Commentary Magazine


From the American Scene: Make Mine Manhattan

I am not quite a classic case. When I stepped off the train at Pennsylvania Station in September 1946, I was not carrying my few but spotless possessions in a cardboard suitcase; there were not even metaphorical bits of straw sticking to my clothes. I was not a fresh-faced innocent, the prototype of Nathanael West’s hero in A Cool Million, about to be sacrificed to the wicked city, nor the male counterpart of the girl who sang, “You’d not dare molest me, sir, if Jack were only here.” I was familiar with the surfaces, at least, of Chicago, San Francisco, London, Paris; I had even passed through New York City once—on my way to Europe and the war—and stopped long enough to eat a lobster and to see the last two acts of a bad play (Diana Barrymore in Rebecca).

Innocence would have been impossible even if I had never set foot in a city larger than Connersville, Indiana. I am speaking phenomenologically, not autobiographically. The innocent rube and the city slicker had died many years earlier. The novelists had long ago rediscovered sin in the small towns (what one New York-born editor still calls “peasant crime”) and had helped to redress the urban-rural imbalance of sophistication. The gold-brick salesman had been gone for years from the Grand Central neighborhood, although he later turned up in Connecticut, operating from a real estate office.

If I am not quite a classic case, still I am almost one. If I knew something casually of cities that September at Penn Station, I did not yet know how to live in one or how to get to know that a city has a particular personality of its own. If I brought with me the kind of knowledge of human beings that the close-in living of a small town provides, I still did not know that there could be so many kinds of people (nationalities, races, economic stratifications) tumbled together so noisily, each holding on to bits of its past, even as it faded into an image of the whole. If I had discovered crustaceans on Fisherman’s Wharf and eaten something called chop suey at the Bamboo Inn in Indianapolis, I was still virginal, as only a Midwesterner can be virginal, in the exotic world of international food. The new model outlander, with pizza in his hamburger joint and frozen blintzes and sour cream in his supermarket, may not be as gustatorially naive as I was when I arrived, but neither will he have the purity of palate that makes the finding of a new food so delightful.

I set out to discover New York. I do not know that I consciously avoided the places that, tourist-like, I should have gone to, but I do know that I have not yet made it to the top of the Empire State and that it was years before I risked going to the Statue of Liberty. When I did go it was on a holiday and the crowds drove me back before ever I made my way to the top, and I found solace in the wonderfully deserted caverns of the downtown commercial district. Mostly, I walked and looked, which is the only way to get to know a city. I ate busily and finally I ate carefully until I came to know the difference between a good knish and a bad one, between the best lobster sauce for shrimp (Shanghai style) and the standard Chinese-restaurant offering. I learned to know all the neighborhoods in Manhattan (by living in most of them) and to tell just where the Italian East Side shaded into the Jewish East Side and which Irish bars on Amsterdam Avenue had become Puerto Rican. I learned, most of all, that one can walk endlessly in New York City without ever getting bored. There were always streets that I had not visited, or not for so long that they had changed their faces; there were always new people, new shops, new surprises.

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When I began my explorations, there was no short cut to help me find my way. There were friends, of course, who had their own special corners of the city and who insisted that I see them and like them, but the untrustworthiness of enthusiasts has been common knowledge since the Children’s Crusade. Now—and that’s what I have been leading up to all this time—there is a very pleasant crutch to lean on. Kate Simon, who has been a New Yorker ever since she came from Warsaw as a child (no dates please), a woman who obviously loves the city even (though she knows that it is “exhausting to visit and difficult to live in,” has written what she calls “an uncommon guidebook,” New York, Places & Pleasures.1

Miss Simon’s book is ostensibly for the casual visitor with a short time to stay in New York, that special visitor who knows that there are theaters and night clubs, who has found his way to all the standard tourist attractions and the famous stores, and who is looking now for an unusual walk, a small restaurant, an out-of-the-way shop. These Miss Simon provides in profusion and she accompanies her every suggestion with good and explicit directions about how to get wherever it is by bus and subway. Although very expensive establishments are described, many of the restaurants are reasonably cheap and there are pages of bargain stores and free (or inexpensive) entertainment.

One of the perennial difficulties with guidebooks is that the information is dated before the book ever reaches the hands of those who need to be guided. During my undergraduate days at Columbia, I remember fondly and compassionately, one guide listed a neighborhood tearoom, frequented only by poor but hungry students, as an excellent Japanese restaurant, and small clusters of Japanese tourists, their imitation German cameras about their necks, used to turn up on Morningside wearing looks of hope that quickly faded to bewilderment and despair.2 Miss Simon is aware of the ephemeral nature of much of her information, so she runs up continual warnings to the reader, suggesting that he call (she usually gives phone numbers) and verify details of time, of place, of existence. She could not have foreseen that Joseph Papp and Robert Moses would have come to blows over Shakespeare in the park, but when she describes the New York Shakespeare Festival she warns that something disastrous may well have happened to her information between typewriter and bookstore.

