Friday, April 23, 2010

Earth Day irony in New York City

Today is April 23, the date thought to be William Shakespeare's birthday.

On or about Shakespeare's birthday in 1862, the American Shakespeare Society bestowed a birthday gift, unwittingly, on Central Park. Perhaps this was done at Shakespeare's statue and perhaps not but, on that date, 100 pairs of starlings and 100 pairs of sparrows were released into the park. It had been thought that the birds most mentioned in Shakepeare's Sonnets should be used to "decorate" the new park, just before its 1863 opening.

Preparations had been made ahead of time. Groundskeepers at London's Hyde Park were instructed to trap the 100 pairs of each of the two species. The birds were cared for on a transatlantic voyage from Southampton to New York.

A second Central Park release in 1890 or 1891 assured success for the birds. These live releases seemed like good ideas at the time.

Many, many ecological mistakes were made in the 19th century. It was a time of the absolute knowledge that Man was put on earth to master all living things. Australian settlers released rabbits, then cats, whose feral descendants play hell with native marsupial populations to this day.

Later in the century, Dutch elm trees were imported to America's eastern cities that wanted to enhance their tree-lined streets. City planters and horticulturists were unaware that Dutch elms harbored a fungal disease that kills American elms. They found out the hard way, when limbs of American elms became diseased and unable to hold up their own weight.

Groves of American elms are now few and far between. A grove of 160 American elms surrounds the Literary Walk, or The Mall, in Central Park. Most of them have lost limbs. One falling elm branch this past February killed a man who was walking underneath it as it fell! The trees are weak, and current planning doesn't call for their replacement when these mature trees begin dying off, some 40 or 50 years from now.

Ironic that the grove surrounds the statue of Shakespeare!

English sparrows and English starlings are used to humans, and flourish wherever humans go. As New York City grew after 1862, the numbers of sparrows and starlings grew with it. The problem with the birds was that they are birds: they can fly right over the walls of Central Park, to wherever they please.

And that's just what they've done. These human-tolerant birds have pushed human-intolerant native bird species out of food and nesting areas. They now dominate the park. As a matter of fact, they dominate bird life in most American cities and suburbs, and are now considered a pest species, all across North America. It's thought that the North American population of starlings is roughly 140 million, mostly in the US and Canada. They have gone west in immense flocks that can be seen from half a mile away. They steal grapes from winery vineyards in far-off California. Their ancestors were New Yorkers. THEIR ancestors were Londoners.

The other ironic thing in this story is that today is the anniversary of the first release of starlings in America. And what was yesterday? Yesterday was Earth Day.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Harry Potter and his Magical Students

This is Harry Potter.
Harry is a P.E. teacher at Calder High School, in the area of Manchester, England. Yes, that's really his name. He was the group leader for a trip to Vermont and New York City for 40 students and five parents. And I was their guide yesterday.

It began like any other bus tour. They were staying at the Comfort Inn, Chelsea, on 25th Street, and wanted to get off at "Ground Zero" after a four-hour bus tour. I figured we should go up the Upper West Side first, then Grant's Tomb/Riverside/God Box/Columbia. Then down into Harlem for 125th Street; show off the shopping mall that Magic Johnson built, and The Apollo Theater.

Side trip to 116th, with the explanation that Malcolm X dropped out of Nation Of Islam and founded an actual Islamic mosque there, which brought lots of West Africans into Harlem, creating the neighborhood known as Little Africa: an African neighborhood inside an African-American neighborhood.

We turned south at 110th to Fifth Avenue and I told the stories of the various museums along the way. Before the Met, the kids were intrigued to learn that the Catholic girls' school across the street educated young Stephani Germanotta a few years ago, and did anyone know what she calls herself now?
...That's right, "Lady Gaga."

Then they did an intervention. Harry Potter told me that the kids had wanted to walk through Central Park; would that be possible? The driver, Oscar, and I conferred for a few seconds. We would disembark at 73rd, and he would go wait on W. 62nd on the south side of Damrosch Park, a wide, empty street, while we toured Central Park's midsection on foot. The pickup point was to be CPW and West 74th, well away from the congested 72nd Street transverse.
Upon disembarking, they got to see what possibly was the cheapest home ever constructed on Fifth Avenue: the red-tailed hawk nest over the highest window at 927, Mary Tyler Moore's building. Then, across 72nd, at one of the most expensive in its day: Henry Clay Frick's villa atop the hill at 70th Street.

Entering the park, we stopped on the 72nd Street transverse, looking at the statue of Samuel Morse. A bigot and member of the Know-Nothings, perhaps, but he did invent that telegraph in his hand.

