Follow this New York City fairy trail for a magical and miniature scavenger hunt

FullSizeRender 2.jpg
In Queens, a fairy trail consisting of 13 miniature installations is adding some magic to the neighborhood. (Photo: Emily Faber, Sinclair Broadcast Group)

NEW YORK CITY (SBG) — New York City apartments certainly aren't known for being spacious, but the latest dwellings popping up in Queens are particularly miniature in size and come with a fairly peculiar lease agreement. There are a few expected responsibilities listed on the agreement — you'll have to keep the grass trimmed by the entrance, and you should ensure that your pets, if you have any, refrain from going to the bathroom directly outside the front door. But the conditions also state that you must agree to never give the fairy occupants any type of medication. In addition, you'll be held responsible for all of the decorations outside of the fairy's door. And don't even think about trying to catch the fairies, as any attempts to do so could result in disastrous consequences.

Colorful doors affixed to tree trunks on public sidewalks and surrounded by colorful flowers, picket fences, and miniature wishing wells aren't the city's latest space-saving solution, and the tenants, as you might have guessed, are fairies, rather than humans. While humans aren't able to inhabit the spaces themselves, one woman in Queens' Sunnyside neighborhood has played an instrumental role in setting up the doors for these magical new neighbors and maintaining them for the duration of the fairies' stay. With a list of rules to follow, signing the "Family/Fairy Lease Agreement" may seem like quite the obligation, but Samantha Hamilton has fully embraced the responsibility of placing, decorating, and caring for not just one but 13 fairy doors.

Hamilton, an Irish native, didn't initially set out with the intention of creating such elaborate displays, but what started as a fun quarantine hobby soon become a full-out fairy trail, complete with printed maps available for pickup at a local restaurant and its own Facebook page with devoted followers. The whimsical doors, varying in color, placement, and decor, are hidden within the greenery on quiet residential streets under a canopy of leaves. Finding all 13 of them has become a fun challenge for children and adults in the neighborhood alike, as well as New Yorkers who have visited from elsewhere in Queens and the other boroughs for a glimpse of the magic.

When the pandemic hit New York City, Hamilton found herself spending far more time at home with her two daughters, ages 3 and 6. Her typical summer plans, a family trip to Ireland, were put on hold. To make the best of the situation, Hamilton was inspired to bring a touch of Irish folklore to her Queens household when her kids made fairy houses out of milk cartons.

"I told them that if we left them out overnight, fairies would come. They’re very much at the age where they believe in all this magic," Hamilton said.

That night, when her daughters went to sleep, Hamilton installed a fairy door outside next to the milk carton houses. She expected that the little door, a gift to her children from a friend in Ireland, would put smiles on her daughters' faces when they discovered it in the morning, but their actual reaction far surpassed her expectations. "When they got up, they freaked out. I should have recorded it," she said with a laugh.

Hamilton further fueled her daughters' enthusiasm by revealing that the fairies would grant wishes to children but play tricks on adults. Her daughters began making wishes every time they passed the door, requesting for Hamilton and other adults in the house to, for example, hop on one foot or bark like a dog. Hamilton soon found that the fun activity she had invented had backfired on her, and she decided to rewrite the rules for wishes to save herself from the constant demands of silly tasks — only those made on a full moon would be honored.

To keep the enchantment going, Hamilton placed an order for more fairy doors, still not thinking that her creative method of keeping her daughters occupied during quarantine would ever spread beyond her street. But upon placing the next fairy door outside of her mother's apartment, Hamilton began to notice other children stopping to look at it.

"I decided to keep going," Hamilton said. "I didn’t really ask permission or anything. I just went around to public street trees and installed them. I had so much fun painting them and adding little artistic touches, and I was doing it unbeknownst to my own kids, so that it could be a surprise to them as well."

On community Facebook groups, neighborhood residents began to inquire about the sudden appearances of these unexplained miniature doors. They posted pictures of the ones that they had spotted and asked if anyone knew where to find more of them. At first, Hamilton stayed silent, allowing people to speculate about them and enjoy the mystery. But eventually, people noticed her creating the displays and called her out as the person behind the fairy trail. Soon, she was receiving frequent messages on her personal Facebook page from people requesting more information. In response, she launched a formal Facebook page, A Fairy Trail of New York, where people could find a blank map of the general area in which the doors could be found.

Some of the doors are easier to locate than others, and finding all 13 with the empty map would certainly present a challenge. On her Facebook page, Hamilton asks followers not to reveal any of the locations, so that newcomers have an opportunity to discover the doors on their own. However, she also sells a "location cheat map" for just $5; it can be purchased at The Skillman, a restaurant located in close vicinity to the installations.

"Some people have small children, and they can’t just hope that they find [the fairy doors]," Hamilton said. "They need some instant gratification for those little ones."

