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Life Arts    H2'ed 2/9/11

Ariel Sabar's "Heart of the City" Launched in Time for Valentine's Day

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Joan Brunwasser
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My guest today is author and journalist Ariel Sabar. Welcome back to OpEdNews, Ariel. This is very different from your first book, My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Family's Past, which won the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. Yet, it too stems from your roots, namely, the way your parents first met, in New York City's Washington Square Park.  Why did that story fascinate you and how did it lead to this book?

photo credit:Andy Nelson

My father picked my mother up in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village on a fall day in 1966. They were these incredibly different people. My father was born to an illiterate mother in a mud shack in the mountains of Kurdish Iraq. My mother was the daughter of a Manhattan CEO. But somehow this wonderful park magnetizes them -- almost sets them on a collision course, which I talk about in the book. I grew interested in whether their story was a fluke or whether there might be other couples who fell in love after first meeting by chance in one of New York City's iconic public places.

At first glance, this book might appear easy or superficial. But it's neither. You actually did a lot of research, delving into the concept of public space, how it is used, and the nature of love.  Along the way, you examined environmental psychology and the role of dopamine in certain "boundary breaking" experiences. Tell us more.  What is environmental psychology? How about "boundary breaking" experiences?

In the book's introduction, I take a look at the fascinating research psychologists have done on how strangers meet and fall in love. It turns out that place matters. When our pulse is racing and our adrenaline is pumping, we're more apt to feel drawn to attractive strangers who cross our path. That heightened physiological state can come from thrilling or "boundary-breaking" experiences like looking out over Manhattan from atop the Empire State Building or crossing the beautiful main concourse at Grand Central Terminal at rush hour. Or river rafting. Or skiing. In addition to telling what I hope are moving, textured stories about the couples, I wanted to make people smarter about the power of place over the workings of the heart.

Yes. You speak about "a nexus between passion and place, between architecture and attraction*" Why did you limit yourself to New York City? Were you ever worried that you might find it hard to find enough couples for the book? How did you go about it?

I'm not sure it's possible to limit yourself in a city as fundamentally limitless as New York City. But one reason, of course, was that it was where my parents had met, where I was born and where my mother's ancestors entered the United States, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But there were broader reasons: New York is America's most populous city, and its best-known. Even before Ellis Island opened its doors to the world's unwashed, the city served as America's immigrant gateway, a throughway for people of every language and color. More so than in any other American city, routine contact with strangers is a fixture of public life. So I saw it as a perfect laboratory for the questions that had interested me. Some landmarks were harder to find couples for than others. I struck out in my search for couples who'd met on the Brooklyn Bridge (at least, ones who had stayed married), but had far too many wonderful subway stories to fit in the book.

To find couples, I used every arrow in my quiver, from posting on blogs and word of mouth to decades-deep searches of wedding announcements and, yes, Google. I also called rabbis, priests and wedding photographers in the city and asked if they could refer me to clients with compelling stories.

What was your parents' reaction to your book? And did they see similarities to their own story?

From what they tell me anyway, my parents liked it. I think it was especially meaningful to my mother. Because my first book, My Father's Paradise, tells my dad's immigrant saga, my mother felt like this new one amounted to "equal time." Her family has long New York roots, and I see this book in many ways as a tribute to her ancestry. Both my parents saw striking parallels to the two or three stories in Heart of the City in which an American-born man or woman falls in love with an immigrant. That's one of the great stories of America, isn't it?

Yes, it is. I know you're really busy before your book comes out on Valentine's Day.  Anything you'd like to add before we wrap this up, Ariel?

Thanks for a great interview, Joan. The only thing I'll add is that Heart of the City is as much an homage to New York as it is a high-five to people with the guts and savvy to find love in any big city. Finding love requires us to take a gamble, to suspend a certain measure of caution. The downside is the hurt when the risks don't pay off. But as I hope the stories of these nine couples show, you can't win if you don't play.

Good point. You sent out a book announcement that said, in part: 

"The book is romantic and a lot of fun. But it aims as much for the mind as for the heart. I care deeply about the role public places play in fostering democracy and community, and hope the book offers another compelling reason for Americans to care about the design and upkeep of our city squares, parks and other public spaces."

I enjoyed Heart of the City tremendously and was sad to reach the last page. Everyone loves a lover. But you  make us mindful about the environment we live in and the greatness of a great city. We see how place itself is a crucial factor in these chance encounters. Thank you so much for talking with me again, Ariel, and good luck with the book launch next week! Happy Valentine's Day!


Ariel's website

*Heart of the City, p. xxix

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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