We crossed 72nd and I led them down the garden path to the--unfortunately drained--Sailboat Pond (Conservatory Water), explaining that this was the scene of the boat race in Stuart Little 2. Several wondered where the bridge was, that linked the pond to the river, and I had to destroy their faith in Hollywood: not only was there no bridge, but Stuart Little wasn't even humanoid. And Hugh Laurie is actually English.

Then we took a look at Hans Christian Anderson (bottom photo), then tried to get to the Alice in Wonderland sculpture group, but were turned away. A bunch of film types were making an indie movie there. Students love movies, so they photographed the actors, more excited than they would have been with the sculpture itself.

Taking the mid-pond path west, we came to the Boathouse and saw the extremely long restroom lines there. But I knew a less-known set of restrooms along our path, and so we walked on to Bethesda Terrace and the Angel Of The Waters.

Then into the tunnel with the Minton Tiles overhead, up the stairs where Adam Sandler--Mr. Deeds--and his girlfriend descend on bikes, and a "rest" stop at the restrooms halfway up the stairs. No line.
Five minutes later, we ascended to the north end of the Literary Mall, where the kids bought ice creams and hot dogs, and Harry Potter posed for the top photo.

Crossing 72nd on the surface, we went over to Cherry Hill. Several of the kids asked if this path was the same one that Big Daddy skated down, only to fall into the water? To tell the truth, I haven't seen the movie but I've been told that it was.
And the Bow Bridge over the other side of the lake, linking Cherry Hill to The Ramble: it's where Patrick Dempsey learned that his platonic girlfriend wanted him to be her... Maid Of Honor.

Back on 72nd, I asked the students to stay on the right side of the road as we walked west to cross the southbound lane. And watch out for the Type A bike racers, who scream bloody murder at pedestrians.
On up the hill into the teardrop-shaped memorial garden, in memory of John Lennon: Strawberry Fields.

Yoko Ono's landscaper negotiated for a statue of Lennon, but the Parks Department didn't want any more statues in the park (though Fred Lebow later got one at the 90th Street entrance). They settled on a 15-foot-across black-and-white mosaic bearing the name of Lennon's most powerful, possibly his best loved song post-Beatles: IMAGINE.

This park bench
...overlooking the mosaic is festooned with two different little bouquets that some thoughtful fans brought up to lay at the memorial. Bouquets, garlands and sprigs of flowers dot the area. These things come, anonymously, every day of the year.

Strawberry Fields is popular for all the people of the world, but most especially for Britons and Japanese, who remember the Liverpudlian John, and come here in large numbers. Yoko still lives across the street in the Dakota.

A high-school band concert was playing at Nussbaum Bandshell as the group stood nearby. Those are the original-style park benches, the only Jacob Wrey Mould benches left in the park, I believe. He designed the park's furniture, while Olmstead and Vaux did all the landscape design, known as The Greensward Plan.

Hans Christian Anderson reading "The Ugly Duckling."

The pick-up went smoothly. We turned on 79th to southbound Columbus, to Ninth, back through Chelsea and the Village, uphill on Varick, past the Ghostbusters' firehouse. Then west on Chambers to Battery Park City. The traffic cops said we couldn't disembark at the World Financial Center as I've done in the past, to view the World Trade Center. This confounded us.

But the students, as it turned out, were pressed for time. They didn't so much want to be taken around the WTC as have time to eat and shop before their late-afternoon plane trip home. Driver Oscar suggested we drive past the WTC on the West Side Highway, take a left on State, and go through the Financial District to South Street Seaport.

Great idea! That's exactly what we did. I told them about the fort in Battery Park, meant to repel their British ancestors in the second war between the USA and Britain, around 1815. (They burned the city of Washington instead.)

And that cubic white building to the left? Don't believe that stuff about the Tunnel Authority chiseled over the door; it's where Will Smith works with the Men In Black. Likewise the ornate Cass Gilbert-designed building ahead with the pink-and-green roof. It may be the National Museum of the American Indian, but they might remember it better when it was covered in pink slime, freed up by Ghostbusters 2, riding herd on the Statue of Liberty.

We did the Financial District, cruising past Standard & Poors, the NASDAQ, Goldman Sachs, and then I pointed out that the same lot at Wall & Water where Barclay's is now, was where an English pirate, Captain Kidd, lived in 1690. Someone in back called out, "Same thing! English pirates!"

Five minutes later I thanked them for coming to visit New York City, and we all disembarked at the Seaport.

Best wishes,
Stan O'Connor
licensed sightseeing guide
917 716 4521
member, Guide Association of NYC
member, NYC Pedicab Owner Association

Find me on the New York City forum of, and on YouTube, as TourguideStan.