There are a few genuine errors in the volume, perhaps planted for readers like me who can be expected to feel like bona fide New Yorkers for having discovered them. There is some confusion, perhaps typographical, about the details of the St. George’s Day Parade (page 323), a mix-up which unfortunately moves the Cathedral of St. John the Divine from 110th to 101st Street. The Whitney Museum, page 106 notwithstanding, does not charge admission. If I were being picayune, I would call on everyone who struggled with me through “New York: Second Generation,” the abstract expressionist show, to testify that the Jewish Museum does not limit its special shows to ritual and synagogue pieces (page 117), and I would ask fellow habitués of the Three Crowns to swear that it is physically impossible to “inspect on a once-around tour before you begin to heap your plate” (page 168), because one-half of the revolving table is always on the other side of the wall, being loaded with new delights. These are unimportant errors, however. The only real blooper that I found in the whole volume is Miss Simon’s insistence that the tiglon—poor, dear, long dead, moth-eaten monster—is still one of the attractions of the Central Park Zoo (page 198). Perhaps she gets her zoo information second hand or perhaps she is simply not a zoo person. The latter seems likely since she wastes the zoos by putting them under the suggestions for children and since she fails to mention (don’t tell me space problems: look how much she has to say about Klein’s) my Central Park favorites: the yak with the crumpled horn and the gorilla ladies, Joanne and Carolyn, the most typical career girls in New York.

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Now that I have finished showing off about the book’s minor blemishes, let me get on to saying how very good it is and why. My obvious and personal pleasure in Miss Simon’s guide lies in the fact that she so often mentions those streets that I like to walk on, those restaurants that I think of as being my own, those stores that I go to for special purposes. I may mix my delight in her long, detailed, loving account of the virtues of the Shanghai, an unequaled Chinese restaurant to which generations of Columbia students have flocked, with a fear that her book will double the crowds that already make it so hard to get a seat, but I cannot help feeling that it is high time someone said noisily just how good the food is there. I do not mean that we always see eye to eye (the Serendipity is not chic so far as I am concerned; it is chi-chi), but we do share enough sights and tastes to make me feel that her New York is also mine.

The three chief virtues of Miss Simon as a recorder of New York’s pleasures are that she loves to walk, she loves to eat, and she writes amusingly of the people and the places in the city. Although she suggests that a ride on the Third Avenue bus from City Hall to 128th Street is an instructive delight (I would not touch it with a ten-foot exhaust pipe) and that one might see something from a car on one of the outer drives (but not driving the car), she chiefly advises the stranger to take walks. Although she guides the visitor through Greenwich Village and, less expectedly, past the millinery parts shops in the Thirties, her suggested walks are built for the most part around a national or racial section where special foods may be eaten, special products—clothing, toys, books—may be purchased, special festivals observed in season. She sends the reader to the Jewish Lower East Side, to the Italian and Slavic sections farther north, to the remains of the Greek neighborhood on Ninth Avenue and to the three Harlems (Negro, Puerto Rican, Italian). There is no quaint condescension in her fondness for these neighborhoods, but neither is there any self-delusion. Miss Simon recognizes what so many writers of guidebooks do not: that she is selling nostalgia. Any European guide leads the tourist to those parts of town that are oldest, those survivals that are farthest removed from the mid-century tempo of commercial living that does not differ all that much from New York to London to Tokyo. In the same way, Miss Simon points to those parts of New York where the marks of a dying way of life, the way of the immigrant, have not yet been erased. The peculiar color and vitality of each of these sections come from the ghetto-like concentration in which the people live or once lived. The increasing assimilation of later generations, the movement within and outside of Manhattan, the homogenizing effect of slum clearance, have all helped to remove the tightly national character of neighborhoods.

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The sense of change hovers over Miss Simon’s book like a warning and a promise. Most of the restaurants and the shops that she describes—at least those in the old neighborhoods—were born out of the need of a particular group of people. With the passing of the group, to the suburbs or the expensive melting pot of midtown apartment living, much of the special Character of the old neighborhoods has died. Still more of it has disappeared under the iron ball that has knocked down the quaint tenements to make way for what we who never had to live in tenements like to call colorless housing projects. The paradox that plays through Miss Simon’s book is the one that haunts anyone with a genuine love of New York, that the vigor of the Lower East Side, for instance, always had poverty as its mate. When Miss Simon writes of the Second Avenue where the Yiddish theater flourished and the Café Royal was an intellectual center, her pages give off a strong sense of something lost. Without really knowing the Yiddish theater and suspecting, from the remnant of it that remains, that it was probably less grand than the remembering heart insists, I still assume that it was more valuable than the musical comedy, written and performed by young matrons to raise money for the Reform Community Center out on Long Island; but I cannot honestly say that the conditions that produced a flourishing Yiddish theater on Second Avenue are preferable to those that give the matrons the leisure to dabble in amateur show business. The balance of loss and gain is a difficult one to weigh. It is not Miss Simon’s business to drag out the scales; she has already gone beyond the call of guidebook duty when she recognizes that there is gain as well as loss in the changing of the old neighborhoods. She is free, then, to enjoy what remains and to show us where and how to enjoy it with her.

