In Honor of My Mother

May 13th, 2013 · Beyond Gotham

Like so many, I woke up on Mother’s Day thinking about my mom. Maybe it’s because of various changes in my life this past year and because of reading so many poignant posts from a Motherless Daughters Facebook group this week, I felt Mother’s Day even more than usual. Our mom, Susie DeMark, was a beautiful soul, the very meaning of the word gentle.

She gave us so much, especially after my dad died and she had four daughters under the age of 15 to raise. As years go on, I am blown away that she was able to raise us as beautifully and bravely as she did. I love both the big and the little things I remember, like how she knew and enjoyed how to keep score in a baseball scorebook or how she trusted us to be clerks in our sporting goods store when I was 12 years old. The sporting goods store, in a narrow storefront in our town of Wampum, Pa., was a part-time business that my father, Charley, and Uncle Luke, brothers and both millworkers, owned. My mom took over DeMark Bros. Sporting Goods when my dad died of cancer, at age 45, and I felt so responsible working there.

What mattered came across more in actions than words. My mother was the first to buy history books for me. She encouraged my sisters and me to learn and explore, something best captured in the trips she planned to Canada, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. She knew beauty, in the flowers she raised, the wonderful meals she prepared, the music she loved. [Read more →]

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Boston: The Grief and Unrelenting Whys

April 20th, 2013 · Beyond Gotham

His face was unforgettable. Twenty-seven-year-old Jeff Bauman looked ashen and bewildered, appearing to be in shock, while three people directed and pushed Bauman in a wheelchair, as a New York Times photo showed. Moments before, he had been waiting to cheer his girlfriend when she would cross the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Then the bombs erupted, tearing apart Bauman’s limbs. Hours later, his father, Jeff Bauman Sr., confirmed that his son was horribly injured by seeing Jeff Jr.’s photo on Facebook, after being alerted by a family member, the Times article reported. In a hospital, the younger Bauman had both legs amputated. Now, he will have to learn to walk again.

Bauman is one of the many whose lives changed irrevocably, ripped apart in the seconds that the two bombs exploded on Monday, April 15, on Boston’s Boylston Street. In a short and horrific time, the violence killed 3 people and wounded some 175 others, many of whom were maimed and lost legs. Four days later, following a tense approximately 22-hour manhunt, valiant law enforcement officers arrested bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. His 26-year-old brother and the other suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was shot to death in a confrontation with police some 19 hours before, as CBS and WBZ radio reported. The arrest brought a break and enormous collective relief at one of the most difficult times this historic city has ever experienced.

Surely, the bringing to justice of suspects answers important needs of a civil society, as it restores some sense of order. Yet we are left with the deeper whys, the perplexing questions that remain and never quite go away even when authorities capture, charge, or kill perpetrators, and see that “justice is done.”

The suffering in Boston is immense. It’s devastating and heart-breaking, Vigils have honored the victims – Krystle Campbell, 29; Lu Lingzi, 23; and Martin Richard, 8. In one moment, the angelic-faced Richard – a boy from all reports who was full of spirit and loved to play sports and be outdoors – was watching the race with his family. Suddenly, following the bombings, he was dead. Martin’s younger sister, Jane, lost her leg, and his mother, Denise, underwent surgery for a brain injury, CBS News reported. How is the father, Bill Richard, able to stand up and go on? No one can be in his place and know exactly the weight of grief and loss in his heart. Many are reaching out in efforts to support him. [Read more →]

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Grand Central’s Gems at 100, Part II

March 27th, 2013 · Explore New York

If children were to design and build a train station, it might well turn out to be Grand Central Terminal. It’s big, and it has all kinds of cubbyholes, caverns, and passageways; a magical ceiling full of stars; places with models, books, and toys; great food from hot dogs and chili to all kinds of chocolate (and fancy stuff for adults, too); and best of all, trains…lots of them. The terminal contains places to hear echoing whispers, watch dancers, and get up high on the steps and look down. It appeals to all of the senses.

Best of all, it’s easy to carve out various adventures, pleasures, and delights according to the mood and time – whether you have an afternoon or only 20 minutes before a train. In other words, it invites being in the “present moment” – which is, after all, the specialty of childhood.

