New York's real estate bacchanalia is literally reaching new heights, facelifting Manhattan's iconic skyline until the end of time. Vanity Fair has already introduced us to the leviathan luxury skyscrapers rising below Central Park South (one of which I see through my window, not-so-gradually dwarfing the Bloomberg Building by the hour). . . Downtown, developers are targeting that top stratum's fraction of aesthetes through a disorienting orgy of design along the High Line.
Yesterday saw the close of Charles James: Beyond Fashion at the Met. Christian Dior idolized James as "the greatest talent of [his] generation," and Balenciaga gushed that he was the first designer to elevate dressmaking to true art. Still, it has taken posthumous decades for his work to be recognized by the world accordingly, and within three months his first major exhibition is over. Not to get too dramatic, but I sensed a pall over the place.
I'm young, passionate, and live for a thrill. But I have a filthy secret: I still love living on the Upper East Side. Exiting the subway at 59th Street and Lexington -- ejected from the steamy, fetid bowels of New York in what are poetically called the dog days of summer anywhere else in the nation -- I exhale in gratitude. The absence of tourists, cooling breeze and bodegas perfuming the air with Asian lilies are like floss for my nerves. But my residential bliss in the Silk Stocking District is rarely shared by people under 50 . . .
The Sounds of New York series takes aural urban moments that, together, capture the sensory experience of being a New Yorker. All recordings taken with my iPhone.
Summer Concert at the Naumburg Bandshell
Promenading up the Mall in Central Park is one of the city's recreational rites of passage. An iconic spot in film and lit, it's a pleasure sauntering along this broad pedestrian avenue, canopied by elegant elms filtering late afternoon sunlight into abstract patterns on the concrete beneath you. Life's great pageant passing by, it's a rewarding path to take home from work after a trying day, an important reminder of why New York is the only city to call home.
But the voices, buskers, and ambient traffic fall silent when you pass the Naumburg Bandshell.
In an instant, New York becomes Paris in the '30s, when Beethoven and Chopin were played en plein air in the Luxembourg Gardens. Since 1905, the Naumburg Orchestral Concerts have been staged every summer at the bandshell, a heavenly neoclassical structure crowning the east side of the Mall. You realize you've forgotten what real civilization looks like until you see rows of speechless people seated before a pianist at a Steinway. And all outdoors.
As those cinematic strings float across the balmy breeze, it's just getting dark enough to see the fireflies dancing by the elms. People are waltzing with their babies; heads are resting on shoulders; hands are pairing up. It's a major moment to be human.
Entering Anya Firestone's sun-drenched apartment in Hell's Kitchen, my eye intuitively pivots toward a blazing pink glow down the hall at left. It's unmistakable from the photos I'd seen that this is her bedroom. Like Belle mesmerized by the enchanted rose in the Beast's West Wing, my eyes are fixed on it even when we exchange la bise, the French salutation as natural to Anya as her taste for macarons.
I'm seeing her for the first time since a chance café meeting on Rue des Martyrs in Paris, June 2012. I was vacationing, renting an apartment in Pigalle before studying abroad in the southeastern city of Grenoble. She, however, was in the painstaking process of completing a Masters in French Cultural Studies at Columbia University's Paris campus, writing the thesis that prepared her for her current work as a curator and professional aesthete in her native New York. "I had no adjustment period when I went to Paris," she says unequivocally. "It was so comfortable.
Before heading into the famous boudoir to see what outfits she selected for our shoot, I poke my head beyond the foyer. It's a capacious two-bedroom residence on a corner, awash in warm cream tones punctuated by Anya's colorful artwork on the walls -- a self portrait with her mother, a collage of salvaged price tags in the shape of Manhattan -- and some statement furnishings of an Architectural Digest variety. But the real drama is the panoramic backdrop of Midtown skyline enticing me out onto a small brick terrace. The sunlight is particularly piercing today, and Anya's hometown is in HD.
Turning back toward the bedroom, I'm bombarded by two miniature cocoa poodles with jangling collars and little silk scarves. The tinier of the two is named Zsa Zsa, the larger Cyrano, and for a hot second I'm back on the Left Bank watching doting moms in Hermès feed their pooches from small marble tables outside the Bon Marché.
Paris is omnipresent chez Anya. Returning hurriedly to New York after the New Year for a job, she still has an apartment in the 7th arrondissement housing a few pairs of wedge heels that didn't make it into her luggage. It's fitting really, since she'll always have at least one foot in the City of Light.
Her wardrobe is a sartorial treasure trove spanning whimsy, humor, and even the formidable. There's no unifying element throughout marking some defining preference, yet it's immediately plausible that all of this could end up in a style exhibit at the Met bearing her name. But to Anya, curating isn't restricted to the museum -- it's a way of life.
Anya's taste is anything but minimal, yet none of her clothes, books, or furnishings appear superfluous, and nothing is there by chance. There's a person, a laugh, or at the very least a reason behind each accoutrement in this aesthetic sanctuary. "Every item I have has a provenance,” she says. And she rarely experiences buyer's remorse, a natural advantage to being hyper-selective when shopping.
