Sunday, July 18, 2010

listen up NY, there's a listener in WSP

Good news for introverts and extroverts alike – there's someone to listen in New York City parks.  Her sign says "Will Listen (No Catch, No Cost)" and she's ready to hear whatever is on your mind.

The Listener introduces herself when chatting with you but tries to remain publicly anonymous.  She began her listening project as a personal experiment in March 2010 and plans to continue through October or when the weather turns bitter.

She lives in Manhattan, has a day job as a secretary, and conducts her listenings on weekend afternoons, rotating parks throughout the boroughs.

"I thought, what would the world say if you said you would listen?" she explained.

And the world tells her a variety of things.  Per session, usually two or three people take a seat to chat. She hears small annoyances, difficult trials, and exciting news, everything from family griefs to job promotions.

Though she awaits completion of the project before making overall conclusions, she reported learning from the human connection.  She enjoys seeing herself through the connection with others, and how "in the end, we're all people" with similarities and eccentricities.  She explores the human need to relate with others, even just to say you like the weather.

Though no park ranks as a favorite, "in Washington Square Park, there is always entertainment," she admitted, smiling at a nearby solo dancing and magic act.

On Saturday, she visited WSP.  Her park rotations are not predetermined but she has thus far visited most parks more than once.

So if you find yourself in a New York City park and have the need to talk, look around for the Listener.  She's there to hear your deepest darkest secrets or your simplest exclamations.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

so long Hamptons, I'll summer in WSP

Though many New Yorkers left the city by droves for their long Fourth of July weekend, plenty still settled their beach towels on the newly reopened Northwest lawn of WSP.

Known as the Large Lawn, the expanse offers more than enough seating options for park-goers who want a closer connection with this particular grassy New York spot.

The Northwest quadrant of WSP closed for renovations from December 2007 to May 2009.  This renovation provided the quadrant with expanded lawns, new sidewalk pavers, and new benches.  However, the expanded lawn was "temporarily closed" again throughout this spring and early summer.  Combine this with the current renovations of the Eastern lawns and sunbathers were left with limited options amongst the small south central plots.

But the Large Lawn opened just in time for the long holiday weekend.  And trust me, everyone noticed.

Whether wanting to sunbathe, lounge in the shade, nap, or chat with friends, more than a few New Yorkers found the perfect locale on the Large Lawn.  Bathing suited or fully clothed, alone or with friends, you can find a spot on the lawn and slip into anonymity a safe distance from walkways and potential gawkers.  And if you're like me and want to sunbathe while your companions want the shade, the lawn is just for you - with both sunny and shady sections, you won't have too large a compromise.  

The Large Lawn is perfect for those lazy summer afternoons.  But just remember that the key word here is "lazy."  The posted signs warn park-goers that this is a "Passive Lawn," meaning that active sports, dogs, littering, and the use of illegal drugs or alcohol are specifically prohibited.  Sorry guys, your game  will have to go somewhere else - I'm sunbathing without a helmet and I'm not watching out for stray footballs. 

A big "thank you" must go out to WSP for opening its lawn to those of us who stuck around last weekend.  Sure, I may not have brushed elbows with any Real Housewives in the Hamptons, but I assure you that my tan got just as golden.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

fountain fanatics - new yorkers cool off in Washington Square Park

On a hot summer day, it's hard to resist the fountain.  As the centerpiece of WSP, the fountain calls both young and old to its waters without concern for attire.

It all started in 1852 when the first WSP fountain was completed.  After its first replacement in 1872, it was renovated to include a wading pool in 1934.  And it once again grabbed the attention of renovators for the ongoing construction and renovation project that began in 2007.  Phase 1 of this controversial project included rebuilding the fountain (with wading pool area) so that it aligns with the arch.  Despite community complaints and lawsuits, the fountain was in fact closed, reconstructed, and reopened in May of 2009. 

Now, a year later, crowds fill the fountain and its surrounding area.  And though there may be ongoing complaints over its renovation, you don't hear them when you're cooling your feet by its edge.

Though I often enjoy sitting on its edge while avoiding the splashes of countless kids, I never ventured into the fountain waters until late last week.  And, as usual, I picked the worst time to do so.

