West 57th Street

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So much of New York real estate press these days is about the flurry of enormous new development skyscrapers along 57th Street. Although some of the press is about how these buildings will change the skyline of Manhattan, particular from the viewpoint of Central Park, most is about the stratospheric prices many of the apartments in these buildings command. This has lead to this neighborhood being called “Billionaire’s Row”  – and with the average price of these new condo apartments approaching $20 million and the two apartments in One 57 selling for over $90 million each, being a billionaire couldn’t hurt. The term “Billionaire’s Row” is a throwback to the term “Millionaire’s Row” given to Fifth Avenue north of 50th Street, particularly those buildings along Central Park, in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Families like the Astors, Vanderbilts, Fricks, and Whitneys all jockeyed to built the most impressive homes along this stretch, and of course Andrew Carnegie’s mansion at 90th Street (written about in my previous blog post about Carnegie Hill) was perhaps the zenith of this activity.

I have written about the enjoyment of taking an unplanned walk through an urban environment (a dérive), and decided to walk around this part of town while imagining what it would be like to live there (as opposed to rushing through on the way to a Broadway show). Starting at Fifth and 57th Street, a powerhouse of a corner with Bergdorf’s, Tiffany’s, and Louis Vuitton trying to out-dazzle each other, I walked west and almost immediately noticed 9 West 57th Street – impossible to miss because of the enormous red sculpted “9” in front. Standing in front of this building and looking directly up, the curving slope of its façade is almost dizzying. In addition, its mirrored surface reflected, on the day I was there, the sky dotted with puffy clouds. Looking across the street at this point, I was surprised to see something I had never noticed when not  imagining I lived here: a supermarket (Morton Williams) on the south side of the street midway between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. It’s nice to know that the billionaires have this available (although one imagines most of them are eating out or catering).

Crossing Sixth and continuing west, I look south and realize that Le Parker-Meridien New York being in the neighborhood might make it easier to get to the Burger Joint at an odd time and avoid the huge line (and desperate search for a table). At this point, I also realized how close I was to one my favorite places to eat in the city, Todd English’s Food Hall in the Plaza (59th between Fifth and Sixth). On the north side of this block is elegant Steinway Hall, now closing as a showroom for fine concert pianos but soon to be part of a new skyscraper built primarily on the lot next to the hall, but with air rights over the Steinway building. The star of the block currently, of course, is One 57, at 157 W 57th Street. Nearing completion, and yet already close to sold out, currently it dominates the area, but with the other “tower power” buildings planned, it will eventually be simply a part of the reimagined Manhattan skyline. It will briefly be the city’s tallest residential building, at over 1000 feet, but will soon be overtaken by 432 Park (with a height of almost 1400 feet, when it is finished it will be the highest residential building in the Western hemisphere).

The southeast corner of Seventh and 57th Street is home to Carnegie Hall, reason enough to consider living here! On the north side of the block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, you can glimpse trees in Central Park – for now – through the empty space soon to be another duo of tall residential buildings. It’s easy to forget how close you are to Central Park while walking along 57th Street, although the view of the Park that north-facing apartments in One 57 above 225 feet or so has certainly contributed to their value.

Crossing Eighth Avenue, look north to see Columbus Circle, the ending location of one of my recent blog posts. The look of the apartment buildings changes as you continue west. In the same period of time that Fifth was turning into “Millionaire’s Row,” 57th Street became the home of several large apartment buildings (like the Parc Vendome and Alwyn Court) designed to lure wealthier (if not quite in the league of those on Millionaire’s Row) New Yorkers away from their townhouses and into full service buildings with doormen and spacious apartment layouts. Looking at the Parc Vendome, one of four massive imposing apartment buildings on 57th near Ninth Avenue, I noticed the different feel these buildings have compared to the slender tall towers sprouting up along the street.

Turning north, I was struck with how quickly the tone of the neighborhood changes – within a few blocks, the midtown feeling is gone and you are clearly on the Upper West Side, and steps from Central Park as well as Lincoln Center. Thinking about it, this is the genius of 57th Street as a place for residential buildings, straddling Central Park and Upper West Side (or East, in the case of 432 Park) on one side and busy, bustling midtown on the other. London has a “Billionaire’s Row” as well, but it’s a series of mansions in a quiet part of North London (Bishop’s Row). This central location for New York’s strip of “power towers” is an advantage for anyone looking to live in the middle of the island. These new tower developments have been controversial, but so many architectural developments that were initially hated (The Eiffel Tower and original World Trade Center, for instance) became icons over time. Perhaps one day the new developments changing the skyline of Manhattan along 57th Street will become accepted and integrated into the look of New York City, a place that is always changing, and therefore, never boring.

