April in Paris may be romantic, but there’s no need to cross the ocean for springtime magic. New York in April is another city worth singing about, awakened from winter hibernation in a rush of spring blossoms and high spirits. Few cities can boast more lavish floral displays, including those atop the hats in the event that inspired New York’s own musical classic, America’s most joyous Easter Parade.
There is no more colorful or whimsical display than this annual stroll down Fifth Avenue. The parade dates back to the 1880s, when the Avenue’s grand churches such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church began decorating for Easter with lavish floral displays.
Taking their cue from the indoor displays, well-to-do ladies began decorating their own bonnets with flowers and parading between churches to show off their finery. Pretty soon spectators were gathering to see the hats, and as the procession gained popularity, merchants saw the marketing opportunity to promote new finery for everyone for Easter. The parade became a city tradition and in 1933 inspired Irving Berlin to write his great song, Easter Parade.
Today everyone (and their pets) dons a hat and joins New York’s parade. The wackier the finery, the better. Huge floral displays and even live birds and rabbits have been known to adorn the hats. The impromptu Easter Sunday show begins this year at 10 a.m. on April 20 and runs until 3 or 4 p.m. from 49th to 57th Streets.
Happily, the date coincides with the height of real spring blossoms throughout the city’s great gardens. Those who don’t think of Manhattan as a garden spot will surely change their minds with a visit to Central Park’s Conservatory Garden, where three exquisite designs await behind a grand iron gate at Fifth Avenue between 104th and 105th Streets.
The Center Garden is in Italianate style, with a large lawn bordered by exquisite allées of pale pink and white crabapple trees. At the end of the lawn is a 12-foot-high fountain, a favorite backdrop for wedding pictures, with stairs beyond leading to a wisteria-covered pergola.
Paths lead to a French-style garden to the north, with lavish displays of spring tulips in myriad colors and the charming Three Dancing Maidens fountain. To the south, an intimate English-style garden has seasonal flowerbeds lush with spring bulbs, ringing a water lily pool where a charming statue of a girl and a boy pays tribute to Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of The Secret Garden.
The rest of the park has its own show, some 500 Japanese cherry trees, pale pink Yoshino trees and rosy-hued Kwanzan varieties lighting the landscape in clouds of blossoms. The trees are especially lovely along the reservoir, near the boathouse and on aptly named Cherry Hill.
Romantics will find plenty of inspiration in Central Park, whether on a carriage ride beneath the blossoms or a gondola ride from the Loeb Boathouse, with skyscraper views beyond the trees.
An even more spectacular cherry fantasy blooms each year at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, where the entire month of April is dedicated to Hanami, a Japanese celebration of the cherry blossom. The garden boasts weeping cherry trees and a dazzling parade of double pink blossoms bordering its Cherry Tree Esplanade.
The culmination is the weekend festival known in Japanese as “Sakura Matsuri,” set for April 26 and 27 this year. It is a celebration of traditional and contemporary Japanese culture with events including Taiko Drumming, martial arts, folk dances, Manga artists, tea ceremonies, a fashion show, bonsai demonstrations and origami workshops for kids.
A trip to the Bronx Botanic Garden provides one of the more spectacular seasonal spectacles. Some 350 varieties of daffodils and bulbs erupt in a sea of yellow and white on Daffodil Hill, backed by 80 varieties of trees dressed in showy reds and pinks in the Bruckmann Crabapple Collection. The Azalea Garden offers some 3,000 azaleas and rhododendrons from around the world, winding along nearly a mile of woodland paths, thick with ribbons of white, pink, coral and magenta.
The High Line, Manhattan’s former overhead railway turned delightful city park, also is abloom, this time with wildflowers in the natural gardens that run from its beginning at Gansevoort Street (12th Street) all the way to 30th Street. Visitors can join New Yorkers enjoying the first warm spring days, strolling or relaxing on the lounges amid water features that line the walkway.
Of course, April showers do sometimes mean spending time indoors, but New York’s museums beckon on a rainy day.
The New York Historical Society at 170 Central Park West has several exhibits this year that liven springtime in the city. Bill Cunningham: Façades, on view through June 15 will feature the noted New York Times fashion photographer’s eight-year project documenting the architectural riches and fashion history of New York City. The gelatin silver prints pair models in authentic period costumes with historic New York settings, such as St. Paul’s Chapel, Grand Central Terminal and Rockefeller Center.
Audubon’s Aviary, through May 26, showcases the society’s unparalleled collection of John James Audubon watercolors and includes some of the artist’s most famous floral and bird paintings.
The Museum of Arts and Design marks its fifth anniversary at 2 Columbus Circle with exceptional exhibits. Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital through July 6 is the first major museum exhibition to explore the many areas of 21st century creativity made possible by computer-assisted techniques. Inspired, on display through October, offers an overview of works that have joined the MAD collections since the opening of the building in 2008.
Indoors or out, New York in April is worth singing about.