James Allen Walker for WORLD

Fantasy islands

Lifestyle/Technology | A time-traveling trip in Manhattan shows the stuff of which dreams are made

Issue: "Hurtling toward havoc," Aug. 1, 2009

For two dollars and a little time you can hop on the M4 bus in Manhattan, traverse a spectrum of wealth and poverty, travel back in time to the Middle Ages, and see a temple of 21st-century technology.

I picked up the bus on the corner of 83rd and Madison Avenue, a block away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My destination: The Cloisters, a branch of the museum dedicated to the art and architecture of the Middle Ages.

The bus isn't for those in a hurry. Depending on the traffic, the trip takes 45-90 minutes, but it's an illuminating journey: affluent Upper East Side, northern edge of Central Park, middle-class Morningside Heights, largely impoverished Washington Heights, and so forth, before finally reaching The Cloisters and the city's highest point (elevation 265 feet above sea level).

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The Cloisters resembles a monastery, which makes sense since its various rooms, chapels, and courtyards are largely constructed from pieces of five European monasteries (built between a.d. 1100 and 1500) that had fallen into disrepair. George Grey Barnard collected much of the art, which John D. Rockefeller Jr., purchased and then donated to the Met, along with land on both sides of the Hudson to assure that The Cloisters would be situated in a secluded setting. The result: probably the most serene place in Manhattan. Soft, filtered light and bird songs flow through windows that open onto courtyards and gardens filled with aromatic flowers and medicinal and culinary herbs with evocative names like rue, lungwort, and bear's foot.

Deep-set clerestory windows emit light from up above. Cool walls made of stone absorb the sounds of a children's tour. Water trickles in the background near the Chapter House, where monks would have gathered to sit on stone benches, read a daily chapter of the Rule of Saint Benedict, and discuss monastery business. Both times I've been at The Cloisters attendance was sparse: On my June trip I saw a handful of people and a small school group.

Several rooms display wall-sized tapestries. The Nine Heroes tapestries, hanging in a room with a huge carved fireplace, convey stories of biblical, ancient, and Christian heroes such as Joshua, David, Alexander, and Charlemagne: They were designed to remind French nobles about character and guide them toward wise leadership. The unicorn tapestries relate the story of the mythological creature that captivated the medieval imagination: Fascination with unicorns and their horns, which were thought to have medicinal and magical properties, created a market for Viking fishermen of narwhals, a kind of whale that sports a 6- to 10-foot long spiraled tusk from its snout. The tusks, sold as unicorn horns, were worth 10 times their weight in gold. A narwhal tusk is displayed in the room with the tapestries.

Several rooms convey the importance of worship. The abbey church, with its limestone apse and hanging crucifix, comes from Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert Cloister, which fell into ruin after its abandonment during the French Revolution. Among the artwork included at The Cloisters are altar pieces, an elaborately carved lectern, stained glass windows, and pietas of Mary holding the crucified Christ. The collection also contains everyday objects: andirons and kettles, small chairs, stools, and lavers.

When you've had your fill of medieval quiet you can return on the M4 bus and eventually hop off before a building that is anything but serene: the grand Apple Store at Fifth Avenue and 58th Street, just south of Central Park. The top half of the building is a glass cube; the rest is underground. You enter by either descending a winding staircase or taking a glass elevator, which opens onto a floor crammed with Macs, iPhones, other high-tech gadgets-and lots of people.

The decorating motif is sleek, white, and bright: no fresh air or bird songs, but another kind of sacred space. I've never been at this Apple Store when it wasn't crowded. On this particular Wednesday at least 30 people were lined up to buy iPhones, and several hundred others were touching and handling other holy objects. Unlike stores from my childhood that discouraged touching, everything in the Apple store allows people to handle their technological hopes.

A smart marketer must have realized that if you could touch the latest gadget and reveal its wonders, you'd most likely be willing to plunk down the money to buy it. But the Apple Store is about more than com-puters, just as The Cloisters is about more than tapestries. Both show the stuff of which dreams were and are made, in medieval times and ours.
(Editor's note: This article has been edited to reflect that New York's Apple Store is located at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 58th Street.)

Mapped out

The Telegraph, a reputable London newspaper, reported that when 12 thefts of exotic koi fish occurred in East Yorkshire, investigators speculated that the thieves were using Google Earth to spot well-hidden backyard ponds that might otherwise be invisible to them. The article quoted Humberside Police Community Support Officer Sam Gregory, who said, "Google shows what is in your garden and you can see people's ponds."

Google disavowed responsibility for the thefts: "Google Earth creates no appreciable increase in security risks, given the wide commercial availability of high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery of every country in the world. Criminals could use maps, phones and getaway cars but no one would argue that these technologies are responsible for the crime itself, that responsibility lies with the perpetrator."

Up-to-the-minute searches

For many people Google is synonymous with internet searching-but Google isn't the best way to do "real time" searches, because the most recent posts from blogs, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr aren't necessarily the ones that come out on top. Most of us don't need to know what everybody is talking about right this very instant, but during breaking news stories, real-time search engines-Collecta.com and Scoopler.com, for instance-are better ways to keep track of events as they unfold.

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.


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