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I'm not a shopping nut, but it would only take a modest increase in my salary to turn me into one, especially when I'm in New York. Here's just a couple of places worth the charge card interest rates.
Places to stay
I have been lucky to have friends to stay with in Manhattan, so I don't have much experience with hotels, hostels, dorms, etc. But here are a few suggestions for places that come recommended.
Eating in New York City can be overwhelming for a few reasons: there are restaurants everywhere, stuff can be expensive, and if you don't know where to look, you can miss lots of really fantastic food. It's a good idea to check Zagats or pick up a copy of Time Out New York to make a list of places easily listed by neighborhood. There are also tons of web guides to eating from Time Out New York, The Village Voice, and Paper Magazine. While you can get decent and cheap pizza, bagels, and frites all over the place, here are some places that I either have been to or have on my own list to visit.
Other stuff to see, places to hang around
Places in Movies
I bought a book that does a much more complete job than I can do of listing places in New York that appear in films. I'm not too happy with the indexing, though. No cross-referencing. You can search by film title but you can't, for example, look up Bethesda Fountain and see what took place there. But it's called Manhattan on Film: Walking Tours of Hollywood's Fabled Front Lot.
I once had this fantastic idea to photograph places in Manhattan that had played a significant role in movies. I started to compile a list made up of things from Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen movies and on one of my trips, set out with the list, the phone book, and my camera to begin what I felt would be a fantastic coffee table book. Unfortunately, I made it pretty far into my list before I found a place that was still where it was and what it was at the time of its filming. Since Manhattan's movie glory days seem to stretch from 1970 to 1987, most everything had moved, closed, burned down, etc. So here's what's left of that list.
Manhattan Neighborhoods, According to Me
David Ronis, July 2004
Notes about the neighborhoods of Manhattan written by a NYC, well, Long Island (close enough) native.
There's been so much written for travelers about New York City. The world certainly doesn't need another guidebook. What I have to offer to the Slow Traveler are my own personal ruminations, experiences and, of course, biases! This guide will, by no means, be comprehensive. My experience in some neighborhoods is limited. The neighborhoods about which I have the most detailed knowledge are the ones where I have lived -- the Upper West Side and Inwood -- the extreme northern tip of Manhattan. What follows is what you might hear from me if I were in tour guide mode and we were walking around Manhattan together.
I've lived in Manhattan for 25 years and, being a good New Yorker, have spent much of that time walking (and jaywalking, as is our custom) its streets. The best way to see New York, or, in my opinion, any city for that matter, is on foot. So, walk, walk, walk and, assuming you can manage it physically, you'll enjoy your stay in New York much more than if you experience it from behind the windows of a yellow cab. OK. Here we go.
The southern tip of the island is its oldest part. It was in the Financial District that Dutch settlers first built New Amsterdam. Like the oldest parts of other cities, streets in this neighborhood can be much narrower than their uptown counterparts. As you're walking around, don't forget to look up. 90% of the best architectural detail of New York buildings is found above eye level. My suggestion is just to wander around, letting your nose lead you. About 10 years ago I worked as a temp at Goldman Sachs in their building on Broad Street and daily walked down South William St. About halfway down S. William when you're walking from Wall Street toward Broad, on the left side, is the original Lehman Brothers building, long since vacated by Lehman for larger, more modern quarters. You might have to look closely to find it. It's only four or five stories high. It's striking to compare this small building with the huge ones housing other major financial institutions today. I think it's a great illustration of how much that industry has grown. At the intersection of S. William and Beaver streets is the old Delmonico's restaurant -- does anyone know "Hello Dolly"? "We'll see the shows at Delmonico's..." After being closed for quite a while, Delmonico's has reopened as a steakhouse. I can't attest to the quality of the food. The Zagat guide gives it a rating of 20 -- not bad. Speaking of restaurants with mediocre food but nice ambience, one historic and interesting place to eat in this neighborhood is Fraunces Tavern at the intersection of Broad and Pearl Streets.
There's a lot to do in this neighborhood, a lot to see: the New York Stock Exchange, Battery Park, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the World Trade Center site, the World Financial Center, the park at Battery Park City, South Street Seaport, just to name a few. But my favorite thing is still to find some little alleyway that I've never walked down. By the way, the Staten Island Ferry, as well as the ferries that run to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, leaves from Battery Park.
