Three Manhattan streets, three different worlds

By Caitlin Kelly

Manhattan, an island 13.4 miles long and 2.3 miles at its widest, contains — as American poet Walt Whitman wrote in 1855 in another context — multitudes.

English: Grand Central terminal in New York, N...
English: Grand Central terminal in New York, NY Français : Vue extérieure nocturne de la gare Grand Central Terminal sur l’ile de Manhattan, à New-York (États Unis d’Amérique). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I visited three of them this week.

Midtown/49th Street:

Anchored by several iconic buildings — the New York Public Library, Grand Central Terminal and the Chrysler Building — this is a neighborhood devoted to sober-suited commerce. GCT, opened Feb. 2 1913, is the commuters’ cathedral, thronged daily by thousands of workers streaming in on Metr0-North Railroad from the northern and eastern suburbs of Westchester, (including my husband, Jose), and Connecticut.

The station — which every tourist must see! — is a magnificent bit of Beaux Arts design, with enormous gleaming metal chandeliers, marble stairs and the famous central information booth topped with a clock.

Grand Central Terminal (Manhattan)
Grand Central Terminal (Manhattan) (Photo credit: Nouhailler)

The ceiling is a stunning peacock turquoise, studded with tiny lights and painted with gold constellations.

English: The ceiling of the Grand Central Term...
English: The ceiling of the Grand Central Terminal in New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This time of year, it also contains an indoor holiday market, whose vendors are carefully vetted and chosen. I look forward to it every year, and have gotten (and received) terrific, budget-friendly gifts from them.

New Yorker Chrysler Building, oberer Gebäudete...
New Yorker Chrysler Building, oberer Gebäudeteil, vom östlichen Teil der 42. Straße aus gesehen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Walk up Madison Avenue and it still feels like the 1940s, as you pass every possible iteration of elegant male garb: Brooks Brothers, Paul Stuart, J. Press, Mens Wearhouse, Pink shirts, Alden shoes.

I love Brooks Brothers, and have been shopping there since my early 20s when I’d fly in from Toronto and stock up on their cotton shirts. It has  the prettiest ladies’ room I’ve ever seen. Paul Stuart clothing is mostly for the wealthy/creative crowd — network television producers or the heads of ad agencies, but it is spectacular, with shoes like these men’s bitter chocolate suede loafers ($625) or these wool socks, in 10 terrific colors, for $44.50.

A picture of a display in Brooks Brothers
A picture of a display in Brooks Brothers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those few blocks have changed dramatically, not in outward appearance, but in their inhabitants — I once worked for the magazine in what was then the Newsweek building, a venerable magazine now dead. The headquarters of Conde Nast publishing were at 350 Madison when I first met editors there; now in their own building at 4 Times Square, they will move downtown to the newly-finished Freedom Tower, (built to replace the Twin Towers destroyed on 9/11.)

This is a part of town where the powerful meet one another in their private clubs, these few blocks a tightly-knit world of wealth, power and restricted access.  Those open only to graduates of Yale, Princeton, Harvard and Cornell all lie within steps of each other.  The Harvard club spans an entire city block, north to south. Step inside its doors (if you dare!) and you’ll viscerally understand the meaning of entitlement.

But walk along West 44th. Street to marvel at the windows of the New York Yacht Club, which resemble the rear windows of a galleon.

Two landmarks face one another at 49th and Fifth Avenue — St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Saks Fifth Avenue. Saks’ shoe department even has its own zip code, and offers a dizzying array of high-priced footwear. One pair of gem-encrusted, six-inch stilettos by Louboutin were offered at $3,200. The people-watching is great, from Russian oligarchs picking up multiple bags-full to the bare-legged beauty in her leopard coat and Gucci heels.

Uptown/70th. Street

The Upper East Side is a sphere of unapologetic wealth, law firm partners who use “summer” as a verb, (on Nantucket, the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard or Rhode Island,) of gleaming black Escalades ferrying hedge funders south to Wall Street and their quiet blond children to private school and their size 2 mothers to yoga or a hair appointment.

The streets are quiet, clean, manicured, filled with elegant townhouses, including that of soon to be ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg, at 17 E. 79th.

