Before we go any further, it’s worth stopping for a moment to appreciate the appropriateness of launching a project with the theme “confronting comfort” in a city like New York.
Those of you who come from New York may have forgotten, or simply never realized, just how incredibly uncomfortable this city can be.
So please, allow me a moment to indulge in a personal story of a recently arrived outsider’s quest to find comfort in the mother of all uncomfortable American cities.
It starts and ends with Elizabeth Diller’s presentation at the Lab on Friday night.
A professor of architecture at Princeton University and founding principal of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Diller has produced some of the most highly acclaimed projects in the field of livable design.
Given that her firm has received the Progressive Architecture Award and been named “Most Innovative Design Firm” by Fast Company, and that one of their projects has been named “Life Enhancer of the Year” by Wallpaper magazine, it would be hard for anyone fascinated by quality urban living not to be excited to hear this woman speak.
So I grappled with frustration when it struck me not ten minutes into the presentation that my body and mind were collapsing in on themselves with exhaustion.
It was all I could do to concentrate on what she was saying without falling asleep on the stranger beside me.
I blame New York. And let me tell you why.
Psychologists and sociologists have well documented the mentally and physically taxing effect that cities have on their citizens. The crowded sidewalks, the unpredictability of transit, and the constant, unceasing noise all do a fantastic job of raising our heart rates, pumping our bodies full of stress-related hormones, and making us irritable.
If you really want to understand this, come meet Lab Team member Charles Montgomery, who has spent the last several years investigating the effect that our cities have on our well-being. He’ll delve into all this during the two and a half weeks of programming he’ll host at the Lab in late September and early October. See his events on the schedule here.
But believe me when I tell you that nowhere are these effects more striking than here in New York.
Take the subway, for instance. If you’ve ever doubted just how loud the subway in New York really is, read this paper released five years ago in the Journal of Urban Health. Researchers found that the mean maximum noise level on subway platforms in New York was 94 decibels—somewhere between the levels of a food blender and a chainsaw.
On more than 10 percent of all the platforms in the system, and inside the trains on a full one-fifth of all subway lines, the noise regularly exceeded 100 decibels—a level that can only be sustained safely for 90 seconds, according to the EPA.
And it’s not just the noise.
The stress caused by unfriendly behavior on crowded sidewalks, for instance, has such a significant effect on our health that psychologists from the University of Hawaii have even created a “Pedestrian Aggressiveness Syndrome Scale” to measure “pedestrian rage”—a development that does not bode well for pedestrians traveling New York’s sidewalks, which have become 13 percent more crowded since I first visited the city just four years ago.
Combine that with the taxi drivers who cut you off in crosswalks, the stifling, sweltering heat hanging in the stagnant air during the summer, and the constant stimulation of sounds, smells, and sights bombarding you from every direction, and you have a recipe for serious fatigue.
I remember visiting New York for the first time and finding this insanity exhilarating.
The crush of people on the corners of Times Square, the wave of heat that enveloped me as I descended into the subway, and the incessant honking of the taxis all struck me as charming signs of vibrancy. The lights, the noise, the people, the nightlife—the city never lets you stop! How exciting!
But it turns out that short-term discomfort takes on an ugly face when you have to live with it on a day-to-day basis, and the charm of the grind quickly wears off and eventually wears you out.
I didn’t fully realize this until Elizabeth Diller said something Friday night that pierced through the blur of my languor.
Detailing her many fascinating projects along the theme of comfort, she turned her slide to a picture of the High Line—an abandoned raised railway bed running through west Manhattan that Diller’s firm helped convert into a long, snaking public park. (And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the project that won the above-mentioned “Life Enhancer” award.)
“New Yorkers have never taken to doing nothing,” Diller said.
“We had to teach them.”
At that moment, I knew what I had to do.
I left the apartment early Saturday afternoon, hopped on my bike, and made my way across Manhattan. My heart was racing when I arrived at the 14th Street entrance to the High Line and climbed the stairs.
Maybe it was just wishful thinking, but the moment I popped onto the walkway, lined with greenery a story or two above street level, it seemed like everything had suddenly slowed down a mile or two, or five, per hour.
Yes, it was busy, but it was a calm kind of busy.
Couples strolled along the pathway hand in hand, pausing for a kiss here and there. They lounged on the wooden benches, eyes closed, stroking each other’s hair.
A fountain of water poured over the pathway and people stopped to take off their shoes and giggle as they let the water run over their feet.
Up there above the streetscape, out of the crush of the crowds and the buildings, I felt the wind blow through my hair for the first time in a week and a half.
I began to stroll. I bought a peach-basil ice pop and sauntered down the pathway until I found a spot to take a seat—a wooden bench with a reclined back, perfect for a moment of peace.
A middle-aged man was lying on the next bench over beneath a small tree, arms stretched behind him, eyes half closed.
“Well, don’t you look comfortable,” I said to him, as I stretched myself out in the same position. He opened his eyes slowly and rolled his head to look at me.
“So do you,” he said.
And he was right, I was.
We lay there beside each other in that spot until the wind picked up and drops of rain began to fall on our faces.
For the first time since arriving in New York, I felt a chill on my skin.
He got up, but I wasn’t ready to leave quite yet.
I moved over to his spot under the tree, stretched my arms above my head again and closed my eyes, focusing on the sound of the rain pattering on the leaves above me.
I stayed there until for a moment—one brief, but beautiful moment—the sound of the rain drowned out the sound of the city as it whizzed by below me, unaware that the world above had discovered a way to find comfort in stopping.