My own treasures often tend to be of the “just walk around and explore it” variety.

On the occasion of Grand Central Terminal’s 100th birthday – it opened a century ago on Feb. 2, 1913 – Mindfulwalker.com looks at some of its fabulous design, architectural history, and treasures. Beginning with an examination of how New York City almost saw the terminal destroyed, Part I focused on a walk around and exploration of Grand Central’s Main Concourse. This segment features five more gems starting at the concourse and in pockets away from it.
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The Treasures of Grand Central at 100

January 31st, 2013 · Explore New York

For many, it may be hard to grasp that where Grand Central Terminal stands today we could have had massive office towers and no magnificent train station. But it’s important to never forget. In the 1950s and 1960s on separate occasions, developers and Penn Central Railroad launched plans that would have destroyed Grand Central. Ultimately, however, after many people – prominently among them, leading architects and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – organized to oppose such plans, and the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission pursued legal battles about its landmarking powers, those who sought to save Grand Central Terminal won. What has this meant to New York City?

Consider that before the threats occurred to Grand Central, another campaign to save a historic and stunning civic structure, Pennsylvania Station, had failed. The then-declining Pennsylvania Railroad began to demolish the station in 1963, a destruction that took three years. After that tragic loss, the City of New York established the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Today, when you walk around the current Pennsylvania Station and nearby blocks, you find an area lacking soul and a train station that feels like a poorly planned, crowded suburban mall where people happen to catch trains. At Grand Central, the opposite has occurred.

This coming week, Grand Central turns 100 years old. The terminal opened on Feb. 2, 1913. Tomorrow, Feb. 1, MTA Metro-North Railroad, which operates Grand Central Terminal, and other entities are throwing a huge 100th birthday party, and they will follow up with events and exhibits in 2013.

Today, Grand Central is a vital link through which some 700,000 people travel each day on trains and subways – somehow, in the station’s efficiently and elegantly planned waiting rooms and concourse, not bumping into each other. Moreover, it’s one of the world’s most-visited and loved tourist destinations as well as a place that New Yorkers continue to thoroughly enjoy and prize.

That we have the beauty, function, and rich experience of Grand Central today is not only a testament to those who fought for it and continue to build on and maintain its heritage, but to the genius of its original architects. The architectural firm of Reed & Stern did the overall planning, while Warren & Wetmore designed and executed the spectacular Beaux Arts style and details. Credit the MTA Metro-North Railroad, too, for undertaking a major makeover and restoration in the 1990s to rehabilitate a long-decaying terminal.

To appreciate why Grand Central’s survival matters, let’s adapt a premise from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. What if Grand Central Terminal had not been saved – if this splendid historic building had been, in effect, killed by demolishing all or a significant part of it? Think about the difference it would make to New York City and the world if Grand Central hadn’t survived and wasn’t here anymore. How many grandparents would have missed out on showing their grandkids the Sky Ceiling in the Main Concourse? How many folks would never have experienced the “Whispering Gallery”? How about the woman who savored some slices of Tuscan salami made with fennel before heading back to her Midwest home? What different experiences would commuters departing and arriving on Metro-North trains have had all of these years – almost certainly not having that expansive, welcoming concourse before dashing out onto the city’s hectic streets? [Read more →]

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Silhouettes, Shadows, and the Solstice

December 27th, 2012 · Beyond Gotham

Perhaps the days of shortest daylight create a more intense desire to savor the play of light and shadow. We have just passed the winter solstice on Dec. 21, experiencing the shortest time of daylight for each day. It’s our all-too-human tendency to not appreciate something when we have it in abundance, say, when a June day possesses some 15 hours of daylight in the Northeast United States. Yet the shifts of light and darkness in early winter possess a particular quality, amid that daily prospect of a scant eight hours or so of precious daylight and long, deep nights of tingly cold and moon shadow.

The changes come minute by minute. In the Northeast U.S., our sunsets have been at their earliest point for a couple of weeks and now start to edge later by a minute or two each day. Yet sunrises are slower to shift back and will get later by a small amount until early January, before making the turn toward spring and summer’s very early daylight. But if daylight now is in less quantity, it possesses immense quality – the beauty at the beginnings and ends of the day is often stark and bold.

