A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

SIGHT: Central Park's hidden bolt marking Manhattan's original street grid

It’s an autumn day in Central Park. Carriage horses nicker, teenagers lounge in the meadow with their phones, and Lycra-encased cyclists holler, “On your right!” as they career past hot-dog carts and charcoal portraitists. Tourists extend their selfie sticks toward the changing leaves.


More than two hundred years ago, before Central Park was even a twinkle in Olmsted’s eye, an Albany native named John Randel Jr. was commissioned to create the blueprint for Manhattan’s first street grid.
A modern rendering of Randel's plan, before its 1811 adoption. Image Public Domain/WikiCommons.

After he’d completed the plan, a surveyor went around the island, marking out the grid on what was then mostly fields. Randel and his crew followed, installing marble monuments, stakes, pegs, and, where they encountered rock, hammering iron bolts at more than a thousand future intersections. Today—if you know where to look—you can still find some of these markers, hidden in plain sight, and imagine the ghosts of avenues that might have crossed right there.


At least one of the Randel bolts remains today, embedded in a mound of schist between the Central Park Dairy and the Sixty-sixth Street transverse, marking what would have been the juncture of Sixty-fifth Street and Sixth Avenue. In 2017, however, it’s just an iron nubbin. The city, after all, is full of inscrutable iron things, from Lilliputian doors in subway stations to arcane sidewalk posts. Can you spot Randel’s street bolt in this picture? If so, imagine strolling through the park and stepping over it. Would you think to look twice?


Even up close, the bolt is mundane, though it is surrounded by a halo of white rock. It’s a tough job for a two-inch piece of iron to compete with such glorious surroundings. If you were in a curious mood, you might conclude that a building or shelter had once been erected here.


I often swing by to check in on the bolt if I’m in the area. One day, a saxophone wailed in the distance, pedicab bells binged, and traffic huffed across the transverse. A man—with a bike and insulated bag, perhaps a bike messenger on break?—reclined on a space blanket just a few feet from the bolt. He was oblivious to his proximity to the toils of history, much like the donkey Sylvester’s parents are in William Steig’s famous children’s book, as they picnic right beside the magic pebble that needs only to be touched to release their beloved son, trapped inside.


The guy alternately puffed on a cigarette and spewed wads of chewing tobacco in the direction of the bolt. I touched it. It was cold, unbudging, its ridges smoothed by blizzards and romping children and picnic blankets and stubbed cigarettes and leaf fall and the back pockets of jeans and everything else that touches a rock in Central Park. The bolt had dents in it where, I imagined, Randel’s hammer had struck it two centuries ago.


The air smelled sweet, like horse manure and early changing leaves. I noticed a couple walking toward the rock, hand in hand, so I ducked under a nearby tree. Would they notice it? They sat, not a few yards from but right next to the bolt! He lay down and pulled his cap over his face for a midday nap. Still wearing her backpack, she sipped a Slurpee. A leaf fluttered to the ground beside them.






Wednesday, August 2, 2017

SOUND: Secret sound installation in a Times Square sidewalk

It’s almost midnight in Times Square, and on the pedestrian island where Broadway meets Seventh Avenue, young men and women are handing out complimentary 3-D glasses. From 11:57 p.m. until 12:00 a.m., they explain to anyone who will listen, a movie called Midnight Moment will take over electronic billboards with a montage of silent images. For those three minutes, Times Square’s street-level pedestrian chaos dampens as begoggled viewers revolve, mesmerized by the screens above.



Few—if any—notice that about six feet under the soles of their Nikes, beneath the bars of an innocuous subway grate, is a sound installation that’s been part of the Times Square soundscape almost continuously, twenty-four hours a day, since 1977 (with a break between 1992 and 2002). Though the tourists look up, the momentary hush gives the subterranean sounds an unwitting audience—should anyone choose to tune in.



Embedded in the traffic island is a sidewalk grate, part of the ventilation system for the subway lines that crisscross beneath Times Square. As you pass over the grate, you hear a humming, like the ringing of church bells, that morphs slowly into an undulating drone and then into the warble of a finger traced along the rim of a wineglass. As you walk north toward the TKTS booth, the sound gets louder. Times Square directs our attention up toward the lights, not down into the darkness, and so the sound is unnoticed by the thousands of visitors who walk over it each day.


