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Hitting Your Stillspot

The search for serenity amid urban frenzy.

By Humera Afridi

At Plaza 75 in Jackson Heights, the woman at the “Transhistoria” welcome desk passes me a release form.

“Sorry?” I say, not understanding.

I‘ve just arrived on the F train from Manhattan for stillspotting nyc, a program curated by the Guggenheim Museum, and haven’t quite got my bearings. I usually only venture out to Jackson Heights during mango season, in late spring, on annual pilgrimages to buy crates of my favorite fruit—imported from India—from Patel Brothers. This time, though, I’ve been lured by a program titled “Transhistoria,” an installment of the Guggenheim’s multidisciplinary stillspotting nyc project that brings the museum’s Architecture and Urban Studies programming out into the streets of the five boroughs in a search for serenity in the city that never sleeps.

The release form proclaims that by participating in “Transhistoria”—a self-guided walking tour—I am accepting responsibility for myself on the streets. There is something both comical and ominous about the statement. After all, New Yorkers walk every single day and literally take in their stride the infinite drama of the streets. Do the streets of Jackson Heights carry some sort of unspoken threat? Or is it just that “tourists” from Manhattan may feel out of their element here? When I remark on this, the affable volunteer says, “Never assume anything!” and hands me a brochure with a map of the neighborhood and a list of twelve stillspots, of which four are actively curated sights on any given day of the exhibit.

Humera Afridi
A storyteller reading Maria Terrone’s essay in the garden at St. Mark’s Episopal Church.

Stillspot is the Guggenheim’s name for a serene place that offers visitors the opportunity to reflect, meditate, and attain stillness in the midst of frenetic urban chaos. At each stillspot, a story written by a Jackson Heights-affiliated writer is read aloud. In a neighborhood where 138 languages are spoken simultaneously, the idea of seeking quiet here strikes me as counter-intuitive. Nevertheless, I am eager to get started. I set off on my stillspotting journey, not so much to pursue stillness but, instead, to satiate my curiosity about the storied streets of this populous neighborhood.

Cherry blossoms in Queens.

My first stillstop is the Jackson Heights Pedestrian Plaza. After purchasing a $1 cup of perfectly brewed chai from nearby Kebab King, I settle down on one of the turquoise stools that are situated in a semi-circle around the storyteller who leans against a giant slab of stone as she reads. A light breeze wafts over us. Passersby chat, sip tea and snack on chaat; window shoppers graze nearby storefronts. Within minutes, I am no longer paying attention to Premilla Nadasen’s engaging story about her family’s migration from South Africa to Queens, but instead to the people around me, an assortment of nationalities and ages and family configurations who are “stillpacing”—wandering about in a manner so relaxed and easy and utterly foreign to the streets of Manhattan, that I am mesmerized.

Next, I make my way to the Serenity Room at Elmhurst Hospital, on Broadway and 79th Street. The sound of trickling water from an artificial waterfall fills the space while potted plants, a linoleum floor adorned with images of pebbles, and a flat screen television programmed to landscape views collectively attempt to evoke a natural landscape within the sterile hospital space. The air conditioner blasts cool air while Jeremy Edwin Gage, an actor and audio book narrator, reads a story about a family of Mexican immigrants in dulcet tones. My mind flits. I realize I don’t want to be lulled. I am impatient to return to the color of the streets, to the alluring aromas of ethnic street food and the vibrant fruit carts selling nopales, jackfruit, guavas, and plantains.

Back outside, I allow myself to get lost. To my surprise, I discover quiet residential streets that intersect the busy commercial avenues. I marvel at the tree-lined sidewalks, the grassy front yards of townhouses, the erratically planted rose bushes and overhanging branches that create patches of shade on the road. Here, birdsong fills the air; leaves rustle. The few pedestrians walking by do so quietly, as if paying homage to the tranquility of these “suburban” streets. Roosevelt Avenue might as well be a continent away! Here’s serenity, I think. Here are the lingering vestiges of Jackson Heights as a “garden community” founded in the first half of the twentieth century. The neighborhood was originally designed with the utopian ideal of high-density housing that integrated courtyards and green spaces into the urban landscape. Today, depending on where in the neighborhood one is, it might or might not be hard to imagine that Jackson Heights was once the epitome of tranquil urban living, a model urban suburbia.

As I make my way towards the next stillspot, I berate myself for having been affected by the mysterious parochialism that afflicts so many New Yorkers—the reluctance to travel far from one’s immediate neighborhood. Here was a world, complex in texture. I make a mental note to return each remaining weekend of “Transhistoria,” thankful for the serendipitous timing of the walking tour that has acquainted me with a neighborhood I’ll be blogging about for the next year.