Flatiron Building In Winter Twilight

The Flatiron Building at twilight

Gantries and Manhattan Skyline

The gantries of Gantry Plaza State Park and the Manhattan skyline silhouetted after sunset

It’s a good time to take a cue from centuries ago. The word “solstice” has Latin origins from words that denote the sun standing, referring to a moment when the sun “stands still” before it moves in the opposing direction, as naturalist and author Hal Borland consistently reminded us. Though the sun doesn’t actually cease movement, as Borland said, we can take its hint to stop and notice the splendor unfolding each day.
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Splashy Art Deco on a Staid Block

December 6th, 2012 · Explore New York

Some musical riffs can suddenly elevate the mood. So, too, can a jazzy building. It can bring your senses alive, make you perk up and pay attention, if even for a short time. Buildings aren’t passive entities; the very good ones generate an active engagement. The best architects know this to the core. In a career cut short by death, Raymond Hood was a master at composing a sudden spark and riff with his buildings.

Such was my experience in walking westward on a street in Manhattan’s Upper East Side and finding 3 East 84th Street, a building that Hood and fellow American architect John Mead Howells designed. Suddenly, I felt my mood lift, and I uttered a little under-the-breath “wow!” The sight put a little pep in my step on a grayish afternoon. Before I knew it, I was engaging and closely looking at this Art Deco treasure. It sits on a block of quite-lovely buildings, on the north side of the street. Yet, without being garish, this apartment house stood out and was somehow brighter in its energy.

As I consider the work of Hood and Howells, I’m guessing that my response would bring them some pleasure. Whether it was their dramatic Daily News Building or Hood’s and André Fouilhoux’s black-with-gold-crowns American Radiator Building (both on 42nd Street), these architects obviously wanted people to engage with their structures, much like a musician creating experiences. The German writer and artist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe observed that “architecture is frozen music” – the tone of mind that architecture produces “approaches the effect of music.” This 1920s apartment house personifies this experience, in its sleek vertical lines and its zigzag, playful, and simple yet rich ornamentation. Like listening to a lilting flow of jazz, seeing the building’s decorative flashes feels like sensing that someone went a little wild for a moment but all the while maintained a natural sense of order. The effect can be hypnotic and mesmerizing.

No. 3 - Entrance

Front Door - 3 East 84th Street

The front entrance
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Statue to Show Sojourner Truth as a Child

October 24th, 2012 · Beyond Gotham

Sojourner Truth knew the importance and the power of the visual. One day, as an orator and crusader against slavery, she faced a hostile group of northern students who jeered her. Truth chose a very powerful visual proof of slavery’s horror to confront them. She opened her dress collar and bared her skin to show the scars from the beatings she endured as a child from one of her slave owners. It wasn’t the only time she had shown these scars to an audience.

Truth first had pictures of herself taken in her 60s, and she sold the photographs as one means to earn income. She thought carefully about how she dressed, often choosing traditional Quaker dress as opposed to adhering to the women’s fashion of the day, as biographer Carleton Mabee explains.. Hence, our visual sense of Sojourner Truth is dominated by images of her as an older woman: wearing a Quaker bonnet; a long, flowing, and full dress to her ankles; a scarf lain over her shoulders; and perhaps spectacles. No public monument shows an image of her as a child who was enslaved.

That is about to change. Soon, a small Hudson Valley memorial park devoted to her will have a bronze statue of Sojourner Truth depicting her as a child growing up in slavery here. Born in Ulster County, Truth spent the first 32 years of her life in the county, 29 of them as a slave until she escaped by walking quietly away one early morning from her slaveholder’s home (see “Tracing Sojourner Truth’s Escape Route” on Mindfulwalker.com).

The sculpture will culminate several years of local effort to restore and honor this history. A sculptor is currently completing the statue, in a project with the Town of Esopus and its Sojourner Truth Memorial committee. For the past several years, the committee has been raising funds, which included working with the town government and through Assemblyman Kevin Cahill to obtain a $75,000 state grant to pay for the park, the sculpture, and related initiatives to honor Truth and bring to the public the history of her early life locally and a sense of her spirit. Those involved expect the statue to be unveiled in the first-half of next year as part of a completed renovation of the Sojourner Truth Memorial, on Route 9W in this town along the Hudson River. [Read more →]

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Our Connection to the Prison Ship Martyrs

September 5th, 2012 · Be a Mindful Activist, Explore New York

The thousands of Revolutionary War prisoners who died in horrible and inhumane conditions aboard ships moored in New York waters form one of the most neglected chapters of American history. Many New Yorkers and Americans do not know about or have forgotten these prisoners, even though a far larger number of those fighting for the cause in the Revolutionary War died as prisoners than succumbed in combat.

