Urban Oases

Wind down and let go. Whether your idea of Zen is smoking freely on a street corner, soaking in a Turkish bath, or walking across one of the city's 76 pedestrian-friendly bridges, we'll guide you through NYC in search of your own personal sanctuary.


The air is so hot you can barely breathe. You're wearing next to nothing and still dripping with sweat. No, it's not an August evening in your fifth-floor walk-up. At the 110-year-old Russian and Turkish Baths (286 East 10th Street, 212-473-8806), get super-heated in one of four different saunas, then douse yourself with a bucket of ice-cold water, take a plunge in the frigid pool, sashay onto the sundeck, or pound back a Russian Baltika beer. For a few more bucks, you can get a massage or a mud treatment. Plus, no need to bring your own extremely baggy shorts and oversize plastic sandals—they're provided for you! The baths are open daily, but are women-only on Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and men-only on Sundays from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and during those times, shorts are optional. [adkison]


Spring for some brioche, some chocolate, and a bottle of Beaujolais, and picnic at one of these divine destinations: Downtowners should bus it to the West Side's Hudson River Park (hudsonriverpark.org), where the benches at a series of seriously seaworthy piers afford views of that good old French gal, the Statue of Liberty. Pier 25 (at North Moore Street) boasts a sandy volleyball court and a très romantic miniature golf course, while Pier 34 (at Spring Street) offers peace and quiet and a glimpse of Ron Baron's colorful installation "Birds." Way up north, there's nothing more lovely than lazing about in Fort Tryon Park (take the A train or the 4 bus to the last stop), where a peek at the Palisades alone will set you swooning. Then take your fair maiden to the Cloisters(metmuseum.org), where you can feast your eyes on unicorns and other mysterious medieval treasures. [spartos]


image
The Brooklyn Brewery
photo: Greg Miller
It's said that in Saddam-ruled Iraq, one would be tortured—specifically, forced to eat dozens of pickled eggs—if they were caught touring a brewery on a weekend. God bless America. The beautiful, 25-barrel Brooklyn Brewery (79 North 11th Street, Brooklyn, 718-486-7422) symbolically reclaims Williamsburg's pre-Prohibition glory as mead-making central, when it was known for "Brewers' Row," not Bedford Avenue. Two free frosties are yours; you need only claim them between noon and five on Saturday, when the tours—also gratis—are given. The catch: You must BYOPE. [catucci]


Very early Sunday morning, while the city is asleep, is the best time to walk on the street of pearls, well, actually Pearl Street was made of crushed oyster shells in colonial days before landfill began, and once marked the edge of Nieuw Amsterdam. Here and there, in between the big steel financial high-rises, are the Federal-style warehouses built in the 1820s, former ship's chandleries where they made sails and sold supplies to sailors just in from Madagascar. Look at the Fraunces Tavern (a turn-of-the-century reconstruction) where on December 4, 1783, George Washington bade farewell to his officers and withdrew to Mount Vernon, sigh. Walk a few blocks north and sit down on a wooden bench at Hanover Street Square and think about Captain Kidd and his Turkish carpets—he had a mansion on Pearl Street so he could keep an eye on his ships. As one of the wealthy aristocrats back in the late 1600s, when Manhattan had 5,000 people, Captain Kidd got his money, they say, not from being a pirate but from marrying the richest widow in New York. Then forget about money and walk two blocks east on Old Slip and watch the ferry boats come and go on the gray satin sea. Or just do all this on a weeknight and further transcend with a martini in one of the elegant, dark-wood-paneled, colonial-looking bars—Fraunces Tavern (54 Pearl Street, 212-968-1776), Harry's at Hanover (1 Hanover Square, between Pearl and Stone streets, 212-425-3412). [schlesinger]


Dan Graham integrates the majesty of the city skyline, the bustle of the urban landscape, and a sense of serenity in his "Rooftop Urban Park Project"(DIA Center for the Arts: 548 West 22nd Street, 212-989-5566; through June 15, opens again in September), which has been up since 1991. The pavilion bridges modernist architecture with minimal art and envelopes the viewer and the city's landscape in a maze of two-way mirrored glass that is not only translucent and transparent but reflective and opaque—see and be seen—and constantly changing at the same time. [snow]


To be suspended in the air, fingers clinging to ostensibly fragile rock protrusions, a 60-foot climb above you, and the risk of death below—such is the paradoxically soothing rush of rock climbing. And in New York, the best place for this is the Gunks in New Paltz's Mohonk Preserve (845-255-0919, gunks.com), where most climbers take pilgrimage during the warmer months. Day passes to the preserve start at $6. For those city-bound, Central Park boasts several bouldering spots, like Chess Rock (north of Wollman Rink), great practice for lateral climbing, and the heavily frequented Rat Rock (near Heckscher Playground). Climbing gyms can be just as fun as being outdoors (the only negative is that you'll miss out on the unique and varied utilities of real rock). Notable walls: City Climbers (533 West 59th Street, 212-974-2250), also one of the more affordable, accommodating, and congested spots; Chelsea Piers Sports Center (Pier 60 at 23rd Street, 212-336-6000) offers some of the more challenging climbs, but at $50 per day, it's a bit too steep; Extra Vertical(61 West 62nd Street, 212-586-5718) is great for newbies, and its indoor/outdoor setting combines the best of both worlds. A great site that'll have you climbing up the walls in little time is climbnyc.com. [yadao]