Chinatown, Little Italy, Civic Center
The lines of demarcation between neighborhoods in Manhattan are debatable. As you're walking, they can change quite suddenly and don't necessarily conform to what the maps tell you. If you drift up from the Financial District, you might find yourself in a complex of courthouses and other government office buildings. Digression: I just learned the other day that there is a federal prison right behind the courthouses where high-risk criminals are detained -- terrorists -- I mean real terrorists. Most of us who live here associate this area with being called for jury duty -- usually a pain. However, for the food savvy New Yorker, being on jury duty has one significant fringe benefit: the proximity of the courthouses to Chinatown. You're almost always given a full hour, if not more, for lunch. Yum. I love jury duty! Once I was put on a case and enjoyed two very nice lunches on consecutive days with my fellow juror, Ginger Paradise (yes, that was her name and no, she wasn't a stripper. On the contrary, she was quite an ordinary and lovely woman; she just had a stripper's name!) Over the past 20 years, Chinatown has expanded, eating up large parts of adjacent neighborhoods. Little Italy, in terms of total space, dwarfs in comparison. Again, touring Chinatown on foot is best. In addition to all the chotchka shops, I always enjoy going into the Chinese food markets, also the fish markets. If you're shopping, the fish prices are unbeatable. If you're just looking, it's just like being in Hong Kong -- there are fish and fish products sold there that you just don't see in other places. Also the variety of green leafy vegetables is amazing. If seeing lots of fresh produce and raw fish makes you hungry, and you want to eat but can't decide where to plunk down your shekels, consult the Zagat Guide.
For me, Little Italy holds little attraction. The times I've walk through this neighborhood in the past few years, mostly in the evening, the throngs of tourists have really turned me off. Granted, there are fun, traditional places to eat, including Ferrara’s for dessert. However, on a weekend evening in nice weather, these places are so crowded and noisy that I just haven't stopped. Your mileage may vary!
Not too far away is City Hall Park, around which are a few places of note. On one side of the park is the City Hall building itself, usually not accessible to tourists (I think -- I might be totally wrong about this one). Across Park Row is J & R Music, where I often go for discount electronics. Across Broadway is the Woolworth Building, at one point the tallest building in New York (possibly in the world for a while, at least before the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings were built). Unfortunately -- truly unfortunately -- a visitor who has no business there has to be very clever to gain access to even the lobby of this building. If you can get in, though, it's really worthwhile. The design and decoration is beautiful. It ranks up there along with the Chrysler Building as some of the most interesting and fantastic architecture in the city. I was recently at a conference sponsored by New York University that took place in the Woolworth Building. NYU rents some space here. From its side entrance at 15 Barclay St., it's possible to view the Woolworth Building's lobby. The curious visitor with a little bit of chutzpah might ask the security guard at 15 Barclay St. for permission to view it. Someone with more chutzpah might try to sneak past the guard. Just go up the escalator to the second floor. The lobby is viewable from a few feet past the top of the escalator. Alternately, borrow someone's NYU ID card to gain access. It's totally worth it!
Most New Yorkers know that Tribeca refers to the "triangle below Canal Street". If you didn't, now you do! After industrial loft space in Soho had been converted and sold as residential property, at first rather cheaply mostly to artists, later less cheaply to yuppies, and now to God knows whom, the next frontier became Tribeca. Since then, the cutting-edge, starving artist community largely relocated first to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, then to "Dumbo" (down under the Brooklyn Bridge), and now I'm not sure where they are. If you see them, let me know. Long gone are the days when artists lived in garrets in the West Village. Mostly, I go to Tribeca to go to upscale restaurants or to visit friends, like ones who live in the same building where JFK Jr. lived. Of the terrific restaurants in the area -- number one is Nobu. After that are Bouley, Danube, Chanterelle, Montrachet. Needless to say, it's a good neighborhood for good restaurants. However, it's hard to get a reservation at Nobu. Good news! Next door to Nobu is "Nobu, Next Door", which has virtually the same menu but does not take reservations. If you show up right before they open at 5:45 p.m., you can almost always be seated immediately and enjoy their fantastic cooking. Also, forget the sushi. Order family-style from among the other hot and cold dishes. Don't forget some delicious cold sake. You won't be disappointed.
Unfortunately, the character of Soho has changed quite a bit in the last 20 years. Time was when it would be fun to go down there and pop in and out of galleries on a leisurely weekend afternoon. Today, the place is inundated with tourists as well as visitors from not that far away, e.g. what we call the Bridge and Tunnel Crowd, who tend to come into Manhattan from the outer boroughs, New Jersey or Long Island. I say this at the risk of sounding like a snob, especially since I grew up on Long Island, and/or offending some friends (as well as a few million people I don't know). The phenomenon makes me a little ambivalent. It's true, I do like Soho -- I just wish it were less crowded. At any rate, once you're there, you might as well take advantage of Soho's attractions. In addition to the galleries and shops, the downtown branch of the Guggenheim Museum often has terrific exhibits. And it's always fun to go into Dean & Deluca and see European delicacies that you can't find anywhere else in Manhattan as well as ordinary apples for $5 per pound! Outside, there are always those vendors on the street selling handy items like Peruvian hats and mala beads.
Lower East Side (sometimes seen on maps as "Loisaida")
When I think of the Lower East Side, I think of my grandparents and their generation who, after emigrating from Eastern Europe, fleeing pogroms in Russia, etc., started their lives in North America in this neighborhood. It wasn't, however, just Jews who settled there. There was quite a population of other immigrants as well. Culturally, this is one of the richest, oldest neighborhoods in Manhattan.
