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.

 

Leaf-Peeping: An Autumn Weekend in the Catskills

“Life is an adventure. An adventure you can control. 
An adventure the Catskills can inspire”
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This assurance by the Catskills Tourism website sets the bar high for a visit within these 6,000 square miles of mountainous land in Southwestern New York State. With a prodigious history of “inspiring and comforting” our forefathers, the Catskills gave rise to the Hudson River School of painting, and provided the setting for Washington Irving’s classics, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Rip Van Winkle’. Today, the area serves primarily as refuge for urban New Yorkers who head north to ski, hike, and climb throughout the year, in search of both adventure and an escape into rural tranquility.

Columbus Day weekend, my father and I venture into the Catskill Mountains for common reasons: an easy drive from central New Jersey, within three hours we will be hiking amongst the falling October leaves, away from the work-week anxieties of urbanity.

Roadside Attractions

As we near our destination on the New York State Troopers T. Michael Kelly and Kenneth A. Poorman Memorial Highway, the radio is increasingly overtaken by static. Roadside advertisements entice us to buy an RV, stop by Brad’s Barns, and then splurge at Moose Crossing Cabin Furnishing. Motel 19 anticipates the appeal of this season, declaring weekly rates for “leaf peeps.” The trees are indeed becoming more colourful the farther we drive, and as my father leads his grey Saab around a corner on the winding highway, walls of red-brown shale flank the road on either side and soft mountain peaks come into view.

Between Phoenicia and Mt Temper on Route 28, in the parking lot of a large hotel resort, Captain Hot Dog is in business. Through the car window, I spot the unpretentious older man in a baseball cap selling his fare out of a cart attached to his pick-up truck. Known as Captain Tom, he’s been running this relaxed business for 15 years and is well-known to anyone who frequently drives this way. Well, we were promised a weekend “meander(ing) through the villages rubbing elbows with the famous.”
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Entering Pine Creek

Following a winding side-street, we enter Pine Creek surreptitiously. And then, suddenly, we have gone too far and are heading out of town along Mill St. This name hints at the towns origins and leads us to believe that the twisting streets we’ve been following were built alongside streams. Or perhaps the residents of Pine Creek simply have no respect for parallel lines.

Doubling back, we find the single, quiet street which makes up the center of town. We park in the grassy driveway of the Colonial Inn, hoping to stop for lunch before beginning our hike. While the large, white house shows no apparent sign of life, it’s certainly inhabited – the wide, street-facing porch is covered in a random array of worn objects, all haphazardly assorted under the large buck’s head displayed on a wall near the door. The sign out front claims they’ve been in operation since the 1790s. Upon closer inspection, many of the items appear quite “colonial” themselves, including a sewing machine, a birdcage, and a wood-burning stove. Like many things in the Catskills, there is little proof of change in the past 200 years. We knock, and get no response.

The house directly across the small street is guarded by a large, middle-aged woman sitting in an armchair on her lawn, surrounded by piles of arbitrary and rusted “stuff”. This seems to be a pattern; travelling through the Catskills meant passing countless advertisements for moving sales, yard sales, and church rummage sales on every forgotten street. Locals seem determined to sell all their possessions to the influx of bargain-seeking New Yorkers before the holiday weekend comes to an end.

My father leads a step ahead, I follow closely, tracing his path. We enter the property from the side and then hesitate, unsure if we’re intruding.

“Come on over!” She reassures us loudly, rotating her head in our direction.

“Feel free to wander ‘round, I got plenny more o’ everything.”

As I glance around at the seemingly endless supply of broken sinks and rusty bicycle handles, the scope impresses me, but I remain skeptical regarding demand. I smile a return greeting while my father explains our actual purpose and asks about the Colonial Inn.

“Oh, yeah,” she smiles up at us as she speaks, without any hint of disappointment that we weren’t drawn over by her fare. “They used to have lunch but now they’re only open for brunch on Saturdays. There’s a new place jus’ opened up – they got good food I hear, haven’t been myself. It’s actually the only place in town, really. And it’s American food,” she declares in a conspiratorial tone as if to say, “don’t worry – nothing strange.”

With a nod, my father signals that this one – and only – option will do just fine. “Can we walk there?” he asks.

Our helper slowly pushes herself out of her chair and into a standing position,

“’K, you see that dark grey roof there? Not that one” (she points to a small building on her property) “but the one right after that. That’s the place. It’s called The Zephyr”.”

My father exits by the front this time, walking between two, tall hedges and onto the street – again I follow a step behind. Turning back, we smile once more at our helper. With a friendly nod, the town sentinel slips back into her seat.

The Zephyr

We stand outside the predictably empty restaurant, peering in, until a smiling young woman, mid-dusting, notices us through the large front window. With a wave, she dispels our doubts, and we enter the Zephyr.

“Take a seat wherever. The place is all yours!” Her friendly, informal manner puts us at ease as we enter and we correspondingly choose the most friendly and informal seating available – the round stools in front of the dark-wood bar.

A second woman delivers menus and silverware, her long blonde braid standing out against her dark green velvet blazer. We sip water from mason jars while we wait for the kitchen to make our chili fresh. Norah Jones plays in the background as my father consults his 15 year-old Tyvek map of the area, alongside a similarly outdated guide to Catskills Hiking Trails.

Another couple enters and sits at a table in the window. A middle-aged man and woman, the younger waitress greets them in a familiar manner. My father engrossed in his books and phone, I occupy myself by looking around the large space. At first I attempt a smile at the woman in the window, but she merely looks uncomfortable in return, so I shift my gaze. It lands on the tall and leafy plant placed invitingly in a silver pail by the door, a giant yellow bow tied around the base.

Unable to resist looking back at the only other customers in the place, I steal another glance at their table. The couple speak in low voices, their expressions equally indiscernible as they both maintain dulled and stoic looks of passive interest. The younger waitress returns to this table with two chocolate milks and lingers with the pair, gossiping quietly.

As our food arrives, I turn my attention back to my father and the weekend adventures ahead of us. A straightforward 2.5 mile hike to the nearest lean-to is our goal. The desired view is the modest one from the Balsum mountain summit.
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Heading back outside, the weather is perfect for hiking. The air in this town is scented with smoke from wood fires and with the healthy decay of rotting leaves, making us feel part of a rugged adventure already. Children, let out of school early in celebration of the holiday weekend, lightheartedly skip past us on their way home. Adjusting to the friendly and unhurried pace of upstate New York, I begin to feel a hint of the appeal that the Catskills holds beyond bargains and fresh air – the appeal that has made my father return time after time.
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