Finding Home Where the Hearth Is

The rootedness of most New Yorkers – their attachment to the city and their intention to stay there – can often be measured by their kitchen. First: do they have one? Second: is it an approximation of a covert freshman dorm kitchen (hot plate and mini-fridge), or does it have adult-sized appliances? Third: what is actually in the appliances? New York apartment lore is rife with tales of ovens which exist to store stilettos and refrigerators containing a moldy hunk of Gouda and a six-pack of Corona.

My own attachment to New York has evolved with my kitchens – from a shared, narrow affair where I cut my teeth on living as an urbanite, to my first kitchen of married life, to a place where I stopped playing house and starting living it.

I moved to New York a month after my college graduation. I’d landed the classic (pre-recession) twenty-something package: a cushy job at a large investment bank, housed in a tall glassy building overlooking Central Park, and an L-shaped apartment right at the bend of a crooked street in the West Village, shared with a kind classified-ads roommate, Katie, who was not much older than me but enough to be far more settled in her life of entertaining traveling friends and playing tennis and working at an architecture firm a few blocks away.

The kitchen was long and narrow, with a window at the end that looked into a luckier neighbor’s courtyard. We had two cabinets: one held Katie’s dishes, and the other we split between us to store our food. I was too green to know how lucky I was to have an oven, refrigerator, and enough counter space to easily cook multi-course meals. And so, I didn’t do much cooking; I ate a lot of Cheez-its and chocolate chips. It was okay. I knew I wouldn’t be living there forever.

I wasn’t an incompetent cook – my mother made sure of that – but since I’d lived at home during college, I had to learn to buy groceries for myself. The West Village is devoid of good supermarkets, and I shopped at the exorbitantly-priced gourmet stores like Citarella until I stumbled upon a bare-bones, run-down, but completely adequate grocery store called Strawberry Fields, apparently run by an enormous family of Pakistanis. (With typical Gotham transience, it’s now a bleeding-edge couture boutique.)

Katie had lived in Europe for a while before moving to New York and had fallen into the habit of shopping for that day’s food on the way home from work. That worked well for her, as she subsisted mainly on what could be purchased on nearby Euro-wannabe Bleecker Street: fresh bread from Amy’s Bread, fish and salami from the Italian butcher, coffee from Porto Rico, cheese from the inimitable Murray’s.

And so I fell into the habit, too. Amy’s was easy enough to navigate – large, crusty loaves of artisanal bread, ciabatta rolls shot through with rosemary, softball-style muffins, melty croissants, all baked fresh every day and familiar to me, lined the cases and shelves behind the register.

But as someone who, until recently, never liked cheese, I hovered on the periphery of Murray’s until one day I ventured in to see what the fuss was about. It’s an intimidating place, filled with colorful and exotic fare. I bought some paradigm-shifting handmade dried pasta and a big ball of fresh mozzarella from Brooklyn, and eyed the stacks of imported chocolate in colored foil wrappers, the jars of gourmet pesto, the trays of sliced prosciutto. Murray’s became my guilty pleasure haunt.

Still, though I was becoming aware of these local culinary delights, I didn’t spend much time in the kitchen. I mostly ate easily-prepared food in the living room with Katie, where we occasionally watched television, or in my room, where I chatted with far-flung college friends on my computer. The kitchen was a place filled with someone else’s utensils, someone else’s dishes, someone else’s pots and pans and knives – and while Katie was happy to share, I could hardly feel like much more than a sojourner.

On December 23 of that year, I was headed home the next morning to celebrate Christmas with my family upstate. Katie had already left, so my boyfriend and I decided to band together and throw a dinner party at my place. Our friend Apryl, who worked in finance but had gone to culinary school, offered to cook, and I splurged at Citarella on Cornish hens, fresh rosemary, tiny red potatoes, fresh butter, crusty Italian bread, crunchy green beans, and a crème brulee.

I brought the food into the kitchen and watched as Apryl got to work. She tied together the legs of the hens, then rubbed rosemary under their skin. Reaching toward the back of our black wire shelving unit, she pulled out our thickest cutting board and sliced the bread onto it, then added some cheese and prosciutto. She halved the potatoes, dotted them with butter, and roasted them in the oven in their jackets. We opened a few bottles of Riesling and had a memorably cozy feast by candlelight.

By the following summer, I was engaged, and had moved to Park Slope – as one does – to a tiny studio apartment with all the furniture I owned: a bed, a desk, a futon with no mattress, and a floor lamp. The new place was all one room, but bucked the Brooklyn studio trend by having a tiny kitchen set off in a separate room from the living room. There was a three-quarter-sized refrigerator, a big-enough gas stove, and, mercifully, a lot of cabinet space to fill with wedding presents of dishes and gadgets and wine glasses.

