New York in the Winter: A Lesson in Transformation

If you wake up early enough, the city is empty. The streets are open, sometimes shimmering and frosted from the chill. They heave and crack with the dryness of the air. (Your face does the same.) You won’t see a person for blocks at a time as the sun is coming up, it’s still too cold to emerge from hibernation.

It’s a whole different world then, but everybody knows that. It’s harsher than spring or summer, but it’s when you can stand in Washington Square Park completely alone (or seemingly alone), have a stretch of the West Side Highway to yourself, or be the only person on the block in Soho. And with the holidays long behind us, it’s a playground for locals. Nobody is here to see the twinkling snowflake on 57th street, catch a glimpse of the store windows, or celebrate at Radio City Music Hall.

It’s a good thing, too, because it takes a local to winter the city. They know that a little bit of cold might be frustrating, but it’s a break from the oppressive heat of the summer, and the sticky smells of August. The natives will steadily flow out of apartment buildings, dressed in their many layers. On the most freezing days, there’s a sea of black puffs and hoods — an army of hardened marshmallows. Their mass shrinks the city; its citizens double their size in the warmth of their coats.

Boots of all kinds — shearling ones, black ones, leather ones, thick ones, spiked ones, shiny ones — pound the sidewalk before sinking into the subway and rising back up somewhere else. The perennial cool girls dot pockets of downtown in their long coats and beanies, while the grand dames of Park Avenue stroll in pieces that cost two months of your rent. There are Acne shearlings everywhere. Everybody’s dressed mostly for the cold and partly for everybody else.

The days are shorter now, so the hours have to be richer. People shuffle from one warm place to the next as quickly as they can, rushing to the warm embrace of a radiator. By the time February comes, the idea of daylight after 5:30 p.m. is so novel that you forgot it was possible. The time you take for granted in the summer is suddenly precious. You can’t believe that it will eventually be light until after 8 pm. Everybody notices it at the same time. They tweet about in unison, the effect of an urban hivemind and shared experience.

A big storm will come. The sky the night before will be a dark lavender. The snow will cake up the railing of fire escapes and the city will halt. The streets might even close. Your office might shut down. With the right footwear, you can walk dead in the middle of Broome Street and remember that it is quiet here, you just have to find it.

March will come, and you’ll think it’s over. But March is the worst of it. April is safer. May is smarter. Winter here isn’t for the faint, it’s for the people who know that even in the snow, even in the ice, and even when your fingers are numb, it’s still the only place worth being.

If you’re looking for a way to help the most vulnerable this winter you can donate to NYCares or Coalition for the Homeless to help homeless New Yorkers this winter.

Photos by Pierre Crosby

More from Archive