Manhattan—All of It—On Foot

Willard Spiegelman, the Hughes Professor of English at SMU, writes about a walk through Manhattan.

By Willard Spiegelman

I went for a walk. A long walk. With five like-minded pedestrians, all 30 years younger, I did Manhattan from top to toe, starting at 8:30 a.m. and ending 11 hours later on the second day of summer, with only modest pedal calluses as uncomfortable reminders the morning after.

The plan was easy. We met at the top of Manhattan. Today's geography question, class: Where is this? If you said Marble Hill, at 230th Street, seemingly in the Bronx on the other side of the Harlem River, you get a star. Very few New Yorkers know this.

We were three college English teachers, one librarian and two social workers. Two married couples come from the Midwest. One social worker lives in Queens. I count as a part-time Manhattanite.

We gathered outside the 231st Street No. 1 subway station in the golden light of a Saturday morning. I don't know about you, but I like New York in June. The city was waking up. With its undistinguished red- and yellow-brick buildings, Upper Manhattan qualifies as a melting pot, many but not all of whose ingredients are Caribbean and Hispanic. The Dolce Vita Hair Spa and Salon sits cheek-by-jowl with the office of a Vietnamese chiropractor, the Gold Mine Cafe ("Open 24 Hours"), the Te Amo Convenience Store and Keenan's Irish Pub ("est. 1961"). Mr. McGoo's Pub is up Broadway a block, and Loeser's Kosher Deli is a block down.

Tourists do not come to this part of New York.

We crossed the Broadway Bridge and headed west into Inwood, its tree-shaded streets filled with sedate, single-family homes and well-maintained gardens. By 9:20 it was time for our first snack, pastries from the Isham Street farmers' market. Then we continued south, past small Orthodox shuls, and the Dyckman Street station at Fort Tryon Park, the tower of the Cloisters visible above the treetops.

On Broadway and 181st Street—aka, Juan Rodriguez Way here—we saw a sign for the dental offices of Dr. Moshe Glick and his partner Dr. Olga Iglesias, on top of Colorina Shoes and across from the Pagan Driving School. Nearby: a taco truck called La Viagra, of all things. Moving past Audubon Terrace, we finally entered one of Manhattan's more familiar precincts. We stopped for early Bloody Marys and Eggs Benedict at Toast on 125th Street and Broadway. A little after noon, fortified, we resumed.

Greenery beckoned. We headed down quiet Claremont Avenue paralleling the Hudson. The Dalai Lama was doing a gig at Riverside Church. We ambled down leafy Riverside Drive, witnessing en route a bicycle accident—fire truck and ambulance on the scene to rescue the hapless victim, who had slammed into an opening car door—and headed east, past St. John the Unfinished and toward the northwest corner of Central Park.

We stopped at Bank Street Bookstore on Broadway for some of our group to find souvenirs for their kids. Catty-corner, on the northeast side, we saw our first real tourists of the day, snapping photos in front of Tom's Restaurant (think "Seinfeld").

Then into the park, weaving between sun and shade, roller-bladers and canines, the glorious stand of American elms south of Bethesda Fountain, the kayak-crowded lake. At 2:20 we emerged in front of the Plaza, back in the city again.

Even on a weekend, Midtown throbs with people. We pressed through Sixth Avenue's street vendors hawking all manner of things to eat, drink and wear, and hit Rattle N Hum, an Irish pub east of Madison on 33rd Street. Cold, dark and empty was the place, with European soccer matches on big TV screens. Cold and dark were the beers, even more appreciated.

A movie crew was occupying a dozen square blocks around Madison Avenue in the 20s and 30s. Traffic has halted. "What are they doing?" we asked. It turned out to be a 60-second chase scene from an upcoming Spider-Man movie; we heard this through the grapevine, not the closed-lipped traffic controllers.

Our brush with entertainment left us unsettled, so we turned west through Madison Square Park, passed the Flatiron Building and strolled down Fifth Avenue to 11th Street, one of those tasteful residential blocks that virtually whisper: "West Village: You Really Cannot Afford to Live Here." After pizza slices on Sixth Avenue, we meandered to West Street on the Hudson, where we refreshed ourselves briefly (whiskey and pickles) at the Rusty Knot, full of what look like local drinkers.

Everyone will discover curiosities during a walk like this, and have plenty of questions about history, architecture and culture. Smartphones have never been more useful or appreciated. What was that abandoned picture hall on upper Broadway? It's the old United Palace, featured in that morning's Times; it opened in 1930, became the church of Rev. Ike in 1969 and is now engaged in a fund-raising campaign to restore its original magic.

And what about this pseudo-Renaissance edifice, sticking out like a giraffe near the lovely Greenwich Village Greek Revival row houses we have just walked past? Julian Schnabel's Palazzo Chupi, a work of art to some, a monstrosity to others—an act of narcissism, vandalism or sheer chutzpah, depending on whom you're listening to.

We moved down the Hudson as breezes came off it. We had glorious views of New Jersey, the Statue of Liberty and, looming ahead, One World Trade Center.

We bypassed the lines for the 9/11 Memorial site. One of us had a better plan: Go to the top floor of the World Center Hotel, sit on the terrace with drink in one hand and camera in the other and gaze down at the miracles of Lower Manhattan.

At 7:30, having peered through the gates of Bowling Green and admired the stately old Custom House, now the Museum of the American Indian, we reached Battery Park. We stood by the railing for class pictures. A fisherman volunteered to take one of all of us.

"We just walked here from the Bronx, 19.58 miles according to our iPhone app," I said.

"You did what?" he replied, incredulously. "I live up there. I always take the subway. You should try it."

At 8 p.m., we were sitting at an outdoor table on Stone Street, amid tourists from all over the world, and next to young ladies who seemed to have leapt straight from the cast of "Jersey Shore." The place was raucous, the beer wonderful, the noisy vulgarity irrelevant.

I grabbed a No. 2 subway at Wall Street to get home. The evening had turned mild. No matter how you look at it, or where or when, New York is a helluva town. The Bronx is up, the Battery down.

I'll take Manhattan.

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