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All Around Town: Exploring New York Neighborhoods
by David Yeadon

It's nudging 5 a.m. in the Big Apple. The first amber slivers of dawn are easing over Brooklyn Heights across the syrupy-black East River. I can hear the echo of my footsteps on the old Belgian-block streets of SoHo as I wander slowly northward through the neighborhood's dimly lit, cast-iron-fronted canyons. A large white cat with black paws cleans itself on a graffiti-arted warehouse loading bay; a single yellow cab drifts down West Broadway, its turbaned driver yawning widely; and a straggle-haired waitress stares blearily out of the steamed windows of an empty all-night restaurant on Sixth Avenue.

A peaceful moment on a quiet sidewalk in a sleepy neighborhood. The Empire State Building and the bright lights of Broadway, the Met, the Guggenheim, and the Museum of Modern Art are out of sight, out of mind. Real life in the neighborhoods of Manhattan — home to a million and a half people — centers not around the city's world-famous attractions, but around timeworn watering holes, delis, schools, tree-shaded parks, churches. There's Greenwich Village, its residents villagers for life, rarely seeing the point of being anywhere else. And SoHo, home to a somewhat gregarious bunch, resentful of the bridge-and-tunnel crowds from New Jersey and the other four boroughs of New York. Little Italy and Chinatown nurture enduring ethnic associations and loyalties beneath tourist-inspired patinas; residents of TriBeCa and Chelsea live private lives at a relaxed (for New York) pace. Liberal Upper West Siders cling to their eccentricities, Upper East Siders to their upscale lifestyle (Central Park divides the two places like the Grand Canyon).

These neighborhoods reveal Manhattan's true character and complexity. So, let's explore — and sample some of their delights.

GREENWICH VILLAGE

Where else would one begin an intriguing city odyssey but in Greenwich Village? The West Village. The place that epitomizes all avant-garde inner-city communities. The Village constantly celebrates its pointedly progressive tendencies as grail for the gay community, grist for the artistic garret-dweller, and eschewer of cant and closed-mindedness. With its rich history of bohemian, artistic and cultural associations, it's a paradise for literati name-droppers, one-time home to Poe, James, Wharton, Twain, St. Vincent Millay, Dreiser, Auden, O'Neill. At the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street, the rambunctious Dylan Thomas is said to have spoken these immortal words the day before he died: "I've had 19 straight whiskeys. I believe that's the record."

A tangle of streets, alleys, and hidden courts sets this iconoclastic little neighborhood apart from Manhattan's monotonously rigid street grid. It will lead you past tree-shaded federal and Greek Revival townhouses, the mellow delights of St. Luke-in-the-Fields on Hudson Street, the reclusive townhouses of Patchin Place on Tenth Street across from the soaring Gothic glories of the Jefferson Market Library.

Stop in for a set or two by jazzworld giants at the Village Vanguard, Bradley's, Blue Note, or Sweet Basil. Or buy some of the best comestibles in town at Balducci's gourmet paradise at Sixth Avenue and Ninth Street. Coffee-lovers invariably congregate around that cluster of cafés at Bleeker and MacDougal, while late-night adventurers seek out the bars and eateries of the grungy and highly aromatic Gansevoort Market by the Hudson River at the far end of 14th Street's retail strip. Funky, but one more facet of this gem of a neighborhood.

THE EAST VILLAGE

Tourette's syndrome. "Chalk and cheese, my friend, chalk and cheese!" he gushed, comparing the West and East Villages. "The East Village is absolutely unique. Here everyone is living out their favorite fantasies and their worst nightmares at once. It's a weird, wired, wacky place!"

