New York City is one of the great cities of the world. It’s also one of the world’s great walking cities. So during my visit to the Big Apple last week, I joined Roberta Kravette (left), my friend and author of the great Destination: Wildlife website, to discover the sights that can be seen on the legendary sidewalks of New York. Along the way, we passed through the neighbourhoods that make the city such a colourful tapestry of cultures, and public places where history, food and art all come together.
We started in one of Roberta’s favourite spots: Union Square, at the edge of Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan. This is a busy, bustling square that’s been a gathering place for villagers and other New Yorkers for many years. And on a Wednesday morning, it was alive with a full-on farmer’s market, New York style.
On one of the last weeks of autumn, the bounty of the season was on display, from tomatoes and carrots to pumpkins and Indian corn. You could even buy New York honey, made by bees with a Brooklyn accent. And there was a Canadian connection: Andrew Coté, the honey seller, told me he had family in northern Ontario
We bought a souvenir or two from a street vendor and admired the amazing art installation fronting an office building across the street. It was once a cigarette ad with smoke puffing out, Roberta told me – times change.
On southward through the Village, to reach Washington Square, at the foot of Fifth Avenue. This is one of New York’s true landmarks – and the subject of an old banjo tune I still remember from the ‘60s. Today it’s a major tourist attraction, and the biggest current attraction is a sculpture by the famous Chinese political artist Ai Weiwei. Part of a city-wide art project called Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, it fits cleverly inside the Washington Square Arch, the northern entrance to the park. The arch itself looks suspiciously like the Arc de Triomphe, but I tried not to mention it.
Greenwich Village was once the hangout for the beat generation and its successors, like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Those people are long gone, but it’s still a quirky, artsy part of town and a great place to wander and explore. We spent a few minutes in a vintage hat shop, where I tried a brown wool fedora. I had my doubts at the time – now I’m reconsidering.
Southward past Houston Street (pronounced HOWston), and we were into SoHo (South of Houston). This part of town was once the city’s red light district, but today it’s a trendy district known for its art galleries and shopping. It also has its classic eateries, like Balthazar, a faithful reproduction of a French brasserie that looks like a great place to have a coffee and a croissant. Next trip …
I was fascinated by the buildings in this part of town. SoHo is the capital of cast iron architecture: in the mid-1800s, architects began using moulded cast iron to front their buildings, achieving classic designs at a lower cost than with stone. But I was just as struck by the iron fire escapes that graced many of the buildings, creating artistic designs of their own.
A couple of blocks east, and we reached the next neighbourhood, New York’s famous Little Italy: it even has a sign marking its boundary.
And there was no doubt we were in a different part of New York. The streets were filled with Italian restaurants and sidewalk patios, and people lined up at street stands to buy cannoli.
In Toronto, many of the ethnic neighbourhoods have evolved over the years, changing from Italian or Jewish to Portuguese and then Chinese or Indian. In New York, places like Little Italy have stayed almost unchanged over the decades. The reason involves tourism, says Roberta: it was profitable to stay Italian.
Heading south again, we were in Chinatown. No big street sign this time, but there was no doubt we were in a different country – even the signs on the banks were in Chinese.
The streets were lined with noodle shops and stores filled with the distinctive red and gold Chinese ornaments. And of course, open-fronted food stores were everywhere, offering everything from star fruit and rambutans to fresh soft-shelled crabs.
The south end of Chinatown brought us to a spot that afforded a great view of the Brooklyn Bridge, which looks just as impressive in person as it does in the movies and pictures. You can walk the length of the bridge for fun, though it’s a long hike. No time this morning: we had a lunch appointment at Sardi’s, so we pushed on.
City Hall Square
Around the corner, and we reached City Hall Square, the end of our morning walk. It’s an impressive spot, as you might expect, with grand buildings that make you feel as though you’re in a European capital. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of this classical portico in a government building.
That was the end of our morning walk – a tour of five neighbourhoods that could each have come from a different city. But there was more to see on the sidewalks of New York. A night or two later, after touring the Empire State Building, I wandered around the corner to find a full-blown Korean street market, on the edge of a solidly Korean district at Broadway and West 32nd Street, right in the middle of Manhattan.
That’s New York — a city of neighbourhoods like no other. You could spend a month walking the sidewalks of New York and never run out of new districts to see, especially if you crossed the Queensboro or Brooklyn Bridge and visited the boroughs across the river. There are places like Jackson Heights, with its Hispanic shops and restaurants, or DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) – the list goes on …
Like all big cities, New York is an amalgam of many cultures. But perhaps more than most, those diverse nationalities have become part of what the city is. The people arrived at Ellis Island, in the New York harbour, to chase the American dream, and the city that resulted is an amalgam of all their efforts. It will keep changing, too, as new immigrants arrive, even though that may slow in the current political climate. If I return in 15 years, will there be a Syrian neighbourhood, or a Haitian enclave? I’ll have to come back and see.