A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

TOUCH: International Pleating

Once you start looking, you’ll start seeing pleats everywhere in the city. In the plastic awnings on Queens rowhouses. In the air filters stacked at a Brooklyn auto-repair shop. In the curtains at the Metropolitan Opera. In the folds of a bulldog’s nose, and in the metal wall at Erie Basin Park in Red Hook (below).


But on the fourth floor of a building in the West Thirties, above a garage for hot dog carts, you'll find International Pleating, the last remaining pleating factory in the Garment District. You’ll also get to shake the deft hands of Leon and George Kalajian, its father-and-son owners, who are carrying on their family’s 150-year tradition of textile manufacture and manipulation.

George, who recently released the only extant textbook on pleating, is gradually taking over the business from his father. Leon is officially retired, but “you can’t stop him,” say George. Leon declares that no one knows anything about pleating anymore except the Kalajian family. At one point there were almost forty pleating factories in the Garment District; since then, most of the work has moved to China.


In the house in Lebanon where Leon was born, his mother kept a secret room for her couture sewing work. Leon was in charge of placing hot irons outside her closed door. “Then one day, she let me in,” he says. From that moment, there was no going back. As his mother taught Leon the basics of hand-ironing, he began to come up with new ways of doing it “my own way.”


He started to experiment with fabrics, and began selling garments on consignment at a local shop. By the time he was fifteen, his business was going strong. His goal was—and remains—to create something new with each project. He claims he’s made twelve thousand different patterns since then.


The factory’s single room, with large windows framed by pleated curtains, is a clutter of machinery and paper. There’s not as much fabric as you’d expect. Most of it is sealed away in molds—tubes, cones, or flat stacks—being pressed into its final pleated form.


Pleats are a symphony for the senses. Running one’s fingers over the springy crenellations, the heights and shadows, creates a satisfying tactile rhythm. Pleats are precision, edge, and depth.


Perhaps equally satisyfing is the sound of a paper pattern unfurling from its mold—bump-a-bump-a-bump—revealing a tricky pleated shoulder cap for a sleeve.


As I tour the factory, fingering silks and cottons and synthetics, I learn that there are only four types of pleats—accordion, box, sunburst, and side—and also that the world’s oldest woven garment is pleated, dating back five thousand years to ancient Egypt.

Photo from https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/history-and-civilisation/2017/11/worlds-oldest-dress.
How do you pleat fabric? For straight pleats, you use a machine: International Pleating's green behemoth is a German model so old that one one except the Kalajians knows how to repair it anymore.


Other types of pleats require a mold. You spread the fabric over stiff cardboard, which is shaped into the pleating pattern, place the mold in a rack, and place the rack in an industrial oven, which effectively irons the pleats into the fabric with heat, pressure, and steam, then let the fabric dry on racks. George has developed a code for each form. There are many things to consider before pleating: the direction of the fabric grain, the fabric weight, whether a pattern is preprinted or will be printed after pleating, the direction of the pleats.


“Even today I always say to George, ‘We are not working for money; we are working for quality,’” Leon tells me. Passing on their family’s knowledge of pleating is the Kalajians’ contribution not only to the fashion world but also to their adopted city. “I want to do something to save the city,” Leon says. “Not the world—the city.”

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

SMELL: The Alley Pond Giant, the oldest living organism in New York City

A few steps from the diesel roar of the Long Island Expressway, at the edge of Flushing’s Alley Pond Park, there grows a tulip poplar tree. Honestly, it’s not much to look at. Drifts of candy wrappers, torn homework pages, Amazon Prime packaging—the detritus of modern life—buffet the chain-link fence surrounding its base. Even its height, an impressive 134 feet, is masked by an adjacent embankment. You would not notice it if you were passing by on foot, much less in the Hampton Jitney.


This is the Alley Pond Giant, rumored to be not only New York City’s tallest tree but, at somewhere between 350 and 400 years of age, also the oldest living organism in the five boroughs. The tree is challenging to find, particularly in the warm months, when the forest shrouds it with foliage. I decided to visit in early spring, when its branches are still spindles against the sky.


After following a paved trail that skirts the shoulder of the expressway, I headed into the forest in what I hoped was the right direction and followed a faint path through the underbrush to the Giant.


Circling the tree, I found a narrow cavity, about twelve feet tall, that led into the hollowed-out base—it was unclear whether from fire or age or both. With utmost care to touch the tree as seldom and as reverently as possible, I slipped inside. The fumes of the highway, and all traces of the modern city, melted away as I was enveloped by the scent of history.


The air inside was loamy, redolent of leaf rot and earth, with a minerally tang. It was easy to imagine that the tree had smelled exactly like this for four centuries, and when, reputedly, George Washington passed close by on his tour of Long Island, and the Matinecock Indians shuffled past.


This being New York, many trees vie for superlative titles. In fact, the Parks Department has compiled a database of sixty of the city's Great Trees, and one intrepid fellow blogger has set out to visit them all. Besides the Alley Pond Giant, my favorite contestant is the self-proclaimed “World’s Most Famous Tree” located on a sleepy suburban block in Bergen Beach, Brooklyn, and maintained by one man for the past twelve years. (Needless to say, it is not included on the Parks Department list.)


Unlike some of its kin, the Alley Pond Giant is humble. It holds its secrets inside, in the furrows of its hollow trunk, in the scent and texture of its hoary bark. Like a true New Yorker, the Giant minds its own business as it lives and grows in increasingly unlikely surroundings, getting what it needs from the city's light and air, and from the unexpected visitors and messages that find their way to its roots.



