Miracle on 27th Street

November 17, 2011

I have just spent the months of September and October living in New York City on sabbatical.  This is the first of my postings of reflections and observations about those two months living in New York City.

I am not starting with the big picture but something very small and, well, furry.  Actually, not the cute gray mouse that took up residence under our dishwasher about mid-way through our stay, but a gray squirrel which lived in the trees on our street – West 27th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues.

I entitle this post “The Miracle on 27th Street” because the fact that this squirrel is there at all is indeed a miracle.  You may notice my reference to the film Miracle on 34th Street, a 1947 film starring Edmund Gwenn about a – real – Santa Claus (aren’t they all?) who worked at the New York City Macy’s, which is located on 34th Street between 7th and 6th Avenues.  In fact, Macy’s takes up the whole city block (and in fact is advertised as the largest department store in the world – but more on Macy’s another time).  There is also a 1994 re-make starring Richard Attenborough.

The phenomenon of urban squirrels in Manhattan has not gone un-noticed, with even affectionate books being written about them.  These are plant-eating animals (nuts, seeds, fruits, green vegetation, insects and various other things) which move around with a hopping gait and are superb climbers.  I grew up surrounded by them in New Jersey, so don’t think much is strange when I see them.

Except, how did the squirrel arrive on our street between 7th and 8th Avenues, both of which are essentially busy six lane roads with absolutely no vegetation?  One side of 27th Street is totally taken up with a massive “hard architecture” enormous block of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT, a State University of NY campus) and most of the other side of the block has FIT dormitories.  There are a few apartment buildings, particularly on the 8th Avenue side.  Our sublet flat (4th floor, great light, two bedrooms, not bad views, good character, even a fireplace!) was in one of those.  No backyards by the way, no yards at all, to be sure.

As far as I could tell, there was only one squirrel living on West 27th Street (this would be one lonely life for any species – perhaps he felt a bit like Will Smith in I Am Legend, a cool (2007) New York film about wildlife in Manhattan and the last of a species – in Smith’s case, humans), and the squirrel definitely seemed spooked, aggressive and , well, “jumpy” – reportedly jumping on or near people (I guess protecting his own space – but what space do you try to protect in New York City; if everyone tried to protect their space that way, the city would disintegrate).

BUT HOW DID HE GET THERE?  Was he a remnant population that has always lived there, back to when the “Indians” (Native Americans) lived on Manhattan island?  Surely not, as all of the vegetation seemed relatively young (he appeared to live in one or more of the thirty or so trees on that block, all of them maintained by FIT).  Or did he really cross 8th Avenue?  – Forget 7th Avenue – no squirrel populations there as you head east into the heart of Manhattan.  And remember, all of this just seven short blocks from Macy’s.

I asked a number of people in our building about the squirrel, and all were as mystified as I was – I should say that I also saw other squirrels living on the other side of 8th Avenue, where there were some small parks, so I can only conclude that this lonely (and, to be, quite explicit, pretty schizophrenic) animal wandered BY HIMSELF across 8th Avenue to take up residence by FIT.

I am sure that many streets in Manhattan have their own “miracles”, and that indeed was ours.

Coming up:  postings on the High Line, Empire State Building, Columbus Circle, Broadway, walking Manhattan, Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, The New York Times and The New Yorker, Whole Foods, David Letterman, dogs in New York City, crime in New York, Penn Station (31st to 34th Streets!), Chelsea, the Upper West Side and Halloween in America.