At Terraza 7, a colorful bar just southeast of Roosevelt Avenue, I ask the bartender for a diet soda.  “No, no diet here!” she says.

“Can you recommend something light?”

“Nothing is light here,” she says abruptly.

I sit down with a peach sangria and listen to a sad story about a father and son, read aloud by architecture grad student, Devang Shah. The door is ajar. Sunlight spills in. Stillness. There is a lazy air about the bar but the artfully decorated walls, the creative cocktail and tequila list, and the African drums on the upper balcony suggest a vibrant after hours. The handful of stillspotters on stools lean back against the wall, listening in snatches. One of them, a man with spectacles, dozes off. I leave money on the counter.  The bartender acknowledges it with the barest hint of a smile. “You should come at night!  It’s completely different.  And it’s open until 4,” she says, turning her back, as if impatient with the stillness project that is occupying the bar.

My final stillspot for the day is called “Wall-An Apartment,” and it’s a private residence on 82nd and 34th Avenue. A grass-topped dining table calls attention to itself in the center of the living room. As we stillspottersa group of three at this location— sit on the couch, with our backs to the street-facing window, and listen to a poem about home by Ishle Yi Park, our view is that of the lush green surface of the table. My mind wanders, this time distracted by the table which makes me think of a floating grassy field. The apartment is quiet and bright. Through the open window, I can hear the distant hum of traffic. It is indeed a meditative space. With its precise design and minimalist décor, it reminds me of an architect’s showroom or a waiting room at a spa. Afterwards, we learn that there is a newborn napping in the bedroom. I can’t help but wonder whether the tranquility will endure once the infant is a toddler and the sparsely furnished apartment is filled with toys.

I return to Jackson Heights the next two weekends, ostensibly to visit the remaining stillspots suggested by the Guggenheim. But, really, I end up using the museum’s map as a reference for my own wanderings on now familiar streets, making forays inside shops and basement corridors, lured by smells and sounds and women in saris who distribute cards for their husbands’ businesses. It is as much the opposite of stillness—the haphazard collision of cultures; the messy confusion of disparate fashions in storefronts and streetwear; the loudspeaker-blaring vans parked on sidewalks—as it is the surprising experiences of tranquility that keep calling me back.

Le Gran Uruguay Cafe.

At La Gran Uruguaya Bakery, a stillspot that consistently defies stillness—I visit on three separate occasions. Every nook and cranny is filled with cheering, jeering soccer fans, and there are blaring television screens on every wall. The café is louder than the Roosevelt Avenue subway station. I order a guava cheese cambray and am instantly infected by the ebullient atmosphere of the café. Whole families crowd together. Children clamber in and out of grandparents’ laps and crawl between legs under the tables. (Each time a goal is scored, someone clangs a brass bell!) Here, it isn’t stillness but joyous enthusiasm that rejuvenates the soul. On my first visit, I take a peek at the back of the café and discover four dedicated stillspotters seated on foam stools around the storyteller as he struggles to read over the bacchanal. I presume that a scheduling glitch around the soccer season slipped by the curators.

Ears ringing and heart thumping, I make my way to the Garden at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. It is as if I’ve traveled to another town. The serenity of the garden is riveting. I find a spot on a bench beneath a cherry blossom tree and relinquish myself to Xia’s soothing voice as she reads an essay by Maria Terrone. I savor the breeze and sunlight, watch petals float down to the grass. This, I think, is stillspotting.

My mind trails back to the bartender at Terraza 7. Nothing is light here, she said, referring to the drinks. But she might just as easily have been talking about Jackson Heights. In my walks around the neighborhood, I find almost everywhere I look there is a sense of legacy. The streets, the storefronts, the vending carts, they’re all heavy with story and history, with ritual, and the memory of rituals, both cultural and familial. I think about the lime halves guarding the entrances to astrologers’ offices; the jewelry stores with little shrines dedicated to Ganesh, the elephant god; the incense and sage leaves burning all day in the South Asian and Latin sections of the neighborhood, keeping the “bad” out, as a deli owner explained.

The museum’s release form asked me to accept responsibility for myself on the streets. Apart from a Navajo medicine man who was dubiously intent on balancing my chakra energy and cleansing my aura, the streets of Jackson Heights have been good to me. I stop at Kebab King for a cup of chai before the journey back on the F train to Manhattan. The Pedestrian Plaza is packed with families. A handful of stillspotters perched on foam stools are listening to a story about migration.  The storyteller looks up, recognizes me and waves. I wave back, feeling lucky. As if I, too, after all the walking and combing the streets for stillness, now have a claim on Jackson Heights—and am much richer for the experience.