My friend Jess and I were innocently enjoying our Cake & Shake milkshakes near the fountain when it started to rain.  Neither of us had an umbrella and I suggested that ignoring the rain could possibly make it disappear.  It did not.  

I'm not sure which one of us suggested it first, but all of the sudden there was no turning back.  We were headed for the fountain.

Don't worry, we were smart about it – we made a new friend who agreed to watch our stuff and take pictures for your sake.

There was no resisting it, as Jess said, "the fountain was beckoning."

So in we went, fully clothed.

Clearly, wading around its edges is for wimps.  We went straight through the fountain itself.

And I took a bit of a fall.

But even so, we conquered that fountain.

Or perhaps it conquered us.  In Jess' words, "it was kinda slimy and smelled funny."  And we were then fully clothed, drenched, and cold in the middle of the afternoon, both far from our respective apartments.

When my husband, Chris, called to make dinner plans, I can't say he was surprised to hear that his wife was drip-drying in the rain on a WSP bench.

Although Jess admitted "I'll still give it another chance," I was unconvinced.  By the time I got home, my skin felt dry and slimy at the same time.  My cloths smelled musty.  How could anyone enjoy that?

But, as I've suggested before, perhaps WSP is completely different (or creepy) in the rain.  So perhaps the slimy, smelly sensation was due to the rain?  Or the fact that we were stuck in wet cloths?  Or the fact that it was cold (for June)?

Because Chris and I did in fact give the fountain another chance yesterday, receiving remarkably better results.

Perhaps it was the fact that we wore bathing suits, or that the temperature soared to the upper 90's, but the WSP fountain was simply fun and refreshing.

And the heat prompted tons of park-goers to venture into the fountain whether they wore bathing suits or cloths and whether or not they had kids as an excuse.

And trust me, Chris was only one of many who jumped into the actual fountain.  His many co-conquerers likewise ranged in ages and attire.

Swimming laps was not exactly possible, but it was as refreshing as any pool I've been in.  

I can't say what filtration or chemicals clean the fountain; however, it looks clean and from time to time the area seems smell strong of chlorine.

I'm not gonna lie, I still showered when I got home, but the fountain provided great fun and great community for all who needed to cool off yesterday afternoon.  It's high on my list of suggestions for things to do on a hot New York afternoon.

While I personally will not again jump through the fountain jets when I'm fully clothed and have dinner plans (or when its raining), I will wade in to partially cool off.  And, if I just so happen to have a bathing suit handy, I won't hesitate to join those who make it their own personal pool club.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

even Larry David is enthused in Washington Square Park

You never know what you'll find strolling through Washington Square Park – a man dressed as a wolf with a guitar, the infamous "bird man," a calm crowd of readers and sunbathers . . . or perhaps, Larry David.

That's right, live and in person, the one and only Larry David was filming Season 8 of his show Curb Your Enthusiasm in WSP Friday.

 If you were lucky enough to be passing through, you could pull up a seat to watch . . .  as long as you weren't in between the camera and the planted extras.

Such as the two women (in blue and yellow) or the skateboarders learning the precise path and timing of their "just-happened-to-be-there" addition to the background.


But alas, if you were looking for stardom or to become Larry's best friend, you weren't gonna find it Friday.

This guy, complete with wife-beater and cast, asked to play a lead role:

The crew answered his pleas with "yea, we'd like to be in the show too."

But although I didn't ask for my one way ticket to Hollywood, I did get pictures.

Larry David runs:

Larry David and Cheyenne Jackson (who plays Danny on 30 Rock) film their big scene.  The girl seated in the background with the art board is planted – she didn't even have paper to sketch on.

Even Larry has to stretch . . .

but I have to say, Cheyenne Jackson looks like he works out a bit more frequently.

And look who showed up. . .

 Jeff Garlin, who amused the crowd by entering their photography wars –  snapping more pictures of them than they could capture of him.

The crew, including Larry Charles:

Larry Charles, writer for Seinfield and a director for Curb Your Enthusiasm:

This guy's got a hat:

And then all of the sudden, they were gone.  Packed up and relocated within about 20 minutes.

