In New York, stay anywhere but Midtown

Stay local to find the real New York

 

Most frequent visitors to New York City tend to stay in the same hotel, usually in

Midtown Manhattan, with the Irish favouring Fitzpatrick’s on Lexington Avenue, a couple of blocks from Bloomingdale’s. And that’s fine as far as it goes, but they’re missing out on something special.

New York is a city of neighbourhoods, and Midtown isn’t one of them. Yet it’s surrouned by real places, particularly to the south such as Grammercy Park, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Tribeca. So pick a hotel or AirBnb apartment in any of these areas and get to know New York.

On my last visit, I stayed at the Chelsea Inn on West 17th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues – not to be confused with the legendary Chelsea Hotel, bohemian haunt of artists and writers for decades, now closed for a controversial renovation.

The Chelsea Inn is a budget option in New York terms – old and quite basic, with smallish rooms, shared baths, creaking floorboards and sloping stairs. But walk along the block and you discover the incredible diversity of a city street, more varied than any in Dublin or London.

Next door is La Petite Abeille, a Belgian bar and restaurant, where Chelsea Inn residents get a $3 (€2.30) discount off breakfast. The Brioche French Toast served with fresh blurberries, raspberries and stawberries for $13 (€10.30) is hard to beat.

Beside it, Arch Gate is a large shop specialisng in Asian antiques and furniture, stuffed with lacquered cabinets, Chinese-style lamps and Bhuddas. Apparently, giving your interior décor an “Asian theme” is quite the thing in Chelsea.

Just beyond Arch Gate is a bespoke bed showroom called Charles P Rogers, which proudly proclaims it’s been making beds since 1855. And Americans are particularly good at doing that, for some reason.

Rennert’s Gallery next door grabs attention with what looks like a genuine vintage Bugatti touring car in the big window. It caters for “affichomania” with a wide selection of large-sized posters, some of which have increased 20-fold in value since Andy Warhol’s day.

Then, there’s Eisenberg & Eisenberg, specialising in tuxedo rentals and “fine men’s clothing”, something Americans don’t do so well (apart from jeans). It’s a long-established Jewish firm with a loyal clientele; otherwise everyone would be going to Bloomingdale’s.

The rear-end of the Center for Jewish History is on the same side of the street, and it effectively advertises its presence with large information panels outlining what’s inside. The entrance is on West 16th through a colonial-style building near the splendid Jesuit church.

Building heights on West 17th, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, vary. There are one or two original houses, usually four storeys high, then planning policy must have changed around 1900 because there are few 12-storey buildings from that period.

It’s not far from New York City’s first “skyscraper”, the marvellous Flatiron building, erected in 1902 on a tight triangular site on Fifth Avenue and Broadway, facing Madison Square Park. It has given its name to the highly desirable Flatiron District of the city.

But back to West 17th and its restaurants. There’s BLT Fish Shack, which does oysters and other “raw food” as well as striped bass and shrimp cocktail, not quite the same as that old Irish favourite served in a glass with lettuce and Marie Rose sauce.

Others include Basta Pasta, a Japanese-owned Italian restaurant featuring “kitchen as theatre”, where the food is cooked in full view of the diners.

The block even has its own karaoke bar for people who want to make a show of themselves singing My Way, or whatever. There’s a great camera shop and a “department store for creative people”, AI Friedman’s, that sells everything from artists’ supplies to office chairs.

Beside it, sadly, is another very familar sight in New York City – a large surface carpark. It charges $27 (€21.50) per day, plus taxes, to park a car and double-decks them to pack more in.

Right at the corner is the Sixth Avenue Elementary School, on the lower floors of a building that becomes an apartment tower. One evening, in a not untypical New York scene, a young dad was pushing his baby daughter in a buggy while his son scooted alongside. You’d see the same in any part of Manhattan or Brooklyn, which is also full of distinctive neighbourhoods such as trendy Williamsburg or Dumbo, an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. Or nearby Brooklyn Heights, with its leafy streets lined with classic New York brownstones, with lots of restaurants, shops and wine bars catering for both locals and tourists. And great views across the East River of the Lower Manhattan skyline and the fantastic Brooklyn Bridge.

So next time you’re planning a visit to the Big Apple, pick a real neighbourhood to stay in and get to know New York City as its people do. Anything but Midtown should be the motto – except, of course, for the obligatory trip to Macy’s or the now over-sanitised Times Square.

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