Perhaps no place in the world is more widely known than New York City, yet our metropolis’ immensity also helps it keep many secrets. In the shadows of massive skyscrapers, hidden among the crowds formed by some of our 8.5 million residents and deep within the guts of our transit system, there is a whole world of history, art and thrills to be discovered. Read on for some examples…just keep them to yourself, OK?*
*By “keep them to yourself,” we mean “like and share on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and elsewhere.”
The New York Earth Room
It’s an indoor sculpture, it’s a peaceful sanctuary—and, yes, it’s a room full of dirt. This installation, created by Walter de Maria, covers 3,600 square feet of a Soho loft (that’s about four times the size of an average NYC apartment) with 280,000 pounds of earth. It’s regularly raked, watered and kept mushroom free by longtime caretaker Bill Dilworth. Buzz 2B at the nondescript entrance on Wooster Street (no. 141) to see the unusual exhibit, which has been open to the public and free since 1980.
Stained Glass at Woodlawn Cemetery
Though shades of gray dominate the landscape at this landmarked Bronx cemetery, there is plenty of color to be found if you know where to look. The facades of several historic mausoleums are adorned with ornate stained-glass windows or mosaics, some the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany and his Tiffany Studios. Look for the radiant Swan Memorial and the Dunlop Mausoleum, which holds the family’s deceased pet parrot (in a glass-topped casket) and has a parrot-themed design in its window.
Midnight Moment in Times Square
Times Square is known for its hustle and bustle, with thousands crowding its public spaces. And even after the Broadway musicals let out and the restaurants empty, the show’s not over yet. If you stick around until a few minutes before midnight, most of Times Square’s massive HD screens drop the ads and light up with art. Midnight Moment is a 3-minute takeover of the glowing, animated billboards surrounding the square that starts every night at 11:57pm and features the work of a different visual artist each month. In November, Chitra Ganesh’s sci-fi-inflected The Scorpion Gesture takes center stage.
Times Square Hum
Take a walk amid that buzz of Times Square, and you’ll be surrounded by the familiar sounds of the City. Pause on the pedestrian island on Broadway between 45th and 46th Streets, though, and you’ll hear something different. Artist Max Neuhaus installed speakers under the subway grate way back in 1977, in an endeavor that was part art installation and part social experiment. Known as the Times Square Hum, the installation went quiet in 1992 until the Dia Art Foundation restored it in 2002. Stand over it and listen close to hear for yourself.
Grand Central Terminal Dirt Patch
Sparkling-clean constellations glitter on the famed ceiling of Grand Central Terminal’s main hall—but that wasn’t the case as recently as 1998. The mural was covered with nicotine tar from decades of smokers walking through the Grand Concourse, plus soot and dirt from the trains. The celestial murals were brought back to life as part of a massive renovation project. If you follow the ceiling until you reach Cancer’s crab, you’ll see a dark patch close by. No, the restorers didn’t miss a spot (not by accident, anyway). Measuring about 9 inches by 18 inches, the patch was purposefully left to show what a difference the cleaning made.
Grand Central Terminal Whispering Gallery
This unmarked archway, located in front of the Oyster Bar & Restaurant, possesses a mystifying acoustic property: when two people stand at diagonal arches and whisper, they can hear each other’s voices “telegraphed” from across the way. According to rumor, jazz legend Charles Mingus proposed to his second wife, Sue, in just this manner. Today, the Whispering Gallery remains popular for such murmured sweet nothings. Just don’t confess anything you don’t want strangers to overhear!
Brooklyn Heights’ Fake Townhouse
The picturesque streets of Brooklyn Heights are lined with elegant townhouses, but one Greek Revival on Joralemon Street is truly unique. Take a walk along the street, which turns cobblestone as it crosses Hicks Street and slopes down toward Brooklyn Bridge Park, keeping an eye out for number 58. Built as a private residence in 1847, this structure has served for more than a century as a ventilator and emergency exit for the 4/5 subway line that runs beneath the street. The home’s interior was hollowed out and replaced with a ventilation system. It’s easy enough to walk past the place without noticing anything amiss, though the blacked-out windows and extra-secure front door may serve as clues.
Secret Subway Art
Art can be found in unexpected places, including within a Brooklyn subway tunnel. Officially known as Masstransiscope, this piece can only be viewed as you ride a Manhattan-bound B or Q train out of Fort Greene’s Dekalb Avenue stop. Artist Bill Brand installed the individually painted panels in a decommissioned subway station back in 1980 (they were fully restored in 2008). The very ’80s primary-colored shapes move and morph with the rhythm of the ride, creating a flip-book effect as the train moves through the tunnel and onto the Manhattan Bridge.
Drop-Ins at Saint Vitus and Knitting Factory
Superstars perform in New York all the time, and you can sometimes catch a massive name in a relatively cozy room for cheap or free. Places where you might see a surprise performance include Greenpoint metal bar Saint Vitus for music (Megadeth and Descendents have played small, largely unannounced shows there, and two thirds of Nirvana—Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, along with Pat Smear and a rotating cast of singers—performed late night at the bar after their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2014) and the Knitting Factory for comedy (the venue’s Sunday night show has featured surprise sets by the likes of Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman and Dave Chappelle). Even if famous people don’t show up, you’re likely to have a good time at either venue.
For a glimpse into the old-time Greenwich Village life depicted in 19th-century novels like Henry James’ Washington Square, step inside the historic redbrick gates of Washington Mews. Originally designated as private farmland, the street housed horse stables on its north side until the early 1900s, when they were converted into open and airy studios for the area’s thriving art community (painter Edward Hopper lived here until his death in 1967). Located a half-block north of Washington Square between Fifth Avenue and University Place, the street still retains much of its original character—with homes (which now mostly house NYU offices) draped in ivy and wisteria, weathered cobblestone the length of the lane and historic blue street signs. The gates to Washington Mews are unlocked during the daytime, giving you a chance to take a relaxing stroll into the past.