Some have sought, however, to keep their memory alive for a long time. Each year for 104 years, the Society of Old Brooklynites has honored the Prison Ship Martyrs, as they are known, in an annual tribute and rededication of the stately memorial devoted to them in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park.

The Society asked me to participate and deliver the keynote speech for the 104th annual tribute at the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument on Aug. 25. The moving ceremony, on a sunny late-summer morning, included a dance interpretation about the prisoners, opera selections, music from a maritime piping ceremony, and remarks by city and state dignitaries.

Below is my keynote speech, dedicated to the prisoners’ memory, to share with the Mindfulwalker.com audience.

Keynote: The Prison Ship Martyrs

Thank you to the Society of Old Brooklynites for the honor of speaking here today and participating in this important memorial tribute. Good morning, Brooklynites and distinguished guests.

James Little was 16 years old when he joined the Connecticut militia. He did so in answer to the authorization of the Continental Congress for the raising of an army to fight a building threat of the British against New York and the Eastern seaboard. Sixteen years old! James Little likely could not have anticipated the suffering he would endure and witness in just the next year.

Little fought with the army in New Jersey and then at Fort Washington at the northern tip of Manhattan. The British captured Little and thousands of soldiers at Fort Washington, only months after he joined the militia. Their captors took Little and other prisoners on a forced march for four days from Harlem south to New York City. They had no food, and they had to march through the British and Hessian troops, who taunted and harassed them, and beat them with the butts of their guns. Not too long afterward, the British put Little and many others on a prison ship, the Grosvenor.

The conditions he had experienced could not have prepared him for the appalling situation on the ship. In the lower berth, Little and other prisoners were so crowded together that they could not lie down or sit, day after day after day. Their captives gave very little food to Little and the other prisoners, maybe a small amount of gruel with water in the morning or a very dry biscuit in the evening – food that was not edible. Becoming weaker, he watched others die around him, and the dead bodies were then hoisted on deck. Then Little came down with small pox, as the disease raged through the ranks of the prisoners. A doctor came to take out those with small pox to the shore – about 40 prisoners. Of those 40, Little was one of only three prisoners who survived. [Read more →]

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Tracing Sojourner Truth’s Escape Route

July 31st, 2012 · Beyond Gotham

Like the guiding light of daybreak that accompanied Sojourner Truth as she walked from her slave owner’s home to escape to freedom, much more illumination now reveals the early days of her life. Named Isabella when she was born into slavery, the abolitionist and champion of human rights spent the first 32 years of her life in Ulster County, in New York’s Hudson Valley, all but three of them as a slave. Biographers, especially Carleton Mabee, began shedding more light some two decades ago onto Isabella’s first years.

Now we know even more. During the past decade, local historians, scholars, and citizens have been working to uncover more about Isabella’s early life and whereabouts. Much like the dawn’s light that greeted Isabella that day of liberation, the illumination hasn’t come all at once, but bit by bit.

A true upsurge of interest and research in recent years has made this part of Truth’s life more accessible. This means that you can now trace more of the tangible connections to her time as a slave, from her birthplace and a house where she dwelled and worked as a slave to what is believed to be the escape route that she walked in 1826. Moreover, delving into the early days that others have shown light upon reveals some ways the girl gave birth to the woman. It shows how some early, though not always consistent, signals of the spunk and ability to challenge convention that she personified throughout her life were present in the young woman who lived in Ulster County and escaped to freedom. [Read more →]

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In Sojourner Truth’s Footsteps

May 31st, 2012 · Beyond Gotham

She never knew most of her 11 brothers and sisters. She hoed corn and lugged bottles of molasses or liquor for one slave owner when she was barely a teen. She endured merciless and unrelenting beatings at the hands of another slaveholder. Long before she changed her name, Sojourner Truth was Isabella, a slave in New York’s Hudson Valley. To understand the remarkable accomplishments of the woman who defied powerful, entrenched interests in fighting slavery and women’s oppression – and called out to the world with her speech, Ain’t I a Woman? – know the young girl who lived, suffered, and walked in these very fields, hills, and woods of Ulster County.

