While I was in the Big Apple last week, my friend Joe texted me from Carnegie Hall to announce that the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra and Osmo Vanska would be playing two Sibelius symphonies on Sunday.
I immediately thought: What an irony, to be able to hear the locked-out Minnesota Orchestra, you had to visit Manhattan? But a half hour later, Joe sent me another text: “Sorry, sorry, sorry. It was an advertisement for the 2013-14 season.”
But the incident points to the fact that these days a lot of what you can get and do in New York, you can pretty much get and do here. So the question I asked myself as a former New Yorker and a born-again Minneapolitan: What do they have that we haven’t got? Here’s what I looked at:
There is no way that the Twin Cities can match the energy and exhilaration that is automatically produced by Manhattan’s density — the concentration of so many people and activities in one small place. Consider this: The daytime population of Manhattan including residents, commuters, tourists, day trippers and students is about 3.87 million, according to a New York University study. That’s 25 percent more people than in our entire seven-county metro (3.17 million). And they are squished into about 34 square miles, an area about 60 percent of the size of Minneapolis alone. That’s why you find apartment buildings and offices climbing into the sky, restaurants and lunch places on every block (on both sides of the street), a huge array of stores and something to look at everywhere you turn. On the subway one afternoon, riders were treated to a crew of break-dancers who swung on poles straps, narrowly missing our jaws with sneakers as big as Cadillac Escalades.
BUT, Oh Lordy, it is so congested. Forget about dodging phalanxes of zombie-like commuters marching toward you, staring into the screens of their smart phones and unwilling to give ground. Forget about the fact that you can’t get a taxi at rush hour, when there’s a drop of rain or at any time when you really need one because that’s when everybody else needs one, too. Forget that the only seat you can find on the subway or MetroNorth is between two people, weighing 500 pounds each. I was used to all that. What I’d forgotten about were lines. One afternoon, lusting for a Skinny Vanilla Latte, I canvassed and finally found a Starbucks. Forty-three, yes, 43 people — I counted — were ahead of me in line. Later, with a friend, I waited in line for about 20 minutes to see Macy’s Garden Show in Herald Square (the actual viewing took only 10 minutes) and 30 minutes to get into the World Trade Center Memorial (you have to get passes for a specified time online and undergo everything but a cavity search), which took only 15 minutes to view. (It’s beautiful, as is the church steeple-like tower rising above it.)
Coming back from a museum, Joe decided that our party of four should conduct a taste-test of high-end chocolate chip cookies — the kind that weigh a pound apiece and are hand-baked by people with master’s degrees in anthropology and Croatian lit. Within two blocks on the Upper West Side, we found three premium bakeries — Jacques Torres, Levain and Sugar and Plumm — all selling $4 CCCs. (Levain’s, with its walnuts, crunchy exterior and melty warm chocolate innards, came out on top, but I wouldn’t kick any of the others off my plate.) Of course, we had only scratched the surface of chocolate chip choices. When I looked on Google, I found that there were nearly 40 premium bakeries on the Upper West Side, probably all producing a top-notch CCC.
BUT choice does not always lead to human happiness. Unless we tried them all, we would never know if we had found the very best CCC. Barry Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice,” has pointed out that the more choices consumers face, the more bewildered they become, sometimes lapsing into a paralysis of indecision. (After Schwartz’ book was published in 2004, many financial services companies offering 401(k)s whittled down their mutual fund array after learning that many employees failed to participate in the savings plans because they couldn’t decide among hundreds of choices.)
When I lived in New York, I remember always worrying that I hadn’t chosen the best gym, the best restaurant, the best flower shop, the best play to attend, the best museum to visit because there were always 30 more possibilities over the horizon or in the next neighborhood. I have to think that the abundance of choice contributes partly to New Yorkers’ tremendous levels of stress. In 2010, when Gallup chose to focus on that emotion, New York City ranked sixth and the Twin Cities a much more relaxed 48th. (Detroit came in No. 1, in case you wondered.)
Possibly Manhattan’s most scenic recent addition is the Highline, a linear park that runs along the right-of-way of an old elevated railroad track from 31st Street to Gansevoort Street in the meatpacking district. It sits 30 feet above the ground and offers sunlight (in contrast to the the dark streets below), close-up views of the latest architectural additions (a cylindrical apartment building by Jean Nouvel and an office headquarters by Frank Gehry), some spectacular artwork (a wall mural of tin and mirrors by El Anatsui, the Nigerian artist) and occasional glimpses of the Hudson River. The contrast between the swath of green and the industrial musculature surrounding it are dramatic, to say the least.