I'd strongly recommend a visit to the Tenement Museum for getting a good picture of the neighborhood during the first part of the 20th century. I had seen pictures of the streets crowded with pushcarts and "schmata" vendors but didn't realize what life was really like. Orchard Street used to be where people went for clothing bargains. It's sad to say that very few of these authentic, old businesses still remain; most have been replaced by cheap clothing stores of a different nature that I have no interest in visiting. There is also a self-guided walking tour of the Lower East Side which takes you so far East; I had no idea that the neighborhood extended that far. I followed this walking tour a couple of years ago with some friends from out-of-town and saw parts of Manhattan that I never even knew existed! Pretty fascinating.
Most of the old, famous Jewish eating establishments are now gone -- Ratner's, for one. I must say, however, that I was at Sammy's Roumanian on Chrystie Street near Delancey last year and it seems to be thriving. I'd recommend it if you're dying to boost your cholesterol level -- just slather on that chicken fat and start singing "Mein Shtetele Belz" (a beautiful Yiddish song).
When I first moved into Manhattan in 1979 and was looking for an apartment, I looked all over the city, not in any one specific neighborhood. I remember looking at one place on E. 13th St. between 1st and 2nd Aves. that was rundown and dingy and scary. Since then, this part of the city has undergone a metamorphosis. It used to be that the neighborhood east of 1st Ave. (dubbed "Alphabet City" due to the names of the avenues) was pretty shabby and a haven for the drug trade. The further east you went, the worse it got. I was, quite frankly, scared to go anywhere near Ave. C or, God forbid, D! All that has changed. (I've also changed and gotten much more comfortable walking around neighborhoods that some people might consider scary.) Nowadays, boutiques and bistros have taken over. The character of the neighborhood is young and hip. Consequently, when I go down there, I'm conscious of what I wear -- not wanting to appear too unhip. (Black is always safe.) If you're looking for a tattoo or piercing, this is the place to come. St. Mark’s (the eastward extension of 8th Street) still retains some of its character from the 60s and 70s when it was home to the proverbial counterculture. There are many good restaurants, bars and clubs in the East Village. This neighborhood is also still home to a large Eastern European community, whose cuisine is well represented.
Recently my mother discovered her mother's birth certificate. The address listed was on East 5th St. between Aves. C and D. Soon after my mom told me about her discovery, I found myself in that neighborhood and went to investigate -- to see if the building my grandmother was born in still existed and, if so, what it was like. Not surprisingly, instead of a tenement, I found a community garden. I'm not sure when the building was torn down but I couldn't help feeling that a part of my family history had been taken away with it.
Greenwich Village is another neighborhood that has changed a lot in the last 50 years. In the 40s and 50s, it was a home to "bohemians", artists, and cutting-edge musicians. In the late 60s and 70s, it was the east coast center of Gay Liberation. Since then, the Village has settled into a neighborhood with a less radical profile. Not that gays and artists don't live and hang out there anymore; not that the Gay Pride Parade and Wigstock don't take place there -- but the gentrification which has affected so much of the city has brought more affluent and less ... ah ... colorful, if you will, people to the area.
I love to walk around the West Village. It is truly quaint, often quiet and always beautiful. Recently, a friend took me on a trip down Bedford Street, rich with history and wonderful architectural detail. The Edna St. Vincent Millay House at 75 1/2 Bedford Street is a great example of what I mean. I believe that it is only 9 or 10 ft. wide, perhaps the narrowest townhouse in the city. Actually, Edna only lived there for a couple of years, as did John Barrymore and Cary Grant (allegedly with his boyfriend. Scandale!) See the resources below for a little bit of a guide to that area. I also love Chumley’s, the former speakeasy. Check it out!
Here's an idea: meander around the West Village on an autumn evening at around 7 p.m. and discreetly look into people's apartments on the parlor level (just above street level but conveniently at eye level). See what the interiors of their apartments look like and how they're decorated and, of prime interest to me, what they're eating for dinner. After observing Leontyne Price enjoy some lamb chops and mint jelly (I believe that she lives in the Village) go to Le Gigot and have yourself some nice cassoulet!
And then there's the central part of Greenwich Village, dominated by New York University, with Washington Square Park and its famous arch as its focal point. For some reason, although I acknowledge that this area is not uninteresting, talking about it just doesn't excite me. Go figure. There are beautiful residential blocks between 5th and 6th Aves. There is the Strand bookstore, some good restaurants on Bleecker Street, some funky, hip shopping to be had on Broadway in that area, and, if you look closely, some of that West Village bohemian feeling. Check out the Forbes Museum on 5th Ave. and 12th St. And if you need shoes, 8th St. is so loaded with shoe stores, that it makes my head spin. This general area is also the home to four of Mario Batali’s restaurants: his first, Po; his second and most expensive, Babbo; his take on a pizzeria, Otto; and my favorite, Lupa. Another attraction at this neighborhood's northern end is Union Square. Don't miss the farmers market here. It's the best in New York City.