Most of the survivals are those that have outgrown their dependence on the originating group. Miss Simon’s symbol for the internationalization which is part of the continually changing city is the egg rolls that she found with the sausages and clams at the festa of San Gennaro. She takes pleasure in pointing out blocks in which a kosher delicatessen, a Polish sausage store, an Irish bar, an Italian bakery, and a Chinese restaurant are all within hailing distance of one another. The ways in which New York neighborhoods change bring out the amateur sociologist in Miss Simon, as they do in all of us, a fact that makes all the stranger her neglect of the Upper West Side—from Columbia University south to the Seventies—as a place to walk. Here she could find the remains of the Irish and Jewish middle-class neighborhoods, heavy Puerto Rican and Negro populations (plantains and pig heads in the markets), fashionable effusions such as coffee houses (an Israeli one, for instance), and precious men’s clothing stores, and a variety of names on store fronts that reads like a history of the settlement of New York. Still, the Upper West Side is an acquired taste, like handball, and does not have the immediate appeal of those neighborhoods to which Miss Simon directs the visitor.

I know of no one who writes with more affection than Miss Simon does about food. In her list of restaurants she pauses over those dishes which she likes best and makes them attractive with only a few adjectives to go on. She is willing to be pleased with fancy concoctions, but she returns again and again to good solid peasant food from whatever country—paella, say, or cassoulet—and embraces it as a real friend. She makes Katz’s Delicatessen, down on Houston Street, sound more delightful than the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, even though the preciosity of the latter amuses her. She likes to poke into groceries and specialty food houses, to look into barrels and boxes, to duck beneath hanging cheeses and to look across acres of fish at Fulton Street at four in the morning. She can conjure up odors, textures, tastes. Her gustatory inclinations are so strong that her prose quickens in the section on unfrequented museums when she steps into the old kitchens of Dyckman House or the Van Cortlandt House museum. I am an eater myself and I agree—with a few qualifications—with most of her recommendations for places I know, and I trust her enough to risk the others. A bone or two I might pick (see what happens to the metaphors): most of the midtown Chinese restaurants are not really very good and that white stuff that drapes across the rock-heavy cakes in midtown cafeterias is not what I call whipped cream. These exceptions aside, I feel as I read her happy descriptions of food that she and I could make beautiful menus together.

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Miss Simon’s talents as a writer do not stop at the edge of the table. New York, Places & Pleasures is one of the few guidebooks that I know that can be read comfortably; I have just read through the 347 pages directly, as though the book were a novel, and although I do not recommend that it be taken in such a dose, I can testify that there was more fun than plodding in the task. Her descriptions of stores are aimed more at women than at men, sensibly enough since women are more likely to use her as a shopping guide, but now, after a page or two of Miss Simon, I know a great deal about strange operations such as the resale shops that dispense swanky used dresses on upper Madison Avenue. Part of her appeal is that she has sharp opinions on most everything and that acid occasionally creeps into her writing, especially when she is describing “the self-conscious belt” that is Greenwich Village; a guide who liked everything would not be much of a guide. There are amusing character sketches, some of them accurate, such as the one of the Jewish waiter as the Father, in the guises of doctor, disciplinarian, critic, and protector; and there are occasionally funny how-to pages, such as her directions for getting a seat in a crowded luncheonette.

Kate Simon’s book is the only guide that I have seen that I would use for anything other than a source of addresses. If I were a casual visitor, which I have never been, I would use it to fill a few days with a quick, lush look at a fascinating city. If I were an innocent from the hinterland, which I have been, I would use it as an opening wedge to force myself into the heart of the city. If I were a New York adept, which I have been, I would study it for corners that I had somehow failed to turn. If I were an ex-New Yorker, which, alas, I now am, I would use it—as I will use it—to feed the kind of nostalgia that only someone who has really loved that city can know.

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Footnotes

1 Meridian Books (Paperbacks), 347 pp., $1.95.

2 I neglect to give the address here for fear that poor but hungry students will turn up only to find that it has become a beauty parlor.

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