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Tribeca

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Today’s dérive (an unplanned walk in an urban environment) is in the neighborhood of Manhattan that is both the wealthiest and has the lowest crime rate – Tribeca. The first part of the city to expand beyond the colonial boundaries, it was an industrial center for the city in the mid-19th Century, but lost many of those businesses and slowly fell into disrepair by the 1960’s. Artists were attracted to the large empty commercial spaces, eventually leading to the area’s transformation into the upscale residential enclave it is today.

Although the acronym stands for “TRIangle BElow CAnal” it is not shaped like a triangle, and in fact its eastern and southern boundaries are not clear-cut. The northern edge is Canal Street, and the western edge the Hudson River, but the east boundary bleeds into Chinatown, with some maps showing Broadway and others showing Centre Street as the edge. To the south, it is even more confusing, with the boundary between the Financial District and Tribeca being shown as Vesey Street, Chambers Street, or Duane or Reade Streets (yes, the first Duane Reade drugstore was here). From my recent walk, I can say that making the area smaller (Broadway to the east and Duane Street to the south) results in the area seeming more cohesive. In particular, the area to the south of Reade Street begins to seem much more like the financial district or Battery Park City to me.

Wandering from the Canal Street 6 subway station and heading west, turning south on Sixth Avenue (AKA Avenue of the Americas), the character of the neighborhood becomes immediately apparent. Many of the buildings are former industrial buildings that have been converted into lofts and apartments, with some corporate use (32 Avenue of the Americas, a gorgeous Art Deco skyscraper, once held AT&T and now houses a variety of financial and technical companies). On many of the side streets, you can see the original cobblestone construction, and now that Tribeca is a historic district, as these streets need resurfacing, they will have to undergo cobblestone repair rather than being paved with asphalt. Although beautiful, cobblestone streets are a good way to twist your ankle if not careful, or break off the heel of your new Christian Louboutins!

North Moore Street is an excellent example of a quiet Tribeca Street, home of expensive condos and a few small boutiques. It’s also the home (14 N. Moore) to Hook and Ladder No. 8, the firehouse used to film “Ghostbusters.” As you walk around Tribeca, views of One World Trade Center come in and out of view, much as the original World Trade Center towers did before 9/11/01. It’s not a surprise, then that the firefighters at No. 8 were some of the first responders on that day.. Out of the ashes of this terrible loss was created the Tribeca Film Festival, envisioned as a way to rebuild the neighborhood and now part of its spectacular success. Generally held in April, the Film Festival now attracts up to 3 million people and brings in approximately $600 million to the city.

While on this walk, I heard one tourist say to another, “This looks so much like New York!” Despite the humor inherent in that remark, I do know what they mean – there is a characteristic look in Tribeca that is quintessentially Manhattan. However, the fantastic thing about this city is that I could name a multitude of other neighborhoods that also look “so New York” and all are different. This is what makes living in New York, or walking around it, so rewarding – such rich variety within a relatively small space.

A walk in the East Village

The fabulous Public Theater on Lafayette Street
The fabulous Public Theater on Lafayette Street

I have written before about the pleasure of taking a dérive, an unplanned walk in an urban environment with the intention of encountering something new. New York City is the perfect place for such an experience, since its multitude of neighborhoods results in endless possibilities. For today’s derive, I took the 6 subway to Astor Place and began to walk.

The Astor Place subway station is one of the original 28 subway stations, and has been open since 1904. The mosaics on the wall of the subway platform feature beavers, a tribute to the beaver pelt business that built the Astor fortune (John Jacob Astor, who died in 1848, was once the wealthiest person in the United States). Emerging from the subway station, you are in Astor Place, only about two blocks long, and the site of the Astor Opera House in the 19th century. The Astor Place Riot in 1849 was theoretically a fight over the relative skill of two rival actors who were playing Macbeth in nearby theaters (!), but the underlying tension had to do with anti-British sentiment among Irish-Americans at the time of the potato famine.

