Thursday, March 26, 2009

New York City State of Mind

“How do you know so much?” she asked.
“I’m from New York”.
Don Delillo, White Noise

The summer that I spent at Interlochen Music Camp ( I took one class for fun: Twentieth Century Popular Music. I had figured that I knew little of the subject but was surprised to learn over the course of the summer that I knew a ton – no topic and few musicians were unfamiliar to me. In stark contrast, my classmates knew far less. (I should note that the class was historical and chronological, so we covered everything from Tin Pan Alley to ’60s singer-songwriters to MTV). One day I noted that I was puzzled about this to my teacher, a jazz musician from Oklahoma. He looked at me keenly and said with a smile “You live in New York. You do not realize how much you are exposed to just walking down the street or listening to the radio”. That summer was my first extended stay in the heartland of America (northern Michigan, top of the hand and only a few miles from Traverse City, cherry capital of the world) and it was revelatory to realize just how right my teacher was. Being from New York made me very different, inside and out, from what I wore to how fast I talked to what I knew about and how much I knew.
Mr. Howard’s remark connected my knowledge to the streetscape of my hometown and that felt deeply true. Walking in the city has always been a favorite activity for me, most profoundly marked by the treks across Central Park as I traveled between high school on the Upper East Side and home on the Upper West Side. To this day I feed my interests in architecture, neighborhoods and local history in this way. There is always something to notice, observe and learn in this city; one need only look. And there is what to recollect. Sometimes when I walk with fellow long-timers we test each other’s memory, asking each other: Do you remember what used to be here?
But walking for me works on two tracks: the streets offer a feast for the eyes, for gleaning information and observations, but the experience is also meditative and affords me the opportunity to let my thoughts sift as I reflect, plan and problem-solve. There are few places that can compete with New York City in offering pedestrian-friendly space, large cuts of terrain and a never-ending variety of interesting sights and people.
I have often wondered about how the surge in mobile technology has changed the experience for so many New Yorkers. I am an avid reader on vehicles, including elevators, but I prefer to walk sans music or accompanying phone conversation. I remember the first time I saw someone (in the neighborhood) strolling down the street and talking on a cell phone, one of those that looked like a walkie talkie, while he simultaneously walked his dog. I immediately understood the appeal of what was sure to become an essential contraption and I was saddened that it would make people less attuned to their surroundings. Of course, cell phone conversations have provided a whole new type of rich material for those eavesdropping in urban public spaces.
Since listening, within and without, is such a key aspect of this experience for me, it feels right to include some musical references, elements of my own personal soundtrack. Before I went to Interlochen I was already a fan of the NPR program New Sounds hosted by John Schaefer ( and it has been an important source for me to learn about many different types of music. That summer at Interlochen the albums that were most popular on campus (I know, I am dating myself) were Upstairs at Eric’s by Yaz ( and December by George Winston ( Winston and the Windham Hill label were still avant-garde at that point and I had first heard the music on New Sounds. It is ironic that these summer memories of a New York Jewish kid have an underlying score of Christmas carols played on solo piano… but it suits the rich cultural jumble that is exactly what I have been trying to capture. By the way, my main instrument is the piano, although I am woefully out of practice. Billy Joel (, whose song "New York State of Mind" captures the meditative state of walking in the city, brings this to a fitting close: "I don't have any reasons/I've left them all behind/I'm in a New York state of mind".
© 2009 Leah Strigler

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