I really don't know too much about Gramercy Park, although I've walked through the area many times. The square around the park itself feels quiet and classy. I believe that only residents of the exclusive buildings, some of them landmarks, bordering the park and their guests are permitted inside. However, not far away (around 27th St. and Lexington) and of particular interest to me, is a small enclave of Indian food stores. Stock up on your fenugreek and garam masala!
Flatiron district and Chelsea
When I think of the Flatiron district, I think: astonishing building, lots of good restaurants (Gramercy Tavern, anyone?), Paragon Sporting Goods, the Union Square Farmers' Market and ABC Carpet and Home. A lot of people live and work in this neighborhood, but for many visitors it's a consumer's' paradise! I have one friend, who lives out of town, who wells up in tears upon crossing the threshold of ABC.
Nowadays, Chelsea is almost synonymous with gay culture, which gravitated north from Greenwich Village in the 80s. It's actually quite a nice neighborhood in which to live. There are some good restaurants and some very pleasant residential streets. And if you're gay and single and into your looks; if you enjoy looking at others, and having others look longingly at you, it's the place to be. Another attraction of the neighborhood is Chelsea Piers, a complex on the Hudson complete with extensive sports facilities as well as some offices and sound stages used by the Law and Order series. Very close by, predominantly on 22nd and 21st Streets, about as far west as you can go, a number of art galleries have opened up. Interspersed with hip clothing shops, this part of Chelsea makes for a nice, diverting walk.
Timeout -- have you remembered to keep looking up? True, there are fewer tall buildings in the Village, Soho and Chelsea, but as you proceed uptown, if you don't look up, you're going to miss a lot.
Murray Hill/East 30s
This is another neighborhood about which I have very little to say. There are blocks of beautiful brownstone buildings, many privately owned and, for being so close to midtown, much of this neighborhood usually feels pretty quiet. Of course, there is the huge exhaust hole that is the western entrance to the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, from which toxic fumes spew forth infecting the edge of this neighborhood, but if you go a few blocks away, the air clears out. Have I mentioned that I'm kind of obsessed with mansions in Manhattan? The relatively low profile Morgan Library, the former J.P. Morgan mansion on Madison Avenue and 36th St., is one of New York's best. It houses a very interesting collection of manuscripts, documents, art, etc. and sometimes mounts terrific special shows. It was also the setting where Coalhouse Walker, in "Ragtime", holed up, held his hostages, and met his demise.
Soapbox time: On one hand, I agree with the people who disparage the Disneyfication of Times Square, saying that the place now has a more generic, white bread, middle-of-America feeling. On the other hand, it still manages to retain that je ne sais quoi, that New York feeling. When Times Square was "cleaned up", the process set into motion by the Giuliani administration, I was against it. I don't think that porn shops were a threat to anyone. On the contrary, I really think that they gave the neighborhood its gritty, down and dirty character -- they were an essential part of it. When they were closed down and generic American stores opened, I realized that the area was now more tourist-friendly and would most certainly bring more money into the city. However, it just wasn't the same. I'm not against progress. What offends my sensibility is the mallification of America masquerading as "improvement". [Stepping down from soapbox]
To me, the crowds of slow-moving people in this neighborhood are the biggest annoyance. I walk fast. I like walking fast. I usually walk with a purpose -- to get somewhere. And it's pretty frustrating having to face pedestrian traffic jams every time I'm there. The sidewalk vendors are the worst culprits for creating this situation. I don't begrudge anyone earning a living, but I wish they could do it without slowing me down! (Reflective moment: thinking about my advocacy of Slow Travel... and my speed when I'm not traveling. Just thinking...) Tourists routinely slow down, captivated by the cheap souvenirs that they sell. Lately I've taken matters into my own hands, literally walking in the street in order to keep my fast New York pace. Now, if and when I'm able to get over myself, it's kind of funny to admit to the mental games I play with myself: blaming "them" (the tourists and slow movers), yet trying to be understanding. NYC stress/anger management 101.
Being an actor, I spend quite a bit of time in the Theater District. My favorite movie theater is the AMC Empire 25 on 42nd St.. If you're in the mood for a movie, see one on the sixth floor of the AMC. From the escalator, you get a nice view of 42nd St. and that older, cool building that you can see on 43rd St. is the New York Times.
West of the theater district are blocks and blocks of residential housing, a plethora of restaurants, some pretty good, a number of small theaters as well as some relatively new high-rise residential buildings. The neighborhood retains a charged up feeling due to the energy overflow of Times Square. To me it also has never felt particularly clean -- not that most of the city is much better -- but this neighborhood feels particularly not-so-clean to me.