Turning onto Lafayette Street and heading south, on the left is the magnificent Public Theater, housed in what once was the Astor Library (they have a wonderful place for drinks and nibbles within the Public, called The Library as an homage to the building’s history). Home to five different theaters as well as the singular Joe’s Pub, this is where “Hair” was born, and continues to surprise theatergoers today with “Here Lies Love,” a musical based on the Imelda Marcos story with music by David Byrne. The Public is truly a New York institution, presenting Shakespeare in the Park performances every summer – for free! – in the Delacorte Theater within Central Park.

Walking down Lafayette, I was struck by the different feeling you get in this part of town, where most buildings are shorter and you can see more sky as you walk down a wide street like Lafayette. The Manhattan Schist (the bedrock that allows skyscrapers to be built in midtown with a strong foundation) dips several hundred feet lower in the Greenwich Village/East Village region, so fewer tall buildings were built in this area. (As a comparison, the schist is only 12 feet below Times Square.) The shorter buildings do give the area a more open, less imposing, air. Turning east on 4th Street, you soon see the Cooper Union – a school for art, architecture, and engineering founded by Peter Cooper in 1859. Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Cooper Union Address in the Great Hall while running for President in 1860, the address that turned the tide positively for his winning his party’s nomination.

Crossing Bowery (which immediately north of 4th Street is briefly Cooper Square before becoming Third Avenue), you find yourself on a block known for the support and incubation of new work. On the south side of the block is LaMaMa, founded by Ellen Stewart in 1961 to give free space and support for artists. On the north side is New York Theatre Workshop, founded Stephen Graham in 1979 to encourage innovative new works for the theater. “Rent” was born here in 1996 before moving to Broadway, and more recently “Peter and the Starcatcher” did the same.

Crossing Second Avenue and continuing east, is a building (85 E 4th) that I particularly love. It’s home to the New York Neo-Futurists “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind” every Friday and Saturday night at 10:30. The show is never the same, and involves trying to complete 30 two-minute plays (written by the performers) before the hour-long timer goes off. I’ve seen this feat many times and never fail to laugh, be inspired, and given something to contemplate within the array of short plays performed. Most nights of the week there are literary readings above the Kraine Theater at KGB Bar, and even if there is not, it is a fun place to relax and enjoy the authentic Soviet-era décor.

Hitting First Avenue and turning north, within a few blocks you will find St. Mark’s Place, a few blocks of 8th Street with a distinct character. There are certainly other places within the city to get a tattoo or elaborate piercings, but you could do considerable comparison shopping here within a few blocks. I chose to get a quick bite to eat at Mark on St. Mark’s between Second and Third for some great sliders and a shake. Continuing along St. Mark’s Place gets you back to Astor Place and its distinctive sculpture that I always thought was called (descriptively) “The Cube” but I found out is named “Alamo.” This cube turned on a point is balanced so that one person can, with effort, spin it around, while two can do it easily. This interaction of art and playfulness, to me, sums up the appeal of this creative, stimulating neighborhood.

Central Park West from 72nd to 59th Street

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For this dérive (an unplanned walk within an urban landscape), a portion of the Upper West Side beckons. Emerging from Central Park, passing the guy who will tell a joke for $1 (money returned if you don’t laugh, according to the sign, but I’ve never personally tested it), and with the sounds of the ever-present guitarist singing Beatles songs to the throngs of tourists in Strawberry Fields fading away, Central Park West welcomes you at 72nd Street with a visual treat: the facades of two iconic buildings, the Dakota and the Majestic. Central Park West, like Fifth Avenue, features an unbroken line of residential apartment buildings from 59th Street to 110th Street. While the buildings on CPW and Fifth gaze (or perhaps glare?) across Central Park at each other, they do differ quite a bit from each other in style. The buildings on Central Park West are more elaborate and ornate, while those on Fifth tend to appear more stately and reserved. The west side buildings are often named, while those on the east side are called by their street address.

