Serendipity City


You’ve seen—also smelled, touched, and tasted—it all, but you want to get your child versed in classic New York culture. Who better than a poet to guide you through the urban maze and give you unexpected glimpses of familiar places?

Squiring children around New York provides grown-ups with passports to a parallel life: the child city. Lots of us can conjure up a Children’s Culture Canon, our list of essential places to take kids in the gleaming metropolis. Mine is a walking-and-looking list, with a little sitting, a little climbing, and a few stops for weird-flavored ice cream and purple cupcakes. Auntie Molly’s New York City is all angles and proportion. From huge to tiny, skyscrapers to underground, it’s a list of ceilings, floors, walls, and thresholds. Some of my faves would have been in anyone’s canon 50 years ago—that’s the reassuring part of the child city.

Ceilings first. Go into Grand Central station at midday, or on a weekend, and stop underneath the turquoise sky of the zodiac ceiling and tilt back your head: There’s Pegasus, Pisces, and the rest of the heavens. Once I suggested to one of my favorite 12-year-olds that the folly of the gods was just the unpredictability of adults on a giant scale, and he faked an upchuck on the floor. The gods are so cool that they are not even capitalized, was his sentiment. (Apparently, parents demand capitalization.)

The other ceiling requires a Saturday. Take young kids on the subway (if you’re lucky, there’ll be a poem to read on the car) and get off in Soho to visit the tiny Children’s Room at Poets House, 72 Spring Street. The ceiling of this room rustles with the wings of a thousand origami cranes, each colored paper folded like a flying haiku. Here young readers and their adults experience the unexpected folds of words in one-of-a-kind poetry programs.

If those cranes make you really want to fly, the best sensation of flight with your feet still on the ground is a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. “The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings—on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river,” Walt Whitman wrote about crossing to Brooklyn on the ferry—which the bridge put out of business. In her book New York City With Kids, Ellen R. Shapiro reminds us to stop at the

A streetside view of one of Chinatown's coolest attractions. (Photo Credit: Raimund Koch)

Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (65 Bayard Street) for green-tea or litchi ice cream before you start your walk. Any child who can handle a half-hour trek can traverse the bridge one way and possess a crane’s-eye view of the megalopolis that came to be built at the mouths of the Hudson and East rivers.

Heights require depths, and you can dive deep into the circulatory system of New York at the Transit Museum in Brooklyn Heights (at Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street). If you’ve ever tried to teach a child what a preposition is, the perfect place to demonstrate to, from, in, out, up, down, above, and below is here among the vast underground connections, the tunnels through the bedrock, and the whoosh of the trains, with that slightly dank electric tang of the netherworld in her nostrils.

Life down a tunnel, dreamy and scary, recalls that classic of imagination in mid–Central Park: Jose de Creeft’s sculpture of Alice in Wonderland poised on a toadstool with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare. Younger kids can be guided down the slopes of the mushroom, while older ones recite Lewis Carroll’s “ ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves” from “Jabberwocky,” but in fact, it’s grown-ups who have a down-the-rabbit-hole experience at this bronze statue. Kids invert time here, and it’s the adults who have to wait for them to clamber over the bronze surfaces made slippery by thousands of other children’s hands. To apprehend the world through your fingers might be to have it at your feet.

A bronze inhabitant of The Real World, Tom Otterness's public art installation in lower Manhattan. (Photo Credit: Raimund Koch)

And for feet, try The Real World, Tom Otterness’s public art installation of giant footprints and oversize pennies in lower Manhattan, at the end of the Hudson River Park (also called Rockefeller Park), just above Battery Park City. Even as the Alice statue is huge and ethereally still, the figures in The Real World are disproportionate and active. Beside the monumental pennies are Otterness’s wacky small animals and people in bronze. Babies can crawl and teenagers can be absorbed in the irony of the chaos and fancy of this miniature society of tilting towers, fighting frogs, workers, and bosses.

