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Brooklyn Museum's David Bowie exhibition prompts writer's New York City pilgrimage

| Monday, April 23, 2018, 1:39 p.m.
A David Bowie art installation is seen at New York City's Broadway-Lafayette subway station on April 19. The subway-wall-sized images of Bowie-inspired art, is in collaboration with Spotify and the Brooklyn Museum's current exhibition 'David Bowie Is.'
Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images
A David Bowie art installation is seen at New York City's Broadway-Lafayette subway station on April 19. The subway-wall-sized images of Bowie-inspired art, is in collaboration with Spotify and the Brooklyn Museum's current exhibition 'David Bowie Is.'

There are few artists who merit a true pilgrimage — a concerted attempt to walk in the footsteps of greatness — but if there's one luminary worth traveling for, it's David Bowie.

With the final stop of the Victoria and Albert Museum's experiential “David Bowie Is” retrospective exhibition now on view at the Brooklyn Museum, I knew a pilgrimage was in order. But rather than simply fit a museum visit into a typical day trip to New York City, I wanted to plan a visit that would allow me to see New York as Bowie did.

New York was the place where he found stability after a restless, decades-long search for both comfort and anonymity within the confines of art and fame.

Bowie, who died in 2016, highlighted his penchant for walking the streets of Manhattan, particularly in the early morning hours, in a 2003 article for New York Magazine. “The signature of the city changes shape and is fleshed out as more and more people commit to the street,” he wrote. “A magical transfer of power from the architectural to the human.”

Intense pilgrimage

I devoted a single, intense day to my pilgrimage, scouring through Bowie's interviews to not only get a sense of the places he frequented in New York but also to try to imagine what his routines might be.

I decided to set off from Washington Square Park a few blocks from his home. Bowie referred to the park as “the emotional history of New York in a quick walk.”

Circumnavigating the park, with its famous triumphal arch, allowed me to settle into the rhythm of people-watching, something at which I suspect Bowie was adept. Old men arguing politics, municipal workers resting on a bench, moms drying the tears of crying toddlers all populated my vision as I strolled toward Caffe Reggio, just southwest of Washington Square.

Frequented by Bowie, it's a pleasingly cluttered spot where they've been serving up cappuccino for close to a century. It was easy to imagine him tucked into the alcove — somewhat unexpectedly graced by a bust of Queen Nefertiti — perhaps reading a book he'd picked up at McNally Jackson Books, just around the corner from his home. That's at 285 Lafayette St., in Lower Manhattan's Nolita neighborhood, where Bowie lived with Iman, his wife of 24 years, and daughter Lexi.

Walk in Bowie's shoes

Fortified with caffeine, I turned my steps toward the perpetually traffic-clogged block he lived on, taking a few moments to stand in front of the building and crane my neck for a glimpse of his rooftop home. I tried to imagine how he might stop for a chat with the doorman in the lobby before heading out on the 10-minute walk down nearby Prince Street to Olive's takeout shop just in time to grab a sandwich for lunch.

Bowie's favorite was reportedly grilled chicken with watercress, followed by a warm chocolate chip cookie.

With a 3 p.m. timed entry for the exhibition in Brooklyn looming, I hopped onto the C Train at Spring Street to head down to the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian walkway near City Hall. Catching a ride on New York's subway system is, actually, an appropriate addition to spending a day in Bowie's shoes.

The Scottish novelist William Boyd once wrote in Harper's Bazaar that Bowie revealed to him, somewhat delightedly, that he was able to navigate New York's public transit system anonymously by carrying a Greek newspaper, thereby convincing curious subway riders that he was just some Greek guy with a remarkable resemblance to the Thin White Duke.

It wasn't until I stepped onto the pedestrian walkway that I finally popped in some ear buds to listen to Spotify's “David Bowie's New York” playlist while on the 1.1 mile walk across the East River. I don't know if Bowie ever walked across the Brooklyn Bridge — he did tend to avoid tourist areas — but I like to think that he made the trek at least once, maybe at dawn, to watch Lower Manhattan wake up through the weblike cables attached to the bridge's two towers.

Hands-off approach

Once in Brooklyn, the exhibition I'd wanted to see since it first opened in London in 2013 was finally within my grasp.

My heart skipped a beat as I walked up to the Brooklyn Museum, knowing that 400 items from the David Bowie Archive were waiting inside, providing an exceptional glimpse into the creative process of an artist whose work I've followed since my tween years when he was writing concept albums in Berlin.

Museum attendants handed out headphones for the multigenerational crowds to wear while moving through the exhibit, immersed in interviews and music. We pored over hand-drawn stage designs and diary entries, surrounded by original “Aladdin Sane” costumes made by Kansai Yamamoto , video projections spanning five decades, and a demonstration of the custom text randomization software Bowie co-invented to help combat writer's block.

When the touring exhibit was originally conceived years ago, Bowie is said to have maintained a hands-off approach with curators with one exception: The tour would begin in London and end in New York, a request that mirrored the trajectory of his own life.

Perhaps this was a gift from Bowie to his adopted hometown as thanks for welcoming him into the family, for allowing him to walk the streets of Manhattan as a citizen, not a legend.

Kristen Hartke is a Washington Post contributing writer.

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