The Dakota, on the northwest corner of Central Park West and 72nd Street, was built between 1880 and 1884, and seemed as distant from the city and alone as the Dakota Territories (whether that was in fact the origin of the name, which is unclear, it was certainly true – it is bizarre to see photographs of the building in 1890 with just a scattering of short rowhouses in the far background, with nothing on either side or behind). The Dakota was the beginning of a building boom on the Upper West Side from 1885 to 1910, in part because of the creation of the city’s first subway line, the Broadway/Seventh Avenue line, making the area less remote from downtown. Being featured in the opening credits of “Rosemary’s Baby” certainly has not adversely impacted the value of the apartments in the Dakota, demonstrating that it takes a lot more than the prospect of living next to a group of Satanists to keep people away from a fabulous apartment in New York City.

The Majestic, built long after the Dakota in 1930-31, is a splendid example of minimalist Art Deco design, inside and out. The spare and square two towers were a result of the Multiple Dwelling Act of 1929, which restricted how tall a building could be immediately above street level, but allowed towers if the building would house a large number of people. The west side of the building has curved ornamentation that looks like the side of a jukebox. Take a peek in the lobby to enjoy the elaborate geometric designs that decorate the entrance.

Although I was walking along Central Park West, I was unable to resist turning into the park at W. 67th Street to look at the exterior of the newly renovated Tavern on the Green. Originally the location of a building to house the sheep that grazed (and kept the grass mowed to a civilized length) on Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park, it was converted to a restaurant as part of Robert Moses’ 1934 renovation of the park. Closed since December 31, 2009, it has just reopened. I will be interested to see how it has transformed; the Tavern I knew was certainly unique! The photographs I have seen from inside the renovated space look more understated and the menu seems promising. As I snapped a photo of the exterior of the building, I couldn’t help but notice One 57 looming in the background. The transformation of West 57th Street into “Billionaire’s Row” was certainly in some developer’s minds when Tavern shuttered in 2009, but was not yet cocktail party conversation, which it is now.

Walking along CPW, just a block or so west you can catch glimpses of Lincoln Center, a triumph of urban development that meant that the tenements shown in some of the beginning scenes of West Side story on the current site of Lincoln Center would be torn down immediately after filming. The people who lived in this area at that point would scarcely be able to believe the creation of a super-luxury building like 15 CPW (at 62nd Street), “the world’s most powerful address,” as a recent book declares.

Central Park West dead ends at Columbus Circle and the Time Warner Center. A mix between residential homes, office space, CNN studios, performance spaces (Jazz at Lincoln Center is there) and shopping areas, it signifies the transition from Upper West Side to Midtown. The statue of Columbus seems to turn his back with distain on Central Park West, instead looking south toward midtown. I can never see this statue without remembering the Public Art Works Project from 2012, where Tatzu Nishi created a living room in the air surrounding Columbus. Despite Columbus’ arrogant upthrust chin, hand on his hip, once you have climbed several flights of stairs to see him within a completely furnished living room with pink wallpaper and a large television, he never quite commands the same level of intimidation. Such is the power of art, and the joy of living in a city that values art enough to support innovative projects at no cost to the public.

Sutton Place

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A few weeks ago I took a dérive (an unplanned walk in an urban environment) in the Hell’s Kitchen area. If you were at the north edge of Hell’s Kitchen and walked all the way east until you reached the East River, you would realize how quickly Manhattan neighborhoods can change; from gritty Hell’s Kitchen, you would walk through rapidly evolving “Billionaire’s Row” along 57th Street in Midtown, and then eventually into quiet, laid-back Sutton Place. Because of the geography of Manhattan, it is often confusing to some to find that there are often areas east of “First” Avenue, despite its name. In lower Manhattan, you find Alphabet City – Avenue A, B, etc. Avenue A eventually becomes Sutton Place briefly in midtown, before changing its name to York Avenue on the Upper East Side and disappearing at 96th Street.

So how did Avenue A come to be called Sutton Place between 53rd and 59th Streets? In 1987, the delightfully named Effingham B. Sutton constructed a group of brownstones between 58th and 59th Streets, lending the area his last name, if unfortunately not the first. Even tiny Sutton Place is subdivided again into Sutton Place South (from 53rd to 57th) and Sutton Place North (from 57th to 59th). The area, quiet and seemingly removed from busy midtown just a few blocks away, has been home to residents as diverse as Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, Aristotle Onassis, I.M. Pei, and Freddie Mercury (lead singer of Queen).