It was a peculiar room: nearly square, except the wall to the right of the door, which suddenly angled out at about twenty degrees – too narrow to fit a tiny table, too irregular to fit a shelf. It was a mystery. The angle was quite clearly intentional; it was not an architectural flaw, but it had no matching angle on the other side of the wall and no apparent purpose. Hundred-year-old buildings often befuddle the tenants.

The window, once again, looked into the backyard of a luckier neighbor.

We had moved above a gourmet grocery store and around the corner from the most famous natural foods co-op in the country, and fresh food was now available all the time – and I had my own fun kitchen toys to play with. Using my immersion blender or vegetable steamer basket gave me an embarrassing amount of pleasure: I could be creative, geeky, and a heroine to my hungry husband.

Our favorite wedding present was an Italian-style stovetop percolator; not only did it make espresso, but you could pour milk into the top and it would froth into a lovely latte. Unfortunately, one fateful day, we forgot to turn the pressure knob inside all the way to the right, and the espresso and milk exploded all over the daisy-yellow walls and ceiling in a brown cascade of drops, right as we were both trying to leave for work. I quickly washed everything down with soap and water, but when we came home that night, the drops were back. And the next night. And the next night. No matter how many times I washed, the drops came back. For all I know, they’re still there, coming through fresh coats of paint and puzzling the current resident.

It was also in this kitchen that I learned what it was to cook as a wife, not a girlfriend. Girlfriends order Chinese take-out and serve it on paper plates, but being a wife in a sophisticated Brooklyn neighborhood feels distinctly more grown up. Like Julia Child in Paris, I felt driven to learn to do things like poach an egg and make a salad dressing and use the right kind of wine glass for the right kind of wine. I learned that men don’t particularly want to eat the same thing day after day. I came to recognize the value of a Crock-Pot.

We lived there happily for two years. The kind older man living downstairs was a jazz musician. In the summer, we went onto the roof and drank chianti and ate ice cream and watched the fireworks displays that inexplicably happened every weekend at Prospect Park. I tried to grow rosemary on the roof until the pot blew over and away, leaving the plant and its soil stranded. We gained a reputation for throwing raucous dinner parties, with a dozen people crammed onto the floor eating chili or pasta caprese and chocolate mousse and contributing bottle after wine bottle.

But one day the man downstairs moved to Long Island, and our landlord – a quiet but reasonable guy not much older than us – said the wall downstairs was apparently rotting out from a leaky pipe and he had decided to just renovate the whole building. We started packing and apartment-hunting.

Mercifully, we inadvertently landed in a slightly larger apartment just across Flatbush Avenue, in a brownstone neighborhood that rivaled Park Slope for beauty and was a whole lot less yuppie.

When we came to see the apartment, we instantly loved it – bright and airy, with a huge casement window looking northeast. We slowly circled the apartment, looking at the layout and architectural features. The kitchen was a marvel, with a half-height wall that connected it to the rest of the apartment visually, but kept it separate enough that leaving a few dishes in the sink wouldn’t make the whole place seem messy. It was a little larger, with more counter space and a lot of shelving.

One problem: it only had a mini-fridge. While that could be made to work for people who shop every day and eat out a lot, I like to have room for my vegetables and my yogurt, and my husband cannot face the day without knowing that there’s a pint of ice cream at the end of it.

“We love the place, but we need a real refrigerator,” we said, and the owner liked us enough to consent. The new kitchen now included one and a half refrigerators.

If I’d learned to shop in my first kitchen, and cook like a grown-up in the second, the third is where I learned that good food is essential to relationships, especially in a city where people are loath to put down roots and never seem to have enough time to sit down and have a meal.

In this kitchen, I learned to guesstimate how much food would be eaten at monthly open invitation brunches for the twenty-plus people who would crowd around our coffee table and spill into circles on the living room floor. I found out that certain meals – breakfast casseroles, smashed potatoes, cinnamon-kissed lentil stews – go a long way for little money, and people grew fond of a certain grapefruit cake I started making as a bright spot in a dreary winter.

I discovered that friends who had lost jobs or couldn’t find freelance work were subsisting on ramen and canned beans, and started surreptitiously sliding a chicken and some potatoes into the oven when they came over to watch a movie. Hungry people are usually too proud to let you cook for them if you ask first, but if you ambush them with food, they eat with grateful alacrity.

