The Birds of West Harlem

Since I moved to West Harlem last winter, there have been several bird murals that consistently catch my eye on my daily wanderings. One, placed just by the nearby subway station, greets me as I return home every evening; another huge, vibrant display looms over a gas station a ten minute walk north, and I make it a point to walk by if I’m on my way to anything in the area. The scale of those bright colors always makes me smile.

But the more I’ve been exploring the neighborhood, it’s finally hit me that this theme is more prevalent than can be explained by the presence of single-minded local artist. The birds of Harlem are everywhere, and manifest in quite diverse styles:

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‘Black-billed Magpie’

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‘Fish Crow’ and ‘Swallow-tailed Kite +12’

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‘Laughing Gull’

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‘Horned Grebe’

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‘Western Bluebird and Rufous-crowned Sparrow’

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‘Yellow-Headed Blackbird’

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‘Broad-winged Hawk’

It turns out that these bright murals are part of an educational campaign, and this is only the start of an ambitious project. The National Audubon Society partnered with Gitler &_____ Gallery to raise awareness about the climate-related threats to local bird species by commissioning murals for each of those affected. Out of the 314 endangered bird species in North America, you can find at least 67 already painted around Harlem (this number must not be updated, because some of the ones I photographed are not yet accounted for on their site).

Why Harlem? This was home to John James Audubon while he was in NYC, a bird expert from Haiti who meticulously documented and illustrated over 400 bird species in his 4-part series, Birds of America, published in 1827. (The scope of his life’s work suddenly makes this modern day endeavor seem increasingly reasonable). His passion for the natural world has made him a heroic figure in the eyes of later environmentalists, and this project certainly seems like one he would embrace.

Audubon is buried in West Harlem’s Trinity Cemetery on 155th and Broadway, just across the street from one of the most dramatic murals created – “Swallow-tailed Kite +12”.

For more information: http://www.audubon.org/amp

If you want to spend a day tracking them all down: https://www.audubon.org/sites/default/files/audubon_mural_project_map.pdf

 

Climate Change March, NYC

Traveling to the March.

Late morning, the group waiting for the train is small, but standing on the east-bound platform of the Princeton Junction train station with my mother and her friend Polly, it is easy to distinguish our fellow marchers from the general commuters. We are the ones holding signs and wearing statement t-shirts; they wear heels, suits, and looks of quiet resignation.

Everyone seems to fit into one of the two groups, except for one woman in her mid-twenties, standing alone and looking around eagerly – looking at us instead of the space where the train will soon be. The local paper had sent a reporter to interview people before they left town for the big event.

We are approached and asked about what had inspired us to join, and what we wanted to see result from the day. An older couple standing nearby chime in that they are attending in order to protest fracking in particular. Within the march, we are to be divided into sub-groups: the anti-corporate power groups, the anti-fracking groups, the communists, the veterans, the LGBT. Everyone else – the “freelance environmentalists” – will march together at the very back.

Finding some of the last remaining seats on the crowded train, we place our signs by our feet, trying to make them as unobtrusive as possible.  My large, green sign is already tied onto my backpack and through the journey it’s a constant chore to keep the corners out of the aisle as people walk past. I’m

trying to avoid pastel rubbing off onto anyone but me.

From the lower level of this double-decker train, groups of sneakers and jeans come into sight through the window at every stop – disembodied crowds with upside-down signs hanging by their feet. In my excitement, this seems like the ultimate symbol of an anonymous movement, where individual identities are less important than the united mission of the group.

From our platform at Penn Station we all move as if we’re being carried by a tide, flowing up the stairs and towards the subway station, where we form a bloated line waiting to purchase or top-up metro cards. The out-of-towners reveal themselves by asking nervous questions, and the excitement of the crowd manifests itself in polite patience and friendly exchanges. It’s a very unusual start to a day in The Big Apple.