As I struggled to keep up with his surging pace, my self-appointed guide showed me "his" village — a whirling razzmatazz of moods and magic verging on utter madness. We passed spike-haired, leather-and-rivet-clad, pierced-everywhere punks in tribal huddles on the stoops of old (but increasingly gentrified) brownstones. We paused in a new-age bar and listened to wine-laced wisdoms from a young woman who ran a nearby herbalist store. We salivated along Sixth Street's Little India — a flurry of tiny Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani restaurants. We prowled up and down St. Marks Place, famous hangout for visitors and residents of all hues. Cafés and restaurants tumbled out onto the sidewalks here, and music — everything from reggae to hip-hop blasted from clubs, pubs, and touristy trinket stores as we finally spooled into the cool darkness of Tompkins Square Park to enjoy the nasal renderings of Bob Dylan wannabes strumming battered guitars under a scimitar moon.

On and on we roamed, into the late night and early morning, as the East Village roared its counterculture soul song. We were weary and woozy but reluctant to stop in case something even more outrageous came along.

The next day — actually two days later (it took me a full day of quietude to recover from that night of action, which finally ended at 6:30 a.m. with a sloppy sandwich at an all-night eatery on Second Avenue) — I went solo, searching out the more enduring and endearing elements of this compact but always pumped-up neighborhood. The beloved Second Avenue Kosher Deli still stands, a stalwart of the one-time "Yiddish Rialto" theater strip here. I found the Russian and Turkish Baths, still offering the real thing in steam and sweat since 1892. And I stopped at McSorley's Old Ale House, a 143-year-old haven of Irish inclinations awash in mugs of dark beer. Poetry readings are still a hallowed tradition at St. Mark's-Church-in-the-Bowery. The works of old and new playwrights still run at Joseph Papp's Public Theater on Astor Place. Marion's, on Bowery, is still a favorite hangout of the cognoscenti.

The East Village is zany, crazy, cacophonous, exhibitionist, schizoid, and apologizes to no one. As Lowell shouted after sinking a Gem Spa egg cream in one gargantuan gulp, "Once you're here, you're hooked, Dave!" So I guess I'm hooked.

SOHO

In my rare moments of authorial arrogance, I like to believe that I was one of the first writers to celebrate the renaissance of SoHo. That was back in the early 70's, after outraged Manhattanites had successfully protested plans to obliterate great parts of this warehouse and factory-filled netherworld of dark, Belgian-block streets SOuth of HOuston and run an expressway through its southern extremities. The project was abandoned as architects and historians celebrated the wealth of four-to-six-story cast-iron-fronted structures in a bedazzling array of revival styles, particularly along Greene Street. And soon artists and other fringe dwellers snuck in to rent and renovate vast loft spaces as live-in studios.

Today's SoHo is a crackling, flag and banner-adorned hotbed of creativity, offering every conceivable art form in over 200 galleries (including such big names as Castelli, Sonnabend, and O.K. Harris), and wonderfully inventive cuisine in restaurants ranging from the demure Savoy, Cupping Room Cafe, and Barolo, to the more racy Boom, Zoe and I Tre Merli.

On warm spring weekends, over 100,000 visitors are said to flock here in a shop-and-feast frenzy that many longtime residents deride. "Too much of everything," a still struggling artist told me. "Too much rent, thanks to lawyers and doctors moving in, too much gentrification. Can you believe Banana Republic and Eddie Bauer!" Ah, but what glorious eccentricities exist in stores like Kate's Paperie and the wonderful Evolution, with its collection of bones and skeletons. Broadway, too, on SoHo's eastern fringe, has rebounded with an array of new stores as well as cultural attractions in the form of an outstanding Guggenheim branch of the Fifth Avenue colossus, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Alternative Museum, and the Museum for African Art.

When I stroll the streets of this vibrant spend-and-splurge neighborhood, I wonder if it's all last-mad-fling exhibitionism before the next Great Depression. But then my optimistic self wins out and I see all this as yet one more victorious celebration of New York's capacity for generating new ideas and new takes on a new world — a constant reinvention of possibilities in a procreative hot spot of the future.

