Touring New York's Most Dynamic Neighborhoods | Travel | Smithsonian
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(Tobias Hutzler)

Touring New York's Most Dynamic Neighborhoods

How do you know when a neighborhood has truly arrived? T+L looks for the telltale signs in three NYC neighborhoods: TriBeCa, Harlem, and Williamsburg.

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Anyone who grew up in New York has a “remember when” story about the city’s restless landscape. Remember when Hudson Street in TriBeCa was stoplight-free? Or Harlem didn’t have a cineplex? Or a bike ride across the bridge to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, meant running a gauntlet of junkies? So much of the dynamic energy of New York is reflected in the ebb and flow of neighborhoods as artists, entrepreneurs, and other elements in the avant-garde of gentrification push into new territory and pioneer the transformation of run-down warehouse districts and urban wilderness into vibrant communities. Sometimes you know where you are in New York just because a neighborhood has consolidated sufficiently to achieve a signature look. Neat Bill Blass suits defined the Upper East Side of Babe Paley and company in the 1960’s as precisely as the asymmetrical hairdos and baggy, all-black Yohji Yamamoto suits did 1980’s SoHo, or today’s bearded L-train hipsters, accessorized with mini fedoras and fixie bikes, let you know you are in a Williamsburg your grandfather would not recognize.

I remember in the late 1970’s when West 57th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was a no-man’s-land of construction sites, sickly health-food stores, and discount-clothing joints. It’s hard to imagine that the block where my brother and I relinquished our skateboards to a pair of muggers has now become a glamorous thoroughfare of high-end boutiques and hotels. What comes into fashion in New York can just as easily go out. It seems equally hard to imagine that there was a time when the now semi-suburbanized East Sixties were drop-dead cool: the fashion designer Halston was throwing decadent parties in his Paul Rudolph town house; Andy Warhol and Liza Minnelli were buying steaks at Albert & Sons, on Lexington Avenue, and the singles scene at places like Maxwell’s Plum inspired the movie Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Mention the East Sixties now and most people will mutter “nowhere to eat”—a wasteland.

At the moment, three of the most dynamic neighborhoods in New York City are TriBeCa, Harlem, and Williamsburg. Although vastly different in their histories and demographics, all three have blossomed into destinations with coveted addresses and trendy denizens while maintaining an authentic sense of community. In fact, you could say they’ve each become brands in their own right, clearly defined not only by physical boundaries but also by their architecture, attitude, fashion, and the ways they both embrace change—and resist it. If starving artists and farsighted businesspeople traditionally begin the process of change, real estate brokers often finish it.

TriBeCa: Hollywood East

“Everyone says New York is just a bunch of villages laid end to end,” says writer Karl Taro Greenfeld, whose novel Triburbia chronicles TriBeCa’s transformation from a cutting-edge no-man’s-land of famous clubs like Area on Hudson Street in the 1980’s and artists such as Richard Serra and Chuck Close in the 1970’s into a stomping ground for affluent celebrities including Meryl Streep and Gwyneth Paltrow. When my husband and I moved there in the late 1990’s, the neighborhood—with its cast-iron buildings and wide, cobblestoned streets—still felt like a village. It was a small community of mostly writers, artists, Hollywood types, and some prescient developers. There was a sense of separateness from the rest of New York City’s urban grid—mostly enforced by Canal Street and its rush-hour traffic. John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessette, were fixtures at the Hudson Street newsstand run by Mary and Fred Parvin, two early pioneers who were also considered the unofficial mayors of TriBeCa. Fred & Mary’s, as it was known, was a compulsory stop on every resident’s daily rounds, if not to buy the newspaper, then to catch up on gossip or catch a glimpse of Julia Roberts, Eric Bogosian, Edward Albee, or Adrian Lyne browsing the shelves and listening to Mary rant about George W. Bush and, later, the tragedy of 9/11. It was after the towers fell that TriBeCa began its reincarnation as an upscale neighborhood. Many of the original loft dwellers and young families fled, but even more residents stayed, determined to help the community and its small businesses survive.