This dérive will begin at First Avenue and 59th Street, at the Bridgemarket development tucked under the Ed Koch (AKA the Queensboro, or 59th Street) bridge, home to a T.J. Maxx and a Food Emporium, as well as a Starbucks. Despite the pedestrian nature of those businesses, the Bridgemarket building is gorgeous inside, designed by Rafael Guastavino, who also did work on Grand Central Terminal and Grant’s Tomb (an interesting article on Guastavino and his son was recently on Curbed). Walking east, the bridge looms to your left; on the sunny early spring day when I did this walk, I found myself being unable to resist thinking of Simon and Garfunkel’s “59th Street Bridge Song.” This neighborhood does tend to make you agree with the sentiment, ”Slow down, you move too fast/Got to make the morning last” (even if no one has thought that they were “feeling groovy” for several decades now!).

Turning south to Sutton Place North, the buildings are post-war, except for a block of townhouses on the east side of the street. Crossing 59th Street, two imposing grand dames of Sutton Place South face each other, One and Two Sutton Place South. I tend to think that when Holden Caulfield refers to a “swanky party” on Sutton Place in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, it must have taken place at one of these two buildings. Before you know it, Sutton Place South has ended in a turn west on 53rd Street.

I recently attended a broker’s open house for several large apartments on Sutton Place, and was struck at the value of some apartments in this area compared to similar ones on Park Avenue. Of course, you are farther east, but in addition to the Second Avenue subway being completed in the next several years, there is also the M31 bus that travels the length of 57th Street before turning north and going all the way up York Avenue to 91st Street. There are some apartments with wonderful views, too; the East River across to Queens and the iconic Pepsi sign, and even the bridge looming to the north. Manhattan is truly a series of neighborhoods as diverse as cities, and that is one major reason that I never tire of walking around this city

The High Line

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In previous blog posts I have discussed the concept of a dérive, an unplanned walk through an urban environment, and also mused on why city dwellers might be willing to pay a premium for a view of nature. This week’s derive is a little less unplanned, but might be one of the best examples of the value of being able to experience a taste of the countryside within the heart of Manhattan. The High Line is a one mile long park built along a previously abandoned railway line on the West Side of lower Manhattan. Beginning in the Meatpacking District on Gansevoort Street three blocks south of 14th Street, and continuing through Chelsea to 10th Avenue and 30th Street, this unique city park opened in 2009, with a northern expansion opening in 2011. It has spurred real estate development in this area, and many of the newer buildings specifically incorporated the High Line into their building plans.

In the mid-19th century, there was a non-elevated railroad along 10th Avenue, leading to so many accidents the area was called “Death Avenue.” The creation of an elevated railroad along 10th Avenue eliminated many of these dangerous crossings, and the trains could stop and deliver goods inside of the buildings without disrupting traffic. However, by the 1960’s the railway was no longer used and much of the elevated area fell into disrepair.  Scheduled for demolishment in the Giuliani years, it was saved by the creation of a non-profit organization, Friends of the High Line, in 1999. By 2004 NYC had earmarked $50 million to create a public park along sections of the remaining elevated track, and the first section opened in 2009. A huge success, the High Line has been virtually crime-free, in part because of the high visibility the park has from the surrounding buildings.

Starting at the southernmost end of the High Line, you can see the site of the new Whitney Museum of American Art, scheduled to move from its Lenox Hill location next year. Walking up to begin a tour of the High Line, you are struck by the wild beauty of the flowers and plants surrounding you, and the contrast of that with the gritty urban buildings rising on either side. The High Line seems an organic part of the neighborhood, with buildings seeming to grow around it. Walking along the High Line, it is interesting to see the railroad tracks appearing on occasion, sometimes recessed within the pathway and other times raised above it. The texture of the path itself changes over the course of the walk, echoing the changes in plants and flowers along different sections of the High Line.