Hamilton is clear that her fairy trail is not reserved for the enjoyment of children alone; adults can, and do, have just as much fun seeking out the doors. And personally, the creative process has helped Hamilton to get in touch with her inner kid. "I feel like a child again, doing something just for the fun of it," she said.

Before the pandemic, Hamilton had never considered herself an artist. She had always had a desire to write, and when given the gift of time during quarantine, she picked up a copy of Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way," a self-help book that guides readers to access their previously unexplored creative talents. In reading the book, Hamilton discovered that she had a childish, fun side to her personality that had previously gone unnoticed. She became interested in art not for the point of selling art but for the point of enjoying it.

"We’re so used to everything having to have a purpose in life. There used to be very little time to do something strictly for the fun of it," said Hamilton.

"It’s been so nice hearing everyone’s feedback, and it’s been so nice seeing the children get excited by them. But one of the best parts for me has just been going out and taking the time for myself to sit down and do something frivolous, to create something for fun that other people can enjoy," she added.

Each door has its own unique touch, and picking a favorite isn't easy.

The one that Hamilton has ended up liking the best so far actually started off feeling like a bit of mistake. " I was very conservative at first, and I decided that I was going to use a little bit of paint to liven this one up a bit. I ended up making this really bright rainbow. I was afraid that people in the neighborhood would be like, 'Who is this, and is she destroying that tree? Is that graffiti?' I felt nervous while I was doing it," she said.

However, the finished product ended up being becoming her favorite not only because of its cheerful appearance but because of the symbolism behind it. Rainbows, according to Hamilton, are representative of the Sunnyside neighborhood, and other painted rainbows can be found around the area, perhaps a nod to the "sunny" half of the name. She also noticed the prevalence of rainbows following the stay-at-home orders, as people placed them in their windows to remind passersby that without some rain, there wouldn't be any rainbows. People have told Hamilton that the multicolored rainbow above the pink fairy door gives them an uplifting feeling.

"And that’s how I felt when I was making it, using those bright colors and stuff. As adults, I don’t think we take the time to paint rainbows that much, so it was fun for me to do that," Hamilton said.

Fairy doors are popular in Ireland as a way to encourage children to go on walks, but they've also received bursts of attention in other locations in the past decade. In 2016, a prominent fairy trail in the woods of South Mountain Reservation in New Jersey inspired such a large rush of copycat creations that rules had to be enforced to curtail the spread of structures that were tackier and less natural than those of the original creator. Celebrities have also boosted public knowledge of fairy doors, like Uma Thurman, who received a custom design from the same company from which Hamilton buys her doors (that company is also responsible for the clever and lengthy lease agreement, which accompanies every purchase).

And in Sunnyside, the interest in expansion is undeniable.

"I’ve had so many people contact me, asking where they can get them and if they can do it themselves. I want to encourage that. I want to facilitate that," said Hamilton.

Hamilton still has seven more doors that she plans to assemble around her neighborhood, but rather than broadening the trail on her own to other locations, she is coordinating with those who inquire about making their own to give them helpful tips and to ensure that they have all of the tools necessary for the fairy door creation process. She also envisions children taking on a larger role beyond simply searching for the doors, while still preserving the magic. "Children could volunteer to be fairy apprentices to build the homes for the fairies to then move into," she said.

A primary reason that Hamilton currently doesn't intend to expand beyond Sunnyside is because taking care of the homes' exteriors for the fairy residents is quite a bit of work; the terms of the "Family/Fairy Lease Agreement" aren't a joke.

"I actually do have to maintain them, which sounds like a funny thing, fairy door maintenance," Hamilton said. "The doors are on public city streets, so sometimes, there’s a bit of interference with them. They get a little messed up. We had a big storm recently, and some trees and branches fell. I had to go back and fix them up, clear leaves and stuff like that around them."

Despite the considerable amount of effort that Hamilton puts into the trail, she doesn't see any aspect of it as "work." She remains motivated by the childlike joy that she experiences while devising and decorating the doors and her own daughters' excitement, as well as the positive feedback she has continued to receive from those who have stumbled across her imaginative designs.

One recent response to the trail had an especially large impact on Hamilton. A woman reached out on Facebook and shared that she had been very sick with coronavirus and unable to leave her house for over a month. On the first day that she was able to go outside again, she went for a long walk and came across one of Hamilton's fairy doors. The woman said that the door gave her an enormous mental boost after spending the duration of her illness feeling lonely, sad, and generally down about the state of the world.

"It showed her that there was still positivity and good in the world, that someone would take the time to do this just for fun, and it was amazing to hear that it brought another person so much joy. That was really special and unexpected. It gave me incentive to keep going and do more," said Hamilton.