Today, TriBeCa is having a second renaissance inspired by a new generation of change agents (the first being Drew Nieporent, Robert De Niro, and David Bouley, who transformed the place into a culinary destination in the 1980’s and 90’s with restaurants like Montrachet, Nobu, and Bouley). Now a younger group, including chef Andrew Carmellini of Locanda Verde and Matt Abramcyk of Smith & Mills, Warren 77, Tiny’s & the Bar Upstairs and, most recently, Super Linda, are bringing comfort food and trattoria style to the 19th-century Italianate and Beaux-Arts façades of the neighborhood. These days, instead of trucks backing into warehouse loading docks, you’re more likely to see Bugaboo strollers backed up alongside zinc-topped café tables outside Locanda Verde while young couples in Toms shoes and cuffed jeans scoop up Carmellini’s sheep-milk ricotta with squares of burned toast.

Before it was rezoned in the 1970’s, TriBeCa (for Triangle Below Canal Street) had been known since the early 1800’s as Washington Market, after the merchant-focused businesses and warehouses that stored produce, butter, eggs, and cheese and manufactured everything from soap to glass. Residents (what few there were: in 1970 only 370 people lived in TriBeCa) and passersby would smell the daily roasting coffee beans and desiccated coconuts. If a stray car ventured down Greenwich Street on a weekend, the driver was most likely lost. Once the merchants moved to Hunts Point, in the Bronx, and the artists began migrating in, the neighborhood was transformed from industrial zone to creative enclave. In the 1980’s, late-night restaurants like El Teddy’s and local clubs catered to a cool crowd of artists and aristos who would flock to Area for the openings of theme nights such as “Night” and “Gnarly” that featured everything from a masked welder to skateboard ramps.

Although Mary and Fred’s newsstand is long gone, many of the neighborhood’s industrial buildings still look the same, with steel loading bays and cast-iron flourishes. Parking lots have given way to three-bedroom condos and fancy establishments like Robert De Niro’s Greenwich Hotel. Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble, and Bed Bath & Beyond have opened. A favorite greasy spoon, Socrates, has been replaced by Tamarind Tribeca, a gigantic Michelin two-starred Indian restaurant serving $34 lobster masala. Celebrities are still drawn to TriBeCa, but that incognito, under-the-radar cool has been replaced by the pack of paparazzi chasing Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt into the caravan of Escalades purring outside De Niro’s hotel.

Still, some of TriBeCa’s pioneers are holding on to a certain mystique. Matt Abramcyk, who with his knit cap and beard looks more like a lumberjack than a savvy restaurateur, moved to the neighborhood after 9/11, when it was more affordable. “I grew up in New York City, and TriBeCa was always kind of mysterious,” says Abramcyk, whose wife, Nadine Ferber, is a co-owner of the TenOverTen nail salon above Super Linda. “The buildings were different, and it had a lot of potential to be exciting.” Back then fancy restaurants weren’t accessible, so Abramcyk had the idea to open smaller establishments with personality—what he calls “warm, neighborhoody environments,” where you could peel away the stories and textures from the bartenders and from the stuff on the walls. Smith & Mills, a former storage space and seafarer’s inn, was the perfect backdrop for such a place. The tiny interior, designed by Abramcyk, has a bathroom made out of a turn-of-the-century elevator with a flip-down sink from a Depression-era railway car. Tiny’s is modeled after Lower East Side butcher shops with handmade white ceramic tiles and 60-year-old wallpaper. At Super Linda, a Latin grill serving ceviche and grilled meat, the banquettes are covered in vintage burlap coffee-bean sacks, and Buenos Aires phone books from the 1940’s are piled on shelves behind the bar.

Old-timers who are prone to “There goes the neighborhood” reactions to the influx of bankers and Upper East Side types might balk at another new TriBeCa addition—an 1883 textile factory on Franklin Street that has been transformed into a Roman-style bathhouse where stressed-out visitors can soak the afternoon or evening away in tubs filled with red wine or cava for $450. A group of Spanish investors modeled Aire Ancient Baths after a similar outpost in Seville, Spain. The 16,000-square-foot space, which has been stripped down to the original columns, beams, and bricks, features 16th-century Spanish fountains and Moroccan lanterns and wooden benches made from original scaffolds of the Triboro Bridge.

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