We departed the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and found ourselves walking North through Central Park along the Mall, which begins at 66th street and ends at 72nd street at Bethesda Terrace. Just before the terrace is an enclosed stone Arcade, which features a beautifully restored ceiling of Minton tiles designed by Jacob Wrey Mould. As we passed through the arcade we could hear singing, which was magnified by the enclosed space’s acoustics, and came across three singers performing a version of “Amazing Grace.”
As we begin our two week adventure in New York I am deeply interested in how sound works in space, and what the cultural implications are of that sound. The performers singing this version of “Amazing Grace” were a Black woman, a Black man, and man of Asian heritage. Earlier in the day we encountered a choir in the cathedral, dressed in concert-dress, performing for the assembled tourists. The choir was predominantly white with a few people of color. Who gets to perform what music in which spaces around the city? As Sarah Schulman points out in “The Gentrification of the Mind,” with gentrification of urban space comes a need to regulate once open aspects of community life, including performing music on the street. Who gives permission to sing in a cathedral? Who approves permits for performing in Central Park? Did the street performers have the necessary permit? Whose voices are not heard due to the permitting process?
Regardless of the cultural mechanics which brought today’s music to us, I was inspired by it and thankful for an unanticipated spiritual moment in our stroll.