One can see statues of Sojourner Truth or can spot the places named after her and not have a real sense of who she was. But walk on the same ground she did – in places like Port Ewen and Kingston – and match it with experiences she described in her narrative and you may begin to know her. She becomes much less a heroic, saint-like figure at a distance and more a real flesh-and-blood person who as a young girl, through terror and hardship, possessed spunk, bravery, intuitiveness, and a sense of awareness and irony about her place within the evil system into which she was born.

In her experiences as a child in Ulster County lay the roots and even some signals of how Isabella, an uneducated African-American girl, became Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and orator. This exploration in Ulster County, in two parts, is a way to know more about and reflect on her early life. [Read more →]

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Spring’s Many Enticing Invitations

May 1st, 2012 · Beyond Gotham

It may be the line of bold yellow forsythia that appears on a drab brown hillside. It may be the sudden burst of crimson red on a stand of maple trees in the park or the cottony white and pink of blossoms on dozens of apple trees in an orchard where gnarled dark branches dominated just last week. When spring’s color arrives, it feels like a quick entrance in a door.

Spring comes calling with invitations, in the blossoms, bursting buds, and blooms. Their message is clear: Come, don’t waste the moment. Look now. Enjoy this. Spring explodes in color bursts in the woodlands and along the streets that seem to exclaim a gay and riotous party that will soon settle down into summer’s hanging-around fullness. Many of its moments are brief and exquisitely pleasing and beautiful.

Bud Bursting

Take the rapturous show of crabapple blossoms. The tree’s color captures the juxtaposing messages of spring beauty that comes and leaves quickly but encourages us to slow our pace to savor it. First, its buds swell in the balloon stage into showy red-purple, pink, or white. Once the buds break, its delicate blossoms of pinkish white, light pink, rose-pink, and other variations burst forth. The flowering lasts just one to two weeks before a tree changes over to leaves. There is no waiting once this happens. Is there anything that expresses the beauty of a singular moment like the pink of crabapple blossoms against the deep blue sky or smooth water? [Read more →]

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NYC’s Sunset Spots: Brooklyn Bridge Park

February 14th, 2012 · Explore New York

In a city that is perpetually in motion, a sunset is an irresistible invitation to become still. Our days often have an agenda. Our walks are often preoccupied. But then it happens: At dusk the sun, sky, and water begin their dance of countless subtle movements. In New York’s open spaces edged by sky and water, with the swirl of a surrounding city and the bigness of skyscrapers and bridges, all is in motion and I am in stillness.

This was the experience of a sunset on a recent brisk winter day at Brooklyn Bridge Park, as I watched the shifts of light, color, mood, and shape unfold, minute by minute. It is a glorious place to do this. Sitting at a distance from the moving traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the boats and ships on the East River and in New York Harbor feels like the stationary center of a quieter, calmer, more beautiful world. It is a world of sight and sound apart from the teeming city, a capability that this huge open space – an 85-acre site in various stages of development as a park on the East River – affords. Brooklyn Bridge Park, thus, joins the list of Mindful Walker “Great Sunset Spots” in New York City. (For the others, see a list following this column.)

Each sunset offers a certain unpredictable twist in color. When I first arrived at the park a short time before sunset, the sun was emerging from a deep bank of dark gray clouds, sending shafts of light-golden rays to the horizon below. Gradually, as the sun edged closer to the horizon, the gold became stronger and tinged with spots of red and pink. Silhouetted shapes and cloud strokes changed constantly. With each passing minute, the pink deepened to rose pink.

Deep Gray And Gold Before The Sunset, New York Harbor
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Walking As Solace and Joy

December 12th, 2011 · Beyond Gotham

Walking has saved my life and restored my serenity more times than I can count. When times have come that throw off life’s balance and inner peace, I know I have not walked enough.

