I moved recently from Greenwich Village, where I lived for 25 years, to midtown Manhattan. It’s barely two miles away, and yet it feels like I’ve gone to a new city. What used to be a 20-minute subway ride is now a two-minute walk. What was near is now far. Routines worn deep from years of familiarity have been turned upside down. So I’m getting a good second look at terrain I thought I knew well—both geographic and emotional.
I’m walking a lot, staking out my turf, and finding myself on 42nd Street a great deal. I’ve discovered that much of what makes New York unique—the history and infrastructure vital to its day-to-day well-being—hangs from this “waistline” of the city. So early one morning, I hop on the M42 crosstown bus to its farthest point east and follow the great thoroughfare from one end to the other to see what I can see.
At the end of the line the air brakes hiss and the door opens, the driver shifts into park, and I see her shoulders drop. “Long morning?” I ask. “I’m off this route next week,” she says. “Thank God.” An ominous start, but then I don’t have to traverse this street 12 times a day.
Forty-Second crawls up out of the East River from an FDR Drive on-ramp and struggles toward First Avenue, flanked on one side by a ventilation building for the Midtown Tunnel and on the other, more glamorously, by the southern end of the United Nations campus. Today, for reasons no one will explain, members of the Hercules unit of the NYPD are on hand. Officers in SWAT-type uniforms, with machine guns, bullet-resistant vests, and black helmets, loiter with intent. None are interested in small talk. But nearby, one of New York’s finest, dressed casually by comparison in his blue uniform, is happy to chat. At one point he leans close and nods toward the tower of the U.N. “You can get a good meal in there,” he says. “The cafeteria’s pretty decent, not too expensive, either.”
Video: Explore Andrew McCarthy’s 42nd Street
It turns out the Delegates Dining Room is closed for renovations, so I leave the suspicious looks behind. Beyond the Tudor City overpass, 42nd Street begins to drag itself toward the throb of midtown. Just beyond Second Avenue, the granite mural of the old Daily News Building stands watch. Soon the Chrysler Building—the 77-story masterpiece of Art Deco architecture and detail—draws me inside. I suggest to Patel, a native of India who works the newsstand in the lobby, how nice it must feel to work amid such aesthetically pleasing surroundings. “I hadn’t noticed,” he says with a shrug.
The blocks along this section of 42nd Street are thrumming. Perhaps it’s because the avenues are so close together. Or maybe it’s Grand Central Terminal, smack in the middle of Park Avenue, with a 58-story office tower built right on top. Three quarters of a million people pass through the station’s marble halls each day. I’ve visited the main concourse, with its astronomical ceiling, hundreds of times, and it always arouses a sense of awe and nostalgia for a past I never knew.
My arrival at Fifth Avenue is something of a shock. The skies above me widen and I’m suddenly aware what a canyon of buildings I’ve been walking through. For the first time since I left the U.N., I feel the sun. Perhaps it’s the great American notion of manifest destiny, of always moving forward, looking west, following the sun toward opportunity, but I feel a gathering excitement and lightness as I proceed.