You can’t really understand a neighborhood until you live in it. Your friend who lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side will tell you that his block on 91st Street, between Madison Avenue and Park Avenue, is quiet and peaceful on a Wednesday afternoon.

But that description tells you nothing about what he might have actually seen when he looked out the window, or when he opened the door to his building that day.

He probably saw his residential block, made up of red-brick apartment buildings and brown-stone homes, tree-lined streets that are leafless in the winter, and taxicabs that stand out like bright yellow splashes of paint against the drab gray winter day. He might have also seen a group of teen boys strolling down the sidewalk and launching spitballs high into the air through plastic straws.

He probably saw children while they crossed the street and held their mothers’ hands, one likely walking home from school, the other from work. Men and women would have jogged past them at a brisk pace, wearing ipods and holding dog leashes that jingled as they bounced. Well-dressed men walked into their opulent apartment buildings and stopped to chat with the doorman; older children in school uniforms were not far behind. He might have noticed a small girl walking with her nanny, or a young man pushing a cart loaded with cases of Snapple and Heineken.

These are the things he sees every afternoon. But he will tell you that his neighborhood is boring, too quiet, just a typical day in February.

*****

February is a cold and dreary month in New York City. The already sparse trees look dead and brown without their leaves, the gray sidewalks seem even grayer, and Central Park, usually loud and bustling with people in the warmer months, is barren. On 91st Street, the sidewalks are mostly empty on a cold Wednesday afternoon, and the only cars driving towards 5th Avenue are yellow cabs (these add the single bright color to a view dominated by dull red and brown buildings, gray skies and pavement). 

But all of a sudden there are people on 91st Street, and it seems to come alive. Noise from TVs and radios can be heard from within the brownstones, and dog collars jingle as their canine wearers jog with human owners, who wear rollerblades and ipods. Children talk about their day at school while they walk home with their mothers or nannies. Pre-teen girls in stiff school uniforms giggle at each other as they skip home. At this time of day, the children provide cheer despite the winter chill. But the afternoon rush hour is over quickly, and all is quiet again on 91st Street.

This story was written Feb. 2006 for the NYU Journalism class “Literature of Journalism.”

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