New York City - Naughty No More: Manhattan's 42nd Street
Top of the Chrysler Building from Tudor City Overpass

by Marguerite Thomas

One could easily spend an entire day in New York without ever venturing off 42nd Street, Manhattan's most famous cross-town road has everything a visitor could want including shops, theaters, hotels, restaurants, and some of the world's best sightseeing.

Start exploring 42nd Street at its eastern edge, where the East River (a swift-moving tidal straight flowing between Long Island Sound and Upper New York Bay) parallels the Franklin D. Roosevelt Highway, known to New Yorkers simply as the FDR.

[ Related: Seeing More Than the Typical Sites in New York City ]

Between the FDR and First Avenue lies the United Nations Headquarters, an 18-acre property running from 42nd up to 48th Street. The site, purchased in 1946 with an $8.5 million donation from John D. Rockefeller, is dominated by a modernist 38-story glass-clad building that was based on a Le Corbusier design and executed by an international team of architects. A display of flags from each of the UN's member states lines First Avenue, beginning with Afghanistan at 48th Street and ending at 42nd with Zimbabwe.

In addition to temporary art exhibitions, the UN's permanent art collection includes among its many treasures a spectacular stained glass piece by Marc Chagall, a Norman Rockwell Mosaic, and the Japanese Peace Bell, which was made from coins gathered by school children in 60 different countries (it is rung at the opening of each General Assembly). The collection also includes beautiful and poignant photographs, particularly of children. The UN's sculpture garden features a variety of works, ranging from a Henry Moore reclining figure, to a piece of the Berlin Wall, to an anti-war bronze dominated by a 35-foot-tall St. George slaying the dragon of war. Lunch at the UN Delegates Dining Room is a memorable experience, which provides not only beautiful views looking out over the East River, but also the opportunity to feel as if one truly is part of the global culture.

Facing the UN, between First and Second Avenues is Tudor City, a tiny residential oasis that is one of New York's best-kept secrets. A brick apartment complex built in the '20s and '30s by Fred French, it is home to 12 buildings, approximately 5,000 New York residents, two charming parks, a small grocery store, a dry cleaners, a nail salon, a bicycle shop, and L'Impero, one of Manhattan's toniest Italian restaurants. In L'Impero's regal surroundings (Tudor castle decor meets modern luxe) guests can enjoy lighter fare -- saffron pasta with crab and sea urchin, for example -- or more robust offerings such as dry-aged Montana beef with potatoes, grilled radicchio and porcini. My advice: don't overlook l'Impero's desserts. I'm not usually much of a dessert enthusiast, but here, who can resist such sweet delights as ricotta cheesecake with roasted pears and spiced wine sorbet, or apple fritters with caramel gelato? The restaurant is located on the north side of the overpass that spans 42nd Street connecting the two halves of Tudor City (staircases on the south and north sides of 42nd street provide pedestrian access to Tudor City; vehicles can get there only via 41st Street).

Look west from the overpass for a dramatic view of the Chrysler Building, that famous Art Deco icon on the corner of 43rd and Lexington Avenue. Soaring 1,047 feet high, it was, for less than a year, the world's tallest skyscraper, until the Empire State Building overtook it in 1931 (since the destruction of the World Trade Center, the Chrysler Building is once again the second tallest building in New York, and is said to be the tallest brick building in the world). Clad in white brick with gray brick ornamentation, this emblem of the modern age was designed by William Van Alan to house the Chrysler Corporation, and some of its most beloved architectural features make reference to the original owner: the corners of the 61st floor, for example, are graced by eagles that are replicas of the 1919 Chrysler hood ornament, while sculptures modeled on Chrysler radiator caps decorate the lower setbacks along with ornaments of car wheels. Be sure to pop in for a peek at the Chrysler Building's red Moroccan marble and chrome lobby.

On your way to the Chrysler Building from Tudor City, pause for a moment at the northeast corner of 42nd and Second Avenue to admire the Ford Foundation headquarters. Architectural buffs will particularly appreciate this unusual 12-story block shaped steel-frame structure enclosing a vertical conservatory shaft that rises to the building's full height, with office windows opening onto the sunny, green planted interior space. Designed by Roche-Dinkeloo, it is surely the city's finest example of 1960s architecture.

On the same side of the street, between Lexington Avenue and tiny Vanderbilt Avenue, stands Grand Central Terminal, which exists in its present form only by a quirk of luck.

For a couple of decades, up until the 1970s, various schemes to replace Grand Central with a more modern building were suggested, culminating with a proposal for a gigantic tower designed by Marcel Breuer. The plan drew vociferous opposition from prominent leaders, most notably Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. "...This is the time for us to take a stand, so that we won't all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes," she pleaded. New York City filed suit to stop the development, and for the first time even the Supreme Court ruled on a matter of historic preservation. Grand Central was saved.

