It’s almost impossible to walk around this vibrant city and not mix with people from all over the globe. From the filthy rich to the just plain filthy it is this veritably chunky stew that makes this tapestry complete. Just like the streets and avenues weaving through Manhattan in their symmetrical pattern, the inhabitants of New York City are like threads coming together to make up the rich fabric of one of my favorite places in the world.
Since I grew up just through the Lincoln Tunnel on the other side of the Hudson River in hills of North Central New Jersey, I have visited New York dozens of times and even lived here for about a year back in my university days when I was an intern at “Late Night with David Letterman.” But never have I really explored the city as much as I did during the two months that I stayed with my grandmother right after my world tour. Perhaps it was because I was still happily in traveler mode; I was more than content to wander the streets like the modern-day vagabond that I’d become.
The island of Manhattan is undeniably walkable. Every time I went out to explore a new neighborhood I would walk there and back oftentimes covering several miles during my journeys. But there was just so much filling my view, so much tickling all my senses, that I barely noticed how far I’d gone.
One day I strolled from my grandmother’s Chelsea apartment on 24th Street and 9th Avenue to get a very overpriced haircut on the Upper East Side at 73rd Street and Lexington Avenue. That’s 50 short blocks north and 7 long blocks east coming out to about three and a half miles one way. Another day, after experiencing one of New York’s best tourist deals—a free round trip aboard the Staten Island Ferry which passes our nicest gift from France, the Statue of Liberty, I walked home from the southern tip of Manhattan and Battery Park City.
It was amazing and also a good way to try and walk off all the food and desserts my grandma was forcing me to eat. Well, force is a bit dramatic… she offered me chocolate and I said ‘yes.’ She offered me ice cream and I said ‘yes.’ You get the idea.
It’s funny, when I was in my early twenties, my favorite neighborhood was the Upper West Side—it was clean, trendy, and well, just plain ‘neighborhoody.’ And although it is still very nice, it’s become a bit too plastic and ‘chain-store’ saturated for me. I think it’s like the biggest fear of gentrification—well, simply-put: over-gentrification–where there’s no longer any personality or independent thought or design to the Starbucks frothed area. This go-around, I got to know some other neighborhoods better and really became smitten with them. Like the old warehouse-lined streets of the Meatpacking District (officially known as the Gansevoort Market) just south of Chelsea with its velvet-roped nightclubs and obscenely expensive shops sprinkled throughout the industrial zone’s hulking structures where cows once hung in its 250+ slaughterhouses in the early 1900s.
Now high-end boutiques like Christian Louboutin and Stella McCartney, and restaurants such as Pasti’s and Buddha Bar, all have recently opened in order to cater to yuppies and hipsters. In 2004, New York magazine called the Meatpacking District “New York’s most fashionable neighborhood.”
I can’t think of a neighborhood more charming than the West Village. Its leafy cobblestone side streets are lined with super-expensive and painstakingly renovated brownstone apartment homes with freshly painted shiny black banisters, polished brass door knockers and charming wooden shutters. On a stroll through Greenwich Village I realized how much I liked it now. Back in the 80s and 90s, I think it was still a bit too hippie-slash-grungy for me. Today it’s teeming with trend-setting students from NYU, cute coffee shops, hip bars, and still a few hippie holdouts that add a dash of grime and grunge to give it just the right flavor.
While wandering around, I satisfied my craving for some tasty New York street food with a $3 juicy, drippy Gyro in a pita with tzatziki and hot sauce. I indulged in this fatty delight while sitting on a bench next to someone you find in every park in Manhattan—a pigeon-person. This man was feeding dozens of his fine feathered friends right out of his hands in the Village’s famous Washington Square Park.
While I munched on my lunch, I also watched dogs of all sizes gleefully playing in a fenced off dog park where a posted sign summed up the whole ‘hood: No people without dogs, no dogs without people.
My third new favorite new ‘hood is the Lower East Side. It was formerly home to thousands of Jewish immigrants at the turn of the century. It was here where my grandma, Esta Saltzman, performed in Yiddish plays and musicals in some of the biggest venues of their time. Of course nowadays, these theatres are gone, with new funky shops and trendy eateries in their place. In fact, the theatre on the corner of Second Avenue and Houston was formerly know as the National Theatre where she performed, but now in its place is a new cultural icon of our generation: a 60,000 square foot Whole Foods.
But there are still some old Jewish holdouts that I can’t ever miss when I’m in town: Russ and Daughters Deli and THE one and only, Katz’s Delicatessen—made famous by its orgasm-inducing pastrami sandwiches—well, at least the one Meg Ryan was having in When Harry Met Sally (really the best rom-com of all time).
Nowadays, this area is gentrifying fast with the most written-about hip and trendy restaurants opening up next door to Laundromats, convenience stores, and even a retro skateboard repair shop all up and down the great, lively streets: Ludlow, Rivington, Orchard, Stanton, and Clinton. This was once home to family-filled tenement buildings of lower class workers. Now it’s a trendy mix of hipsters, artists, and rich-folk wanting to be in the neighborhood of the moment.
One night I met up with my new Swedish friend Erik—we were actually supposed to meet in London a couple months ago, but he moved here to New York before we got the chance. He took me and a friend to the lower East Side for dinner.
We were walking down Rivington Street when suddenly, he just turned a corner and headed down a dark alley that oddly had a street sign. Oooo-kay. At the dead-end of the alley was a little shack of a place called Freeman’s that looked to be the back side of a building. But its million-dollar rustic-chic interior was packed to the gills with the trendy-set drinking cocktails and nibbling on tuna tartare. Needless to say it was at least a two hour wait (and it was a Tuesday night) and we didn’t stay. A wait that equals the time it would take us to fly to Chicago for dinner was a bit too long even if it was THE in place to be of the second (this is New York after all, by the time you read this—it may have closed already).
New York City. It’s more easy-going and friendlier than most think. I hear hellos and how you doins’ all the time. The people walk with a purpose and are a direct lot, but really do smile and say hello probably more than any other city I’ve been in (ok, even if most of the ones saying hello are the construction workers).
Just on my subway ride to the airport I experienced this New York friendliness that I’m talking about. First I asked some of New York’s finest of the NYPD about which train to take to JFK. Not only did they point me in the right direction, they waited for me to board the train and told me which stop to get off at. Another man helped me with my suitcase as the wheels got stuck in the door while I was hoisting it onto the train car. And once onboard and riding through Brooklyn another friendly local who knew I was heading to the airport, thanks to my bags, told me I’d be getting off in just a few stops… and I didn’t even ask him.
And you can be anyone and meet anyone here. One day I walked past beautiful actress Anne Hathaway on the sidewalk in Chelsea. And then the next day I was passed by an old lady pushing a stroller… with a cat in it. Yep—only in New York.