As you pass 15th Street, look east and imagine the first Oreo cookie being made, in the same year that the Titanic sank. In New York, the layers of history are interesting to learn, this trendy neighborhood having seen many different incarnations over the years. When you get to 16th Street, consider popping downstairs to visit Chelsea market, in the former factory of the National Biscuit Company. Fruit, bread, wine, cheese, desserts, or prepared meals – there are a multitude of interesting shops to provide you with something to eat. At 18th Street, your eyes are drawn west to the fabulous Frank Gehry IAC building. Completed in 2007, it looks a bit like a huge glass bee hive. At 27th Street, look west to the south side of the street, and try and spot the McKittrick Hotel, not a hotel at all, but rather the home of the immersive theater piece, Sleep No More, created by British Punchdrunk Productions. I recently wrote a blog post  about immersive theater in general, so for now, just note that it is an enormous theater/art installation/dance piece in which you choose which parts of the story to follow. Consider stopping by the Heath, a restaurant on the top floor of the “hotel,” or having drinks at Gallows Green on the roof during warmer months.

I recently went to a presentation of a new residential building being built a block from the High Line; although it is about 18 months away from being completed, it launched sales a month ago and is already a third sold. The High Line can’t take credit for the radical changes in Chelsea, but it is certainly a unique injection of nature into this quintessential downtown neighborhood.

Times Square into Hell’s Kitchen

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My previous blog posts about taking unplanned walks in an urban environment (a dérive) have all centered around the Upper East Side of Manhattan. As Monty Python would say, “And now, for something completely different!”  This dérive will begin in what is perhaps the area of Manhattan that residents love to hate, Times Square, and will end in colorfully named Hell’s Kitchen.

I understand a resident’s tendency to avoid Times Square at all costs. Several times I have had a Broadway show to go to and fought through throngs of tourists looking up as I tried to move with a purpose toward a theatre. All too often, however, I think we overlook some aspects of NYC because they are familiar, and occasionally it’s good to step back and take a fresh look at some old clichéd parts of the city. I remember a time years ago when I was waiting for a light to change in midtown along with a crowd of other jaded preoccupied New Yorkers, and a car drove by with people literally hanging out the windows and exclaiming “WOW!” while snapping pictures. We all looked up to see what they were looking at and realized we were right under the Empire State Building, but oblivious to its grandeur.

For a dérive beginning in Times Square, pick a less crowded time (not thirty minutes before curtain, and definitely not on dreaded New Year’s Eve), emerge from the subway (you have a multitude to choose from) and for a moment really look at it – despite what you think, you are not too cool to realize the power and excitement of Times Square. Named because the New York Times once occupied the building that now hosts the infamous New Year’s Eve ball drop and formed by the intersection of Broadway, Seventh Avenue, 42nd Street, and 47th Street, this loud, blinding jumble of neon and giant screens is the world’s most visited tourist attraction, and gateway to the fabulous Broadway theatre district. Call it “Crossroads of the World,” “The Center of the Universe,” or “The Great White Way,” it is undeniably impressive. While there, if you spot someone taking someone’s picture (and you will), offer to take a photo of them together. I often do this and end up feeling better about myself as an ambassador for the city, fighting the unfair stereotype of rude New Yorkers.

Heading west on 44th Street, you pass Sardi’s, home of the famed theatre caricatures, on the south side of the street between Broadway and Eighth Avenues. The Tony Award was born at Sardi’s – after Antoinette Perry’s death, her partner thought up an award in her honor while having lunch here, and the restaurant itself was given a special award in 1947, the first year of the Tonys. Walking along 44th Street, you appreciate the compactness of the Broadway theatre district; unlike London’s West End, where shows are scattered over a large area, most Broadway shows are within  a relatively small area at most a few blocks from Times Square.

Crossing Eighth Avenue heading west, you have entered Hell’s Kitchen (roughly 34th Street to 59th Street, and Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River). Although there has been some interest in renaming it Clinton or even the generic Midtown West, I personally think that telling people you live in Hell’s Kitchen would be impressive! Although the area was once a bit gritty, it has been gentrifying and after rezoning in the past decade removed the restriction on buildings higher than six stories, several gleaming new condo towers now dot the neighborhood. Consider some of these “Chelsea North” – the style and views of the new Chelsea buildings at a slightly lower price. Walking north on Eighth Avenue, the advantages to this neighborhood are clear: Broadway theatres conveniently scattered to the east (imagine how easy it would be to pop over to the Eugene O’Neill to try the Book of Mormon lottery; with enough chances, you might eventually win front row seats for $32!), restaurants to the west (of particular note is Restaurant Row on 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues with about 40 places to eat on this block alone), and an undeniable sense of place.

