Will the ‘real’ New York please stand up?
Most New Yorkers avoid, dread, and despise Times Square. But for most visitors, this “Lullaby of Broadway” hub represents much of what New York is about — crowds, excitement, energy, and of course we can’t forget the neon lights.
Last Friday during a wedding, I met a gentleman on his first trip to New York from Ireland. I made a few obvious suggestions for his four-day holiday. He didn’t seem to be too interested in my must-see list, but he said something thought- provoking during our conversation, “I’m staying in Times Square, but I want to see the ‘real’ New York. Where’s that?”
We chatted on a packed, noise-filled bus with beer bottles in every seat, and Friday traffic had gotten the best of us. The wedding reception would surely be in full swing until we arrived, but this 30-minute delay gave me time to think. As I recommended some of the obvious attractions like Central Park, the High Line or a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, I began to ask the question myself. “Where is the real New York?”
Is it the tourist attractions like the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, or the largest department store in the world — Macy’s at Herald Square? Or is it the quaint cobblestone streets of the West Village where icons like Bob Dylan or Jack Kerouac once walked?
The real New York may be the elite prewar apartment buildings like 740 Park Avenue or the Dakota at 72nd Street and Central Park West, where John Lennon once lived. Or it could be Chinatown, where narrow streets are lined with even narrower shops and restaurants, and locals speak Mandarin and Cantonese.
Maybe it’s not most of the touristy Big Apple at all, but only bits and pieces like Harlem’s Manhattan Valley, Washington Heights, or Alphabet City — East of Avenue C.
For some, the real New York is only in Queens, the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world, where more than 138 languages are spoken. After all, New York is a town of immigrants.
Brooklyn may be the real New York for others, like a city unto itself, (although it’s technically one of the five boroughs), with some natives who rarely if ever commute into Manhattan — because for them, there is no world outside of Brooklyn.
And for others, it’s parts of the Bronx like the Botanical Gardens or Van Cortland Park with rolling hills and unmanicured greenery, or it’s the small-town feel and hip vibe of St. George in Staten Island.
A glimpse of the real New York may involve cleaner streets, friendlier New Yorkers, and safer subways. That glimpse could include using only public transit and skipping the cabs, even though it’s sweltering outside in August, or a blizzard in February.
It may be a look at less obvious areas of town like City Island in the Bronx, which resembles an old New England fishing village (Yes! in the Bronx), or the historically Irish neighborhood, Woodside, Queens, just three miles from Manhattan.
It may be waiting in the checkout line for twenty minutes at popular Whole Foods in Union Square, or taking your dog out after 9 p.m. for off-leash time at Riverside Park before turning in for the night.
It could be walking under building after building of scaffolding, and not thinking much of it, yet having the ability to appreciate it when it’s a heavy downpour.
It should be lying on a blanket at the quiet north end of Central Park surrounded by nature, but with the background of majestic buildings — or entering the park at 105th Street and Fifth Avenue, where the most magnificent Conservatory Garden thrives.
The real New York is all of the above-mentioned places, activities, and attractions, but that New York is different for everyone. For you, it may even be walking through Times Square at 7:45 p.m., just minutes before the curtains rise on every Broadway show in town; meanwhile, you’re fighting the buzzing crowds and traffic, and feeling like you’ll be swallowed hole at any moment. That’s New York too.
Times Square could be the furthest thing from your vision of what the ‘Real’ New York is, but for others, it doesn’t get any realer than that.
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