As it turns out, this subtlety is intentional: the installation, by American musician Max Neuhaus and managed by Dia Art Foundation, was intended to be encountered by accident. According to a 2006 New York Times article, Neuhaus was inspired to create the piece, titled Times Square, as he was passing across this particular island one day. In the article, Neuhaus explains, “The whole idea is that people discover it for themselves. They can’t explain it. They take possession of it as their own discovery.” When you first hear the sound, it feels like Times Square is whispering a secret in your ear, a seeming impossibility in a place that opens its arms to the world.



The unique resonance of each of the area’s subway tunnels creates the installation’s varied tones, which are amplified by sonic equipment and loudspeakers: none of the sounds, however, are composed; the installation excavates an urban heartbeat that would otherwise remain unheard. Combined with the mantra-like reverberations, the stillness of pebbles and gum trapped in the grate and the detritus that has sifted through the shaft provide a stark contrast to the chaos overhead.



In fact, the island is a designated “pedestrian flow zone” marked by signs with arrows, urging passersby not to stop but to “keep moving.”


In addition, the island has been painted with green lines demarcating a “designated activity zone,” meant to corral the Lady Liberties and desnudas to a restricted area adjacent to the grate.


Just as hardly anyone notices the sound, no one will look twice if you kneel down and press your ear to the metal grate. Tourists swarm around you, a street performer bangs on plastic buckets, cars honk, taxis swerve, fire trucks blare, a toddler throws a tantrum, tour buses sigh, a hawker cries, “Gold! Diamonds! Jewelry!” You, however, have discovered a hidden portal to a secluded valley where church bells and the chanting of monks reverberate against snow-capped peaks.


For forty years Neuhaus’s unearthed sounds have been folding themselves into the experience of Times Square. When visitors look back at the photo capturing their moment at this center of the world, will they have a memory of the secret issuing from the grate beneath their feet? Pay attention. Connect. There’s more here than meets the eye.

Max Neuhaus’s Times Square is permanently installed beneath the pedestrian island on Broadway between Forty-fifth and Forty-sixth Streets in Manhattan.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

SIGHT: Seven found city heart collages

In Sense & the City tradition, I am offering seven images for the seventh month. I have been collecting and photographing heart-shaped objects (and non-objects) spotted on city sidewalks for since the beginning of the year. I have often been amazed—and sometimes disgusted—by my discoveries. On the disgusting end: wads of spit, a crushed animal, bird droppings; on the beautiful end: a bit of string, an orange peel, and even a pink love note! The most common findings were napkins and tissues and gum and candy wrappers; some of the hearts were perfectly shaped, others more abstract. In the process, I realized that once you decide to start looking for something, you see it everywhere. Our city never ceases to surprise and delight, often in the least expected places.

All images captioned clockwise from the top left.

1.


(a) inside of tennis ball skin (b) puddle (c) Starbucks napkin (d) tissue

2.



(a) love note (b) spit (c) chewed Trident in wrapper (d) insulation
(e) hole (f) plastic bag 


3.


(1) hole (2) roll (3) cherry tomato (4) mac 'n' cheese

4.

(1) dead bird (2) orange peel (3) gum wrapper (4) rubber band

5.

(1) card (2) ping-pong ball (3) paper towel (4) burst balloon (5) bit of straw (6) bird poop

6.

(1) string (2) sticker (3) paper towel (4) peanut (5) squished gum (6) plastic bag

7.


(1) candy box bottom (2) Sara Lee (3) ace of hearts (4) ATM receipt 






Wednesday, June 7, 2017

TOUCH: The Wrecking Club

As the door closes behind me, I adjust my helmet and goggles and consider the options: crowbar, baseball bat, or sledgehammer? Before me is a roomful of furniture and household objects that I have half an hour to smash to pieces—and the clock is ticking.