To WSP's chess player corner:

Where Larry Charles and the others seemed content leaning on the railing like us commoners do until their chairs arrived:

And the great thing about WSP is that Larry David can film his show in one corner while just a few yards away everyone is unawares.  I found some of my friends on the West Central walkway, enjoying their afternoon on the bench with no Larry David knowledge.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Cake & Shake makes indulgence go green

Opening only one month ago, Cake & Shake is already a WSP staple, bringing to the community what co-owner Gina Ojile calls a "happy, light concept in dark economic times."

Owners Gina Ojile and Derek Hunt worked for 10 years in food consultation and product development, often focusing on frozen desserts, before starting their own concept 2 years ago.

Gina says their business design is "a bit whimsical and within our sphere of influence and experience."

They chose a mobile cart as their medium, noting the costs of storefronts, their preference for Parks Department permits, and their history of transporting food for clients.

The food concept began with their disappointment in the milk and milkshakes around NYC. Hailing from the dairy heartland of Minnesota, Gina and Derek combined their experience with frozen desserts and their love of quality milkshakes, deciding to bring "an old fashioned milk-based shake to NYC."

But they wanted something more than the standard NYC ice cream cart. "We don't even like ice cream!" Gina exclaims. They needed something different. And that something different came in the form of another NYC dessert staple: the cupcake.

But these cupcakes are unique, with organic, made from scratch ingredients and 20 exclusive flavors. "We don't have red velvet" Gina says. Rather than competing with Magnolia's, Cake & Shake "just gives a whole different experience."

And each detail of that experience is meticulously designed. Gina and Derek thought of everything – the environment, the ingredients, the future, and the WSP community.

Cake & Shake's Mission Statement:

"Cake & Shake is an innovative mobile food cart that combines the current interest in well-crafted, organic cupcakes and shakes with a strong commitment to green-friendly cooking practices. Serving 20 flavors of cupcakes and eight flavors of shakes, Cake & Shake uses only certified organic milk, butter, eggs, sugar and flour in all cupcakes, and real fruit in all shakes and fillings. Our green philosophy touches every aspect of our business, from biodegradable cleaning and paper products to the carts themselves, which run on bio-diesel fuel and are equipped with six solar panels for electrical power. Ultimately, we hope to bring the Cake & Shake experience to neighborhoods across New York and in the surrounding area."

Cake & Shake commits to quality ingredients with the Big Five Organic (milk, eggs, butter, sugar, and flour) and with real fruits. They believe the more that's made from scratch, the better the food. So rather than use a milkshake mix, they make their own mix. Rather than finding fruit flavoring or cupcake fillings, they make their own shake flavors and their own nougat. Derek even dry roasts his own salted caramel for grating onto cupcakes and mixing into shakes.

Although they use organic and natural ingredients, Cake & Shake won't find promotion from diet or health food sites. "There won't be an all bran cupcake" Gina laughs. They decided against gluten free and vegetarian options: "We can't make a good cake with those restrictions. That's just not our market."

"We are pure indulgence," she explains, adding that "you may want to work out afterward."

But any workout is worth these indulgences. The incredible flavors rotate daily, with 5 cupcakes and 3 shakes offered at a time from an extensive menu. And Gina admits that though their milkshake machine is calibrated the same everyday, she and Derek can't resist their own product, justifying frequent indulgences by saying, "we still gotta test it, right?"

In fact, Gina loves the foods so much that she can hardly name a favorite. She calls the Haitian Mango shake "mind blowing" but quickly applauds Arabic Espresso, a milkshake that rivals any Starbucks Frappacino. Although Whatchamacallit was her standard cupcake choice, she's found a new favorite in Heaven Split after revisiting the flavor when a customer took seconds.

As for me, the Whatchamacallit stole my cupcake loyalty from Crumbs and the Arabic Espresso is well on its way to keeping me out of the Starbucks line (once Cake & Shake's promised espresso shot is added). I found that Gina was right that Cake & Shake cupcakes are consistently moist. And the Valhrona Chocolate beats any shake I had growing up near a dairy department in Virginia.

