Home to more than 8 million, New York may be the city that never sleeps — but it does have a quiet side, writes Barry Divola.
LET'S face it, no one travels to New York to get away from it all. It's not called "the city that never sleeps" for nothing. The place is loud, busy, crowded and in a constant state of motion. That's why a record 50 million tourists visited last year. They want to live in the fast lane for a while. But can you guess the No.1 complaint they get at 311, the city's phone line for non-emergency services?
Even if you're only travelling to the city for a week or two, there will be a time when you just want to escape for half an hour to gather your thoughts, breathe a little and not be assaulted by the traffic, the car alarms, the sirens, the jackhammers and the New Yorkers talking about really personal stuff at the top of their voices on their mobile phones.
The good news is that there are hideaway sanctuaries in New York. You just have to know where to find them. You want some goddamn peace and quiet? I'm going to tell you where to go - in the nicest possible way, of course.
The New York Earth Room
In 1977, installation artist Walter De Maria filled a loft in Soho with 335 square metres of levelled earth weighing 127,300 kilograms. It's still there, a silent testament to the power of art over the power of real estate in a city where space is like gold.
I've made an annual pilgrimage to The New York Earth Room for more than a decade, not just to take in the silence and stare at the dirt, which is oddly mesmerising with its chocolatey ripples and rich aroma, but to talk to Bill Dilworth, who jokingly calls himself the keeper of earth and time - as well as acting as caretaker and custodian of The New York Earth Room since 1989, he's also responsible for keeping the city's oldest clock tower ticking over.
"New York is all turmoil and change," he told me the first time I visited. "The Earth Room is the exact opposite."
Dilworth looks at least a decade younger than his 58 years and has a grounded, Zen-like demeanour in keeping with someone who sits alone next to a room full of dirt.
About a thousand people a month come to visit. Apparently an Italian guidebook informs tourists that you can roll around in the earth if you wish. You can't. But you can escape from the hustle and bustle for 10 minutes and contemplate one very dirty room.
And to answer the two most common questions Dilworth is asked - yes, it's the same dirt that was installed in 1977 and yes, mushrooms and other things do sometimes grow in there, which is exactly why he waters and rakes it once a week.
The garden at St Luke in the Fields
There's a magic garden in the West Village. It's hidden behind the walls of a church named St Luke in the Fields, which isn't in the fields at all but on bustling Hudson Street. Walk in the gate on nearby Barrow Street and wander down a shady lane lined with 22 cherry trees, then turn right into the main garden.
A path made of brick pavers is laid out like a wagon wheel - there's a circular outer rim and spoke-like paths meeting in the centre, where wooden benches are spread around a magnolia tree. Sparrows flutter from branch to branch, eyeing every visitor, as they often score crumbs from lunch leftovers. Fat bees hover and duck their heads into blossoms. More than 100 species of birds and 24 types of butterflies and moths have been sighted in this space, which covers 1.2 hectares.
Outside, New York is still buzzing but within these thick ivy-covered walls you can escape the oppressive heat of midsummer or the chill of late autumn and enter a little cone of silence.
If you've ever wondered what Greenwich Village felt like back when Henry James lived in a house overlooking Washington Square in the 1800s, head to Washington Mews. The gaslights and horses may be gone but the Belgian blocks that pave this historic laneway are still there and the stables have been converted into European-style mews houses with planters full of colourful flowers resting on their window ledges.
James described the area as having "a melancholy glamour" back in the 19th century and despite the march of progress in the intervening decades, this tiny one-block stretch has largely resisted great change.
Past famous residents include writers Walter Lippmann and Sherwood Anderson and artist Edward Hopper, who died here in 1967. Since 1950, Washington Mews has been owned by New York University. The offices for the schools of French, German and Irish studies line one side and some of the lucky faculty members get to live in the houses throughout the academic year.
Gates at either end are open to the public during the day, so you can easily wander in from University Place or Fifth Avenue, slow down for one block of idling and then step back in time.
Mahayana Buddhist Temple
One of the most peaceful places in New York lies smack-bang in the middle of one of the most non-peaceful parts of New York.
