This month’s West Village Original is Keith Michael, the author of WestView’s bird column. Born in Pennsylvania, Michael moved to New York in 1979. He leads the NYC WILD! nature walks and has been Dance Production Coordinator at the Julliard School for seventeen years. Michael lives with his partner, David, and their dog, Millie, on Perry Street.
While still in elementary school, Keith Michael started his own marionette company, continuing through high school and eventually paying for his first year of college with proceeds from his shows. Of course, having supportive parents helped. “My folks were thrilled by my marionette work,” he says. “My mother was my stagehand and drove me to gigs before I could drive myself. I also studied piano and French horn, so classical music was another area of interest.”
Thanks to his marionette work, Michael became interested in theatre and attended Case Western Reserve to pursue it. “But I ended up studying a lot of dance instead,” he says. “When I graduated in 1979, I came to New York and got dancing work right away.” From there he began choreographing and then, seventeen years ago, he began his association with The Juilliard School. “I started there at an age—as dancers do—when you begin looking for the next thing,” he says. “It was my organizing skills that got me the job. It turned out that all of the things I had done since I was young enabled me to see things from lots of different points of view and to coordinate very big, complicated shows.”
And how did his interest in birding begin? “It started out as just a hobby,” Michael says. “It was something very different from my work. Everything I do is about organizing and scheduling and I was really in need of something less structured that would get me outside.” He considers birding to be a logical extension of his early fascination with the City, ever since his family came here in 1964 to visit the World’s Fair. “That trip was a real eye opener for me,” he remembers. “I realized there are fantastic things out there. Since then I’ve been very interested in New York. It’s fascinating both geographically and historically. For me, birding became a natural way for me to further explore and discover it.”
According to Michael, birding makes going out of his apartment exciting every day. “There’s the excitement of what you’re going to see,” he says. “That’s what I love about it.” In addition, he tries to imagine the bird’s perspective. “What does all this look like to a little bit of feathers?” he wonders. “Often migrating birds lead very dangerous and complicated lives. They summer here but winter in, say, Peru. So this little thing that you could mail in a first class envelope is able to fly thousands of miles and survive. And then end up in the West Village and raise a family! How do they do that? That’s the captivating thing about them.” To date, Michael posits that the number of bird species he’s spotted in the city is around 300. Just in the West Village alone he’s seen around 84 including, recently, two great blue herons flying east over Perry Street.
After living in various neighborhoods throughout the City, Michael settled in the West Village in 1991. “Certainly over that long a period of time, everything changes,” he observes. “But I do miss some of the businesses that can no longer afford to be here. I think the very thing that attracts people to live here—the neighborhood services—is disappearing because of the influx of money. Having unlimited money means that you don’t need as many neighborhood services, like the Laundromat or the hardware store. Local services become less important if you can afford to go anywhere for them.”
“You’d also like to be sure the reasons people want to live here don’t disappear,” he continues. “People come here for the quaintness and the cozy streets, but it’s no longer cozy if apartment buildings keep going up and there are too many people.” Still, Michael loves living here. “It’s always fascinating,” he says. “I love walking out my door and seeing such interesting architecture, people, birds, and dogs. When I was growing up we lived in little towns throughout Pennsylvania that had fewer people than live on Perry Street. But the West Village is actually much more small town than most small towns are nowadays. You have everything you need within a block or two of your front door. It’s a great place to live.”
Photo of Keith Michael by Maggie Berkvist.