As meticulous as they are with food, Gina and Derek are just as intentional about their production methods. The commitment to environmentally conscious choices "is not a trend for us," Gina asserts.

"I've always been extremely concerned about garbage, even from a small age," Gina states. But the expenses and availability of products make the green commitment difficult. In order to get biodiesel for the cart, they travel to the Bronx. Most of the products such as their untreated paper cupcake liners are more expensive. So this commitment "had to be really integral to the business plan from the beginning," Gina explains, "we made it part of what Cake & Shake is about."

NYU student, Jess Pfeffer,
overjoyed with her choice of
the "Salted Caramel" shake
Cake & Shake incorporates five compostable items that completely break down, in addition to two products which need to go to a commercial compost facility. With these two products – the shake cups and lids – Gina proves her dedication as she continues her year-long research, searching for a way to avoid waste management corruption and get these products into a commercial compost facility.

They consider their environmental commitment as simply "the right thing to do."

"We're asking people to know when they buy from us that everything has been thought out, even the plastic fork," Gina says.

Gina and Derek remain integral aspects of their operation. They have two bakers who bake from 2:00 AM to 8:00 AM every morning; but Derek, the conceiver of each recipe, arrives to run quality control by 4:00 AM. Derek then moves the cart from their storage facility in Long Island City to WSP by 9:00 AM each morning. Along with numerous tasks of her own, Gina runs their impressive social networking, stating that she wants the networking to be intentional and informed, created by someone who really knows the product.

Cake & Shake is also committed to the WSP community. With a five year permit, Gina and Derek chose WSP carefully. They wanted to launch their brand somewhere with a flexible, "try anything" vibe, a fun energy, and a supportive and flexible community. WSP fit the bill.

Gina wants to bring happiness to New Yorkers during hard economic times and to invite hardworking NYU students to "come take a break a at Cake & Shake." Although most NYU students are gone for the summer, business is already flourishing.

Gina and Derek are pleasantly surprised by the WSP community, noting that it is closer knit than they imagined. "These people are in that park everyday. They know each plant," Gina explains, noting that she while expects such attention from her fellow coop members who own a green space in Queens, she is surprised to find it in a publicly owned park. Gina feels welcomed by WSP regulars, who often approach the cart to meet the Cake & Shake employees and find out how they intend to contribute to WSP.

In turn, Gina says, "they can depend on us, that we're gonna be here."

Gina and Derek don't intend to compete with the long time resident hot dog stands. Cake & Shake is a part of WSP's initiative to attract speciality food vendors who offer more variety and choice for this global city.

The park strategically plans vendor permits and locations in order give vendors a fair chance and provide a setting conducive to the community. Cake & Shake's permit specifies a location on the Northeastern corner of WSP, a spot now impeded by construction. Within a week of opening there, they were temporarily repermitted for the South Central entrance.

Cupcakes and shakes are made fresh each day and replenished halfway through the day. The WSP cart is in place and serving their delicacies from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM. Come on out to try these scrumptious desserts & meet the friendly masterminds behind it. Derek works the cart each morning from 9:00 to 11:00 AM and Gina works Saturdays.

When the cold weather of December hits, Cake & Shake will remain open. Gina expects that their clientele will then favor the cupcakes and coffees, although I wouldn't put it past this creative pair to invent a steaming hot milkshake – Gina already admits to mixing vanilla shake into hot coffee per a customer's request.

Although happy in WSP, Gina and Derek plan to take the business much further. In July, a second cart opens in front of the MET. This cart will feature the same menu as WSP except for an addition of "Savory Cakes," five meal replacement cakes baked in cupcake liners with filling ingredients (such as the "Sunrise Cake" which features grilled chicken, cheese, and cornmeal). At least for now, the Savory Cake is not available in WSP – a larger cart with oven and a different permit are required.

Plans include wholesale and online orders in the near future but Gina and Derek have an even larger vision of opening Cake & Shake locations nationwide. So keep on the lookout America and when you see a whimsical cart come to your town, remember it all started in my favorite little park – a park with the right kind of energy for launching such a happy indulgence.

Been to Cake & Shake? What's your favorite cake or shake?

Haven't been? Head over there and report back!