My former school, The New York School of Interior Design, is on 70th. street, and Neil’s Coffee Shop, 50 years old, sits at the corner of 70th and Lex, a great place for a burger or a cup of coffee in a classic china cup.


I loved NYSID. Classes were small, mostly female and the rigor of studying interior design seriously was sobering indeed. We had to memorize every floor, wall and furniture style from ancient Egypt to 1900 for a class called Historical Styles. (We, of course, nicknamed it Hysterical Styles, as we struggled to remember the difference between a cassone and a bergere.)

I whiled away a sunny afternoon among the one-per-centers — the woman calling Fed Ex to price the cost of overnight shipping her workout gear from San Francisco, the bright blond in a black mink shawl with a too-tightly-stretched face, the father and son carrying lacrosse sticks into their $114,000 Mercedes SUV, the weary sigh of a woman waiting a second too long for the valet to bring around her car.

I stopped into Creel & Gow, which sells quite extraordinary objects — like this diorama of a walrus.


Love this description of the UES, from the blog, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York:

One of the things I like about the Upper East Side is that it remains so much itself. It’s not trying to be another neighborhood and it’s not trying to be cool. It’s filled with all kinds of tacky, expensive shops, and none of them are ironic. The rich people there, walking around in full-length furs, look like New Yorkers, and not like Europeans or Midwesterners trying to look like Europeans in New York.

There are also lots and lots of ancient white ladies toddling around, complaining about life, with their hands heavy with diamonds and their eyelids painted pink. They have great faces, and you can watch them go by from the window at Neil’s.

Essex Street

This is where it all began, where wave after wave of European immigrants landed in the narrow streets and crowded tenements of the Lower East Side.

Graffiti, Lower East Side, NYC
Graffiti, Lower East Side, NYC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, the LES is hipsterville, dotted with places like Babycakes, which sells vegan, gluten-free cupcakes, cookies and madeleines (made beneath the original pressed-tin ceiling) or candle-lit restaurant Dudley’s, where I perched at a curved marble-topped bar and enjoyed a tart cocktail made by a handsome red-haired bar-tender from small-town Ohio. There is even a small hotel here, The Blue Moon.

But come here for one of the city’s most moving recreations of urban life, the Tenement Museum, which powerfully explains the daily experience of the immigrants who lived here at the turn of the 19th. century.

Now that the temperature here has plummeted, the connective tissue between these disparate worlds — the status-agnostic subways and buses — is filling up with the homeless, of which New York has a shocking 50,000. They sit with their cardboard signs, pleading silently or asking out loud, apologizing or not.

In the eight years that billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg — who often weekended in the Caribbean — was in power, the number of homeless New Yorkers rose by 65 percent; 21,000 children slept in shelters in January 2013, a new and sorry record.

It has become, increasingly, a city divided.

24 thoughts on “Three Manhattan streets, three different worlds

  1. Beautiful writing, Caitlin. I’ve never been to NYC and I admit it’s never been on my Top 10 list of places to visit (I know! Shame on me!), but wandering around with you this morning gave me a view of it I hadn’t seen before–anywhere.

    I think you could write about any place on earth and make me want to go there. Nicely done.


    1. Thanks! What a lovely compliment.

      I try hard, in all my writing, to take readers with me to wherever I am. Having now lived here for 25 (!) years, I can finally feel fairly confident that I know New York a bit.

      If you could ever pry yourself away from your island life (which sounds lovely), NYC is so worth a visit.

      1. Ha! Island life can be pretty claustrophobic sometimes, especially when we know we’re totally dependent on a ferry to get us back to civilization. (The mainland is only a mile away. Still. . .)

        But the longer I’m here the less inclined I am to want to be around crowds. The thing about New York is that, whether we hicks like it or not, it’s the center of our media universe. We “see” it every day for hours on end until, as Mary Engelbreit so famously said on a greeting card, “We don’t CARE how you do it in New York!”