Walking has always been part of my life’s journey, a way to constantly look around at the world each day, no matter where I am. Through it, I discover more about my surroundings as well as develop my inner self. It’s a crucial part of my spiritual practice. Recently, I realized again – and very intensely – how much walking means to my life and how much more I want to share this gift with others. Feeling the loss as I became off-track and didn’t walk as much as usual, I reflected on how walking came to be one of my pathways to peace and appreciation of life each day.

These insights came in the midst of a chaotic, demanding time this autumn, one that has brought both major disruptions and blessings. If you are a regular visitor to Mindful Walker, you may well have noticed an interruption and much longer time spans between postings this autumn. My walking and my writing so often go hand in hand.

Several occurrences happened that disrupted my life’s usual patterns. First, in mid-October one of my sisters had a life-threatening medical emergency, suffering a ruptured brain aneurysm. She could have died, and I rushed home to Pittsburgh as she was undergoing brain surgery. Fortunately, the quick actions of family members who were with her at the time that the aneurysm ruptured – taking her to the emergency room immediately – saved her life. We are blessed that the doctors and nurses at Allegheny General Hospital, where an ambulance transported her from a community hospital ER, were able to save her life and that she has come through the surgery as well as she did, though full recovery will take some time. Still, the entire event and my concerns over my sister’s health and recovery have left me shaken. [Read more →]

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Redeemer Lutheran’s Staying Power

October 5th, 2011 · Beyond Gotham

When we behold a beautiful historic house of worship, we may well find a sturdy and durable congregation that has also withstood the test of time. Both materials and people become a study in resilience. Redeemer Lutheran Church in Kingston is a sweet and brightly warm church set within the Rondout neighborhood of this Hudson Valley city. Its marble and limestone are excavated from rocks that are millions of years old. Those who designed and built the church a century ago chose the marble and limestone, among other reasons, for their magnificence, strength, and ability to last. The materials that are part of the geologic time scale become entwined with the time that humans keep, in years, decades, and centuries.

Kingston has many historic churches and temples, and Redeemer is one of its seemingly hidden gems. At 104 Wurts St., it is back in a residential section off the main avenues. From an approach walking south along Wurts Street, Redeemer Lutheran looks like it could be set in a town in the English countryside. Its light gray stone with beige trim gives an impression of stately simplicity. It represented one of the early 20th century Gothic Revival churches that broke from the more ostentatious mold of the Victorian era.

Redeemer Lutheran Church, Kingston, N.Y.

Redeemer Lutheran Church

In an important sense, breaking from the past matched the ethic of those who built this church. They were a new generation of Americans of German heritage who had been part of a nearby German-language Lutheran church that immigrants established in the mid-19th century, Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, located several blocks away on Spring Street. Their ancestors had emigrated during difficult times in Germany and had settled in Rondout, founding a church that provided services in their native language.
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9/11: Still-Searing Images

September 16th, 2011 · Explore New York

Every early September a day comes that is just beautiful – particularly sunny, bright, and gently warm. On such days, I’m sure many feel it again as clearly as if it was yesterday. That Tuesday 10 years ago, the morning was clear and warm, with radiant sunshine, the kind that makes you cup your eyes when you look up into the brilliant blue sky. The weather brings it all right back every year: the morning of September 11, 2001. A day that began in beauty and possibility turned into one of enormous death and terror.

The light of the early day in New York City transformed in minutes to dark with acrid smoke, waves of debris and dust, and gray clouds that engulfed a large portion of the city. Looking back 10 years later, I think of that light and darkness of 9/11 as epitomizing the extremes of human nature caught in that event and its aftermath. The dark that came over a huge section of New York embodied the capability of man to commit incalculably terrible actions of violence and destruction. The light signified the power of human resilience, interconnection, compassion, and love. So many memories and images of that Tuesday and the days immediately afterward reflected one or the other.

