8.01.2008

10 Favorite Places in New York for Walking Off the Big Apple

Over the past year I've enjoyed many occasions to visit both well-known New York attractions and several places off the beaten path. While I still have many miles to walk and many new places to discover in the course of my urban walking life, I have built up a repertory of places that I like to revisit over and over again. Sometimes, when I'm out on a walk, the kind with no predetermined ending or set path, I'll sometimes find myself drawn back to places that have resonated with me before. It's a little like comfort food, warm pumpkin cupcakes, for example, or the longing, at the end of a long vacation, to curl up on one's own bed. I like to wander out of my comfort zone much of the time, but when I feel like I need to reconnect with the city, the following places are where I feel like I can come home.

This blog is titled "Walking Off the Big Apple" for several reasons. One meaning has to do with burning calories (walking off the BIG apple, walking off the big pizza, walking off the pastrami sandwich, etc.), but another has to do with the sense of having "to walk something off," meaning to work through an issue or problem as a way of getting rid of frustration or anger. New York life can stress me out. I get wound tight. My personal solution, I have come to discover, is to walk off New York.

The following list of places is not a "Best of" list, as I often find those types of ubiquitous lists somewhat impertinent and editorially condescending, but simply the places I like and would like to share with friends.

Commerce Street. The gentle curve of this street in the West Village, very near St. Luke's Place that I described recently, strikes me as one of the most romantic blocks in lower Manhattan. Whenever I walk down along Bedford St. and happen to look over and see the awning of the Cherry Lane Theatre tucked away on Commerce Street and the lamposts that sit at the bend of the curve nearby, my feet take me there uncontrollably, as if a hidden force pulls me to a reckoning with my deepest urban fantasies.

The Renwick Ruins. Of all the walks in recent months, the one to Roosevelt Island was the most akin to the Situationist notion of "derive," which I promise to discuss soon, because I just jumped on the tram impulsively and went there. Walking south on the island, I came upon the majestic ruin of the old smallpox hospital. Designed by James Renwick, the architect for St. Patrick's Cathedral, the decay of Gothic ruined arches fired my imagination. Roosevelt Island is the new Paris.

The Pond in Central Park near 59th and Fifth Avenue affords the necessary escape from the man-made glories of Manhattan, even with the Plaza Hotel and Grand Army Plaza nearby. The Pond is sublime in all seasons. Central Park will always be important for me, because it's where I got in touch with my deeper self as flâneuse.

The Cloisters. This quick escape to medieval Europe via the A train has always functioned as a my in-town getaway. I think for many residents of the Middle Ages, except for the ordeals known as pilgrimages and the Crusades, a staycation (Succurro solvo mihi ex incompertus lacuna) was pretty much all that was expected in terms of family getaways. One Sunday morning, when I visited this Met Museum-affiliated special collection and enjoyed the room of the Unicorn Tapestries all to myself, I felt transcended and inspired. See the special page on The Cloisters.

• The Irish Hunger Memorial. When I walk along Battery Park, this unobtrusive memorial to the potato famine never fails to move me. A sod-bearing humble structure that features plantings on top that evoke the Irish countryside and haunting spoken words and etched sayings along the walls of the corridor underneath, the memorial fully engages empathy and awareness. Looking over my posts from the past year, I see the Irish everywhere - John Butler Yeats, for example. And who doesn't love a good fairytale?

• The Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Sometimes, I just need to get out of Manhattan and get some perspective. Even from Greenwich Village, I find I can fully walk off the Big Apple by walking down Broadway, cross over the Brooklyn Bridge, and then find my way to any street in Brooklyn Heights that takes me to the Promenade. Once there, I can walk up and down next to the riverfront and look back on Manhattan and get a grip on any sort of downturn. Much of the time, however, I end up having fun in Brooklyn, especially in the beautiful Heights.

Duane Park. I described this sweet little green oasis in Tribeca as a movie set, but it gets under my skin. I like the whole streetscape of Duane Street, with human-scale buildings, the Duane Park Patisserie, the understated luxury, especially knowing it was once just a funky old New York street on the Lower West Side. The residents keep up the park in a nice way, so it's a good model for the small-scale gardening one can do at home.

The Morgan Library and Museum. Sometimes, I need to engage in imaginary conversations with the Robbers Barons that defined the appalling discrepancy between the rich and the poor in New York. When I can't converse with Junior, I like to visit J. P. Morgan in his library and office and talk to him about working conditions, the House of Morgan, and also his fine Renaissance art collection. More than that, however, I am a girl in love with manuscripts of all sorts, so the Morgan, nicely modernized by Renzo Piano, makes me happy. The gift shop also solves a lot of issues at gift-giving time. I need to describe the museum more fully in a future post. This is the place where I saw Van Gogh's letters.

City Hall Park and fountain. Whenever I'm walking down Broadway, eyes on the Woolworth Building up ahead, I'm happy to anticipate sitting for awhile on a bench near the fountain in City Hall Park. The ornate gas-lit lamps and fountain, especially at dusk and in autumn, bring out many Gothic ghosts strolling along the old city. It was while sitting near the fountain one day that I realized that I could differentiate visitors from residents by figuring out which ones like to photograph squirrels. Bonus: Squirrel film festival.

Washington Square Park. There's no place like home, even when it's undergoing extreme makeover. Too hot outside? Take comfort here.

Images: Commerce Street in the West Village, The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park in Upper Manhattan, and City Hall Park and fountain in Lower Manhattan. Walking Off the Big Apple.

Coming soon: more "10 Favorite" lists for casual dining, favorite photo images, and buildings. Importantly, the meaning of my experience discovering New York this past year could not have been possible without the extraordinary behind-the-scenes correspondence with many readers and fellow New York bloggers. Thank you so much.

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