Sunday, June 22, 2008

New York missive no 23 - Two rivers and Soho House

Three scenes: Brooklyn Bridge Park in Dumbo, Soho House and sailing on the Hudson.

A few weeks ago I went with a bunch of kids from Daniel Hale Williams School in DUMBO and other volunteers to dig up weeds and plant seedlings in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The new park’s much loved but attracts latte-sipping white parents and their kids from the swish new riverside apartments more than it does the predominantly black kids from local projects. The idea was to say hey, this park is your park too, and hopefully inspire the children to bring their parents back to see the fruits of their labour.

First, we listened to an introduction by one of the park wardens. She explained how the East River is part salt, part fresh water, as the sea gets sucked upstream on the incoming tide. A while ago some conservationists drew nets out over the river bed and pulled them up to the park to see what lives down there. They found a seahorse, among other things. “Does anyone know what a seahorse is?” she asked. On cue, one of the girls said, “Yes, I have one!”, and plucked a purple plastic seahorse from her pocket. No further explanation needed.

Then, the weeding. We were shown which plants to dig up, which ones to leave, and got to work with our trowels: much delight as the first weeds were unearthed, pulling up roots as long as the plant itself. I relished as much as the kids did that feeling of mucky hands, tugging at leaves and earth stuck beneath nails. Enthusiasm waned a bit by the time we got to planting and the kids' attention switched to new things like the pizza they’d been promised for afterwards, at Front Street Pizza round the corner: one was really restless and said she’d like to jump the park fence.

Post-pizza they had a new burst of energy. A reminder that a day for a young person (these kids were 7-9) is like a hundred days, changing and renewed by the hour. They chattered their way back to the school. One recounted how she’d once had a finger bitten – by a polar bear – on a trip to the arctic – and that Santa had given her a new one.

Soho House on a Tuesday night, an altogether different scene where mud beneath nails would definitely be frowned upon. It’s a member’s club and hotel for New York’s Notting Hill set, monied and media/artsy rather than banking/financial, confident on its corner overlooking the meatpacking district with its rooftop terrace swimming pool surrounded by loungers and dining tables. Much disgruntlement though that the Standard’s new hotel under construction to the West of it will steal much of the evening sun. I was much less blonde, much less skinny than the majority of the women there but happy as an observer. And laughed when I remembered the Sex in the City Scene in which Samantha sneaks in by pretending to be an Englishwoman called Annabel: I didn’t need to pretend to be either.

And yesterday, sailing in a Soling on the Hudson. Give me a boat with sails, some sun and wind and I’m happy. Three of us were having a “basic keelboat” lesson (thought I’d start at the beginning to get used to the boats) with the guy who runs the club, BR. He's a non-fiction literary agent who intersperses his teaching on points of sail and how to tie a bowline with historical and geographical anecdotes. How the Hudson used to be called North River, how old schooners couldn’t sail close to the wind, how Los Roques islands off Venezuela have been adopted by Italians and how the Chesapeake’s oysters have all been fished. For thirteen years he’s run the New York Community Sailing Association to provide affordable access to sailing: buying a bunch of 10 sailing sessions as I’ve done for after the course works out at $15 per session unlike other places where it’s more like $150. It’s an ongoing battle though to keep it going. No-one in NYC has a lot of time on their hands to help out maintaining the boats; people who start there go on to buy their own boats (yes, despite providing affordable sailing it’s hardly attracting underprivileged teenagers from the Bronx); the hard-core winter match racers go off cruising in exotic places during the Summer months. If I had a few extra days kicking around each week I’d love to help build it up: help secure the re-location to the Manhattan side of the river (the boats were moved to New Jersey post 9-11), approach foundations for funding for more boats, increase the membership etc. But that’s not the case. So for now I’ll enjoy the sailing and muck in as much as I can.