Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Secret Places of NYC

New York City abounds in ironies: it is geographically huge but its individual neighborhoods really make it a bunch of small towns. There are lots of places to live but it's almost impossible to find one that's available. It is the most populous city in America yet, in many ways, it's the perfect place to go if you're looking to be alone and live anonymously.

NYC is both a place to go and a place to get away to.

There is so much we know about the city, it's history, and what's in it. Yet, at the same time, there's vastly more that we don't know -- and there are lots of places in this city we know nothing about or would never think of going to (because we don't know they exist).

Take our history: a bunch of old New York City history books that were long out of print are now available for sale online. These include books of photographs of NYC from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. I love old pictures of NYC. Looking at them, you see a city both distant and familiar, a place you know and a place you don't. It's really amazing to see, for example, what Union Square looked like in 1900 and to see the buildings that survived and those that didn't. Another irony of old NYC: it's a place you know very well and, at the same time, not at all.

Or parks and public spaces: when you're looking to relax in public, we all think we know where to go: Central Park, Riverside Park, Battery Park, Prospect Park, Bryant Park, etc. You can hang out at public spaces at Lincoln Center or South Street Seaport. But there are lots more secret places that are right there out in the open called vest-pocket parks: places like Abingdon Square, Duane Park, and Jackson Square. These are nice little cozy places away from the roar of the crowd where you can go and mentally repair. And just this past week I found a new secret place: even though it's something of a monstrosity, the Trump Soho on Varick and Spring Streets has a nice little plaza behind it with lots of benches and trees. It's just off the corner and you wouldn't know it's there. When I passed by it the other day, at around noon on a weekday, it was nearly empty. It's a perfect place to go if you want to go read a book or listen to your IPod in peace. Also, I'd imagine that amorous young couples might find it a great make out spot. These are the little places that New Yorkers like me like to go and escape from the city -- right in the very heart of it (another irony indeed).

But the secrets of NYC aren't all charming. Did you know that NYC has it's very own paupers grave? A place where unclaimed dead bodies -- abandoned babies, homeless people who have frozen to death, elderly people with no family, poor people, etc. -- go to their final rest? Known innocently enough as a "potters fields", NYC's pauper's graves exist on Hart Island, a mile long place just off the coast of City Island in the Bronx. Hart Island is where Long Island Sound meets the Atlantic Ocean and is about as far from the rest of the city as possible. The bodies are sent there and the graves are dug by prisoners who are ferried in each day from Riker's. There are almost a million dead New Yorkers buried there and some people are now trying to find and locate body's so that they can be given a decent burial.

It's hard to imagine that anyone should ever end up in such a place. One can only feel sad for those people whose lives ended so sadly that that's where they ended up. And fortunately it's a part of our city that most of us don't see or experience, the kind of place we know exists but otherwise stays far from our own consciouses. But it's there, and it represents something sad and distressing, and it's just as much a part of our city as Rockefeller Center or the Brooklyn Museum. It's a secret of NYC that shouldn't be secret at all.

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