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.