All the way east of midtown and north of the UN, in the low 50s, lies this exclusive residential enclave. Apartments have the reputation of being very expensive here. Read: old money. In contrast to the rest of midtown, this area feels quite quiet. I seldom get over here but when I have been, I've had some very pleasant walks in this unique, at least for New York, urban landscape.
"Midtown" Manhattan comprises many different areas but all of them have some things in common: skyscrapers, lots of people, lots of traffic and lots of noise. This is one neighborhood in which looking up is particularly rewarding -- especially when compared with what there is to see at street level. Not that there aren't interesting things at street level. I mean, if you're at Rockefeller Center and you're only looking up, you might miss the skating rink, which would be too bad. However, there are just too many drug stores, mediocre restaurants, entrances to less-then-stunning office buildings and just way too many people going in and out of all them all of the time -- well, particularly during business hours. That said, as a group of buildings, the collection of skyscrapers in midtown Manhattan is unsurpassed -- anywhere!
Now that I've partially bashed midtown, here is a random list of places I really like in the area: the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building (love the deco gargoyles staring down at you from very high), Grand Central Station (don't miss the tiny "dark patch" of ceiling in the northwest part of the main atrium, the only bit of it left as it was before restoration in 1995-1999), Rockefeller Center, Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Radio City Music Hall (the lobby and interior of the theater really blow me away), the main branch of the New York Public Library, Bryant Park, some of the exclusive society clubs on 43rd and 44th Streets west of 5th Ave., the Plaza Hotel, St. Thomas Church (I like it much more than St. Patrick's architecturally or, even just the feeling inside), Bloomingdale's. I'm sure there's more.
Upper East Side/Yorkville
Fact: the Upper East Side is larger than the Upper West Side. Fact: it's much easier to get around the Upper West Side than the Upper East Side. Old Perception that's not necessarily true: all of the rich, waspy Wall Street bankers live on the Upper East Side (actually, they live in Greenwich, CT). Fact: apartment sale prices during the last couple of years have generally been higher for apartments on the Upper West Side than for comparable apartments on the Upper East Side (with some exceptions: 5th Ave., Park Avenue) -- who knew? Fact: the Upper East Side just doesn't have food stores with as good inventory and prices as Fairway and Zabar's on the Upper West Side. Fact: the Upper West Side, in general, has more comfortable movie theaters, as well as one complex, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, that shows more interesting movies, than the Upper East Side. Fact: the mayor of New York City lives on the Upper East Side.
Fact: I live on the Upper West Side and I'm kind of prejudiced.
On the other hand, I do visit the Upper East Side frequently. I'm not embarrassed to be seen there! In fact, if it weren't for the Upper East Side, New York City would be a much poorer place culturally. In addition to the Metropolitan, Guggenheim, and Frick, 5th Ave. is also the home to the Jewish Museum (92nd St.), the Museum of the City of New York (103rd St.), El Museo del Barrio (across 103rd St. from the Museum of the City of New York), and Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum (in the former Andrew Carnegie mansion at 91st St). If you're tired of the Met and Guggenheim and don't feel like walking too far, check out the Jewish Museum or the Cooper-Hewitt; you won't be disappointed.
Other places on the Upper East Side where I like to walk: Park Avenue in the 60s, 70s and 80s to see how the other half or, more precisely, the other 5% lives; Madison Avenue in the 60s and 70s to look at boutique windows -- to see what the other half buys; East End Ave. to see what Mayor Bloomberg is having for lunch; up and down 5th Ave., the periphery of Central Park -- much more pleasant than walking on a busy street.
In the East 80s is an area called Yorkville, an old German neighborhood. If you keep your eyes open, you can find some hints of that: Schaller & Weber Meats on 2nd Ave. and 86th St., old German bakeries, etc. In addition, there is a very cool Hungarian restaurant on 2nd Ave. and 82nd St. called Mocca that, although the food is not brilliant, has very reasonable prices and an atmosphere reminiscent of the old country.
My disparaging comment a few paragraphs back about transportation on the Upper East Side is absolutely true. The area is served by only one subway line. You just can't get around as quickly. Buses are very nice but they tend to move too slowly when you're in a rush -- which is always, because this is New York! When I need to go way over to York Avenue or East End Ave., not being used to spending time in that area, it just seems so far; of course, my prejudice.
A few weeks ago I went to see the film Fahrenheit 9/11 on the Upper East Side. It was the first weekend the film was open and all the tickets at the more convenient and "better" theaters were sold out. With all due respect to the people who run this particular theater who, most probably, weren't prepared to handle the crowds, it was a dismal experience just getting into the place -- very badly organized. My prejudicial mind blamed it on the fact that the theater was on the Upper East Side! However, once inside, when the movie started, all of that frustration dissipated and the audience, eager just to see the film, was attentive and serious -- in fact, a good group among whom to see it.