The Information Booth - Grand Central Terminal
Grand Central Terminal

 

More than just a train station, Grand Central also houses retail shops, fast-food outlets (wonderful pizza, good Mexican food, a terrific soup place), bars, and restaurants (Cipriani Dolci, Charlie Palmer's Metrazur and Michael Jordan's Steak House). The Grand Central Market, on the main concourse level, is a food shoppers' paradise, with fresh seafood, one of the city's best cheese shops (the uptown Murray's), a couple of bakeries, a butcher specializing in aged prime beef, a purveyor of spices, a greengrocer, and much, much more.

The cavernous and usually crowded main concourse is dominated by the central information booth, which not only dispenses train schedule information but also has famously served as a rendezvous spot for countless generations of New Yorkers and visitors (like most people who once lived in Manhattan, I could probably write a brief autobiography centered around the scores of people I've met at the information booth over the years). The stunning brass clocks surmounting the information booth are estimated to have a value of several million dollars. (Another spectacular clock, outside the station, atop the building's Beaux Arts facade, is made of Tiffany glass surrounded by an enormous sculpture representing Mercury flanked by Hercules and Minerva). But the most universally admired thing in Grand Central Terminal may well be the main concourse's beautiful vaulted 125-foot-high ceiling illustrating an abstract vision of celestial constellations, painted in 1912 by French artist Paul Cesar Helleu.

For almost a century, throngs of locals, commuters and visitors have flocked to Grand Central Terminal's Oyster Bar Restaurant for some of the best and freshest seafood in the city. With its vaulted tile ceiling and red-checked tablecloths, its generous selection of oysters and other shellfish, its chowders, stews, pan roasts, and its broiled, baked, poached or fried fish, the popularity of this venerable eatery has never wavered.

For a change of pace and menu, walk out Grand Central's front doors, cross 42nd Street under the Park Avenue viaduct, and step into Pershing Square, a noisy, brash American brasserie with hearty fare such as short ribs, meat loaf and pan-seared salmon. In warm weather, when the west side of Park Avenue South is roped off between 41st and 42nd, sit outside for the ultimate urban dining experience. Along with scores of tourists and native Manhattanites, I love meeting friends and colleagues for breakfast at Pershing Square, whose superb central location, good food, and dynamic ambience all add up to an inspiring way to start the day.

Wander west along 42nd Street a couple of blocks to Fifth Avenue, and you'll be facing the New York Public Library, one of the world's leading public libraries. The NYPL was established with the fortune left, in 1886, by Samuel Tilden, governor of New York. In front of the library are the famous stone lions (nicknamed "Patience" and "Fortitude" by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia).

Construction of the library began in 1899 at the east end of Bryant Park, whose 8-acre stretch reaches all the way to 6th Avenue, and whose own history is a microcosm of New York's. George Washington's troops marched across it when they were retreating from the Battle of Long Island. It was once the site of a reservoir.

In 1823 the place became a potter's field, i.e. a burial ground for indigents, until 1840, when thousands of bodies were exhumed and moved to Ward's Island in the East River. The park was used for military drills during the Civil War. Its name was changed from Reservoir Square to Bryant Park to honor abolitionist William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Evening Post. In 1934, under the direction of Robert Moses, New York's Commissioner of Parks, Bryant Park was rebuilt on top of the library stacks. By the 1970s, however, Bryant Park was more commonly called "Needle Park," for it had been taken over by drug dealers, homeless people, prostitutes, and various other down-and-outers. Tourists and ordinary citizens stayed away.

The heroic effort of restoration began in 1980s thanks to the efforts of citizens' advocacy groups, with subsequent funding by the Rockefeller family and other prominent New Yorkers. In 1992 it reopened, and is today one of New York's greatest open public spaces with its handsome garden, its movable chairs and tables, its free WiFi Internet access. It is host to numerous concerts and other programs throughout the year, and to New York Fashion Week in spring and fall.

One of the most famous intersections on earth is where 42nd Street meets Broadway at Times Square. "Naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty/ In the heart of little old New York/ You'll find a thoroughfare./It's the part of little old New York/ that runs into Times Square," go the lyrics to the Broadway musical "42nd Street". For much of the 20th century Times Square was infamously littered with all manner of prurient entertainment such as peep shows, and rife with pickpockets, pornography, prostitutes, pimps, and perverts. In the late '80s, under the auspices of Mayor Ed Koch, the porn theaters were shut down and the neighborhood's seedier elements cleaned up. "Legitimate" theater re-emerged on 42nd Street between 7th and 6th Avenues.

One block west of Times Square sprawls the Port Authority, the gateway for buses traveling in and out of New York. The largest bus station in the United States (by volume of traffic) the Port Authority may also be the world's busiest. Forty-Second Street ends at the Ferry Terminal, where sightseers can board ferries, including one that circles Manhattan, and one that provides service to Liberty Island, as well as to Ellis Island, where so many immigrants from around the world were first introduced to their new country.

[ Related: Seeing More Than the Typical Sites in New York City ]

 

 

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Vacations & Travel "New York City - Naughty No More: Manhattan's 42nd Street"