LITTLE ITALY

Little Italy is pure Godfather film set. While Mulberry Street is really the last meager bastion of a once large Italian neighborhood, it has all its scenery in place. Come on a warm spring or summer evening, when thronged restaurants — Il Cortile, Benitos I and II, Casa Bella, Vincent's — spill with aria-abandon onto the narrow sidewalks. When pasta, Parmesan, and red sauce in countless variations feed the hundreds who flock here seeking glimpses of the solemn little men — only clubs and, who knows, maybe even a lightning-fast Mob melee like the one that rubbed out organized-crime figure Joey Gallo in 1972 at the now legendary Umbertos Clam House.

Some say that Little Italy's days are numbered, that most Italians have moved on in typical Manhattan fashion to finer enclaves and that the seemingly insatiable real estate appetites of the ever-expanding Asian community will wipe away all vestiges of former glories. But I say this neighborhood, crammed in on the south by Chinatown and on the west by the surging renaissance of SoHo and Broadway, combines hints of Florence's intensity, Milan's grace, and Salerno's boisterousness, all in a few blocks.

I say come here during the week-long September feast of San Gennaro or one of the other major street fairs, when Mulberry Street becomes a thronged promenade of thousands, gorging themselves on Italian sausages, zeppole, cannoli, and calzone. Come then and you'll be convinced that this pugnacious little enclave will endure forever as part of Manhattan's ethnic melange. Come and celebrate the vigor and tenacity of the place — it's an offer no one can refuse.

CHINATOWN

A mesmerizing romp of colors, aromas, sounds, and exotic sensations, Chinatown — some 40 blocks of the once-burgeoning Jewish lower East Side — has managed to resist the tide-like metamorphoses that have swept through other neighborhoods of Manhattan in the island's 372 years of European-focused history. With over 150,000 residents today, it is celebrated as the world's largest Chinese community outside Asia.

And highly authentic too. Under the glitzy patina of pagoda-topped streetlights, neon signs, and the predictable tourist trimmings, lurks the real labyrinthine Chinatown, elusive, mysterious, and even dangerous, so ancient and convulsed it all makes the U.S. seem like a newborn babe (which historically speaking, of course, it is).

Lose yourself among the herbalist stores and produce markets and countless restaurants of Canal, Mott, Mulberry, Elizabeth, Division, and East Broadway. Give yourself up to gustatory excesses in a glorious welter of Peking duck, dim sum by the cart-load, enough noodles to fill the East River, fresh carp and bass fat as buckets, and a plethora of such peculiarities as sea cucumbers, turtles, and eels; enormous crabs and tiny crisp squabs barely bigger than sparrows; and an assortment of unidentifiable innards and offal (just close your eyes and eat!) For eating is what the wriggle-alleyed neighborhood is all about.

If your visit coincides with one of the neighborhood's fun and noisy festivals (prime time: the January-February Chinese New Year), all the better. You'll likely end up with firecrackers in your soup and a dragon's nose in your noodles, and you'll never forget this tiny, tingling touchstone of true ethnic New York.

CHELSEA

Chelsea shares with TriBeCa that notable family feel, especially between tree-shaded 19th and 20th Streets around Eighth to Tenth Avenues, where federal and Greek Revival townhouses create a refined aura of stability and livable grace. This is thanks partly to the care of Clement Clarke Moore (author of the poem "The Night Before Christmas"), who divided his family's land for lots, allowing the neighborhood's emergence after 1830 and creating an impressive architectural and thematic focus in the form of the General Theological Seminary — an intriguing Gothic-style complex of halls, chapel and library set in little parks and courts across from the splendid 19th-century townhouses of Cushman Row.

Chelsea's avenues are preened and primped and lined with restaurants, bars, and neighborhood stores, many with a distinctly gay flavor. The great Barneys New York store occupies the corner of Seventh Avenue and 17th Street. The Chelsea Antique Building on 25th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues lures crowds, as do an array of antique shops on Ninth Avenue between 20th and 22nd Streets, the Flower District around Sixth Avenue and 28th, a flourishing photo district around 17th and 20th between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, the lively weekend flea market at 26th and Sixth Avenue, and the new sports and dining extravaganza at Chelsea Piers on the Hudson River between 17th and 23rd.