World Trade Center

The World Trade Center in July, 2001 (Photo Credit: Brandon McCombs)

The first hours after the attacks in New York and Washington, and the plane crash in Shanksville, Pa., felt very chaotic. In those hours so little information existed to confirm who and how many had escaped the Twin Towers, who was surviving in the rubble, and who and how many had died. The rubble and minimal skeletal remains of the North and South towers were the most tangible evidence of desperate hope for life or, conversely, of death. [Read more →]

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Meditation: Looking Mindfully At Details

August 5th, 2011 · Explore New York

In the middle of a number of us playing soccer on a delightful summer evening, one of my partner’s grandchildren said, “Look at that sky!” The sky just before sunset was full of large pink, gray, white, and lavender swirling patterns above. How wonderful that she was aware of the beauty around us and shared what she saw. It was riveting. Though we returned to our soccer within moments, we had taken notice.

As it is with the sky, leaves, rocks, flower petals, waves, and other beauties of nature, so it is with the details and features of buildings, public spaces, and landscapes. The architects who have conceived of picturesque features and dynamic structures, the builders who have carried out their visions, the craftspeople and laborers who have painstakingly put in the tiles of a mosaic or carved wood or stone into distinctive, awe-inspiring shapes and figures, the muralists who have envisioned and painted explosions of color on blank spaces…all have worked to create something for our eyes. Their creations simply await our looking and our awareness.

If we open our eyes as we walk around a street in the city or a town, or down a country lane, and look at the buildings and landscapes, we not only will enjoy what our eyes encounter but we will change ourselves and our lives. I liken looking at architectural and design features to what Thich Nhat Hanh has said about eating a tangerine. In his seminal book, Peace Is Every Step, Nhat Hanh wrote, “If I offer you a freshly picked tangerine to enjoy, I think the degree to which you enjoy it will depend on your mindfulness.” In his tangerine meditation, he invited a group of children to each choose a tangerine, to think of its origins from its “mother tree,” and to peel it slowly, smelling its fragrance and noticing its mist. The children then each slowly ate a bite of the tangerine, savoring its texture and juice. [Read more →]

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Stained-Glass Glory in Chicago

July 11th, 2011 · Beyond Gotham

The names Healy and Millet likely will never be as well-known as Tiffany. But to those who look up at two stained-glass ceilings in the building that housed Chicago’s grand first central public library, George Healy and Louis Millet created an artwork that is dazzling, like Louis Tiffany’s, in that “can’t take my eyes off of it” way. Of course, the Tiffany stained-glass ceiling – which the Chicago Cultural Center proclaims is the largest Tiffany dome in the world – has drawn all kinds of acclaim and attention. The Healy-Millet ceiling not so much, but it is hardly the “other dome.”

It’s almost mind-blowing that two such domes are in one building. They are in the Chicago Cultural Center, a place in the Loop of high energy and community where you’ll find in any given hour an exhibit in one room, a singer next door, an art opening in another area, meetings elsewhere, folks reading and relaxing, and much more. This is set amid a building that is a spectacular artwork in itself.

The City of Chicago constructed this palatial building on East Washington Street and opened it in 1897, at a time when many cities sought to outdo each other and boost their prestige and reputation by constructing the grandest public places. The city government converted the structure into an arts and culture center, once Chicago’s central library moved to a new home in the Loop in 1991. “Be sure to see the Tiffany dome,” a friendly security guard said as I walked through the entrance during a recent trip to Chicago, and he provided directions. Luckily, I took a wrong turn at the top of a stairwell and came into the Grand Army of the Republic hall where the Healy-Millet stained-glass ceiling is, or I may never have seen it. What a sight.

Healy-Millet Ceiling
The Healy-Millet ceiling, Chicago Cultural Center

The Healy-Millet dome is both a marvel and a fascinating story.  It is a wonder of light, color, and pattern, and it’s very worth spending some time in its presence. Furthermore, the building and the dome reflect not only beauty and amazing artistry but history, telling of a city’s resurgence after a devastating fire two decades before and its desire to create a magnificent library for all of its people and a worthy place to honor Union veterans from the Civil War. Today, the stained-glass domes personify the continuing vision of some that it matters to restore and preserve such creations to their original dazzling form. [Read more →]

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A Bit of the 19th Century on Lispenard

June 10th, 2011 · Explore New York

Every once in a while I turn down a street in New York and suddenly think, “How have the bulldozers and the glass towers not obliterated this one?” Lispenard Street is one such place, a quiet street of a few blocks that is seemingly forgotten just one block south of the crazy, hustle-bustle free-for-all of Canal Street. If Canal Street is all elbowing and rushing, Lispenard is room to stretch out and walk slowly.