This kitchen was where I discovered the healing power of a meal of spicy cod and rice and a comforting pot of coffee, with a box of chocolate chip cookies and a bottle of blood orange soda sent home after a quiet family crisis. It’s also the first kitchen of mine which my mother visited, several years after my father died, on her first solo trip to New York. I think it comforted her to know that I had proper appliances and utensils, even if I lack a dishwasher.

And it’s the kitchen where I officially realized I’d set down roots in a neighborhood. It’s the place where I bring home vegetables from the local farmer’s market, where I started growing oregano and basil and dill and thyme on the windowsill, where I started baking bread and grinding coffee and attempting – not yet successfully – to make cheese.

Other things have happened to make me feel like a New Yorker since that first apartment. I’ve bought couches and televisions and other things that root you to a spot. I changed the address on my driver’s license and passport. I served as a fourth alternate juror in Brooklyn Criminal Court. I’ve stopped carrying maps of any kind, and I’ve become the kind of New Yorker who grumbles quietly about the inefficiency of every place that isn’t New York.

But it’s my kitchen that’s home, where I have my favorite bottle of olive oil and too many boxes of tea and my phenomenally heavy Ralph Lauren Home wine decanter. It’s where my French press and my pretty stacks of plates and bowls live. It’s where a friend who travels half the year sighed happily and said, “So many delicious things in your home.”

We may not have a hearth, but our kitchen makes this city our home.

The High Line –
Manhattan’s Newest Public Park

In the movie Wall-E, the opening sequence is a vision of a post-human American city. It’s a landfill where once gleaming steel structures are overrun by drifts of plastic. The vision served as a beautifully comical cautionary tale that restored a genuine heart to an otherwise machine of a movie company. If Wall-E is a cautionary tale, then New York’s newest public park, The High Line, is an unlikely fairy tale.

The High Line, which opened its first stage to the public on June 9, is an elevated public park that sits 30 feet in the sky atop a set of dilapidated train tracks that were abandoned 30 years ago. Designed by James Corner Field Operations and Diller, Scofidio & Renfro, it runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District up to West 20th Street, and will eventually make its way up to 34th Street, spanning an incredible 23 blocks.

The tracks were once used for herding cattle to meat processing plants, but were overrun in the 70’s and 80’s by highway development. It has been the pillar of a crummy side of town for years, and only with some pesky, ardent supporters of its preservation, 155 million dollars (44 million of which was raised by donors), and a team of urban visionaries has it been restored to the coolest thing in town.

After climbing three stories of stairs to this surprise party of a public space, what you see is an astonishing achievement of nature restoring industrial decay. Aside from the sturdy, dark blue steel pillars that support this mysterious landmark, the park is completely hidden. This effect gives the park a sort of speakeasy feel, as if lying atop the dingy tracks were some sort of secret club.

Once in the park, you can see stretches of the city and the Hudson River rarely seen by New Yorkers. At dusk you can watch the sunset on the Hudson as boats go by. The trains have been replaced by lavish promenades interspersed with the sort of plants you might see in New York if it hadn’t been paved over hundreds of years ago. Prairie grass, berried bushes, and spruce trees abound in a bizarre and exciting way. The gardens all stand tall and animated, like pets energized to see their keepers after weeks at the kennel.

Photo: Makoto Fujimura

Looking down, you feel superior and transcendent to the pesky traffic below. It feels good to be justifiably condescending towards the loud metal boxes that don’t have nearly as good of a view and are bound by traffic lights. You can lose your way quite easily on The High Line, as the amount of traffic signal-free strolling you can do is alien to your typical city dweller.

The walkways are made of a concrete that doesn’t feel like concrete, but rather a composite material of finely smoothed particles. This adds to the wonder of the space. When you’re outside in New York and your feet hit something that doesn’t feel like concrete, it’s a memorable experience.

Wild grass shoots up through slats in the walkways as if to blur the barriers between human innovation and natural beauty. Chairs and loungers rise out of the ground and blend into wood structures, making any sitting or laying space feel connected to the nature that the designers have imposed and creates a flowing wave-like effect that adds to the tranquility of the space.

At 17th street there is a massive tiered, amphitheater-like structure that ends with a giant glass window, making the expansive 10th Avenue an unlikely and fascinating stage for pedestrians to ogle. The rows of wooden benches are a series of ramps that make the sitting area a veritable playground suspended above a busy street.

The materials throughout are thoughtful and polished. The lighting is subdued, highlighting only the plants and sleek structures. And the views of the surrounding neighborhoods are new. You’re not as high up as a skyscraper’s observation deck, but you are close enough to get a true vibe of the area.