Curl up in an overstuffed chair and exhale into the quiet sanctity of a space dedicated to the art of reading. You make a donation to charity each time you buy something at Housing Works Used Book Café (126 Crosby Street, 212-334-3324): This bookstore gives its proceeds to a nonprofit group that offers health care, advocacy, and housing for homeless New Yorkers who are HIV-positive. No need to pack a lunch, as the café serves up coffee and snacks. Around the corner, Poets House (72 Spring Street, 212-431-7920) is tucked away in a Spring Street building. Here 40,000 books of poetry are archived, and hardwood floors, large area rugs, green glass reading lights, tall freestanding bookshelves, and comfortable couches make the "house" feel more like a cozy den than a library. Those who like to linger can quickly lose track of time in either place, browsing through rare and out-of-print titles, and relishing a respite from the steamy city streets. [winterton]


Yogis looking to add a bit of oomph to their shanties or beginners searching for inner peace should consider slipping in a little sunshine with their downward-facing dogs. At Central Park's North Meadow Recreation Center (mid-park at 97th Street, 212-348-4867, ext. 10; Sat at 11:30 and Sun at 1:30, $3 with mats) a soothing walk through the park serves as a precursor to an hour-and-a-half yoga session. On Saturdays, massive windows allow for outdoor viewing as Yoga to Help Heal instructors guide followers through various forms, while the Sunday class is great for hatha lovers. Upping the ante, Body Evolution (221 Second Avenue, 212-228-4202, $12) offers evening ashtanga and vinyasa classes on a remote, outdoor wooden deck replete with plants and shrubbery. Just stay put on your mat while laying in shavaasana to avoid splinters. [franklin]


Find secret-garden bliss in midtown at New York Plaza—adjacent to the office tower on 1166 West 46th Street and around the corner from the tasty takeouts on Little Brazil Street. It's got chirping birds, fields of white daffodils, and loads of seating. Further east you'll find perfectly quaint Paley Park, a minuscule cobblestone courtyard covered in ivy, located on 53rd Street between Fifth and Madison avenues. Meditate on the water rushing down the back wall like some passageway to another place, or grab one of the little white tables by a planter bursting with yellow tulips. If the park's full, and it's likely to be if it's lunchtime, you'll find more seating next door at the flower-filled office plaza outside 520 Madison Avenue. Or keep strolling till you get to the steel-girder entrance of luscious Greenacres Park, the mother of midtown pocket parks, on 51st Street between Second and Third avenues. The pots of pink, yellow, and purple flowers make it more fragrant than a Bloomingdale's makeup counter. The multi-tiered oasis has a delightful river running around its perimeter that leads to a giant waterfall—grab a nearby table and get splashed. [spartos]


The two most nerve-racking things about shopping? Poor selection and sticker shock. But trolling the city's sidewalks for abandoned treasures is the opposite of stressful. You don't know what you want till you find it, and then it's free, free, free! It's an exercise in serendipity, an excuse to drift through undiscovered neighborhoods, gleaning the bounty of New York like a beachcomber. For those materialistic souls who claim that the quality of discarded merchandise is inferior to that on sale, I offer for inspection these recent real-life finds during sidewalk scavenging: A cotton deep-pile carpet with a single gorgeous pop-art red rose unfolding in the center (Broadway and 9th Street); an erhu, a snakeskin-covered Chinese two-stringed instrument (6th Street and Avenue A); and one perfectly fitting pair of Barneys New York trousers in navy blue (13th and 5th streets). [kamenetz]


Recipe for the Ultimate Superbien Cheap City Date: Breezily invite a "friend," toward whom you have unchaste intentions, to meet you at Casa Adela Restaurant (66 Avenue C, 212-473-1882). Then beguilingly order up a $4 heaping plate of yellow rice with pigeon peas and beans; a $3 avocado salad; and two fresh banana batidas, $3 each. Now take your plastic picnic sack and walk four blocks to the 9th & C Community Garden (East 9th Street and Avenue C). Four balletic weep-ing willows majestically border the grounds. And the top of the chain-link fence is crowned with pinwheels fashioned from Welch's grape soda cans, and daisies with laundry detergent cap centers. There are wooden picnic tables, canopies of twinkling lights, hushed English garden nooks, and chipped ceramic angels trumpeting l'amour from clay pots. Also a stage for free live music and theater after dark—I swear to you, it is like heaven here. Hey, it worked for Victor Vargas, sort of. [rao]


