From the U.N. to the Hudson, 42nd Street is both New York’s central artery and its pulsating heart. T+L strolls from river to river and discovers a microcosm of the city—and the world.

By Andrew McCarthy
January 25, 2013
Credit: Emiliano Granado

Video: Explore Andrew McCarthy’s 42nd Street

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.

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.

Chrysler Building 405 Lexington Ave.; 212/682-3070.

Circle Line Cruises Pier 83; 212/563-3200;; tickets from $23.

Grand Central Terminal 87 E. 42nd St.; 212/532-4900;

Madame Tussauds Wax Museum 234 W. 42nd St.; 212/512-9600;; tickets $36.

Nat Sherman 12 E. 42nd St.; 800/692-4427;

New Victory Theater 209 W. 42nd St.; 646/223-3010;; tickets from $14.

New York Public Library Fifth Ave. at 42nd St.; 917/275-6975;

United Nations Entrance at First Ave. between 45th and 46th Sts.; 212/963-4475;; tours $16.

New Victory Theater

Housed inside a revitalized building constructed by Oscar Hammerstein in 1900, the New Victory Theater is New York City’s premier theater for young people and their families. The theater strives to maintain affordable prices, making its productions accessible to a wide audience. Since its opening in 1995, the New Victory Theater has hosted productions of a number of well-known shows, including Peter & Wendy, Henry V and Puss in Boots, and has presented several theater festivals, such as The New Victory Theater Danish Festival in 2007.

Grand Central Terminal

The restoration of this beautiful Beaux-Arts behemoth in the late 1990's has created the perfect place to enjoy a drink or dinner while watching commuters race for their trains. Constructed by railroad pasha Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1913, the terminal was almost leveled in the 1960's to become a brutal office tower. (Thank Jackie O, among others, for saving the structure.) Now a National Historic Landmark and a desired gathering place, Grand Central is worth visiting just to see the central information booth, with its treasured, opal-faced clock, and the glittering ceiling, painted with 2,500 illuminated stars in a winter sky configuration.

Tip: Join one of the 90-minute gratis tours each Friday—meet at the Whitney-Altria museum outside the terminal on the southwest corner of 42nd Street and Park Avenue at 12:30 p.m.

Chrysler Building

The 77-story masterpiece of Art Deco architecture and detail.

Circle Line Cruises

Madame Tussauds, New York

It’s kitschy. It’s fun. And it’s probably the only way you’re ever going to get your photograph taken with Morgan Freeman or Justin Bieber. A Times Square staple for years, Madame Tussauds is home to hundreds of impressively lifelike wax figurines of famous people, from actors to political figures and even your favorite comic book characters. Don’t miss: A show at the 4D theater. In addition to watching a 3D movie, wind, snow, mist, and even smell is incorporated to make the experience truly transporting.

Nat Sherman

New York Public Library and Bryant Park

United Nations