by Elisa Chavez
The last time I can remember visiting New York, I was sixteen years old and staying in the southernmost tip of Manhattan. The entire city seemed like a blur of fast walkers, overpriced boutiques, and homicidal taxis, and I decided then and there that I could never, ever, ever live someplace that was quite so overwhelming.
Last week, I got on a plane and flew out to NYC for a week’s vacation, where I found that things had changed. Sure, people still walk like they’re out to burn rubber, the price of a sweater will make you cry, and traffic laws appear to function more as abstract guidelines than actual rules, but the city will surprise you. Sometimes tucked away down side streets, sometimes in plain view, and sometimes if you just happen to be in at right place at the right time, you’ll see a reminder that New York City is full of people who are working to make their neighborhoods vibrant and welcoming for themselves and their families.
The really interesting part is that a number of these public-space and support-our-locals initiatives bear a striking resemblance to what’s going on in our very own San Francisco.
1. Summer Streets
Kind of like: SF’s Sunday Streets
I first came across New York’s Summer Streets program in the form of almost being flattened by a convoy of bikers. A little girl teetered happily on her tricycle while I flailed, so it seemed that navigating the whizzing throng of wheeled death was a skill that locals of all ages had mastered. It turns out that bikes are only a small part of NYC’s Summer Streets initiative; each summer, for three consecutive Saturdays, the city closes down a major Manhattan thoroughfare to cars, and promotes biking, walking, dancing, yoga, and occasional rock wall climbing.
I didn’t feel the need to boast that SF’s Sunday Streets program extends from March to late October this year and even if I had, I don’t think anybody would’ve hopped off their bikes to listen.
2. Madison Square Park
Kind of like: Patricia’s Green, Hayes Valley
I ventured to Madison Square Park for what my Jersey-born friend assured me was the main attraction, the Shake Shack. Calling the one-by-three-blocks a park rather than a lawn or five trees, would have seemed bizarre to me before I moved to San Francisco, but due to my urban acclimation I found it downright expansive. The Shake Shack provides what is arguably the park’s central hub (we waited in a thirty-minute line for our milkshake and custard), but Madison Square Park also has free wifi, a dog run, a playground, a lively music program, and installations of public art.
Although we had our Shake Shack adventure after dark, the congenial vibe, attention-craving dogs, and outdoor art reminded me a lot of noontime at Patricia’s Green– though the Shack’s peanut butter fudge custard, while delicious, can’t quite match up to Smitten’s made-while-you-wait daily ice cream flavors. The real advantage to NYC’s scene is the heat: August in New York provides the type of weather that makes you feel as if eating ice cream is not only justified, but required.
3. The Market NYC
Kind of like: San Francisco Arts Market
Ditching our guide on a New York pizza tour, we staggered aimlessly through the neighborhood called NoLita (North of Little Italy) until we came across a bright sign reading The Market NYC. A gym by weekday, from Friday to Sunday the space becomes a warehouse full of local designs, featuring screen-printed tees, handmade jewelry and apparel, leather goods, and more. The vendors were all unfailingly gregarious, chatting with me pleasantly even when all I wanted to do was gawk at their creations and add to my growing pile of business cards.
The Market is protective of its local vendors. When I asked if I could take pictures for this blog, I was told that only official photography was permitted. (Indoors, that is; my outside shot of their sign was kosher.) We’ve had Urban Outfitters copy somebody’s bag, they explained. I’m glad that the Market NYC is doing their thing; it was a real privilege to witness some of the craftsmanship and imagination of New York’s local designers. I’m even glad that they’re a little suspicious of outsiders like me: I think it shows a commitment to creating a safer arts community.
Now I’m back in San Francisco– back to my own streets, my own pizza, and reliable recycling bins on every corner. But in mulling over my trip to the East Coast, I find that I’m warmed by what I experienced there. In New York, as in SF, people are claiming urban public spaces as their own. The steps they take are familiar– if it were a dance, we’d all know how to do it and sometimes I felt a kneejerk, hipster reaction of but my city did it first/better/first and better. However, I realize that when it comes to building stronger communities, originality is overrated. What really matters is that everyone feels they have a place at the table.
Or in the bike lane.