        But as I said, your trip this morning made me want to go with you again and see some more of your city. That is what we all try to do as writers. We try to bring readers into our world. So I just had to let you know that you did it for me, even though at first I thought I would probably get off at the first stop. 🙂

      2. I hear you…

        I’ve been living in a suburb of NYC since moving here, so I’m not in the thick of it everyday, although I had several office jobs in the city for years. Poor Jose is exhausted from the insane crowds shoving their way across midtown from the Port Authority bus terminal every morning as he walks west from GCT…It’s a no-win in some neighborhoods. I loathe crowds, so I try to avoid Times Square and the theater district for that reason. There are so many quiet/silent NYC spots that tourists never hear about or bother to visit.

        Good point about it being so visible…I watched I am Legend last night (scary movie) and remember (!!) the night I was trying to cross Washington Square (where some of it was filmed) and had NO idea why there were suddenly burned-out cars everywhere. So odd now to see a place so familiar in a film (or many.)

  2. I have recently become fascinated by the many faces of places like NYC and Boston, and the history of how those cities became what they are today. Your words just feed that fascination, because they so powerfully reveal the extremes between the haves and the have nots that created the world of NYC. I know you don’t read much fiction, but if you get a chance to read THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI it gives an intriguing look at turn-of-the century NYC that I think might appeal to you.

      1. It’s one of my new favorites. Beautifully written, an interesting story, a touch of fantasy, and historical fiction. What more could you want in a book? Oh . . . I know . . . to be able to write something like that myself. LOL

  3. alicia

    You think there are a lot of homeless people living in NYC now? Wait till after Jan1 when DiBlasio is sworn in. Think the rich will continue to live there? As soon as the election for mayor was over, the real estate office phones in Manhattan were ringing off the hook. The rich are fleeing to NJ or CT and are putting their million dollar coops up for sale. Probably to some foreign investor who knows the tax laws and will avoid paying them.
    I live on West 40. And I lived in NYC since the 1970’s. Many people don’t remember what Manhattan was back in the David Dinkins era. I do.
    Say goodbye to the beautiful Times Square and Grand Central Station you seem fond of. My advice, get to Manhattan before Dec 31, 2013. If not……..stay home.
    You ain’t seen nothing yet.

  4. Nice post 🙂 I think we’ve passed divided and are now completely broken. Beyond the obvious human/humanity toll, we’ve lost much of the personality, individuality, that made New York. Never, ever did I imagine a Manhattan filled with big box stores–but they’re the only ones who can afford the obscene commercial rents. 😦

    1. It’s quite shocking. I come into the city to escape the soul-less suburban bullshit of big box stores — and there they all are! :-(((

      I tend to stick to neighborhoods (West or East Village) where smaller shops, bars and cafes are still hanging on. The MeatPacking district is nothing but $$$$$ tourists now.

  5. so much diversity, so much good, and it seems the divide between the haves and have-nots has continued to grow. my brother lives in the hell’s kitchen neighborhood and that is changing as well, said a developer wanted to rename it to give it a more genteel sounding name. luckily they shot that idea down.

  6. I visited Manhattan last month and been there for a week (yet to write a post about this!). And I can’t say how much I already love that place. I don’t know if it’s the effect of seeing Manhattan almost every day on movies and TV shows or it’s simply the fact that I loved the fast-paced yet full of beautiful places in the city, but I do miss it.

    I’m currently looking into studying in New York and researching on community college admissions (My choice right now is Borough of Manhattan Community College as it is pretty affordable and they are quite friendly with international students). Let’s hope I can end up being there.

  7. Caitlin- This was such a wonderful visit to New York. I actually had to get out a map and see where you were taking us. It’s good writing when people want to know more after they have finished reading. Thank you for that!

    Even more interesting is the statistic on the homeless increase during Mayor Bloomberg’s years. I don’t have any gripe against people being billionaire’s or weekending anywhere they want, but when one spends the kind of money to get elected that that campaign did, and yet leaves an issue like this unattended to, that to me is shameful. Politicians should follow the same guidance as physicians – “First, do no harm”. Good luck with the next administration!

    1. Thanks! The city is full of so many different worlds. I am always amazed at what diversity, history and richness of experience I find within even four or five blocks.

      I am very curious to see what de Blasio can and cannot accomplish.

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