I’m at the Wrecking Club, a new business in the basement of an anonymous Garment District building, where you can spend thirty exhilarating and exhausting minutes destroying stuff. The room, for up to two people, costs $20, and the items—from a bucket of glassware to a computer to a desk—cost an average of $20 each; you can also bring objects from home that could use some therapeutic destruction. Each session includes protective gear (helmet, ear plugs, goggles, dust mask, optional coveralls), implements, access to a sound system, and cleanup, as well as a courtesy mannequin for beating, if the mood strikes. A typical setup, around $100, includes a large and a small piece of furniture, assorted housewares, and an electronic device. Each item creates a different tactile sensation when hit, from the shattering of plates to the crunch of plastic to the splintering of wood. Each implement has a different effect: the baseball bat beats, the sledgehammer smashes, the crowbar digs in. The room’s graffitied walls make an artfully grungy backdrop for photo ops. But from the outside of the building, the only sign that demolition lurks within is a cluster of Dumpsters on the curb filled with carnage from recent wreckings.


Owner Tom Daly, a former financial analyst, founded the Wrecking Club in early 2017, when he realized there was an unmet need for a safe, no-holds-barred place where New Yorkers could go to break things, release energy, and have fun. The Wrecking Club is the only business of its kind in the city (though there are several similar businesses around the country and the world). Daly was inspired by the adrenaline rush he always got from smashing stuff to throw away. “Aside from the fact that I’d always wanted to start my own business, this was something fun, weird, and I’d get to do it all day long,” he told me.


“Aggression isn’t something you’re encouraged to express—it’s a taboo thing,” he adds. Needless to say, customers have to sign a waiver acknowledging risks that range from flying debris and collision with fixed objects to hearing loss and “emotional injuries”—though no one has been hurt so far and most clients handle themselves responsibly. At five foot six, in a backward baseball cap and hoodie, Tom acknowledges he doesn’t make for much of a bouncer; he gives customers their privacy but keeps an eye on things via closed-circuit cameras. He’s vague about his material sources (“Let’s call it treasure hunting”), but his goal is to find things that are aesthetically normal but dysfunctional.


A friend and I visit the Wrecking Club one recent weekday night; we are the only customers, though it’s often booked weeks in advance. Daly says the typical customer is raring to go, but I guess we seem a little intimidated: “You guys don't look like my usual clients,” he observes, giving us the once-over. The violence required here feels unlawful; I am someone who plays by the rules. Also, I’m surprised to feel a rush of pity for the items in the room. (When I ask Daly if he ever anthropomorphizes the objects, he pauses, then says, “I can honestly say that thought has never crossed my mind.”) I pick up a sledgehammer and swat tentatively at a chair. It skitters across the floor with each blow, and it’s hard to connect with the spindly rails. The seat, however, splits neatly in two with a crack, and I feel my first rush of satisfaction.


Decidedly more tantalizing is a multifunction printer. The initial bash through the plastic casing leads to depths of glass and finally to the groan of the innards splitting apart. Ink cartridges and electronic components sail into the air and scatter around the room in a spray of destruction. The noise is deafening. After about two minutes, the machine is in shards and I am panting. I hurl my sweater into a corner.


Finally getting into the spirit, I decide to take a baseball bat to the dummy, whose battered face has the most despairing expression I’ve ever seen on a rubber human.


I swing, and he bends obligingly on his pole; his pinstriped jacket slides off, and he bounces back in the nude for another hit.


There’s a knock at the door: Daly tells me to put my sweater back on for protection to protect my forearms (all participants are required to wear long sleeves and pants). Sweating profusely now and out of breath, I decide to tackle the bureau. As I punch the sledgehammer through the cheap wood into the hollow drawer, I feel like I’m quenching a thirst I didn’t know I had.


Crouching down and surveying the havoc I’ve wrought, I realize that the Wrecking Room satisfies a primal human urge: the desire to have a direct impact—on people, on objects, on anything—and how rare that opportunity is in modern urban life, mediated by technology and social norms. As Daly tells me, the Wrecking Club is not so much about releasing anger as about unleashing the tension and inhibitions that we don’t even know we have—that is, until someone gives us a crowbar and permission.


Daly says that after a few smashes, the first sound to come out of a wrecking room is usually laughter. Maybe the brute physical connection forges human connections. And maybe all this destruction creates something that will last, at least for an evening.

For more information, visit The Wrecking ClubMany thanks to my friend and wrecking companion Michael Hsu, who took most of the photographs for this post.