My favorite hangouts are the enduring wrought-iron adorned Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street, a longtime nexus of writers, rock musicians, and their groupies; the Joyce Theater, a Mecca for dance aficionados; and the famed Empire Diner at 10th Avenue and 22nd Street, with its wide-ranging daytime clientele and an assortment of more flamboyant late-night patrons. All in all, Chelsea tantalizes with its varied offerings, yet still manages to maintain that special at-home ambiance that residents adore.

UPPER WEST SIDE

Everyone seems to have a soft spot for the Upper West Side, a racy, liberal, left-wing slice of booming upmarket bohemia cocooned between the vast swathes of Central Park and the more subtle, sinuous Riverside Park. And almost anyone — even first-time visitors — will enthusiastically rattle off some of its prime attractions: that gloriously marbled complex of culture, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, at its extreme southern end near Columbus Circle; Riverside Drive, edged by elegantly curved apartment houses and scattered grand-dame mansions, Zabar's emporium — the ultimate extravaganza for city gastronomes; the somber 1884 Dakota (one of Manhattan's first luxury apartment houses) overlooking Central Park — setting for Rosemary's Baby and site of John Lennon's assassination; the nearby Cafe des Artistes with its nude-adorned walls; and the gargantuan American Museum of Natural History, whose 30 million artifacts are now displayed with flair and imagination. And what about Warner LeRoy's Tavern on the Green, said to be the U.S.'s highest grossing restaurant? Well, okay — that too.

But for all its touristic appeal, the neighborhood harbors less obvious delights, and residents like Jo Blaine — a lively, loyal West Sider for over 30 years, who describes herself as a matured liberal who can't imagine living anywhere else "except maybe a couple of parts of the West Village" — are quick to point them out.

One of her favorite nooks — and mine too — is tiny Pomander Walk just west of Broadway on 94th Street, a Tudor-flavored, film-set fantasy alley of little townhouses that most visitors miss. Another is the nearby Symphony Space — an active focal point for poetry readings, avant-garde theater, old films, and marathon movie events. Here you'll find some of the best historic residential areas in the city too: Central Park West is a dream, better than Fifth Avenue in its range of styles; 105th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive — fantastic French Beaux Arts townhouses. "I could really live there, taking the occasional horseback ride in Central Park from Claremont Riding Academy on 89th Street. This neighborhood," says Jo, "has everything!"

UPPER EAST SIDE

White-bearded Joe Dyas, a commercial illustrator turned "assemblage-sculptor," is an 18-year resident of the Upper East Side and is still fascinated by its constant flux. "It's always changing, turning over, like the place across the street from my apartment. In less than a decade it's gone from a jazz club to a Spanish restaurant to a seafood restaurant to a singles bar before most of that kind of thing died out. Now it's a barbecue restaurant, and street talk says that a Starbucks is moving in soon. The neighborhood acts up like an adolescent — young, dynamic, always trying on new faces and never sleeping."

You can sense the same whirl on Madison from 60th Street to the gray bulk of the Whitney Museum of American Art at 75th Street, where stand the lavish flagship stores of the big names in haute couture — Valentino, Armani, Yves Saint Laurent, Lauren — occupying prime, money-no-object real estate.

Thankfully, there still are delightful oases of stability in all this teeming transformation. Fifth Avenue, with its splendid Museum Mile (eight magnificent repositories including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim) and its elegant beige-cream apartment towers with their priceless Central Park vistas, retains its aura of old wealth and poodle-pampering, doorman-protected protocol all the way down to the grand horse-and-carriage-studded Grand Army Plaza and the Trump-revived Plaza Hotel. Gracie Mansion, the mayor's official residence, still sits in its lovely shaded park, and the walks alongside the East River are ideal jogging tracks for the young and beautiful. Decorous townhouses line the streets of the historic district from Second to Third Avenues between 60th and 63rd Streets. The boutiques and ritzy hotels of upper Madison and the restrained dignity of Carnegie Hill are reminders of the days when the Upper East Side was the haven for the great have-it-all families — Astors, Fricks, and Carnegies. Today's young and lively residents still relish the aura of affluent elegance; the mood glows in their fresh and fashionable faces.