And the area is transforming. Once a dilapidated ruin of warehouses, meatpacking plants, and streets riddled with crime, this neighborhood is now a burgeoning zone for new commerce and living. Architects across the globe have been chomping at the bit to get a building in the newfound “High Line District,” and a few great ones have succeeded. The posh new buildings include an apartment building that has an entrance onto the actual park and a hip new hotel that straddles the south end of the tracks.

In the short time since its opening, The High Line has achieved a bevy of excited residents, thrilled to see the neighborhood transform. Patty Heffley, a cabaret performer, has lived to see the High Line through many stages. When the tracks were unused and weeds began to grow, Heffley wanted to plant flowers. She would try and throw water balloons with seeds in them, but her efforts were fruitless. Now Heffley has started performing for park-goers from her fourth-story fire escape in a show called High Line Park’s Renegade Cabaret.

The High Line has become wildly popular amidst artists as well. There are already a countless number of fashion and commercial photographers and film crews shooting and snapping amidst the sea of strolling park-goers.

Though the neighborhood is slowly being restored and gaining a more stylish status, the park stays true to the grittiness of its past. Throughout the promenade are signs of what once was, as train tracks jut through gardens and graffiti lines some surrounding buildings. You never get the idea that you have left a city and entered a bucolic respite (a very wise choice on the designers’ behalf), but you feel as if the city’s attractive elements have been amplified with ruggedly wild gardening and spatial intelligence.

New York City is renowned for always looking forward without being tethered to the past. This philosophy has made for some dangerous progress and violent renovations, but in the end has always been a net-positive ideology for the largest city in America. But with this audacious public space, the city seems to have achieved both a deep regard for its history and a bright glimpse of hope for its future.

Photo: Makoto Fujimura

The designers of The High Line built the space with the idea of there being “romance in the ruins” and they achieved just that. It is prophetic in nature, steering the town’s aesthetic towards one of profound respect for its story and groundbreaking ideas for its future.

Equally important is that The High Line serves as a role model: it’s the biggest recycling project in New York City’s history.

Is it too much to say that the park is New York’s brightest example of how to restore a city? Head up the stairs on Gansevoort and Washington Streets and decide for yourself – before it’s overrun by tourists.

Where is the Cinema?
Some Cities and Films in 2008

In his 1986 book about America, Baudrillard gets to Los Angeles and asks: “Where is the cinema?” His odd response: “It is all around you outside, all over the city, that marvelous, continuous performance of films and scenarios.” In France or the Netherlands, one walks out of a theater or gallery into a city that is the source text for the paintings and landscapes you have just seen. What Baudrillard discovered in his roundabout musing on Hollywood was a reversal of what he had become used to in Europe. In LA, it is the city that takes its cues from the cinema. If we want to figure out America we can’t start with our living spaces and think towards the cinema. Rather we have to begin there, in the continual flicker of our theaters, and realize that this is where society is born. Americans appear to live in screenscapes rather than actual landscapes.

For Baudrillard, this is a creepy thought, recasting our neighborhoods in the phantom hues of C.S. Lewis’ description of Purgatory in The Great Divorce. In his version of hell, the damned are free to construct any house at will, the catch being that they are only half-real. The restlessness inspired by this artificiality creates a cosmic urban sprawl, the houses of history’s oldest villains ending up light years from each other. Cinema can have an equally isolating and cheapening effect on the American conscience. But soon after America appeared, so did location intensive films like Linklater’s Slacker, Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, and Jarmusch’s Night Train. This early wave of independent cinema broke the back of Baudrillard’s criticism, and by now we are accustomed to a kind of American cinema that is aware of the way Hollywood glosses over its tendency towards simulacra. What Baudrillard claims is very true in isolated Studio City cases, but it is by no means true of film that Americans have become increasingly aware of through our ever increasing exposure to independent and international cinema. I was reminded of this through a globetrotting theme that trailed my movie-going in 2008, one that responds to Baudrillard’s idea that the average American cinema is like a toxic leak in the public square.

Take for example Guerín’s recent In the City of Sylvia, the quiet story of a man on holiday in Strasbourg who thinks he has chanced upon a girl he met in a bar a few years ago. He follows her from a distance, through staged sets of minimalist urban compositions, until realizing that he is most probably mistaken. Much like the brisk pencil sketches his main character makes of this city’s many attractive café patrons, Guerín’s Strasbourg is beautiful and humane in its simplicity. His camera will linger for minutes on street corners and alleyways that his characters have already passed until their natural rhythms begin to appear. All the people-watching in the film, often obscured by mirrors, windows, and odd angles, begins to converge with Geurín’s preoccupation with the architecture of Strasbourg until the audience becomes part of its hum and throb. It is a voyeuristic experience, but one that keys us into the potential cities have for either alienating or embracing us. The film thrives on the pseudo-community experience of any Starbucks, and poses alternatives in its focus on the everyday spaces of Strasbourg.

