Fragrant flowers fill the New York City sidewalks with a certain kind of flair

August 6, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 3, 2013

Last week, I drove into Manhattan to meet an old school friend whom I had not seen socially in years. The rendezvous involved a fair amount of walking around the Upper West Side.

After dinner, Mark and I strolled downtown to get a drink at a wine and tapas bar he favors. We witnessed something that was perfectly mundane, at least for New Yorkers, yet struck me as being quite novel. We were passing a floral display that was being watered. Excess liquid dripped and splashed on the sidewalk. Fluid pooled and flowed across the sidewalk, draining toward the gutter. A burst of scent from the bouquets filled my nose as we ambled south along Broadway.

This is something that New Yorkers can see many times a day, but it had been years since I’d experienced it.

I was confused for a time about just why this very modest little episode seemed so unusual to me. Initially, I reasoned that having to dodge, or at least be aware of, the water pooling on the sidewalk seemed exotic. Then I thought, No, it’s the smell of the flowers that’s so extraordinary. A few moments later, I realized that I was unaccustomed to an altogether larger phenomenon: the entire fact of a streetside display.

I live in Durham, North Carolina, and have for about five years. Typically, when you walk on a sidewalk beside a store there — or heck, in most cities — the store is on one side of the wall or window; the sidewalk, and by extension the entire rest of the city, is on the other side.

But many street-level stores in New York were built before air conditioning existed. To keep the shops cool — and secondarily, I think, to increase public exposure and to maximize vending space — their sides can be thrown open. This allows the occasional cooling breeze to wander in from the outdoors. Consequently, rows and rows of fruits, vegetables and flowers crowd tiered sidewalk-facing shelves. (When the weather cools, thick clear plastic sheets unfurl from awning level; these serve to keep these spaces both visible and more or less warm.)

Refurbished and new buildings in New York City tend to be rather generic, at least compared to the old-style bodegas. New retail establishments typically feature bland, blank walls of glass that clearly cordon off the shop from the sidewalk. If you stroll by one of these places, it’s easy to forget that you’re in Manhattan and imagine that you’re in Minneapolis, Milwaukee or Modesto instead.

New York City, and Manhattan in particular, is a city full of aggravations. Crosstown traffic is notoriously slow. Cabs dart aggressively through the narrowest of gaps in the rivers of automobiles and pedestrians. The subways are frequently crowded; train platforms are hot and smelly during warm months, cold and breezy during cool ones. Hurrying commuters, meandering tourists and slow-moving window browsers must all share pedestrian walkways. Sidewalks are also studded with newspaper boxes, garbage cans, fire hydrants and staircases descending to subway stations — not to mention the shelves that rob a few precious inches of space from the flow of traffic; more space than that, in fact, when there’s a crowd of shoppers.

Space is limited in New York; real estate is expensive. To make the most of it, owners and tenants tend to do things that are done in few other places. But in a funny way, it’s the very things that make New York so aggravating that also make it so distinctive.

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