Manhattan's East River bridges provide 24-hour access for pedestrians and bicyclists and the summer is super for strolling. (For updates on crossing conditions, visit Transportation Alternatives, transalt.org.) Though I dream of throwing my own birthday brunch on the wondrous and wide walkway of the Brooklyn Bridge (Manhattan entrance: Park Row and Centre Street; Brooklyn entrances: stairs to Cadman Plaza East and Prospect Street, ramp to Tillary and Adams streets), I'll settle for this summer's Williamsburg Bridge 100th Birthday Bash in Continental Army Plaza (Roebling Street and South 4th Street, Brooklyn). On June 22, a day-long festival will mark the centennial of the bridge (Manhattan entrance: Delancey Street at Clinton Street; Brooklyn entrance: Roebling and South 4th streets) with cake, walking tours, music, art, and game tournaments. [snow]


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The Metropolitan Museum
photo: Greg Miller
Spend the day on a cool white marble patio with walls and floors the color of milk. And dream of Don Pedro Fajardo y Chacón, maybe wearing a little velvet Spanish Renaissance outfit, holding a glass of wine, the color of blood, and drifting through his big 16th-century castle, Velez Blanco, near the southeast coast of Spain. The patio, which was part of the castle, made its way to the Metropolitan Museum (Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street; 212-535-7710; $12 "suggested" donation) years ago and has a balcony for secretly gazing down at mysterious strangers. The room is all Gothic and Spanish-Moorish with 2,000 marble parts carved by northern Italians—you can just hear Don Pedro say, "Work faster, faster, Giorgio and Agostino." (If you do not see Don Pedro when you are there, maybe you will see someone else, though hopefully he won't be wearing a Renaissance hat or anything.) [schlesinger]


Man's best friends need a respite from the city summer, too. Canines who'd like to take a dip should lead their owners to the Long Meadow Dog Beach in Prospect Park (Upper Pool, near 9th Street entrance, just north of the softball fields; prospectpark.org—click on "activities," then "dog walking"). A small cement ramp slants gently into the cool, tawny water of the pool. A barrier of plastic sheeting placed about 10 feet out keeps pooches from swimming away and getting lost among the rushes and cattails—and probably keeps the flea powder and hairballs from choking the ducks and fish. The only downside is that summer off-leash hours run from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m., making wading—but not swimming—the only midday option. Maybe the Parks Department will consider fencing off the area, creating the wet/dry dog run. [adkison]


There's this short story by Stephen King about smokers who, thanks to the specific amount of nicotine they inhale, are able to see the monsters—invisible to everyone else—in our midst. For all the hacking and coughing, I mean bitching and whining, about not being able to light up inside, I'm envisioning the possibilities, the clumps of sidewalk communities. And let's say you're at one of those Second Avenue bars near St. Marks Place; why not walk a block over to the church, and take a choker, I mean breather, on one of the benches, and commiserate with someone cute about having to exit a crowded bar full of obnoxious people? [catucci]


Boy meets grill? In this city? I don't think so. I presume Bobby Flay (who wrote that book on cooking) has a rooftop furnished with noncombustible fixtures and landscaping. Provided your digs aren't quite so cushy, you may find a bit more trouble. But fear not. "Firing" up the Foreman isn't your only hope for charcoal-tinged delights. Beware, fire escapes, however, are not for fires of this kind. So don't try it. Sidewalks are slippery territory, but a hike to the Fire Department Headquarters (9 Metro Tech Center North, Brooklyn) can yield an application and eventual visit by a fire inspector who could grant permission for your stoop-side barbecue. Or you can always light the grill in the park? Legally, the only Manhattan parks left for barbecuing are Inwood Park (Dyckman Ballfields at Dyckman Street and the Hudson River), St. Nicholas Park (St. Nicholas Terrace at St. Nicholas Avenue and West 127th Street), and Ward's Island (the East River and Hell Gate). A hike, maybe, but some have public grills. And the Foreman does require an outlet. For more concrete info, nyc.gov/parks. [snow]


Buses get a bad rap. Yeah, they occasionally take longer to get from A to B, but at least you've got more to look at than Joe Public picking his nose. Besides, what's more comforting then reclined, uninhibited people-watching from a vehicle that you aren't driving? Forgo the pricey red double-decker buses and hop on the M5. From the George Washington Bus terminal (4211 Broadway, 800-221-9903), a two-hour local downtown ride will find you gazing at brownstones in Harlem, the granite columns of Grant's Tomb, bikers meandering through Central Park, tourists at Lincoln Center, students around Columbus Circle, outdoor diners in Chelsea, and village folk near Washington Square Park, where the ride ends. Now all you need is a sunny day and some snacks. [franklin]