On Lispenard, a single building feature transports one to another era. Walk along Lispenard and look up at the elaborate bracketed cornice crowning 54 Lispenard to see the intricate inscription “Erected 1867” on the arched pediment at the center. It’s a building on the south side of the street, like many of the others along Lispenard and in Tribeca East a “store and loft” building – many four- and five-stories-high and about 25-feet-wide – where merchants in the mid-19th century sold and transported dry goods and textiles.

It was this and another building just a little farther east, 60-62 Lispenard, that first caught my eye and set off an exploration that ultimately felt like I was back in the 1800s, sensing a place and time in which New York merchants created proud and beautiful palaces marked by cast-iron storefronts and the flourishes and details that recall Old Europe. The neighborhood then was the hub of an international trade in things such as fancy goods, notions, hosiery, linens, artificial flowers, and jewelry.

Ironically, 21st century technology – combined with taking a few moments to stop, look up, and observe – put me in the experience of the 19th century. On my smart phone, I found the 1992 New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) report designating Tribeca East as a historic district. As I walked on Lispenard between Broadway and Church Street, I read about who designed and constructed a number of the buildings, who occupied them, and what their businesses were.

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The Glorious Palette of Spring Green

May 19th, 2011 · Beyond Gotham

The verb “spring” originates from the Old English “springan,” which means to burst forth or leap. The noun for the season, fittingly, derives from that term. Each year at this time, spring enchants us with the bursting forth of blossoms and flowers – pinks, purples, whites, yellows, reds – from what which lay dormant in the preceding months of cold and longer darkness. Spring affirms life’s renewal, in all of its range of colors. Yet for sheer exuberance, is there anything more wondrous and uplifting than spring’s greens?

“Spring green” is actually a palette of many shades, thanks to nature’s process of mixing. The green of leaves and plants happens because of chlorophyll. This chemical compound is key to photosynthesis, the process that enables plants to combine the sun’s energy with water and carbon dioxide and convert them into carbohydrates as food and oxygen as the waste product. In the process, chlorophyll absorbs other wavelengths of light, such as red and blue, leaving green, which is not absorbed and is reflected to our eyes. Other pigments in the leaves – which photosynthesis uses but in smaller quantities – combine with green to create the different shades we see.

Perhaps when our beings long most for brighter color after a long winter, nature’s reward is most vibrant and enticing. Somehow by summer our eyes become quite accustomed to a green world, and we may take it for granted. As author and naturalist Hal Borland wrote, “The big leaf of any tree is so familiar that the wonder of it is lost. See it young, and that wonder is new again.” Watch a tiny leaf burst from a bud and touch it gently, and you notice its vivid green and its tender softness. Carved and curving leaves look and feel like the baby’s fingers of the plant world in detail and delicacy. [Read more →]

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Details, Details: Greenwich Street

April 27th, 2011 · Explore New York

“Manhattan” and “quiet” are two words that many people do not associate with each other and put together in the same sentence. Yet many pockets of Manhattan offer quiet, especially when we calm the mind enough to find the inner peace that allows it.

As one of those Manhattan walkers whose mind often can be preoccupied with swirling thoughts, concerns, the next destination or deadline, and to-do reminders, I’ve found architectural and building details are one of the easiest and surest ways to clear the mind and invite the quiet. It doesn’t take hours or miles of meditative walking either. It can be as simple as looking at the details of a single block.

Greenwich Street, between West 10th and Charles streets, is one such pocket of quiet with rewarding details, which I discovered after first stopping to look closely at a single, quirky, and utterly inspiring tree that is smack in the middle of a chain-link fence (see Mindfulwalker.com’s “A Tree Grows in Chain Link”). I was taken in by the quiet of this Far West Village block as I listened to birds chirping away on an early-spring afternoon. (Don’t they sound happy?)

The tree’s uniqueness caused me to focus on what was around me. Suddenly I started spotting eye-catching and intriguing details and features on this block made up primarily of four- and five-story 19th century buildings. What a mix of colors, textures, signs, and nifty adornments here, and such strong hints of the history. Soon I was walking the block more slowly, breathing more deeply, and seeing the details of Greenwich Street unfold. [Read more →]

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