its striking Renzo Piano-designed building in 2015.
One of the artists featured in the Whitney Biennial 2019, Simone Leigh, created Brick House, a 16-foot tall bronze bust of a Black woman with a torso that combines the forms of a skirt and a clay house. The inaugural commission for the High Line Plinth, a new landmark destination for major public artworks in New York City, the monumental “sculpture contrasts sharply against the landscape it inhabits, where glass-and-steel towers shot up from among older industrial-era brick buildings, and where architectural and human scales are in constant negotiation. Resolutely facing down 10th Avenue, Leigh’s powerful Black female figure challenges us to consider the architecture around us, and how it reflects customs, values, priorities, and society as a whole.” It’s a rich adventure to walk the 1.45-mile High Line between the Whitney and the Plinth, to experience the vision of one artist both within museum walls and outdoors for all to see.
The art, the music, the development — controversial as each might be, are part of the fabric of a world-class city that leaves millions of visitors in a New York State of Mind.