A similar thing happens in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon. In homage to the Lamorisse children’s classic, Hou’s film periodically shifts focus onto a red balloon bumbling its way across the boulevards and parks of Paris. Though the film is primarily about a young boy watching his single mother struggle to keep their family afloat, it is also about his fledgling experience of this beautiful city and the way his first memories of it have begun to form. There is the smoky café with a pinball machine his absent father taught him how to play, the sharp angles of graffitied streets he walks between school and home, the field trips to sunlit museums, peeling marionette stages in verdant gardens, and the different views from his apartment windows. Little Simon becomes a stand in for Hou’s obvious love of Parisian minutia, the red balloon at the same time a tour guide across the city and an emblem of the buoyancy of childhood memory. The way Hou frames this bittersweet slice of life with charming sweeps of Paris mimics the way particular cities define the structure of our memories.

Texture is perhaps the key word for Maddin’s My Winnipeg, a befuddling film that charts the history of his beloved home town across a series of memories both real and manufactured. The central image of the film is an imaginary subterranean river fork that lies beneath Winnipeg’s famous Red and Assiniboine River fork, a shape Maddin finds similar to his mother’s loins. In this “discovery,” Maddin finds out why he has never been able to move away from Winnipeg even though he has tried for many years. Winnipeg’s history and lore are so integral to Maddin’s coming-of-age, and woven into the fabric of his odd oeuvre, that he can’t conceive of disconnecting from it. The latter half of the film chronicles the real destruction of landmarks in downtown Winnipeg like a dirge. Though he can’t leave Winnipeg, he also can’t stop its slow demise. The absurdity of the film’s voiceover, and the collection of fables Maddin weaves around his description of the city, are the only responses he has left to the growing rubble. Like Hou’s film, My Winnipeg is bound up in a sense of love for a particular place, his surreal vision of Winnipeg emerging from an intimate knowledge of its sidewalks, streets, and buildings.

And then over all of these films about the way we relate to cities stretches Marsh’s Man on Wire. A documentary about Philippe Petit’s illegal tight-rope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974, the film is a parable for rethinking the way we look at our skylines. When we finally see Petit dancing across the wire in this rarified space between what were once the two largest buildings in the world, the impact of the film as a paean to our living spaces finally dawns. He has made these giant monuments to capitalism pylons in his own playground and the harried space of lower Manhattan a theater for his own monologue on play. Petit’s attitude towards cities as a stage for celebrating human ingenuity is only enhanced by the fact that Marsh never refers to 9/11 in the film. The documentary allows us to sidestep the awful memory and catch a glimpse of a 45 minute period during which the stark modernism of the Twin Towers had been far more eloquently reconfigured through Petit’s elaborate stunt.

In all of these films there is a looming presence of places: real streets, cafés, and bits of geographical lore that persist beyond the imagination of these storied tours. They are films intent on celebrating their chosen landscapes rather than using them to concoct the kind of infectious screenscapes Baudrillard discovered all over Hollywood. And though only one of these films actually takes place in an American city, they inform us nonetheless. We step out of theaters after films like this into St. Louis, Boston, Austin, or any other hazardously American city armed with ways to look at our neighborhoods and daily routines in similarly thoughtful ways. In the City of Sylvia and Flight of the Red Balloon train us to slow down and appreciate the fabric of our living spaces; masterful renditions of “smelling the roses.” Maddin’s film demonstrates how connected we are to our hometowns, which in a very real sense give birth to us. Man on Wire shows us how slight shifts in perspective can humanize places that have become so associated with the daily grind.

I like to think of films like this as an antidote to the dislocating tendency of Hollywood commerce and advertising described in America. In their celebration of particular places they train me to see wherever it is I live as a place to live and thrive rather than just a backdrop to my daily commute or a borough of the madding crowd. Like a master class in topophilia they tell us why our walk to and from the theater is just as valuable as our time in the theater itself. Or as experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky once quipped in a Village Voice interview: “Narrative film seems very clogged up, with almost no exceptions. It has no openness for me. I go to any narrative film, in recent years, and with almost every one, the lobby is more interesting than the film. Getting out of my car and walking to the theater is much more interesting, because at least I am alive in the present moment.” And, I would add, in a particular place.