 The amazing thing about New York City is that each neighborhood has its own personality and character. Hell’s Kitchen is certainly for those who like to be near the action, but also many of the side streets west of Ninth Avenue are surprisingly quiet and tree lined.  On some of these blocks you would feel far removed from the bright lights and clogged intersections of Times Square, and yet it is there for you to curse, or embrace while taking photos for grateful tourists, whenever you want.

Immersive theatre

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The abundance of the arts is one of my favorite things about living in New York City, and attending theater performances is certainly near if not at the top of my list. I enjoy all kinds of theater – Broadway (of course), off-Broadway, off-off Broadway – and each type has its own unique charm. However, there is a more recent form of theater that is not for everyone, but which can provide a thrilling experience for those open to a less predictable encounter – immersive theatre.

The grand dame of the genre here in New York City has been intriguing theater goers in NYC since 2011 – Sleep No More, at the McKittrick Hotel, 530 W. 27th Street, in Chelsea. A free-form mash-up between Macbeth and Hitchcock movies (especially “Rebecca”), previous incarnations of this theatrical event were presented in London in 2003 and in Boston in 2009. Created by Punchdrunk, a British theatre company founded in 2000 by Felix Barrett, Sleep No More follows this company’s innovative structure (or lack thereof). In a Punchdrunk production, as an audience member you are free to wander around a large performance space, which is decorated elaborately with an astonishing level of detail (in fact, it could be considered an art installation in its own right) and can be explored at will.  The costumes, set design, and music reflect the 1920-30’s, except for when Bernard Herrmann’s themes from “Vertigo” or “The Man Who Knew Too Much” interject a sense of danger, or when the witches’ prophecy to Macbeth turns into an electronic dance rave. Those attending the performance are welcome to sit at a desk and read psychiatric notes at length from Lady’s Macbeth’s doctor, nibble on candies from a shop, get lost in a cemetery, or wander a maze near a nurse’s hut. What you are not allowed to do is to talk or show your face (the audience is distinguished from the actors by wearing white masks). However, there are also actors/dancers (it’s as much a modern dance performance as a theatrical one) roaming the five floors and you can choose to follow one throughout an entire loop (a performance is comprised of three repeating hours with a finale), or change your mind and decide to follow another character they interact with. This freedom of choice sums up the thrill of immersive theatre, but also why it is overwhelming for some: the three hours you spend within the McKittrick will be yours to control. As opposed to traditional theatre where a director has decided how to present the theatrical experience to you, in Punchdrunk’s version of immersive theatre, you largely direct the experience yourself. If you go many times (and I have!), you have the capacity to create a unique experience for each of those times. As you are admonished when you enter, “fortune favors the bold,” and the greater your willingness to open unlocked doors or be led into a private area for a one-on-one experience with one of the actors, the deeper your enjoyment of the experience will be.

Punchdrunk currently has a different production running in London, near Paddington Station, called The Drowned Man. Based loosely on elements of Georg Büchner’s unfinished play, “Woyzeck,” as well as Nathanael West’s “Day of the Locust,” this production exists on a more epic scale from Sleep No More, within several floors of a very large building (previously a mail sorting facility). The theme of duality pervades the experience, which takes place at the wrap party of a film shoot at the fictional Temple Studios in Los Angeles in the early 1960s.  Two largely separate but similar storylines take place, one within the gates of the studio, and another outside the gates within the town. As in Sleep No More, the performance space is elaborately decorated, and the set, music and costumes reflect the time and place (ironically, set in America despite being in London – while Sleep No More is set in Scotland but is in New York). What I found, experiencing The Drowned Man after many experiences with Sleep No More, is that although the basic structure remains similar, the shows themselves are strikingly different in tone but equally thrilling. The actors speak more in The Drowned Man, and the storyline is more explicit. This production will be closing this summer, unfortunately, but if you have the chance to be in London before it does, I highly recommend checking it out.