After purchasing our tickets from an incredibly efficient MTA employee, we wait on the subway platform in the hot humid air which reminds you that you’re underground. A train arrives, entirely full, and then departs. The next train pulls in, also apparently full, but this time we somehow manage to squeeze ourselves in.

In the subway, not only are all the seats occupied, but so is most of the space near balance-supporting poles. The rest of us reach up and press our palms against the ceiling for stability. My mother grasps onto one of my arms to steady herself, while others likewise trust those around them to prevent a fall. There’s no room for falling, anyway.

I place my backpack, complete with attached sign, between my feet, pushing my calves together in an attempt to consolidate myself and my possessions into the smallest space possible. The atmosphere around us is still devoid of the anger you might expect in this situation; almost everyone seems to be attending the march and there’s an overwhelmingly optimistic aura of mutual support.

“Well, you’ll be fine,” my mom’s friend Polly loudly assures us over the shoulder of two tall, muscular police officers, “You’ve been on a bus for 14 hours”.

“Well, only 12,” I correct, as if that made such as difference. My mother and I had traveled down the Himalayan Mountains in India on our way to Rishikesh. We spent the whole trip dozing in very roomy and comfortable seats, so I don’t feel we deserve the praise this implies – it was hardly a rough journey.

The young ginger man standing next to me looks at us, wide-eyed;

“You traveled 14 hours to get here? Where’re you coming from?”

We had all informally agreed to forgo privacy when we entered the crowded train car– this man and I had already apologized back and forth several times for bumping into one another when the car made sudden movements and we were sharing the same square foot of ceiling space. So we were basically friends.

He sounded impressed by this imaginary journey, so I quickly stumbled my way through a correction;

“No! Uh, no, we, um, we’re actually from Princeton so only an hour’s trip. That was earlier. She means our trip to India. A few months ago. Not for this.”

I finish with an awkward smile, hoping to show we hadn’t meant to deceive anyone.

Are we going to talk about India now? Should I ask where he’s from? We shuffle slightly as people get off at the next stop and more enter. The moment has passed.

No comment is passed in privacy on this journey, but none of us strangers enter into proper conversation either. Maybe because you know a dozen or more others will be listening, or maybe because it somehow feels too risky to start a conversation with a person you don’t know when neither of you can physically escape if it should fall into awkward silence.

The ginger, my mother, and I periodically share a smile of goodhearted amusement when someone stumbles, or friends begin conversing loudly as if they were sitting at a table together for lunch rather than standing in a space the size of a Starbucks restroom with 30 other people.

We all assist in conducting crowd management at each stop, carefully coordinating who needs to get out of the way, and which gaps can be filled in after the exodus.

“Adele? ADELE! This is our stop. You need to get out, Adele!” The middle-aged woman standing near the exit has been separated from her friend and projects this command over everyone’s heads as the train pulls into the station.

“Adele?” the crowd contributes to the search, each looking left and right for this mystery woman.

“Yes, yes, coming” appears a soft voice, speaking these words with a hint of anxiety and a pinch of embarrassment.

“It’s Adele!” The crowd is triumphant – giddy. An older woman, Adele is leaning against the opposite wall of the car; small and short, she’s almost vanished into the corner. Everyone in her path shifts around acrobatically to ensure she will get out in time.

Over the next three or four stops, people trickle and then pour out, depending on where they’re going in the march. Finally, those of us left reconvene, standing proudly around poles or sitting in the seats with rolled up signs resting on their laps. We savor the last few moments of personal space before our time comes to join the sea of people already convened above our heads.

 

An introduction from Manhattan

Most of what I post on this site will be excerpts or updates from pieces I’ve already written – impressions already created, to form a portfolio of past writings. But for my first post, I thought some context from the present would be more appropriate.

My name is Lucy, and I grew up in the middle of New Jersey, surrounded by trees and a warm and wonderful family, in a fairly idyllic home. When I left the country for college, it wasn’t to run away from what I had, but out of a certainty that I needed to find and see and learn more.

