New York City is larger than life. From Broadway to Times Square, the Empire State Building and the new Freedom Tower, to say “New York” is to capture an attitude, a culture, an energy, a style, and a history that is unique in our country. The city dates to well before the Revolutionary War but its streets, homes, and architecture offer both a glimpse deep into the past and well into the future.
It is also massive. It is our nation’s largest city, but its more than 8 million inhabitants are wedged into a far smaller space than Los Angeles, the second largest city. For someone like me who has long been fascinated with the idea of New York, the reality was always daunting. Its mass of trains, subway lines, tunnels, and bridges make New York easy to get to and around but seem byzantine without a skilled guide.
As is my want, when I finally committed to learning about NYC, I went to a book - I Never Knew That About New York - an outstanding beginner’s guide to learning about the Big Apple. The first thing the book did to make New York more easily digestible was to focus solely on Manhattan. It is not to disparage the other four boroughs, but by limiting my scope, “the city” suddenly became more understandable.
Manhattan, similar to my hometown of Washington, DC, (mostly) utilizes a grid system - once I understood how the numbered avenues 1-12 traverse the city east to west with Broadway acting as a rough line of demarcation between the two and the numbered streets track north to south, any landmark became much easier to envision spatially as did the distance between two points. If you know that Penn Station is at W. 31st Street between 7th and 8th Avenue you quickly realize the Empire State Building is practically around the corner (at 5th Avenue between W. 33rd and W. 34th) but Columbia University is miles away at 116th Street and Broadway.
With this back of the envelope knowledge, I was able to easily plot out a trip that took me to three of New York’s most famous areas - the Flatiron Building, Union Square, and the Strand Bookstore. Even better, thanks to Google street view, you can do a “virtual” walk beforehand, just so you know what to expect. That these three are so close to one another while also offering great photographic opportunities along with 18 miles (!) of books, well, talk about a no-brainer.
Getting to New York is quite easy, though not necessarily cheap. A round trip train ticket from Princeton Junction runs $32.50, but in about 80 minutes you pull into Penn Station, just 3 blocks west of Broadway.
From Broadway, the iconic Flatiron Building rises gracefully as you walk south. But the building is just part of what is known as the Flatiron District. Directly across from the Flatiron Building is Worth Square, a tiny patch littered with tulips and a monument to General William Worth, a native-born New Yorker with a distinguished military record that spanned almost 40 years, from the War of 1812 to the Mexican-American War.
A block to the east is Madison Square Park, another small slice of real estate bounded by skyscrapers and containing a statue of former Secretary of State William Seward, who served in that capacity for Abraham Lincoln and was the driving force behind our country’s purchase of Alaska (once referred to as “Seward’s Folly”).
But these are mere appetizers for the main course - the impossibly elegant wedge that rises 22 stories in the air at the confluence of Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and 22nd Street. A mere six feet at its apex, this 1902 masterpiece of limestone and architectural vision demands your attention. If you did not know what the building was, you would be compelled to ask someone what it was. Even early in the morning, there were half-a-dozen shutterbugs snapping away. Here are a couple of different angles - front, side, and up close, to give you a sense of the building’s beauty.
Just a few short blocks south on Broadway is Union Square, a great place to spend a Saturday both because of the farmer’s market selling everything from wild bison meat to artisanal corn whisky and the statues in the square. There are four - President Washington, President Lincoln, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Mahatma Gandhi. I found three of four (sorry, Gandhi!) and sampled some wild plum jam too (delicious!). Check it out:
No photos, but I finished my loop two blocks east and two blocks south of Union Square at the Strand Bookstore - an absolute must visit for book lovers with three floors of new and used books on every manner of subject. A line had formed before the store even opened - there is no coffee shop inside, no new age music, just the sometimes dank smell of used paper, passionate employees eager to help, and a devoted fan base of people like me who will make visiting the Strand a priority when they come into New York City.
I had a great day in New York and look forward to many more in the future. My next goal will be to master the subway system while plotting my next trips to places like Central Park, the High Line, and Roosevelt Island.
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