Anya's bedroom is a potion of elegant tricks, wit and her famous puns ("Je pun, donc je suis" is her personal mantra, not just her Instagram bio). Antique hand mirrors hang above her Rococo headboard, framing reflections of the pink wallpaper intricately scrolled with gold on the opposite wall. An ornately framed buzzer leans against an electric candelabra on her dresser, reading "Press for champagne." Her Olympia Le Tan clutch is a classic fashion pun, an accessory disguised as Emile Zola's novel Au bonheur des dames, about a Parisian department store catering to the capital's conspicuously consuming women.
But Anya's intellectual aesthetic is very much grounded in warmth and comfort, making her personal museum above all a livable private domain. "I could stare at a [Rothko painting] for hours, but I‘m not sure if I could take his looming forms staring at me before I put on my makeup or drink my coffee in the morning." She pauses. "But, you know, if someone offered me a Rothko, I’d take it."
Being in a curator's home is an especially enlightening experience, because the decorative stakes seem substantially higher in the dwelling of someone for whom artistic selection is an occupation. For someone like Anya, whose curatorial sense is acutely heightened, the field of artistic sampling is huge. But that works for the curator, because making unexpected pairings of creative products -- be they sculpture, furniture, colors, or clothes -- is what she does. It's an ability to assemble the vast options and then make dynamic choices from them that's so admirable.
"[At a party,] I’d play Kanye West. And then some belly-dancing music. But I’d start the evening with Ella Fitzgerald."
Photos by Christian Frarey | Copyright 2014
Peering out at my precious window's worth of Manhattan skyline, I'm looking with new eyes at the same view I took in with shuddering thrill a year ago last night. It was the day I first arrived in New York as a New Yorker.
That night, my best friend and I improvised minimally with a queen-size air mattress, a bottle of Piper-Heidsick, and Frank Ocean's Channel Orange on a bluetooth speaker until our worldly goods arrived in this exorbitant, petite two-bedroom in the East 60s. We Vined ourselves giggling, slurring words, and inevitably eating the largest pizza I'd ever seen from an absurdly convenient phone app called Seamless. Everything was silly. Everything was ridiculous. Nothing could have convinced us to worry about the future because, regardless of the obstacles ahead, we had arrived to live in Sinatra's world. Two kids from Michigan had their names on a lease stamped by the mayor of New York City, and every novel, song and movie scene was just outside our door. Somehow, through some impossible string of lucky breaks, I wasn't going back to the Midwest in a few days.
A month of heavy socializing followed. I went everywhere and anywhere at a moment's notice; no last-minute invite went unaccepted. This frenzied period of indiscriminate networking led to a fashion internship and then my first industry job at a PR agency downtown. The unstructured nature of building a career was both grueling and baffling, and I was unceremoniously enlightened on the importance of finding out who I was -- fast. The sheer intensity of my day-to-day made this maturation not only crucial, but shockingly easy. Within four months, I knew where my true skills lay, and that life really could be a long-term, largely mechanical mess if I didn't do what I really wanted with it. I knew that inspiration was the best guide at my disposal, and ultimately the best -- though not only -- professional friend outside my stores of social capital.
I spent less time consuming New York and much more of my life absorbing it. It was a test: How would I respond to a city with standards as relentless as its cost of living? How would my perspective change spending less, and just playing the urban spectator for its own sake?
Well, here I sit having passed that test with flying colors.
I did go for long walks alone, detouring into every cliché as often as possible on my way home from a new job at Grand Central. I found my own New York, and it was not the one first laid out for my consumption.
Drawn onto the streets by the whispery voice of Blossom Dearie, from the Upper East Side to the West Village, I watched a sweltering Manhattan summer ebb into a crisp and brilliant Brooklyn autumn. My world grew incredibly large within a few miles' range. Opportunities became less linear and more flexible, and every aimless experience or wandering took on a surprising value. This was what it felt like to be in my own skin, not that which I was trying so desperately to toughen upon arrival. The nonsensicality of life became sensical to me, and that's something you learn damn fast in this place.
But I've toughened anyway. I've become stronger and sharper because I chose to stay here and adapt -- I wanted to. I trusted a city to get to know me as much I reached out to it. The response has been lovely. I think our dates have gone fabulously well, even after the honeymoon stage. We're entering that bonding phase now, one of mutual-respect and -- oh, yes -- even making longer term plans. Okay, so we're shopping for rings (probably in an establishment off Times Square).
This city reminds me why I don't want to settle for less than everything. As a culture-starved boy in a bland Michigan suburb, the only house I ever dreamt of began with "pent". I knew who the Astors were at 10 years old. Public transport, yellow cabs and black chauffeured cars seemed as practical to me as Bloomingdale's and bagels. I just wanted to be old enough to hold a martini in public!
So, one year after leaving my home of 25 years, is little fly-over-country me good enough for New York? Of course I am. But I'm good enough because I wanted and still require this place like oxygen in a burning building. I get this place. But more importantly, it gets me. I'm worthy because, regardless of what I tell myself, I can't imagine living anywhere else.
New York is the only place where I could be happy in the essential work of being.