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Early Morning in the Big Apple

By William J. Dean / April 27, 1992



MY daily walk to work begins at my apartment building on East 73rd Street, a block lined with former carriage houses that now serve as residences. Several of these buildings retain their equestrian details: above the ground-floor windows, horses' heads carved in relief; over vehicular entrances, knotted reins and a saddle pouch.

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Wealthy New Yorkers wanted their private carriages and horses nearby, but not so close that the noise and smells of the stables would mar the exclusive character of Fifth and Madison Avenues. East of Park Avenue was not considered a desirable place to live. And so in the late 19th century, carriage houses were built on my block between Lexington and Third Avenues.

I walk to Lexington. From the west side of the avenue, looking south, the gleaming spire of the Chrysler Building can be seen in the distance.

In the early morning, the sidewalks are crowded with children and adults rushing to school and the office. By 8:30 a.m., depending on the season of the year, the north or south side of 72nd Street is bathed in sunlight. How fortunate New Yorkers are to have so much sunlight throughout the year. Londoners and Parisians have far less. By comparison, New York is a southern city, at the same latitude as Madrid.

When walking to work I chose from among four remarkable routes: south along Park, Madison, or Fifth Avenues, or through Central Park. Most days, now, I go through the park. This serves as one of my infrequent encounters with nature, living as I do in the heart of a great city.

What vision the city's leaders had over a century ago when they created Central Park. In the spring and summer, "so fresh and charming the grass, the blossoms and flowers," to use the words of Parsifal describing Good Friday morning. At Easter, the cherry trees and daffodils on Pilgrim Hill at 72nd Street are in full glory.

After the fallen leaves of autumn comes winter, when the ground is frozen and covered with a dusting of snow; there's never enough for me, for I love snow. The city is at its most beautiful after a heavy snowfall.

From the park I see the Frick Collection. Behind those walls lie the sun-lit Umbrian hills of Giovanni Bellini. Constable country. The London of Gainsborough and Turner. The French countryside of Corot. The Netherlands of Cuyp, Rembrandt, and Vermeer.

Luxurious apartment buildings line the east side of Fifth Avenue. Late in the day, as the sun descends, their west-facing facades will be ablaze in a golden light.

I come to Delacorte Clock at the entrance to the Central Park Zoo, trying to time my arrival on the hour or half hour to watch the movement of the mechanical animals. The monkeys strike the bell with their hammers, and then comes the elephant with an accordion, the bear and tambourine, the penguin drummer, the goat with pipes, the kangaroo horn-players, and the violin-playing hippopotamus.

At the zoo, I bid a hearty good morning to the seals who frolic in the water, having just been fed, and pass the old pony track, long since shut down, where, as a child, I used to be taken for long rides.

THE park ends at Grand Army Plaza, one of the most beautiful spots in the city, graced by the Metropolitan Club, the Sherry Netherland Hotel, Bergdorf Goodman, the Plaza Hotel, and the statues of General Sherman and Abundance atop the Pulitzer Fountain.

At this point I go underground and board the N or * subway to travel five miles to Canal Street.

The elegance of Fifth Avenue yields to the seediness of Canal Street. But there is one connecting link: At 309 Canal Street still stands a building once occupied by Arnold, Constable & Company, the city's first department store. Following the northern migration of New Yorkers, the store moved from Canal Street in 1869 to 19th Street and then to 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, where it remained until closing its doors in 1975.

TriBeCa is close by. I enter my building on Varick Street. My workday has not yet begun, but already I have experienced many delights of urban life.

To paraphrase what Johnson said about London: When a man is tired of his city, he is tired of life; for there is in the city all that life can afford.