By Laurie Lewis
Perhaps because New York is one of the world’s great walking cities, the domain of pedestrians—the sidewalks—contains some interesting elements. Even an ordinary sidewalk is not plain. It may reveal traces of New Yorkers’ legendary rudeness: the coin-sized remnants of ejected chewing gum, turned black by city grime, or leftovers after walkers failed to clean up properly from their dogs. An ordinary sidewalk also has intentional “decoration”: the red, yellow, and orange marks that utility companies make; the round and square metal plates through which those companies reach into their subterranean world; and the larger rectangular metal inserts providing ventilation for and access to what lies beneath. Some sidewalks also offer art installations, relics of city history, and honors to outstanding people. If only New Yorkers and visitors would look down and notice!
One of the most unusual sidewalks in Manhattan is on Madison Avenue between 78th and 79th Streets. The bold geometric patterns are the creation of artist Alexander Calder. Three galleries on this block represented Calder and commissioned him to create this unique sidewalk installation. His only terrazzo piece, it was unveiled in 1970.
Another sidewalk art installation is in Midtown, on a two-block stretch of 41st Street beginning at Park Avenue and ending at the main library on Fifth Avenue. New Yorkers and tourists are more accustomed to looking at street signs than sidewalks, and some pedestrians may have noticed the double signage indicating that this stretch of 41st Street is also called Library Way. But they may not have noticed the 96 bronze sidewalk plaques with quotes from writers from ancient to modern times. Each plaque is uniquely illustrated by artist Gregg LeFevre. The installation was completed in 1998.
Other sidewalks are special because they reveal aspects of New York City’s past. The oldest remnants are in Lower Manhattan, on Pearl Street near Broad Street. A clear cover over part of the busy thoroughfare makes visible the remnants of Lovelace Tavern, dating from 1670. Nearby, a colored outline on the sidewalk marks the boundaries of the even older Dutch City Hall, or Stadt Huys.
Visitors to SoHo admiringly gaze up at the cast-iron architecture but may neglect to look down. When they do, they’ll see metal basement covers fitted with glass disks. When SoHo developed in the late nineteenth century, these glass disks allowed natural light to enter the basements. Occasionally, artificial light from the lower level now makes the sidewalk disks glow, a reversal of the original illumination pattern. Areas of New York that developed later have solid metal cellar doors that open upward, and the pedestrian who fails to pay attention could tumble into the gaping hole.
New York sometimes pays tribute to heroes with a horizontal “hall of fame” embedded in the sidewalk. Actually, some honorees receive double recognition: first a ticker-tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes (see our March 2017 newsletter), then a plaque in the sidewalk of Lower Broadway along the parade route, noting the date of the parade.
Other series of sidewalk plaques focus on leaders in particular professions. The round plaques of the Fashion Walk of Fame in the Garment District, along Seventh Avenue from 35th Street to 41st Street, honor clothing designers. The Yiddish Theater Walk of Fame on Second Avenue and 10th Street, in the heart of the early twentieth century “Jewish Rialto,” recognizes 32 star performers. The Apollo Theater in Harlem pays homage to African American musical icons with its sidewalk plaques.
These are just a few of the special sidewalks of New York. Do you have a favorite? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and perhaps we’ll feature your pick in a future blog.
On September 17, 2018, Alan Cohen was interviewed live on the Z-Travel and Leisure Hour radio broadcast on WVOX. We've posted the interview on YouTube. Click on this link, and you'll see a photo of Alan and another image. Keep listening if you want to know about that other face!
Most scheduled Take a Walk New York tours cover 1 to 2 miles, last 2 to 2½ hours, and cost $25 per person. Advance registration is required. To register and to learn the meeting place, email the guide (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). Please arrive a little before the start time. Tours are cancelled if nobody has registered or if the weather is extreme; if in doubt, call or text Laurie (917-306-2868) or Alan (917-363-4292).
This month we offer tours to three places with sidewalk features mentioned in this newsletter. We also go twice to one of our favorite places, the northern part of Central Park.
Central Park: Marvels of the Northern Half
The northern end of Central Park features some of the city's most surprising landscapes. Visit the Pool, one of the best places for fall foliage in all of Manhattan. Enjoy a hike through the recently restored woods, explore heights that played a strategic role in early American wars, and discover New York's own Secret Garden.
We're offering this tour twice this month. Join Laurie on Saturday, November 3, at 1:30 PM, when both the Pool and the Garden should be at peak color. Or walk with Alan on Wednesday, November 28, at 11 AM, when the absence of leaves helps you appreciate the magnificent design work of the Central Park creators. Please email the guide (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org) to register and to learn the meeting location.
400 Years of History in Less Than a Mile
Lower Broadway is like an illustrated history textbook, with the pages out of order. This stretch of Manhattan illustrates American history from colonial times to the present. Take a walk in the footsteps of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Hear stories about heroes like them, as well as rogues like William "Boss" Tweed. View the sidewalk plaques commemorating ticker-tape parade honorees. Look at beautiful buildings, including the first department store.
Alan is offering this tour on Saturday, November 10, at 10 AM. Please email him(email@example.com) to register and to learn the meeting location.
Mansions of Fifth Avenue
You can still find magnificent mansions built about a hundred years ago on the Upper East Side. These freestanding and rowhouse mansions are interspersed among luxury apartment buildings---mansions in the sky. Hear about these palatial homes and the people who lived in them---New York's own rich and famous. On this tour only, we will divert slightly from the usual route to view the sidewalk art created by Alexander Calder.
Take a walk with Laurie to see Upper East Side mansions and the Calder sidewalk on Sunday, November 11, at 1:30 PM. Email the guide (firstname.lastname@example.org) to reserve a spot and to learn the meeting location.
Green Spaces and Great Places on 42nd Street
Walking from Bryant Park all the way to the East River, you'll discover parks among famous Midtown buildings. Learn why so many "pocket parks" occupy prime Manhattan real estate. Make a brief visit to several iconic buildings, including the public library, Grand Central, and the Chrysler Building. Discover the sidewalk art installation along Library Way, and take time to read some quotes of famous writers.
Laurie gives this tour on Monday, November 26, at 1 PM. To reserve a place and to learn the meeting location, email her at email@example.com.