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New York, New York

Photograph by Julien Donada

Field Notes From 89th Street

Native New Yorkers live a traditional village life: of multiple generations, friends from kindergarten, and ghosts. Taking a naturalist’s eye to a corner of the city.

My nine-year-old had a nightmare last night. As I sat on the edge of her bed in the thick silence of three a.m., we heard the syncopated honking of geese overhead, a daytime sound in the darkness. We listened, astonished, until the silence closed in again, and Clare fell back to sleep.

The moon was full, though buildings blocked it from view. I imagined the moonlight gleaming on the river, brighter than the lights of the city. The moonlight on the wings of the geese. From Manhattan’s canyons—even from the gully of our low-rise side street—it can be hard to see up and out, to remember that we are just a dot on a long coastline, that migrating creatures pass right over us.

 

* * *


I was born at New York Hospital on East 68th Street. My children were born there too. My parents were born in Brooklyn, my grandparents on the Lower East Side. My claim to being a “New Yorker” is as solid as the bedrock schist beneath Manhattan. But when I reveal my origins, people are always surprised.

“You’re from here? Really?”

“Where did you think I was from?”

“Uh, I don’t know. Vermont?”

Maybe it’s because I don’t paint my nails, because I prefer natural fibers. I drink a lot of tea. I knit. Whatever it is, it’s true: I could be quite content in a smaller, greener, less peopled place, closer to the cycles of plants and animals, where frost patterns grow on ponds instead of pavement. New York is more than I need.

But New York is my village. My closest relatives live here. My friends from kindergarten live here, and their mothers keep in touch with mine, and their children play with mine. My daughter goes to my old school. My son goes to the school where my mom used to work. Down the street lives Mr. Greenberg, in his nineties now, who used to stand in the window of his bakery on Third Avenue decorating birthday cakes, mine among them. Dense chocolate layers, with whipped cream in between. I see him walking in the neighborhood with his wife sometimes.

I believe in the many-layered comforts of village life. I am lucky to have married a man willing to make my village his. I rejoice in the multi-generational friendships my children take for granted. So after trying out addresses as far away as Tokyo, we live on 89th Street, a block from the East River, in a neighborhood which, like me, is in the city but not really of it. At the edge of Yorkville, bounded on two sides by a curve in the river, this is not a place that people pass through on their way to somewhere else. The quiet lets other sounds emerge. My children recognize the voices of cardinals and mourning doves and blue jays hidden in the trees. Beyond Carl Schurz Park the sky opens wide over the water, swirls of cloud reflected in the swift currents of Hell Gate, where the river meets the westernmost reaches of Long Island Sound.

 

* * *


East End Avenue rolls like a wave as we march its length to school in the morning. A doorman is hosing the sidewalk, washing away the yellow mess of fallen gingko nuts, and six-year-old David races the rivulets snaking downhill. He crouches to watch the rounded leading edge of one stream, guessing its path, jumping out of its way. At the corner of 79th Street there’s a flood rushing in the gutter, a miniature river. We imagine tiny fish gliding over the penny we can see glinting underwater. Inch-high waves splash against the curb. Beyond the intersection, puffs of wind wrinkle the surface of the real river, and swells break white against the edge of Roosevelt Island. The neighborhood is flowing: water to the gutters, children to school, the tidal river toward the harbor and then back again, like the children coming home.

 

* * *


Growing up, I spent summers in the woods and by the sea, poking in tide pools, picking huckleberries, turning over rotting logs to watch sow bugs and centipedes wriggle away. I am still tuned to things like these, the way other New Yorkers might be tuned to designer handbags or alternate-side parking rules.

Every day I mark the signs of the seasons, of birds and animals, plants, currents, clouds. I mark them perhaps more carefully than if I lived on a Berkshire hilltop, because they are not as obvious. I point them out to Clare and David, and now they point them out to me. Our morning walk to school is punctuated with stops: for a plate-sized mushroom, growing out of a tree trunk above our heads; for the first green points of daffodils; for the last pink petals of a rosebush in November; for a hatchling robin lying dead on the sidewalk. Looking slows us down, and wakes us up.

I could be quite content in a smaller, greener, less peopled place, closer to the cycles of plants and animals, where frost patterns grow on ponds instead of pavement. New York is more than I need.I live in a setting created almost entirely by human intervention, from the sidewalk beneath my feet to the red glow of the sky on an overcast night. But when I run along the river I can lengthen my gaze—past Mill Rock to Hallett’s Point and Ward’s Island, with the Triboro Bridge in and out of sight as the shoreline curves—and feel like I am moving through a landscape instead of along a grid. The street grid itself is draped over hills, and as I walk my daily rounds of child-shuttling and errands I try to feel them: the east-west spine of 84th Street, the gentle slope downward from 86th to the water.

I have become an urban naturalist. The things I see raise questions, send me on quests in the present and into the past, lead me from discovery to discovery. My pile of field notes grows, and with it an ever more rooted sense of belonging to the place where I have always been.