Recently, for the first time, I came upon the Hua Mei Bird Garden in Sara D. Roosevelt Park on the Lower East Side at Chinatown's edge. The garden has been around officially since 1995, but you'll miss it, too, unless you're up and walking in the early morning.
Hanging in trees, from poles, around the chain-link fence, and sitting on the leafy ground, are dozens of beautiful bamboo bird cages, some half shrouded in white cloths, most of them ornately carved, and all containing a songbird.
Many of the birds are small--colorful finches, a few black-capped chickadees--but some are the Hua Mei, a fighting thrush from China for whom the park was named.
Socializing around the cages are the elderly Chinese men who own them. Wrote the Times in 2007, "Most of the men who come to listen to them are retired; the oldest are in their late 80s. Yui Kang, who has been coming to the Hua Mei Bird Garden since the mid-1990s and has been collecting songbirds for more than 50 years, is known as the chief. 'We are old men,' he said the other day. 'We like bringing the birds and drinking the coffee. We feel better.'"
The park was born, informally, in the early 1980s, due to the location of a pet store across the street, reported the Times in 1994, "which sold hua mei and their favorite snack, live crickets." A trip to the park became the birds'--and the men's--daily constitutional.
Stumbling upon the scene is a bit surreal. It reminds you that surprises can still happen in New York City, where so much surprise is vanishing. The birds and their cages are beautiful. I stayed and watched them for awhile. It isn't easy to look at a caged bird. They are constantly in motion, hopping from perch to perch, as if frantically looking for a way back into the sky.
I felt both grateful and sad for their presence there, in those lovely cages, making that incredible music.