I can’t remember a time before I craved being somewhere else. I don’t know if that’s because my parents are travelers and the excitement of exploring new places was instilled from childhood, or because I spent most of my young life (and a fair amount of my current life) immersed in books, and that taste of living in other worlds made me want more.

Maybe it’s just something that can’t be explained, but that drive has probably been the single greatest force in my life. It’s pushed me past my naturally quite limited comfort zone, and worked in direct opposition to the introverted and homey parts of my nature that try to pull me towards a simple and quiet life in a small town by the sea. To be frank – while it’s led to amazing adventures and irreplaceable friendships – it’s been a pain in the ass.

I toured and applied to roughly a dozen schools before I flew to Scotland to visit St Andrews, and that first day walking around the seaside town, drinking tea next to students dressed in plaid, discussing philosophy, I completely fell in love. In the fall, I struggled to fit all of my possessions into one bag, moved to Fife, and never looked back. I had a magical four years there, making close friends for the first time in my life, traveling around Europe every time we had a few days off, learning to be independent and walking along the North Sea at night when I craved being alone. Many of the adventures I’ve had took place during this time, when it was more convenient and appealing to stay in Europe during my time off than to return to America.

When the reality hit that graduation meant losing not only that small and perfect world, but also the right to stay in the country where I had, for all intents and purposes, grown up, I spent one last summer backpacking around Europe and living on the Isle of Skye with my boyfriend at the time and his family and then took a very long and very memorable plane ride back to New Jersey. I had already been accepted to a 3 month internship in India, and spent a few months back home waitressing, making the money I needed to buy another plane ticket. I didn’t really think about the fact that I was going to India until I was packing again, I just knew that the nonprofit sounded unique and interesting, and that the location wasn’t in the US.

After four years of comfort, I was ready for a lifestyle challenge and a complete change of scenery, and nowhere could have provided that more so than India. To the rush of chaos that was Delhi, to the silent and anticipation-filled 12 hours on a bus into the mountains, arriving in the village of Naddi, I don’t know whether the exhaustion added to the surreality or dampened it. The next 15 weeks had hard-won moments of success and joy, surrounded by many frustrations and confusions. It was one of the most beautiful places in the world, but almost every minute was difficult. I’m incredibly grateful for my time there and there would be a huge hole in my life if my time in India wasn’t there any longer, but when I got home I was very ready to settle. To unpack a suitcase, and sleep in a real bed, to eat lettuce, and turn a tap to get hot water.

I thought that coming back to the States would be temporary, and I swore that the one thing I would never do (never, ever, ever) was move to NYC. I had always hated visiting the city; the intensity and sheer size of Manhattan gave me anxiety and made me an angrier version of myself, and I knew it was a place that sucked people in and was hesitant to let them go again. And yet…here I am. From helping a woman start a non-profit out of her apartment, to dogsitting for her while she traveled to Uganda, to taking on a part-time job in a field I had no interest in, to letting it become full-time and then realizing that it suddenly really mattered to me and that my co-workers had become as close as family, to lease-signings that keep whispering “just one more year”, I’ve turned into the thing I dreaded: a Jersey girl who becomes a ‘New Yorker’.

It’s actually been a wonderful two years. I’ve eaten at amazing restaurants, and regularly go to some of the best theatre in the world on a whim. I’ve made caring and fun friendships, and experienced the contentment that comes from having your own space, and a steady income, and a pleasant routine. It’s been exactly what I needed at the time, and gave me enough distance from my other lives to let me start over and move on. I love that I can walk and explore and try new things, all while having a home to come back to every night and being able to see my family for lunch or visit on weekends – in some ways, it’s taken the best parts of travel and combined them with being settled.

But now it’s been two years, and sometimes I feel like I need to leave so badly I can barely breathe. I’m ready for new challenges and new people, and to keep learning and pushing myself. I guess that’s why I’m starting this now – to in some way lay groundwork and to remind myself that it happened once and it can happen again.

To any of the readers who come across this: enjoy the memories and excuse the ramblings!