The Mahayana Buddhist Temple is on Canal Street near the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge, right next door to the Chinatown bus office, where gaggles of people wanting to travel interstate cheaply queue along the sidewalk.
That's not the only irony. Before being established in 1997, the temple's site was an adult-movie theatre. Now the sound of moaning has been replaced by chanting.
After passing the two lion statues that guard the front door, the first thing you notice is the sweet smell of incense burning in a large urn. And at the other end of the hall, there it is - the biggest Buddha in New York. It stands - or, to be more accurate, it sits - almost five metres in height. Around its head is an electric-blue halo.
Scenes from the life of the Buddha are depicted in prints along the walls. Cushions are arranged in front of the statue, so that believers can kneel and reflect.
Although I don't subscribe to any religion or faith, I enjoy sitting on one of the red vinyl chairs placed around the perimeter, listening to the recorded chanting, watching the volunteers light incense or replenish the trays in front of the Buddha with fresh oranges and apples and generally enjoying the calm atmosphere.
At the end of my visit, I always make a small donation and pick up a little rolled-up fortune. On my most recent trip, the tiny scroll informed me my probability of success was good and "Whatsoever ails you/May you be well anew/Thoughts will first take cue/And kindness will ensue."
In 1971, landscape architect Hideo Sasaki said he wanted "to provide a place for the general public to gain special repose from the increasing city experience of noise, concrete and humdrum".
He accomplished that and then some in a particularly humdrum part of humdrum midtown.
Greenacre Park, off East 51st Street, is what they call a vest-pocket park: a space only 18 metres wide and 36 metres deep .
On the back wall is a 7.5-metre-high waterfall that tumbles over large granite blocks and feeds into a brook running along the eastern side. On the western side is a raised area that's home to a snack shack at one end.
And sprinkled among the honey locust trees are chairs everywhere, so you can sit in this oasis completely shielded from the traffic rushing by just metres away, soothed by the sound of running water while admiring a design that looks as if it came from the mind of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Liz Christy Garden
New York City is crowded. There are more than 8 million people there, with 1.5 million of them crammed into the 59 square kilometres of Manhattan. How many community gardens do you think such a city could accommodate in 2012, when real estate is king?
Six? A dozen? Twenty? Fifty?
Not even close.
There are more than 600. These pocket-sized places are mostly former vacant lots that have been taken over by community groups and revitalised with greenery, flowers, herb gardens and vegetable patches. They're also places where locals - whether they're hipsters or retirees - can hang out, chat, read, drink coffee or play cards.
The leader of an activist group named the Green Guerillas, Liz Christy, established the first of the city's community gardens in 1973 and it remains there today at the corner of Bowery and Houston streets, where teams of volunteers regularly tend the 60 garden beds.
A single path winds through the lush foliage and as you wander, you come across a trellis of grapevines and a pond filled with fish and turtles. There's a huge Whole Foods store across the road where you can buy a picnic lunch and bring it across to eat in one of the garden's shady nooks.
If you're lucky, maybe resident cats Sully and Sasha will be curious enough to make your acquaintance.
Qantas flies Sydney to New York via Los Angeles, code-sharing with American Airlines. qantas.com.au.
See + do
The New York Earth Room, 141 Wooster Street, between Houston and Prince streets, open September to June, Wednesday to Sunday, noon-6pm. 212 473 8072, earthroom.org.
The garden at St Luke in the Fields, 487 Hudson Street, between Barrow and Grove streets, open daily, 10am-dusk. 212 924 0562.
Washington Mews, between University Place and Fifth Avenue, north of Washington Square, open daily until sunset.
Mahayana Buddhist Temple, 133 Canal Street, at the Bowery and Manhattan Bridge Plaza, open daily, 8am-6pm. 212 925 8787.
Greenacre Park, East 51st Street between Second and Third avenues, open daily, 8am-6pm (to 8pm in summer). 212 838 0528,
Liz Christy Garden, corner of Bowery and Houston streets, open Saturday, noon-4pm (all year), Sunday, noon-4pm (May-September).