The Astor Place Cube wakes on a cloudy, brisk Wednesday morning. It’s giddy as a schoolgirl on Sunday as it waits for the tents to be pitched, glue sticks to be uncapped, and cake to be cut. At least, there better be cake, it thinks to itself.
Today, November 1, is the 50th birthday of the Cube. “Over the hill” jokes are welcome considering Tony Rosenthal’s “Alamo” was meant to be temporary when it was first balanced on its base in the middle of an island on Astor Place. Six months after it was installed as part of a city-wide “Sculpture in Environment” project in 1967, the New York Times reported that the Cube would become a permanent installation after “neighbors petitioned” to keep it where it was. Since then, it has remained a symbol of the resiliency of New Yorkers.
At least, that’s what Leo thinks. As he sits at the craft table pasting pictures of New York on his very own paper replica of the cube, he says the Cube is a “jewel,” and quite possibly his favorite thing. “I always bring people to see it and spin it,” he says.
The party gets underway with a speaking program. As Jonathan Kuhn lauds the Cube’s longevity, a man walks up, clearly out-of-his-mind jazzed about the big day. He points to the sign and says, “50th Birthday! What am I supposed to do?! I can’t give it a hug!” He gives a half-hearted attempt and moves on.
The Cube is used to such displays of affection. Look it up on Yelp, where it has a 4.5-star rating, and you’ll find reviews like this one from Paul K. in Philadelphia: “Just how did I end up perched atop the cube at sunrise shouting ‘faster, faster’ as 3 strange girls run in tight circles to spin me? F@#%in’ Margaritas!” How, Paul? Just how?
“It’s a rite of passage for anyone who’s ever been drunk or high or went to NYU,” says Alex Roy, an NYU grad himself who started spinning in high school and has since achieved 100 spins.
Of course, the Cube has also served as an irresistible 3-D canvas for graffiti vandals, with the most recent tagging happening over the summer. Will Lewis of the Village Alliance, the community organization responsible for maintaining Astor Place and the Cube, says they find out pretty quickly when something happens overnight. Sanitation workers usually arrive at Astor Place around 7 a.m. to inspect and clean the damage. Someone’s gotta be there to wake it up.
“It’s painstaking work to repair it,” says Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Arts and Antiquities for the NYC Parks Department. “When Olek did her knitted thing, at least that didn’t actually damage the surface.” He’s referring, of course, to the time the Cube was yarn-bombed by street artist Olek in October 2011. Later that year, it was blanketed by Caltech pranksters. Both exhibits of vandalism were removed within hours, but New Yorkers will never tire of trying to keep the Cube snug.
State Senator Brad Hoylman prefers to blanket the Cube in praise. As the birthday festivities continue, he presents it with a proclamation declaring today Alamo Appreciation Day. He calls up someone from the Village Alliance to receive the award because “the Cube has no arms to accept it.” He gets major side eye from the Cube.
It’s now time for the part of the program where people attempt to spin the Cube for 50 minutes straight to raise money for the Go Project, an educational program that also turns 50 this year. As it gets started spinning, even the Cube has its doubts. Within minutes, someone is yelling, “Alright, I need somebody to take over.”
Simon Schwartz takes a minute to film himself breathing heavily after his turn is finally over. “It’s a lot lighter when you’re drunk,” he says.