The weirdness of proportion is no-where more entrancing than in one of the hidden treasures of the Metropolitan Museum, the Gubbio Studiolo,

The Met's Gubbio Studiolo. (Photo Credit: Raimund Koch)

a mind-boggling triumph of trompe l’oeil in a replicated room about the size of a huge old-fashioned bathroom. Any child who likes to look will want to disappear into the walls of the studiolo, an Italian Renaissance room built triangle by square out of wood, evoking a wonderland of musical instruments, books, windows, tables, and tools that is dazzlingly three-dimensional, though the walls are absolutely flat. After this warm enclosure, head for contrast to the long, cold medieval Hall of Arms and Armor, where even a grown-up can be impressed by a metal suit for a horse. This tour of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages deserves a purple frosted cupcake from the new café in the American Wing.

Ceilings and walls, even eras of history, can’t exist without thresholds, and if you leave the museum and walk north on the park side of Fifth Avenue to 105th Street, you will find the magically royal Vanderbilt Gate, opening to the

The reflecting pool with Bessie Potter Vonnoh's sculpture at the Conservatory Garden. (Photo Credit: Raimund Koch)

Conservatory Garden. I include horticulture in kids’ culture. But before you head to the Bronx or to Brooklyn for some hands-on gardening for kids, take in the Secret Garden reflecting pool with Bessie Potter Vonnoh’s bronze statue of a boy playing a flute and a girl carrying a bowl, which is actually a birdbath where real wrens take baths along with the sculpted ones.

Older than these statues is a garden kids can actually dig in—a children’s classic since a teacher named Ellen Eddy Shaw began it in 1914: the Children’s Garden of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, with all kinds of opportunities for kids to dish the dirt in a program called KinderGarden. A long, meandering walk through nearby Prospect Park (or a six-minute cab ride) takes you to a child-friendly café, the Tea Lounge at 350 Seventh Avenue, at 10th Street. In the Bronx, at the New York Botanical Garden’s Children’s Gardening Program, kids can partner up to make vegetable, herb, and flower gardens in spring, fall, or summer sessions, rain or shine. If a butterfly happens by your child’s nose, you might be lured to the time-honored soul of kids’ New York, the American Museum of Natural History. One of the most beautiful places in theory—but slithery and ticklish in practice—is the Butterfly Conservatory (open October through May). Yes, the wings make visual music, but when they land on you, eeuuww! Children who love the creepy and the crawly will adore this place. The rest of us should head for the less crowded galleries, African Peoples on the second floor, and Pacific Peoples on the third floor, or the Morgan Memorial Hall of Gems, with its irresistible stairways that make a child feel free as a mountain goat.

The magnetic north of my Children’s Culture Canon is a mammoth building on Amsterdam Avenue and 112th Street, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. You can wheel a stroller through the close (the parklike area of the campus of buildings next to the cathedral) past the resident peacocks and Greg Wyatt’s crazy baroque Peace Fountain, with its apocalyptic saint circled by serpents and dragons; or go up the steps into the dimness of a building so huge it’s a universe in itself. An older child might stop to read Langston Hughes’s line written in stone in the Poets’ Corner, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” As you step across the street to the Hungarian Pastry Shop for a cherry strudel, look back at the scaffolding. Though construction on the cathedral began in 1892, it remains, like New York, gorgeously unfinished.

And Auntie Molly’s magnetic south is a boat: the Staten Island Ferry. On an atmospheric, cold, rainy day, the foggy view of New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty, lower Manhattan, and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge gives grown-ups the chance to tell a family story of immigration or a magic story of sailing away, or even to explain the absence of the Twin Towers. To a child, the low vibration of a storytelling voice above the oily motors of the ferry may be the sound of New York City itself.

Molly Peacock is poet-in-residence at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, and the author of Cornucopia: New and Selected Poems.

From the Fall 2004 edition of the New York Family Guide