When I was 15 years old and lived on Long Island, I used to come into the city occasionally for various reasons: to see shows, etc. I remember one time when my friend Doug and I were walking through Central Park. This was the early 1970s and, at that point, from my limited suburban social perspective, it was feared to be a "dangerous" place. It was the middle of the day and we got to a place where there were some inner-city youths -- in truth, I have no idea who these kids were or where they were from, but, in my mind, they were threatening. Anyway, they started walking towards us. Although we didn't immediately admit it to ourselves, we were pretty frightened and made a beeline for the nearest exit from the park.
Funny, I haven't thought about that episode for many years. Nowadays, I go to Central Park as much as possible. If I have to be somewhere on the Upper East Side and I have some time, I try to walk. The experience of walking through the park is calming and therapeutic. I can't remember the last time I felt threatened there. New Yorkers really use the park. Especially when the weather is good, it is absolutely filled with people running, walking, biking, blading, picnicking, sunning, thinking, eating, talking, meditating, boating, playing and just... being. During the spring when trees start to bloom, it's lovely. I have a few favorite wisteria trees that I visit yearly -- if you're passing through in late April/early May, look for the one right on the West Drive near 77th St. next to a little bridge. For visitors to New York, I can't recommend enough spending some time in Central Park.
Upper West Side
How do I begin to describe my home? The Upper West Side is truly my home. Even for the 12 years when I lived in Inwood (the northern tip of Manhattan), the Upper West Side was where I went, hung out, felt comfortable and the neighborhood that I considered "my" place. When I first moved to Manhattan in 1979, I lived on 105th St. between Broadway and West End Ave. (Are you on that block now and wondering which building I lived in? Unfortunately, not the huge beautiful one on the north side of the street but rather the relatively ugly five-story brick affair that was built in the 60s on the south side). I lived there for two years, right out of college, with various roommates. And then I fled uptown to Inwood, where apartments were cheap -- at that point, very cheap -- and comfortable. After 12 years of paying very low rent and being able to save up some money, we bought our current apartment on 100th St. between West End Ave. and Riverside Drive, in effect "coming back to the neighborhood". And it truly is a neighborhood in the best sense of the word. Having lived here for 11 years, I feel like I really do know many of my neighbors as well as local merchants and that we all do live and work here together. This area that I really consider to be "my neighborhood" is west of Broadway, north of 96th St. and south of 110th St. -- in some sources, it's referred to as "Bloomingdale". The only place in the neighborhood that I know of that carries the Bloomingdale name, is the Bloomingdale Music School on 108th St. Other than that, I can't think of any other reference. Well, whatever -- all I know is that it's home.
Some random things I like about living here: I like to be able to walk to so many of the places I need to be. When I lived uptown in Inwood, I was reliant on the subway in order to get anywhere. What else? I like a lot of the architectural detail on the buildings. (Have you been forgetting to look up? Shame on you!) I love West 105th St. between West End and Riverside -- much of it has been given landmark designation. I love the Firemen's Memorial at the Riverside Drive end of my block. I really love Riverside Park. There's a real grassroots feeling in the neighborhood concerning this park -- people have taken it upon themselves to garden in various areas. It's really a terrific resource for all of us who live here. A few years ago, the cafe at 105th Street in Riverside Park, which functioned with a very low profile only during the daytime for a number of years, expanded and now has service on two levels into the evening during good weather, with occasional live music.
Right across from this cafe is a dog run. Dog culture is big in New York City. Since so many people own dogs and we are all out walking our dogs frequently, it's become a major way of socializing for both humans and canines. We have a little longhaired, miniature dachshund, who is four years old, named Hildy. Of course, she's very cute. When she was a puppy and we were house-training her, taking her out eight or nine times per day (!), I felt like I got to know the whole neighborhood, well, at least all of the people on the block with dogs as well as anyone else who thought that my little puppy was as cute as I knew she was. Tip: if you're single and looking, move to New York and get a cute little puppy. You'll be talking to attractive strangers in no time! But, I digress -- back to the neighborhood. I love walking up and down Riverside Drive. There are two or three mansions between 105th and 107th Sts. that are particularly beautiful and unique. There's also an incongruous, but strangely architecturally satisfying Buddhist temple wedged in there with its large statue outside!
Now, my "expanded" neighborhood -- the rest of the Upper West Side as well as the Columbia University area -- also has quite a bit going for it. There is the Museum of Natural History and new Rose Planetarium, Lincoln Center, the Juilliard School, good movie theaters including an IMAX at 68th and Broadway, Tower Records, notable buildings with beautiful architecture: the Ansonia on 73rd and Broadway, the Apthorp at 79th and Broadway (this is a very cool, large building with a courtyard -- have a look. There is a similar one at the northeast corner of Broadway and 86th St. called the Belnord). For great food shopping, of course, there are Fairway and Zabar's and Citarella, all within 10 blocks of each other. Tip: the prices of housewares and appliances upstairs at Zabar's are very, very good. There's a new Whole Foods in the new Time Warner building at Columbus Circle. (Where else but in NYC would a grocery store be a tourist attraction?) These are all places that people know about. One great walk is up Central Park West from Columbus Circle into the 90s, taking in the Dakota, St. Remo and Beresford, among other buildings. Don't forget to look up! (I'm becoming a little tiresome with that remark, am I not?) Here's a place about which very few people know: it's called Pomander Walk, basically a mews between 94th and 95th Sts. and Broadway and West End Ave. Walk down either 94th or 95th and have a peek behind the gates in the middle of block. It's one of the hidden architectural gems in the city.