Centricity, a reasonably priced, vintage jewel at 63 East 4th Street (212-979-7601) is the mecca to forage if you're desperately seeking a Felicity Shagwell-ish foxy red micromini to top a pair of cork-heeled wedges or a Pucci-print A-line shift, very Señora Madcap. My own cherished find of the century was a demure, biscuit-toned, knee-length, $25 empire waist frock with ruffled cap sleeves. Perfect for slipping summer days into nights just like Sandy, baby, Olivia Newton-John. On weekends, if you wake up chanting that retail therapy is the road to Zen, then just walk east a bit to the sprawling, splashy carnival that is the M.H.C. Flea Market (corner of Avenue A and East 11th Street). Slip dresses swish silkily from hangers, and exquisite, embroidered vintage blousons will have you feeling like a preening heiress. Estate jewelry—the ultimate heirloom chic—can also be bought for a song. Better than yoga to relax you. [rao]


The city got wet and wild last month by simultaneously activating the fountains in City Hall Park(Park Row and Broadway) and Central Park's Bethesda Terrace (enter at 72nd Street), and after last year's long, hot summer made dirty-dusty by a season-long drought, it was more welcome than a Slip 'N Slide at a fourth-grade birthday party in August. This town's got hundreds of high-pressure faucets to get splashy-splashy with: Not least, the huge geyser at Lincoln Center Plaza; the enormous, shimmering reflecting pool across from Radio City Music Hall at 1251 Avenue of the Americas; and the streams playfully spurting from the flopping fish sculptures amid the giant pink topiaries lining Rockefeller Center Promenade. [spartos]


One could spend days wending through the city's parks and public spaces visiting sculpture and often site-specific installations dropped, as respites, into our grid by the Public Art Fund. From CandyBAM (Vik Muniz's inspired wrapping of the under-construction Brooklyn Academy of Music in the photographic facade of a gingerbread house) to MetroSpective (the reinstallation in City Hall Park of works originally exhibited at Brooklyn's MetroTech Center), PAF is responsible for depositing contemporary art in sometimes surprising public spaces. This summer brings Mark Handforth's "Lamppost" which recasts a street lamp in the role of art object, design stalwart, and surreal curiosity (Doris C. Freedman Plaza, Central Park). Mariko Mori's "Wave UFO" welcomes visitors to experience the melding of physical and visual stimuli as they connect to her cosmic dreamworld and stark silver sculpture through video projection (and brain-data-gathering electrodes) (590 Madison Avenue). At 80 Arts, a once-dilapidated building (80 South Hanson Place, Brooklyn) that is undergoing renovation behind Clara Williams's "The Price (Giving In Gets You Nowhere)" a mechanized marionette is installed in the third-floor windows. Williams's piece serves as a cuckoo clock of sorts, calling out hourly during the day. And Wim Delvoye transforms construction-site ephemera into singular works of Gothic motif. His "Gothic" series consists of life-size replicas of Caterpillar excavators, cement mixers, barricades, and traffic cones rendered in filigreed Cor-Ten steel (Madison Square Park and Doris C. Freedman Plaza, Central Park). [snow]


In-ground pools and swimming holes down the dirt road seem a world away from this concrete jungle. When I was growing up, nautical sport in the city meant a foot-deep inflatable bowl for wading, a run through the deluge of a hydrant, or a trip to the derelict public pool where precocious tykes worried about the less gifted who relieved themselves in the water. But the NYC Parks Department has cleaned up this act, sending its auditors on a rampage to ensure cleanliness and safety. And chlorine continuously kills bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other nasties, so don't be afraid to go into the water. Astoria Pool (19th Street and 23rd Drive, Queens, 800-201-PARK) still features some of its 1936 detailing: "No Water Pistols" signs and mushroom fountains. Long hailed as Manhattan's nicest pool, Asser Levy (23rd Street and Asser Levy Place, 212-447-2020) sits by the East River. Brooklynites can visit up-and-coming Red Hook(Henry and Clinton Streets, 718-722-3211). All offer impressive views, and best of all, they're free! [kim]


Every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon when the weather gets nice, a rotating group of happy folks practices taking falls at the southeastern edge of Central Park's Sheep Meadow (enter at 72nd Street). They're amateur, self-taught circus geeks, practicing the art of acro-balance, a/k/a acrobatic tumbling, partner balancing, or adagio, and of "giggling your head off while doing a handstand between someone else's knees." These moves combine the centering effects of yoga with the openness and trust of partnering and the childish fun of rolling around in the grass. For those who want formal instruction, Circus Minimus will be teaching Circus Yoga for Kids and Families in Brooklyn in June and July (circusminimus.com; 212-874-3976); but the kids in the park should be delighted to show you a few "ta-da!" poses. [kamenetz]

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