To Know New York City, You Have to Walk Its Streets

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Recently a new acquaintance asked me if I had lived in New York City all my life. I jokingly responded “not yet!” But it started me thinking that “to live” and “to reside” in NYC are two disparate verbs. I hope to reside in NYC for the remainder of my days, but there is just so much living to do in a city as diverse as New York, I will never cover it all in my lifetime. But I am doing my utmost to “Use York City.”

To paraphrase that noted journalist, novelist and New Yorker extraordinaire – Pete Hamill – to know New York you have to walk its streets.  And so I use any reason, any occasion to walk to my destination and stay above ground. That is how I discovered some of the most charming corners in New York City.

These secretive, pleasant pockets and squares come out of no where and stop you in your tracks. In a city dominated by residential “sky streets” and commercial skyscrapers, it is refreshing to be able to step down to street level, to another century where a genteel past with homes no higher then five stories, accented by quaint carriage houses and gas lamps, were the norm.  Recall my theory that New York City is an outdoor museum? Well, I am now offering further proof and I wish to share my three favorite street scenes with you.

An unexpected find was Henderson Place, a teeny tiny tucked away private street, several steps from the corner of East End Avenue. It is on the north side of East 86th Street and consists of a lovely line of four story town houses. That warm, familiar red brick facade immediately grabs your eye and you find yourself “somewhere in time.” Images of afternoon tea and parasols come to mind.  I expected Edith Wharton to step out of one of these lovely facades.

Turn the corner, continue admiring the neat, stooped homes lining East End Avenue up to 87th Street, and you realize diagonally across the avenue is the aptly named Gracie Mansion, the Mayor’s residence on the East River. Envision how glorious was this stretch of old New York at the turn of the 20th century. Stroll behind the Mansion facing the river with its sailing ships and commercial vessels enroute to the harbor down at the Battery, then conjure this panorama with the breaking dawn dotting the water… a watercolor waiting to happen.

I confess that after a viewing of Woody Allen’s cinematic love letter to New York City, “Annie Hall,” I deliberately set out to find Sutton Place for that iconic view of the 59th Street Bridge (now renamed the Ed Koch Bridge) crossing the East River, lovingly and memorably framed in this film. Turns out this lovely street patio, complete with benches for contemplation, leads to the cobble stoned Sutton Square directly overhanging the FDR Drive on East 58th Street immediately facing the East River.

Welcoming benches and gas lamps are invitingly situated for reading, talking and daydreaming. To the left and right of this small square are lovely Greek revival townhouses and Georgian four storied homes with private yards and elegant gardens leading down to the river.  Assume a different vantage point and look up to the top floors of these elegant townhouses…A greenhouse? A painter’s uniquely windowed studio perfectly situated to capture the essential morning light? A roof top garden?  An author’s eaved garret?  Each top floor on this square of gracious homes seems to hold its own interesting design and purpose.

 

 

The Granddaddy of all them all is Irving Place situated on the East Side of Manhattan and tucked below the exceedingly private Gramercy Park. From 19th Street to 15th Street, Irving Place is uniquely located between Lexington and 3rd Avenues and boasts an illustrious parade of period buildings, homes, and notable residents, past and present. The oldest continuously serving bar in Manhattan,“Pete’s Tavern”, dominates Irving Place and boasts the past patronage of the great short story writer, O. Henry and Ludwig Bemelmans of “Madeleine” fame. However, for me the landmark “The Players Club” (a one time home to the legendary actor, Edwin Booth) takes precedence on Irving Place.

So many interesting tales down at ‘The Players Club.” Should you ever have the opportunity to enter this celebrated private club – many events are open to the public – do so!  The bar alone is worth a visit.  The elegant narrow streets of Irving Place immediately slow you down, they are chock full of landmark four story homes, beautifully maintained in their original states, some designed by noted architect, Sanford White. Every other ivy covered facade seems to display a plaque proclaiming an illustrious previous resident…crime writer Patricia Highsmith, author of the “Ripley” spy books, Oscar Wilde and his literary agent, Elizabeth Marbury, who was also agent to George Bernard Shaw and James Barrie, are a sampling.  Walk, admire, and by all means, read the tributes to previous owners and residents. You’ll puff with pride when you learn whom you may have called “neighbor.”

 

Guest post by Joanne Theodorou

 

 

  • Journeyer

    Your blog was a fantastic appreciation of our great “walking city.” My best advice to anyone coming to NYC is to walk and discover.