There's no real focus here — no one place where you can say "this is the heart of the Upper East Side." Its ambiance spreads wide, much to the delight of its well-heeled residents, who see the Big Apple as the epitome of urbane urbanity. Which, of course it is!

NEIGHBORHOOD NOSHING: DAVE YEADON RECOMMENDS...

GREENWICH VILLAGE

Top Flight:

One If By Land, Two If By Sea W. (American)
17 Barrow Street, between 7th Avenue South and 4th Street
(212) 228-0822

Budget:

Tartine (French)
253 West 11th Street
(212) 229-2611

Le 200 (French)
314 West 11th Street
(212) 620-0393

Piccolo Angelo (Italian)
621 Hudson Street at Jane Street
(212) 229-9177

Sevilla (Spanish)
62 Charles Street at West 4th Street
(212) 929-3189


EAST VILLAGE

Top Flight:

Pisces (Seafood)
95 Avenue A at East 6th Street
(212) 260-6660

Budget:

Mitali East (Indian)
334 East 6th Street
(212) 533-2508

Takahachi (Japanese)
85 Avenue A between East 5th & East 6th Streets
(212) 505-6524

Kiev (Eastern European)
117 2nd Avenue
(212) 674-4040


SOHO:

Top Flight:

Alison on Dominick Street (French)
38 Dominick Street between Hudson & Varick Streets
(212) 727-1188

Budget:

Kelly and Ping (Thai)
127 Greene Street between Houston & Prince Streets
(212) 228-1212

Kenn's Broome Street Bar (American)
363 West Broadway at Broome Street
(212) 925-2086

Lucky Strike (Bistro)
59 Grand Street between West Broadway and Wooster St.
(212) 941-0772


LITTLE ITALY:

Top Flight:

Il Cortice (Italian)
125 Mulberry Street between Hester and Canal Streets
(212) 226-6060

Budget:

Puglia (Italian)
189 Hester Street between Mulberry and Mott Streets
(212) 960-6006

Vincent's Clam Bar (Italian)
119 Mott Street at Hester Street
(212) 226-8133

Luna (Italian)
112 Mulberry Street between Hester and Canal Street
(212) 226-8657


CHIINATOWN:

Top Flight:

Triple 8 Palace (Chinese)
88 East Broadway between Division and Market Streets
(212) 941-8886

Budget:

NH Yak Noodleton (Chinese)
28 Bowery at Bayard Street
(212) 349-0923

Vietnam (Vietnamese)
11 Doyers Street between Bowery and Pell Street
(212) 693-0725

Oriental Garden (Chinese)
14 Elizabeth Street, south of Canal Street
(212) 619-0085


CHELSEA:

Top Flight:

Daumberto (Italian)
107 West 17th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
(212) 989-0303

Budget:

Alley's End (American Bistro)
311 West 17th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
(212) 627-8899

Al Ceviyote (Spanish)
226 West 23rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
(212) 929-1855


UPPER WEST SIDE:

Top Flight:

Café Des Artistes (French)
1 West 67th Street
(212) 877-3500

Budget:

Dallas Barbeque (Ribs!)
27 West 72nd Street
(212) 873-2004

Sabriela's (Mexican)
685 Amsterdam Avenue at West 93rd Street
(212) 961-0574

Pendng (Malaysian)
240 Columbus Avenue at 71st Street
(212) 769-8889


UPPER EAST SIDE:

Top Flight:

Daniel (French)
20 East 76th Street
(212) 288-0033

Budget:

J. G. Melon (American)
1291 3rd Avenue at East 74th Street
(212) 744-0585

Heidelberg (German)
1648 2nd Avenue between East 85th and 86th Streets
(212) 628-2332

MoccaHungarian (Hungarian)
1588 2nd Avenue between East 82nd and 83rd Streets
(212) 734-6470

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