My advice for anyone attending a Punchdrunk performance for the first time is to wander until you find a character, and then begin following him or her. The first time I attended Sleep No More I ended up on the fifth floor, and explored the rooms for almost an hour before even finding an actor. I left the evening with an appetite to experience more, but if there is even the chance that you may only experience a Punchdrunk performance only once, the experience will be greatly enhanced by trying to follow a thread of the storyline through a few actors’ performances. Wear comfortable footwear – if you have a busy evening you will likely be doing a lot of walking (perhaps even running) and multiple flights of stairs. My final piece of advice is not to try to stay with the person or people you arrived with – you aren’t allowed to talk and holding hands blocks up passageways for others (it’s very annoying to try to follow a character, but then lose them because you can’t get around a couple of confused people blocking the stairwell). You will likely have a much more satisfying experience exploring on your own, and then discussing your separate experiences over drinks after the performance.

At the McKittrick Hotel, site of Sleep No More in Chelsea, you can even enjoy delicious drinks and dinner while experiencing a taste of immersive theater. The Heath, a restaurant on the sixth floor of the building, is set as if you were enjoying a railway restaurant in a village in Scotland. As you enter the elevator, a sign warns, “This is no ordinary station and things are not always as they appear. If you are lucky enough for one of our residents to invite you into their space, you might experience an intense psychological situation. Please note that you may decline, however, fortune does favor the bold . . .” Live music and hosts in character, who may or may not whisk you away for a mysterious phone call or to open a back room with a key delivered on a silver platter, complete the unique atmosphere. And, yes, the food and drinks are excellent as well!

Punchdrunk may have originated immersive theatre, but they no longer have the monopoly on it. In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Third Rail Projects has created Then She Fell, an immersive theatrical/dance experience on a much smaller scale than Sleep No More. Limited to only 15 audience members per show, it is based on the fictional characters in “Alice in Wonderland” but also explores the complex relationship between the real author of the work, Oxford mathematics Professor Charles Dodgson (pen name: Lewis Carroll), and the young daughter of the Dean of Christ Church College, Alice Liddell. In this immersive experience, you are not the director of your own experience: you are led by performers into a series of one-on-one (or in some cases, like the tea party run by the Hatter, small group) experiences. Occasionally you find yourself in a carefully curated room for a period of time, and are welcome to explore before a performer comes in to interact. Alcoholic drinks and food may be a part of the evening, depending on your particular experience. In this performance, you guaranteed not to see everything in one round, and in fact may not see the person you came with for the entire evening; they may have had some of the same experiences, but in a different order.

Queen of the Night, a recent foray into Manhattan immersive theatre, is at the Diamond Horseshoe Revue at the Paramount Hotel in midtown. Loosely based on Mozart’s character in “The Magic Flute,” it is far less interactive, and includes an element of dinner theatre (albeit a risqué version!). Alcoholic drinks and food are included, and there is a Cirque-type show to be watched while eating. While entering the venue and selecting a pre-show cocktail, there is a strong likelihood that you will be taken off for an interactive experience with one of the performers. Once seated at the tables (and unless you have a large group, you will likely share a table with people you didn’t know before you arrived) food arrives – but not necessarily the same food that tables nearby have. If you are up to the experience, you can barter some of your food with other tables. When I went, our table had lobster, so it was fairly easy to barter some of that for prime rib with our neighbors. While it is interactive in the sense that you may have an experience or two with performers, you do not direct your own experience. The drinks and wine are plentiful, so if you go into this ready to have a good time, and open to interacting with other members of the audience, you are likely to have a fun evening.

Immersive theatre seems to have influenced many productions, which break or eliminate the fourth wall despite being more traditional theatrical experiences. Here Lies Love at the Public Theater on Lafayette Street, certainly does not qualify as true immersive theater, but it is certainly more free-form than traditional theater. David Byrne wrote this musical version of a surprising (Imelda Marcos) story, and it was first presented last year at the Public but is back again this year due to popular demand. You don’t direct the experience yourself, but on the main floor you are not seated in static traditional style, but rather stand and move around to see different parts of the story. You may have a character interact with you or ask to dance with you, but that is the limit to the immersion.

My personal bias is that I think that the freedom Punchdrunk productions allows a participant is exhilarating, and that is what makes their shows so addictive – you can keep returning and experiencing something different. There is an exciting change that occurs from watching television or a film to experiencing live theater – the knowledge that events are happening in real time with people performing in your space with you. Immersive theatre takes that up one more level. Not only are things happening at the moment that you see them, but you can become a part of them, and possibly even take control of directing the theatrical experience you have. If you are willing to embrace the unknown and take risks, the satisfying result will prove that fortune truly does favor the bold.