BUT less impressively, a lot of the stroll is dominated by a groundscape of empty lots and a skyscape of windowless warehouses with signs inviting New Yorkers to store the stuff they can’t fit in their apartments. Joe said, “I don’t get the Highline. It’s just a big sidewalk.” And I see his point. It’s a narrow walkway surrounded by gardens on each side. There’s no room for bikes, and raised concrete slabs and camouflaged curbs have produced falls, sprains and a $2 million lawsuit against the Parks Department by a woman who broke her ankle. The noise from nearby construction is deafening, and pollution rises upward from the busy streets below. If you’re looking for smart repurposing of city infrastructure, you have to go no further than our Midtown Greenway, which is much more verdant and usable. True, there are no Nouvel or Gehry structures alongside, but those guys already have buildings here — the Guthrie Theater and the Weisman Museum. I guess a few oeuvres d’art wouldn’t hurt.
There’s a lot of it, no doubt. Everywhere you turn, there’s a dress store, a men’s clothing store, a jewelry shop, a shoe boutique. On Madison and Fifth Avenues, it’s one designer store after another — though most everything seems suited to women who have string-bean sized thighs and men who don’t shy away from wearing pink slacks with matching rose colored shirts.
BUT once upon a time, New York was where you went to get something you would never find elsewhere. Now you can find designer clothing everywhere and anywhere. In fact, the heart (mine anyway) cries out for stuff that doesn’t have a “name” plastered on the butt or chest. Soho, the downtown warehouse district (a forerunner of our North Loop), was the hip place to purchase art or get yourself pants or shoes that nobody else at your next cocktail party or poetry slam would ever have seen before. In recent years, however, the galleries have fled to less expensive digs uptown, and most of the shopping is dominated by chains like TopShop, Coach, Barney’s, Prada and the like. For all that, you may as well go to the Galleria, Mall of America or Grand Avenue.
OK, it’s true that New York probably has more notable people per acre than all cities other than maybe London and Los Angeles. For just $20 a ticket, Joe took us to the 92nd Street Y, where we were able to listen to playwright John Guare (“Six Degrees of Separation”) and critic and editor Gordon Lish introduce two new playwrights who read from their work. And we went to see Stephen Sondheim’s play “Passion,” Joe texted me: “OMG, Sondheim was in the audience!!!”
BUT we did have to buy tickets, making the 92nd Street Y event no different from attending something like MPR’s “Talking Volumes.” Just because you live or work in New York doesn’t mean that you run into Philip Roth on the street and have a deep conversation about the meaning of life. And, I wouldn’t know Stephen Sondheim if he sat right next to me — and I hope he wasn’t nearby that night, because right in the middle of “Passion,” my husband announced for all to hear, “I don’t like this play.”
The Latest Idea
So, at the Museum of the City of New York, you can find the next great thing — or I should say, the next tiny thing. Called The Launch Pad, it’s a 325-square-foot micro-apartment, which is about the size of one of those bank ATM lobbies. Designed by Clei, Resource Furniture and Amie Gross Architects, it manages to incorporate cooking, bathing (a full-size tub), sleeping and watching TV into scant square footage with a clever fold-down bed, pull-out desk, dining table and ottomans that convert into tables to produce the feeling that you’re living in something larger, say, 400 square feet. Even the flat-screen TV slides away to reveal glass shelves.
The idea is that there’s a mismatch between the housing available in New York, which is mostly suitable for families with children, and the city’s population, a third of which is comprised of single people who live alone. Yet, city building codes require apartments to be at least 400 square feet in size, a requirement that was enacted to do away with substandard 19th-century tenement housing. New York is now reconsidering the regulation, and Mayor Bloomberg sponsored a competition for a micro-apartment to be built on East 27th Street. Most of the competition entrants constructed stacks of units with large common spaces where residents could presumably get together to recreate.
BUT at first, the little dwelling seemed like a marvel. But after you watch a video showing a single woman living in it, you realize that there’s a lot of work involved, taking tables out, putting them back, taking out your bed, pushing it back in the wall, stacking ottomans and so on. And there’s no room for clutter — or for more than two outfits and a coat in the closet. Living there, you’d save a ton of money because you’d have no place to put anything you bought (unless you stored it in one of those warehouses along the Highline). In the end, it reminded me of my mother’s assisted living unit, which seemed a little tight at 600 square feet. All I can say is: We should count ourselves fortunate that in the Twin Cities land is not so expensive that we have to cram people into Lilliputian spaces.
CODA. Of course, it all depends what you’re used to. One night, my husband went into a Wells Fargo ATM vestibule to get some cash. Sleeping on the carpet in front of the machine was a man who had taken his shoes off. My husband came bounding out. “I don’t want to wake him,” he said. I worried that maybe the guy was dead, but then I saw him wiggle his toes as if to say, “Ah, this is really comfortable.”