The Upper West Side has also been in the process of intense gentrification over the last 20 years. In addition to wealthier people moving in, commonly found mall stores have been replacing the mom-and-pop privately owned shops in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, the commercial landlords raise rents -- because they can -- and the only companies who can afford to have businesses there are the name brand stores. I view this as a huge step backwards. There are very few places left in this country where local entrepreneurs still thrive and give these places the character that they deserve. I mean, do we need not one, but two Victoria's Secrets within 20 blocks of each other? Sorry -- no! I must admit, I do enjoy Barnes & Noble -- the convenience, the selection, etc. But there were so many older, independently owned bookstores in the neighborhood that have now gone out of business. Sad. Of course, it's been happening all over the country. I just wish it wouldn't happen here. New York should NOT be like the rest of the US. It SHOULD be unique. There's still some hope -- the mallification of America hasn't totally taken over here. There are still plenty of privately owned businesses -- hopefully they will stay in business.
The other phenomenon that seems to have gone hand in hand with this mallification is Trumpification. The Donald has built a huge residential complex over at the Hudson River between 68th and 72nd Sts. (He’s also had the audacity to name the new street that was created for these new buildings "Riverside Blvd." Yuck. Actually, I'm not sure exactly who was responsible for that name. In any case, I don't like it. Riverside Drive is Riverside Drive and they should call the other street something else – like the Avenue of Pretentious Self-Importance!) All of the people who have been living in that area for years who used to have river views, don't anymore, thanks to the Donald, whose new, relatively characterless buildings were erected at this prime Riverside location. Plus ça change.....
Let’s talk about the good things. Recently, the bicycle/pedestrian path down the length of the West Side was completed. You can now walk or bike from Battery Park all the way up to the George Washington Bridge. I'm proud to say that New Yorkers have been taking advantage of this.
I could go on even longer, but I won't. Let's go uptown from my house.
Columbia University/Morningside Heights/SoHa
The Columbia University neighborhood hasn't changed all that much over the years. Morningside Heights is the home to this major university and it's community. Although it's very much an urban campus, the main quad, at Broadway and 116th St., is beautiful -- spacious, not cramped and all -- and quite special. Did you see Spiderman 2? Some of it was shot there.
Digression: speaking of film and television, it seems that there is more film and television production in New York than ever. I can hardly walk anywhere without seeing a film crew. Frequently it's the ubiquitous Law & Order, but not always. It's great for visitors to New York to be walking around and happen upon a film production. It seems that Law & Order prefers locations on the Upper West Side -- or maybe that's just my skewed perception. But I just see their film crews around here all the time because I live here. If you hang out at West End Ave. and W. 106th St. long enough, they're bound to show up.
Anyway, some cool things about this area -- the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine at Amsterdam Avenue and 112th Street is the largest church in North America. Worth a visit. Tom's Restaurant, made famous by Seinfeld, is also on 112th Street, but at Broadway. At the northern end of this neighborhood are a number of notable institutions: Teachers' College, Riverside Church, Union Theological Seminary, Jewish Theological Seminary and Manhattan School of Music. Recently there has been a rash of relatively inexpensive, good restaurants opened in this sub-neighborhood -- the block of Amsterdam Avenue between 122nd and 123rd St. has a few as does La Salle Place (roughly 123rd St. west of Broadway). At the corner of 120th Street and Claremont Avenue (one block west of Broadway) is sort of an ugly building with a great nickname. It's called the "God Box" to describe all of the various religious institutions who have offices there.
Oh -- the latest trend is the use of the acronym SoHa (South of Harlem) to describe this neighborhood.
I must say that I've spent very little time in Harlem -- not for any particular reason; it's just outside of my usual sphere of activity. There are a number of different parts of Harlem. 2nd Ave. and 110th St. is very different from City College at 141st and St. Nicholas Avenue. Classically, the east side is Spanish Harlem. It used to be that there was a large Puerto Rican population there. Nowadays, I'm not sure about the neighborhood's makeup. I do know that, architecturally, there are beautiful streets with amazingly preserved buildings – rows of brownstone houses, businesses, churches, etc. My maternal grandparents -- the same grandmother who was born on E. 5th St. -- lived in Harlem as teenagers in the early 1920s. At that time, it was not uncommon for Jews who had made enough money to be able to afford more comfortable and spacious housing, to literally "move uptown" and Harlem was one popular destination.
