A Walking Guide to Sixth Avenue / The Avenue of the Americas

This is your brain on Sixth Avenue.

To prepare for a recent post on the Avenue of the Americas, the official name for Sixth Avenue, I walked the street's entire distance of 3.6 miles, from Central Park to Tribeca, in order to fully grasp Mayor La Guardia's original vision in renaming the avenue. While the remnants of the Pan-American avenue now seem somewhat tattered and confined to the extreme southern and northern ends, I still highly recommend a stroll down the avenue for a host of other reasons.

The walk, in fact, is more like a hike after about three miles, requiring frequent stops and water, but the effort is worth it for those trying to walk off all sorts of problems and over-indulgences. The serious reason, however, rests in the usefulness of Sixth Avenue for studying the historical variations of New York commercial life as represented in its architecture and places of business. Walking all the way from the corporate blocks at the north end toward the south - through Midtown, Ladies Mile, Chelsea, the Village, the Charlton-King-Vandam Historic District, and Tribeca - encourages meditations on scale, public space, and the vestiges of New York history. It's a good way to see several historic areas of Manhattan in one walk. Wear comfortable shoes.

The walk starts on a few graceful notes. After the lofty equestrian sculptures of Latin American liberators on the plaza just to the north of Central Park South, turn south and walk past the Ritz Carlton (formerly the St. Moritz) Hotel and down the way, the Warwick Hotel, and later Radio City Music Hall, all on the east side, along with a few oddities on the west, such as the weird and grotesque Jekyll & Hyde Club on the west. Prominent features of the northern stretch of Sixth Avenue include a couple of significant public sculptures - Robert Indiana's famous and iconic "Love" and Jim Dine's set of twisted female torsos, variations on Venus de Milo, titled "Looking Toward the Avenue." (a joke, as the headless sculptures aren't looking anywhere.)

Without the humanizing art and the sleek, comforting public fountains out front, the imposing corporate presence of 1251 Avenue of the Americas (known also as the Exxon Building, though the oil giant took its headquarters to Texas in 1989) and its giant corporate siblings, technically part of Rockefeller Center, would constitute a dystopian future. As a grouping, the slabs come across like a giant piece of op-art (see image at top). Fans of architecture should also note the CBS Building, a black mammoth designed by Eero Saarinen & Associates in 1965.

Down the way, see Radio City Music Hall, and across the avenue, another corporate box. Don't forget to try out the rounded concrete tables and chairs in a so-called public space. (I'm joking. They look groovy, but they are uncomfortable.) Publishing and broadcasting maintains a strong hold on the avenue, with offices for McGraw-Hill, Simon & Schuster, and the Fox News Channel (the latter, a must for a right wing tour of the Big Apple).

Water fountains keep the urban resident from growing despondent.

Before arriving in the Bryant Park area, look for the Diamond District on W. 47th between Sixth Avenue and Fifth Avenue, as well as the International Center of Photography and the glassy new skyscraper, the Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park. Continuing the Avenue of the Americas theme, walk past the park to see a petite statue of Benito Juarez of Mexico
and a more imposing one of Brazilian leader José Bonifacio De Andrada E Silva, both standing just on the outside of the park walls. From Bryant Park, it's a relatively short distance to Macy's at Herald Square and then to Greeley Square.

Nearing W. 28th Street, check out what remains of the city's Flower District. Near here also look for the "Jazz Loft," photographer W. Eugene Smith's apartment at 821 Sixth Avenue where he took thousands of photographs and made recordings of jazz music and radio programs. Blocks like these are becoming a rarity along Sixth Avenue. The long stretch of residential towers to the south in Chelsea spells out a distinctly Bloomerbergian commitment to the construction of high rise luxury apartments in the city. A look at how many of the great buildings of the nearby Ladies Mile have been repurposed for the home improvement market, along with the recent conversion of a church, famous for its Limelight disco years, into a tony marketplace, tells you something about the economic priorities of contemporary New York. You will find (too) many cupcakes in the Limelight.

A particularly human-scale and colorful block of Sixth Avenue, between W. 38th And W. 37th Streets.

A block in The Village along Sixth Avenue, fortunately still looking like the old and familiar neighborhood.
As a Villager, crossing 14th to the south brings at least an illusion of escape from the bourgeoisie. But wrong, as the Village of today is among the city's most expensive. Still, it's comforting to see the Jefferson Market Library, the Waverly Diner, the IFC Center, the West Fourth Street Court, commonly known as "the Cage," and Father Demo Square. Around these Village blocks, look on the lampposts for the medallions representing the countries of the Avenue of the Americas. (many noted in the companion post.)

South of Houston, the Playground of the Americas further serves as a reminder of the avenue's official name, but nothing intrinsic about the playground equipment reveals a  hemispheric theme. Stop to read the plaque on the fence about the story of the Avenue of the Americas and how Houston Street got its name. Way down through the southern part of the thoroughfare, look for the statue of General José Artigas of Uruguay in a sad, narrow triangular park, and toward the end, Juan Pablo Duarte Square. South of Canal Street, Avenue of the Americas finally veers toward a close in Tribeca, merging with Church Street just south of Franklin.

The best parts of Sixth Avenue can be found in the occasional funky eclectic blocks of mixed-use development. When they are gone, the avenue, whatever its name may be, will be history.

The leafy area in the middle of the picture is a small park in Tribeca, a neighborhood in need of trees. If you've walked from Central Park, you may want to sit down here.
The walk: Start at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Central Park and walk south for 3.64 miles. The map notes a handful of cafes and restaurants suitable for snacks and refreshments.

View A Walking Guide to Sixth Avenue/The Avenue of the Americas in a larger map

This is still your brain after walking the entire Avenue of the Americas.
Images by Walking Off the Big Apple.

This post is a companion post to What's Left of the Avenue of the Americas?

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