New York City makes the heart grow fonder

Ariel Sabar’s new book, Heart of the City: Nine Stories of Love and Serendipity on the Streets of New York, follows couples from the 1940s to the present whose matchmaker was New York City. We chatted with him about location-location-location — and what it means for love.

EM & LO: What got you first interested in how place interacts with the way strangers meet and fall in love?

ARIEL SABAR: The spark for me was my parents’ love story. My mom, Stephanie, and dad, Yona, were these really different people. Stephanie was the daughter of a well-off Manhattan businessman and his sophisticated wife, the kind of folks who held season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera. Yona was born to an illiterate teenage mother and peddler father in a mud hut in northern Iraq. But one fall day in 1966, they both somehow find themselves in Washington Square Park, that wonderful gathering place in the heart of Greenwich Village. Through a series of circumstances I describe in the book, Yona, lonely and homesick, strikes up a conversation this interesting woman — thinking mistakenly that she is also a “tourist.” Four months later they are married. The more I quizzed them about their story, the more convinced I became that the park itself had played a kind of matchmaking role. Forty-four years, two kids, and four grandkids later, they’re still happily married.

What is it about New York City that makes it so conducive — or more conducive than other cities, at least — to strangers meeting and falling in love?

One of the most consistent findings over decades of studies is that the closer any two strangers are — whether in a classroom, an office, an apartment building or a neighborhood street — the more likely they are to think well of one another and become friends (or more). It’s hard to think of a much denser urban environment than New York. People are pressed up against each other all the time. Crowded places produce more of the kinds of serendipitous exchanges that can ultimately lead to love. Adrenaline plays cupid, too. The physical demands of life in New York City keep people in a kind of heightened physiological state. And psychologists have found that, well, adrenaline makes the heart grow fonder. When we’re in places that get our pulse racing and our adrenaline flowing, we’re more apt to feel attraction toward strangers — and to act on those feelings. Ultimately, someone has to decide to make that first move. But exciting places can give our systems a push.

Do you think that two strangers are less likely to randomly meet and fall in love in public today, as compared to, say, 20 or 50 years ago?

In my search for couples for Heart of the City, I called priests, rabbis and wedding photographers in Manhattan and begged for leads on people who’d met there in public. Several told me that 20 years ago, they’d have dozens of names. These days, though, because of the explosion in internet dating, more and more people were meeting online. For better or worse, the internet has permitted people to be more calculating. People seem willing to give up a measure of romance for a sense (real or not) of security. Interestingly, one of the youngest women in my book had gone on dozens of really bad dates with guys she’d met online, before tripping on the sidewalk on West 57th Street late one night and literally falling into a stranger she’d eventually marry.

So are you for or against online dating? What about NYC Missed Connection ads? Is there romance in either of those?

It’s hard to be against anything that brings two people together, even if all that screening and vetting comes at the cost of some romance. Still, what is romance if not the nerve-wracking uncertainty, the mystery that makes a relationship’s early days so exciting? Do we really need to send would-be lovers through virtual metal detectors before their first kiss? Possibly, but there’s no doubt something is lost.

I think the Missed Connections ads are proof of how ready people are for love that roots in real soil. They reflect the millions of everyday public moments where something clicked. And it clicked because you were physically near somebody, even if just for a second. You saw them. You heard them. Gosh, maybe you even smelled them. And you just knew. I’m just not sure how often that happens online. The last time I checked, you couldn’t send pheromones through email.

What are some NYC-specific iconic spots that are particularly conducive to a couple falling in love? And what makes them so? (Design? History? Cultural associations?) Does the Empire State Building rank up there at all?

I put my money on design. Studies have found that people gravitate toward places that have a moderate level of complexity — a mix of shapes, textures, and activity. We like focal points that command the eye and help organize our surroundings. We like water. We like mystery: a feeling that just out of sight there is more to explore. This explains our yen for winding paths and rolling hills. But we also like “legibility.” That is, we want a sense of our bearings so that even as we wander, we never feel wholly lost. We also like some feeling of enclosure, a sense of containment, as in the streets of European cities and parts of old New York. I think places like Washington Square Park, Central Park, Grand Central Terminal, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all have many of those elements.

And what are some spots, more general to any city, that are conducive? E.g. a bus vs. a train vs the underground, etc?

Subways. Something about all that rattling, being underground, having a chance to check out a fellow rider day after day before working up the courage to say something. In my search for couples who married after meeting in public, I had more subway stories — really good subway stories — than any other kind. I wish I could have fit more in the book.

Can you tell us a little about what you learned in your research in terms of how place can affect whether/how people fall in love? Do iconic places do part of the seducing for you?

In addition to the factors — density and adrenaline — that I’d mentioned earlier, beauty also counts. Studies have found that aesthetically pleasing settings rub off on their inhabitants. In a famous study from the 1950s, people in a “beautiful room” rated photographs of people’s faces far more favorably than did their counterparts, who were looking at the same photos in an “ugly room.” Finally, spectacle is important. If you want strangers to talk, give them something to talk about. In public places, that can be anything from an unusual piece of art to a juggler or a street musician. It creates an opening for strangers who might otherwise have little in common to strike up a conversation.

Finally, if you were to design the public space that would be most conducive to two strangers meeting and falling in love, what would the key elements be?

My equation would look something like this: A museum times a wedding celebration to the power of a subway, divided by a town square.

Heart of the City: Nine Stories of Love and Serendipity on the Streets of New York by Ariel Sabar is on sale now