Washington Heights is the area from Columbia Presbyterian Hospital north past the George Washington Bridge to Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters, the medieval museum that is part of the Metropolitan. First and second-generation immigrants from the Dominican Republic inhabit much of this neighborhood. The farther north you go, particularly west of Broadway, the neighborhood's older German Jewish flavor becomes more evident. Fort Tryon Park is one of the loveliest areas of Manhattan. When I lived "down the hill" from there in what I called "Lower Inwood", I always enjoyed coming up to the park. The flower garden outside the Cloisters is beautiful, perched over the "lordly Hudson" with a commanding view of the New Jersey Palisades. It's a wonderful place to get away from the hustle of midtown Manhattan, especially if you go into the museum, home to a terrific collection of medieval art. Check for special events -- early music concerts, etc.
When I said we lived "down the hill from the Cloisters", I could have described it as living "in the shadow of the Middle Ages"! you could see the Cloisters tower from the living room window. Actually, that was my fourth apartment in the neighborhood. (From the other three, the view was not as grand.) As Washington Heights has Fort Tryon Park, Inwood has Inwood Hill Park. Both are special. Inwood Hill Park literally caps Manhattan. I was an avid runner for most of the years I lived there and I would run daily on a beautiful trail around the northern tip of the island. I found a lot of peace on that route as well as the countless squirrels and occasional pheasant. (Yes, that was me, standing under the bridge waving to everyone on the Circle Line boat -- there's nothing like having 500 people waving back at you!) Unfortunately, recently the park was the scene of a horrible crime when a Juilliard acting student was murdered there. It was upsetting to hear of such crime in a place of which I had such fond memories. I almost never ventured into the most interior, remote parts of the park, which were frequently deserted. If you visit this park, not far away from Seamen Avenue and 207th St. there is a large rock with a plaque on it commemorating the place where the Dutch Peter Minuit made the historical deal with the local Indian chief, effectively buying Manhattan island.
Inwood has always had a large Irish immigrant population. It still does as well as a strong Dominican presence. For a slice of that particular cultural life, come up here on Good Friday and see the stations of the Cross procession in the streets that starts and ends at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church on Arden St., two blocks south of Dyckman St. The first time I saw it, it caught me off guard by its seeming "foreignness." "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." There are Irish pubs all over and I frequently heard people speaking with strong Irish accents. I was recently back in my old neighborhood and was disappointed to find that two of my favorite store signs had changed. One thing I enjoy is finding spelling and grammatical mistakes in public places -- on signs, restaurant menus, etc. Here are a few: For the entire 12 years we lived in this neighborhood, there was a clothing store whose sign advertised "Mens & Ladyes Warears". Definitely one of my favorites. Another designated the address of a residential building at the corner of Nagle Ave. and Thayer St. I can't remember the specifics, but basically it said something like "160 Nagle Ave., also know 2 Thayer St." One of the small deli/grocery stores was called "Jace Foods – Link to Health", as if potato chips, ice cream and Twinkies promoted long life. That was a few doors down from a hair salon called "Fantasy of Italy". The guy who owned it was Italian -- kind of eccentric, as I remember -- and I don't know how he did it, but the phone he had there was one that I've only seen in Italy. Not quite qualifying for a misspelling, but equally amusing is the name of the residential building at the northwest corner of Broadway and Dyckman (200th) St., the "BroadDyck Apartments". I'm sure that the builders had no clue that, in later years, their creation would commit the crime of non-political correctness not only on one, but on two counts!
One of my problems living in the neighborhood was that it really lacked decent restaurants. There were a couple of bars in which you could get a good hamburger or sandwich and a number of restaurants that served excellent Spanish food -- but, at that time, not much more. We had quite a community of friends who lived up there with us so it wasn't too hard to socialize at home. However, for most activities, I had to get on the subway and go downtown. Still, with rents in the neighborhood as cheap as they were, it was a very quick trip to get to the Upper West Side, or even to midtown on the proverbial A train! All in all, not a bad place to live.
I love New York and, although I'm very adaptable, if I had to live anywhere else, I would definitely miss it. Lately I've been thinking a lot about growing older.... Yesterday it occurred to me that New York City is a terrific place for senior citizens. Neighborhood shopping is easy and most stores will make deliveries. There are always plenty of people around, so social isolation usually isn't an issue. You don't need to drive, so when you get to that point in life when you shouldn't be driving, you wouldn't have to. It could be problematic if you're living in a walk-up building, but there are many, many places to live that have elevators -- my building, for instance. You could still take full advantage of all the city has to offer culturally -- and if funds were limited, there is plenty to do that is free. The standard audience at the free midday concerts at the Juilliard School are senior citizens who are so appreciative.
I'm not sure why I got off on this growing old tangent. Perhaps because my parents are at that stage of their lives now and as I watch them in their old age, I think about what my life might be like in 30 years. At this point, I have no intention of moving out of Manhattan. And I might not ever. I consider myself lucky to live here.
Copyright David Ronis, 2004
"Originally published on Slow Travel."