Why Is it So Easy to Fall in Love in New York?
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Publication Date: January 2011
This article is adapted from Ariel Sabar’s book, “Heart of the City: Nine Stories of Love and Serendipity on the Streets of New York.”
My mother and father met in Washington Square Park in the mid-1960s, and I’d thought I knew the story well. But not long ago, my father shared a detail I had not heard before. He said he’d actually spotted my mother on the streets outside, but didn’t have the nerve to approach until she’d entered the park.
Why? I asked.
The streets were too exposed, my father said. Attractive as she was, it would have felt improper to strike up a conversation there. The park, though, was different. It was like stepping into a village.
The park shrank the city, he told me. It slowed time. With its roving paths, its fountain and trees, it filtered away the facelessness and noise of the street. Once inside, he said, people ceased being strangers.
For a fleeting moment, they were on common ground. They were sharing something: not just the leaves and grass and water, but the human carnival.
And that got me wondering: Were some public places more likely to induce friendly glances than others? Could some actually encourage people to take the first steps toward falling in love? In doing some research on those questions, I found myself knee-deep in the little-known field of environmental psychology.
Environmental psychology came of age with the social movements of the late 1960s, when architects and psychologists began discussing how the design of everything from rooms and buildings to streets and cities might contribute to social ills like poverty, crime, mental illness, overcrowding and isolation. Underlying the research was a universal question: how do the physical places where we live, work and play shape us?
One of the most consistent findings across decades of studies is that the closer any two people are — whether in dorms, offices, classrooms, or neighborhood streets — the more likely they are to become friends or at least think well of one another. As the authors of one environmental psychology treatise concluded, “the architecturally determined and accidental arrangements of persons can have dramatic effects on their relationships.”
But did the research go further? Could some public places actually stoke, well, lust?
The anthropologist Helen Fisher is an expert on the neurochemistry of love. (She’s the brains behind the online dating site Chemistry.com and is quoted at length in a recent New Yorker article about dating.)
Fisher is also a native New Yorker — she lives on the Upper East Side — and a devotee of what she calls “urban hiking.” She told me she knows “every inch” of Central Park and spent hours in Washington Square Park in the mid-1960s as an undergraduate at New York University.
She’s not surprised that strangers visiting Manhattan landmarks occasionally meet and fall in love. “Those are supremely good places,” she told me. “They’re open, they’re full of street life, they’re exciting, they’re full of novelty and adventure — and that drives up dopamine in the brain and can push you over the edge into falling in love.”
Ever mindful of biology, she threw out an idea I had yet to consider: busy public spaces, of the sort found in Manhattan, are excellent places to size up the Darwinian fitness of prospective mates. How does he carry himself in a crowd? How does she react to stress? Is he coordinated or a klutz? In public settings, away from the comforts and crutches of home, she told me, “you see more of the person.”
It was Labor Day 1966, late morning. My father, Yona, 27, an immigrant, had been in America for less than a year, for graduate school at Yale. He was depressed, homesick and lonely, and was in New York for the long weekend to see friends in the East Village. My mother, Stephanie, 28, was a caseworker at a foster agency in upstate New York. She’d driven to Manhattan for a few days to be with her parents.
Yona’s friends had gotten up early to see a parade, but Yona was too dejected to join them. He left the apartment and soon found himself walking under an arch into a leafy refuge of curving paths in the heart of Greenwich Village. A sign said Washington Square Park. Yona wanted only to clear his head, to think.
A woman he’d first glimpsed on his way in was now here, a few yards away. She was in a raincoat and was photographing people — beggars, unwashed street musicians — on benches around the central fountain.
He did not know that her name was Stephanie, or that she was an amateur photographer whose parents lived just a few blocks away. Watching her flit through the park with her camera, he knew only that he wanted to talk to her, to see if she knew something about this country and its people that he had yet to grasp.
He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them. Then, his legs moving as if by a force not wholly his own, he approached.
“Pardon me,” he said. “Are you a tourist?”
Four months later, they were married.
Ariel Sabar is an award-winning journalist and author. “Heart of the City” is his second book. His first book, “My Father’s Paradise,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. For more information, visit www.arielsabar.com.