The Beaux-Arts New York Public Library building, praised by the New York Herald as a “splendid temple of the mind” when it opened in 1911, anchors the southwest corner of 42nd and Fifth. I grab a sandwich at Pret A Manger and the Nigerian-born employee I speak with tells me the shop has sold nearly 3,500 sandwiches today. “We ran out of bread. Crazy!” he says. I slip into Bryant Park, the library’s backyard, and settle into one of the few empty chairs beneath the London plane trees. An old man wearing a beret dozes beside me. Two women train a seeing-eye dog. A man walks past screaming into a cell phone—“First of all, don’t yell at me. I’m not yelling at you, don’t yell at me!” A breeze softens the hanging heat and I look up to take in the Empire State Building to the south. A low-flying plane crosses behind its radio tower and I’m reminded of thoughts and feelings that have become normal over the past nine years.
The park is an oasis in the heart of midtown, but it wasn’t always. Michele Sherman, granddaughter of Nat Sherman—who opened his “Tobacconist to the World” shop in the neighborhood in 1930—reminds me that Bryant Park was once more commonly known as Needle Park (in honor of the heroin sold and shot here). Huge swaths of 42nd Street were, as Isaiah, the doorman at the Grand Hyatt, dubs it, “a slutfest.”
Then, in the early 1990’s, things began to improve. “God bless Giuliani,” exclaims Louis Gritsipis, owner of 42nd Street Restaurant & Pizza. A Greek immigrant, he boasts of being held up at gunpoint seven times and suffering through 26 break-ins during his 43-year tenure at the diner. “Giuliani had the balls to kick everybody out. When they came through here with those mounted units.…” He waves a hand dismissively through the air.
It’s a sentiment echoed by numerous people I encounter throughout the day, mostly immigrants—because it is immigrants, and out-of-towners, that I meet on my walk. Of the nearly 100 people I speak with on this day, I find exactly one native of Manhattan: Regina, who’s giving out free copies of the New York Post on a busy corner. Everyone, it seems, is from somewhere else. Mustafa, leaning against a coffee cart eating a banana, is from Afghanistan. He’s been here for 20 years. “I go back—who I see? Old people all dead. Young people gone,” he shouts at me. Pablo, a waiter from Uruguay, pulls on a cigarette and tells me, “I don’t have time to miss my family.” And Brenda, a hostess at Métrazur who came to New York to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology, isn’t going back to Carol, Iowa, any time soon—“I’m here now.” Everyone, it seems, is here to stay.
By late afternoon I arrive at Times Square, “the crossroads of the world.” The view uptown from 42nd Street and Broadway is unlike any other: a honky-tonk chaos of neon and humanity. Mayor Bloomberg’s controversial decision last year to close off this section of Broadway to traffic has made lingering a more enticing option. But I keep moving. It’s the block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues that’s earned 42nd Street its reputation—the good, the bad, and the ugly. When I arrived in the city in 1980, you went to this part of 42nd Street looking only for trouble. Now it’s all family-friendly, the streetwalkers and hawkers replaced by the New Victory children’s theater and Madame Tussauds wax museum.
Beyond Ninth Avenue, the blocks become longer and the sky opens up again. This far reach of 42nd Street—“the wild west,” as a real estate broker friend calls it—I find to be the most inspiring part of my walk. If the east side of 42nd Street is venerable and solidified, out here it feels forward-looking and alive. The blocks beyond 10th Avenue are seeing construction of several 40- odd-story, high-end apartment towers. It doesn’t feel so much that an old neighborhood is being transformed as that a new one is being born.
I reach the Hudson River and watch the Circle Line dock at Pier 83. The sun sets over the Palisades of New Jersey. I feel like I’ve walked out of my old rut and into my new life. Out here, with the vast sky and the light turning the water a deep purple, it’s easy to feel that there’s still so much opportunity, so much left to be created.