Tuesday, March 19, 2019

SOUND: The "current of silence" at the Writers Room

Sense & the City has written before about finding silence and solitude in New York City: in the hush of the New York Public Library’s Rose Main Reading Room; in a midtown office space rented by the hour through the Breather app; in the mind-altering silence of Cooper Union’s anechoic chamber; and, most recently, in a napping pod at the Casper Dreamery.


But the silence in the Writers Room—the nation’s first nonprofit, shared writing space—is of a different order. In this sanctuary, housed in a penthouse overlooking Astor Place with views of the Empire State Building, the silence creates a current of creative pursuit that its members can tap into twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. This species of generative quietude—free from the distractions of music, cell phones, and conversation—is an urban rarity, particularly in New York.


“It’s about creating energy that’s single-mindedly focused on creating,” says Writers Room executive director Donna Brodie. “If you’re on your phone, you’re draining this current.” The space here may not look too different from most coworking spaces: desks arranged in pods, armchairs, plenty of outlets, a small kitchen, and even a nap room. But the atmosphere of most shared workspaces promotes networking among freelancers, and membership comes complete with kombucha on tap, yoga, and foosball. Here, the no-cell-phone and no-chatting policies are so cherished that they hardly need enforcing. While the internet is, of course, available for procrastinating as well as research, some members choose to sit with their screens in full view to prevent themselves from being caught cheating on their writing time.


Writers of all genres come here to write—and that’s all. They do not grade papers, fill their Fresh Direct carts, or reconcile their Con Ed bill. The “current of silence,” as Donna calls it, is no doubt the reason more than 1,400 books have been written at the Writers Room since its 1979 founding, in a small office off Bryant Park, by four authors—all parents—searching for a distraction-free space to pursue their craft at any hour of the day.


About seventy of the Writers Room’s two hundred members use the space daily (annual membership amounts to about $5.50 per day), and after midnight there is usually a handful of night owls in attendance, ensuring that at least one of the forty-five desks is always available.


To ensure silence, the room is carpeted; humidifiers and white-noise machines muffle footsteps and coughs. During the several hours I spent there, the loudest sound I heard was the clicking of the flame on an electric candle on my desk (I turned it off). By midmorning, about half the desks were full. The writers took their shoes off, propped their feet on their desks, consulted notebooks, sipped coffee, stared into space, tapped at their keyboards—just what you’d expect, except not only was there was no chitchat; there was virtually no eye contact. Everyone was in their own creative zone. Conversation is allowed in the kitchen, but even there writers were huddled over laptops munching on the signature snack: Costco peanut-butter-filled pretzels.


“The community is a very broad spectrum of people with different needs,” Donna says. “Some don’t want community; others want to interact. There’s no pressure to be part of a team.” As the nation’s oldest and largest urban writers colony, the Writers Room distinguishes itself from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, which require writers to exit their daily lives. “Sure, people can write at home in their pajamas, but why can’t writers have a dedicated workspace in the same way as dancers or other artists do?” she says. “Writing is the loneliest of professions. Coming here, even if you don’t exchange a word with anyone—it gives you the lift of spirit you need.”



Monday, February 4, 2019

MULTISENSORY EXPERIENCE: The Dreamery

Just a few steps off Mercer Street in NoHo, there is vast, darkened loft spangled with stars. Arrayed among the Corinthian pillars are tubular pods, each about the size of a Smart car, with a neatly made bed inside and a moonlike lamp suspended above it. The air smells faintly of lavender. It's silent but for the whir of a white-noise machine and the occasional rumble of the BDFM subway beneath the floor.


This is the Dreamery by Casper, where prospective Casper mattress purchasers can try out their beds in real time. Setting aside the corporate gimmickry, and the twenty-five-dollar fee for a forty-five-minute nap, it's a magical place to escape from the city.


You enter through a starry tunnel, where nap concierges in pajama tops greet you: "Have you napped with us before?" There are seating areas, bowls of nuts and saltwater taffy, a cooler of La Croix and Chameleon Cold Brew, and a shelf of boring books if you need performance enhancement. More-provocative books, like The Anatomy of Sheds and The Rise of David Bowie, are on unreachable shelves above the check-in desk.


The changing area is, admittedly, distracting. On the day I visited, "Put Your Hands Up" pumping through the speakers had me reaching for the array of complimentary amenities, including stylish earplugs (who knew there was such a thing?), Hello charcoal-bristle toothbrushes and toothpaste, Sunday Riley serums and cleansers for pre- and post-nap, and extra pillows and towels. There are lockers and curtained rooms with sinks where you can slip into your loaner Sleepy Jones constellation-print pajamas and slippers. You could spend half an hour prepping for your nap.


In the entryway to the nap room, a wall sign suggests that after your ablutions, "You are getting very sleepy."  Then it's time to head into the nap room through a door with a moon-shaped window.


The concierge shows you to your nap pod, called a Nook, where a sign tented on the pillow welcomes you by name. The curtains are drawn; the lights are dimmed. You sense a gentle airflow that keeps the Nook from feeling stuffy.


You tuck yourself in beneath a downy comforter on high-thread-count sheets (which are laundered between naps). There is a bedside plug for your phone, free WiFi (of course), and you can download a sleep-inducing meditation from Headspace if you're having trouble getting into the mood.


I cuddled up (my mattress was the Casper Wave, though it hardly mattered) and felt constellations away from downtown Manhattan—and from the rest of my daily life. It was hard to believe I was in pajamas, clutching a pillow, and about to fall asleep at 12:30 p.m. on a weekday in a wooden pod in a silent, pillared loft in the city. It was the ultimate decadence.


I was the first napper of the day, but when the lights rose to brightness forty-five minutes later, there were several waifish young women gearing up for their own midday naps, and a guy in track pants bounced around the lounge, clutching his pajamas to his chest, grabbing handfuls of almonds. "Is there, like, a Frequent Nappers Club?" he asked.