Every visitor, and even a few residents, recognize Manhattan as a paradise for the sightseer. But there needs to be a comparable word — “soundhearer,” perhaps? — for the music critic, with a few hours off from official duties, who decides to cruise the island specifically to sample its indigenous noises. Herewith, an account of a few hours of noise-cruising in Manhattan on a recent Thursday, a sp[endid day warmed by an Indian summer sun.
9:30 a.m. My hotel maintains a small coffee shop, run on what you might call informal principles. You find a seat; the man at the cash register, across the room, yells out a friendly “what’ll ya have?” and somehow a process is set in motion. A benign pandemonium reigns, punctuated by the horns and engine roarings of heavy crosstown traffic on 51st St.
9:50 a.m. Surcease awaits, directly across the street in the form of Greenacre Park: a small, blessed oasis, no larger than a single building site, with a 25-foot waterfall at one end, some handsome plantings, a few chairs and tables, a coffee bar. My day’s second cup, therefore, has a far more agreeable sound setting. From a seat beside the waterfall, all of New York recedes.
10:30 a.m. Not many years ago New York’s subways were a sonic nightmare: rattletrap cars, screeching brakes, outcries from protesting wheels rounding curves that could set your teeth on edge. New cars and track repairs have made life underground somewhat more bearable. Now you get harangued, all too clearlu, by the sleazoid beggars and peddlers on their rounds from car to car. And they get outshouted from time to time by the conductor’s station announcements over the p.a.system that is usallu on the blink.
10:50 a.m. End of the line, and blessed, momentary relief. Manhattan’s true miracle is the transformation that has taken place at the lower tip of the island: not only the gigantic towers of the World Trade Center, the World Financial Center and the waterside apartment complexes at Battery Park City, but the complex of personal amenities that have been installed in, under and beside these structures.
A walkways leads from the subway station directly to a concourse lined with markets, snackbars and formal restaurants. One level up, on the streets of Lower Manhattan, the sounds of traffic roil and surge; here, below ground, there’s only the sounds of foot traffic on stone flooring. Where else can you hear this strange mix of urgent pedestrian sounds in a seeming sound vacuum? The back streets of Venice (the one in Italy) come immediately to mind.
11 a.m. My wanderings lead me to the architectural jewel of the building complex, the Winter Garden on the ground level of Cesar Pelli’s World Financial Center. A cascade of broad marble steps leads down to the floor level, to a vast garden lined with our own California fan palms. At the far end, a windowed facade looks out on New York harbor, with Lady Liberty and the newly restored Ellis Island in clear perspective.
Here, in a city where real estate is valued by the cubic inch, the prodigal space-wastage of the Winter Garden stops the breath. It astounds the ear as well. From the marble stairs, the distant rattle of china and silver at the cafe tables rings like the chatter of far-off birds. The clink and purr from the marimbas of a Mexican band, rehearsing for a free concert later in the day, echo from the upward-curving roof like points of audible light. As is only right, the Winter Garden serves as site for an ongoing list of free concerts; I note with envy that jazzman Milt Hinton is scheduled a few days from now when, alas, I’ll be otherwise engaged.
12 noon. Outdoors once again, I head toward Broadway, two blocks to the east. Silence reigns, as always, in the small, handsome churchyard at St. Paul’s Chapel, and inside as well. George Washington prayed here, moments before his inauguration as our first President, and his pew is nicely preseved. Trinity Church, a few blocks to the south, is the grander of New York’s two 18th- century churches, but I love St. Paul’s for its intimacy, and the way the silence seems to wrap itself around the visitor.
12:15 p.m. On route to Trinity, there is a small park a few steps below street level. There a girl on roller skates holds the crowd enthralled with her rap songs, helped by a ghetto blaster whose sound probably carries to New Jersey.
12:20 p.m. Fortunately, it doesn’t carry to Trinity’s elegant inner space, where an organist runs through some tortured 19th-century harmonies. I wait for a while, in hopes that he might try some Bach. No such luck.
12:30 p.m. Starting with the restrained, elegant rococo of Trinity, and then along the twisted, tiny, aimless streets of Lower Manhattan, it’s possible as in few American places to imagine yourself in some European town. Sure, the old buildings are now festooned with fast-food signs, but if you aim your gaze upward the fantasy of Old New York, before the invention of the grid pattern for streets (and the consequent gridlock), does take hold.
1 p.m. Along Fulton Street, heading east, the crescendo in fish odors tells me I’m heading in the right direction. To the west, Lower Manhattan is greatly enhanced by the new construction; on the east side, it’s the old structures, handsomely restored, that seize the attention. An area of several blocks at the end of Fluton, just before the East River has been closed to daytime traffic, and turned into a pedestrian mall, ringed by great old buildings. Again, as in the underground concourse, memories of the unnatural quiet on Venice’s untrafficked streets become inescapable.
The crown of the restoration is the South Street Seaport, with its few old ships still at anchor — converted, for the most part, into tourist traps, but still handsome on a late-September sunny day. In the open space a superior jazz combo holds forth (trombone, bass, drums): the Chicken Wing Trio. Not bad.
1:30 p.m. Across the street are New York’s two most serious seafood restaurants: Sweet’s, which as usual looks jammed, and Sloppy Louie’s, which doesn’t.Sloppy Louie’s main dining room is entirely tin-lined: walls and ceiling both. The bluefish is marvelous, but the sound level creates the sensation of a huge thumb, pushing me down toward the floor.
3 p.m. Back uptown, I soothe my ears in the sound of my waterfall.