Once Around the Park, Then Farewell
By JAN BENZEL
Published: September 2, 2010
I AM torn. As you read this, I’m packing for a flight to Paris, where I’ll be living and working for the next few years. It’s wildly exciting for me, and also somewhat terrifying. I have traveled abroad, but I have never lived anywhere but here, up and down the East Coast. I’m thrilled to have a new city to explore, and such a beautiful one. But as summer has wound down and my departure has grown closer, it’s become clear just how much I will miss New York, my home for nearly 30 years. My daughters were born here. Beloved friends and colleagues are here. New York has been my canvas, my stage, my movie set. Wherever I go, memories greet me.
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
When my household belongings set sail across the Atlantic a few weeks ago, I suddenly stopped taking New York so much for granted. I set out to see New York as a visitor might, hitting world-famous highlights that I’d missed, or dismissed, or figured I’d get around to someday. You can read about those adventures on the City Room blog.
But there were also places over the years that I got to know well, that I have visited and revisited. The Shakespeare Garden in Central Park, Carnegie Hall, the High Line in Chelsea, the Greek and Roman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and theater (in this case a production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” in the West Village) — they are the jewels most precious to me in a city of riches. They are, or represent, the places that have most been my home here.
That’s so partly because of proximity; I’m an Upper West Sider, so these spots are in my daily orbit. If I lived in Brooklyn or the Bronx, Staten Island or Queens, I’m sure my list would include the great parks, museums, performance spaces and gardens in neighborhoods there.
Most of us live in small spaces in New York. We grumble about it — we’re prone to grumbling here — but really, most of us don’t mind. Walk out the door, and the city’s great parks are your lawns; its gardens, your gardens. Its museums are your courtyards; its restaurants, your kitchens and dining rooms; its stages, your home theaters. Musicians come from all over the world to play for you in your glorious chambers, grand and intimate, devoted to music. It’s a great party, New York is.
Met’s Greece and Rome
I sat on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum the other day with Tim Morehouse, the chaplain of Trinity School, comparing notes on our summers and children. My daughters are graduates of Trinity, where Latin is learned as a living language. He hadn’t yet seen the Met’s antiquities in their light-filled surroundings, splendid galleries opened in 2007.
The giant column at the entrance to the galleries took him right back to the Capitoline Museum in Rome, where a giant foot and hand make you feel as if you’re tiptoeing in a land where gods might tread on you at any moment. He admired my favorites of the sculptures: a trio of lustrous willowy nymphs. We wandered past Pompeiian rooms adorned with trompe l’oeil in rich colors and examined the Etruscan chariot, which looks more like an intricate toy than the grand vehicle it was, because people were smaller then.
All around us was what thrilled Tim in Rome. The Met, and these galleries in particular, are for me an invitation to travel: in the imagination, in time, in the world.
The High Line
The first lease I signed in New York was for an apartment in Chelsea, a fifth-floor walk-up on a pretty block with the lovely garden of the General Theological Seminary around the corner. If you weren’t around then — the 1980s — you can’t possibly imagine how much that part of Manhattan has changed. The galleries! The restaurants! But best of all, the High Line, the elevated park fashioned from the abandoned, decrepit elevated railway.
Gorgeous native grasses blow in the breeze along an old-fashioned boardwalk. City dwellers in bathing suits lounge on big wooden chaises. There’s a wacky open-air amphitheater where you can sit and watch a show, which usually turns out to be city traffic below. There’s a beautiful stained-glass window, just hanging, not looking in or out on anything. The vestiges of the meatpacking district and the water towers and buildings become elements of a great canvas all around you. What you see is New York reinventing itself, as it does all the time — in this case gloriously, artfully so.
Here’s the obvious first thing to love about Carnegie Hall: all that music, and the way it sounds. Randy Newman tried out some new material there a couple of years ago, just him and a piano. I first heard Mahler’s Third Symphony performed there, Mariss Jansons conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. Amazing. It was as if the hall had been designed specifically for that performance of that piece of music, in which French horns sound in the wings, offstage, in one of the most haunting, transporting passages of music in memory. (Mine, anyway.)
But it wasn’t. And that leads me to the second thing I love about the hall: Andrew Carnegie bankrolled it, for his wife. As the lore goes, she was an alto in the Oratorio Society of New York, a choir of amateurs who loved to sing. Carnegie heard them and thought to himself, “These singers are so good, I’ll build them a hall worthy of their talent.” Now that’s love.
My friend Betsy Means is a soprano in the Oratorio Society, and I often go to hear its concerts, now led by the rock-star music director Kent Tritle. I sit with Betsy’s family in one of the elegant boxes in an upper tier of the hall. The attendants bustle around before the performances begin, locking the outside doors. We wave wildly to Betsy when the singers have taken their places onstage. She can’t wave back, but we can see her smile when she sees us. She lifts a hand and gently pulls her earlobe, an echo of Carol Burnett’s signal to her grandmother.