Whew! This was a two day affair. I had already walked 5th and 1st Avenues and then all of FDR Drive and the Esplanade on other days. This left for me to walk the length of Madison, Park, Lexington, 3rd and 2nd Avenues from 96th Street to 110th Street. This meant 14 blocks back and forth, up and down the streets of the neighborhood. It was a long day of walking. I never realized how long it would take.
This part of Manhattan is a real mish-mush of everything. It transitions from East Harlem into the Upper-Upper East Side into Yorkville. Some others call it Carnegie Hill. It has it all. Housing projects, schools, a business district on Lexington, expensive brownstones, luxury apartments and hospitals that create the border between the two very different neighborhoods.
96th Street is the true border between the two areas but even that transitions as you get closer to the East River. A you get closer to 98th Street, you will see luxury housing complexes right across the street from some sketchy housing complexes right across the street (some people want the authenticity of the city). This changes from block to block and if you follow the grid pattern, be prepared to walk through some housing complexes. I would only recommend that while the kids are exiting from after-school. Then the neighborhood is teeming with kids with their parents picking them up. Public or Private, adults are all over the place at the schools and it makes any neighborhood safe to walk around in as the police are out in many of these neighborhoods watching everyone.
Where you really see the difference in the neighborhood is between 97th Street and 99th Street on the East Side of Central Park. Some of the blocks are lined with beautiful and graceful brownstones and apartment buildings and then right across the street you can see where they leveled the neighborhood to building the housing projects that line long avenues and streets.
You start to see the changes as you walk down 97 Street and you reach the end of the Park Avenue Mall, a grassy knoll between the uptown and downtown grid which in the lower part of Park Avenue is planted with flowers and trees during the year. This gives way to the elevated railroad tracks after 97th Street and Park Avenue. As you get further up into the 100’s streets, Park Avenue is lined with housing projects. This is the failure of city planning where whole blocks in this neighborhood were leveled for public housing that never worked. This ‘slum clearance’ of the 1960’s would now be a fully gentrified neighborhood by now.
Walking the Avenues , one sees how the neighbor changes. Every block is so different in this neighborhood. You can go from luxury housing to a public housing project just by walking the street. Also, if you walk while school is in session and when it gets out for the day, you should have no problem walking around the housing projects. Pretty much everyone ignored me or just looked at me in the corner of their eyes and then put their heads down. It was such a strange attitude. In my opinion, people are people but the site of 6:4 preppie white guy walking around in a blue polo must have panicked people.
Along the way, there is so much so see and experience in this neighborhood. Small hole in the wall restaurants at very reasonable prices, great street art, small community gardens tucked between buildings, beautiful brownstones in a row and interesting views of Central Park and the East River as way of sidewalks. It is a diverse neighborhood that is getting harder to define as the whole island changes. Even in the short time I walked around Spanish Harlem, things were being knocked down and rebuilt.
It seems that every block had something to offer in some small way. Since I had done the borders of the neighborhood already and wanting to avoid First Avenue again (scary) with all the public housing, I started my trip up and down Second Avenue.
Hospitals seem to dominate in this section of the city with Mt. Sinai dominating the borders of Fifth to Madison from 96th to 101st and Metropolitan Hospital from 97th to 100th Street along Second Avenue. These large facilities create a wall on the neighborhood borders almost sheltering the Upper Upper East Side from Spanish Harlem. The neighborhood around them reflects the role the hospital plays around it with ever expanding buildings in the neighborhood and housing for the residents. I saw this up in Washington Heights with Columbia as they expand in the neighborhood.
Located off Second Avenue, the Marx Brothers have a small park named after them and it was busy after school with kids playing tag. As you walk up Second Avenue, the area is dominated by a mix of brownstones and public housing. This is dominated by the huge Washington Housing complex that stretches from 97th Street to 104th from Second Avenue to Third Avenue. After school, this are was very lively with kids but boy did they give me looks when I walked through later in the week when I was doing the streets. Because of the way the grid works, you have to walk through the same paths. So the same people kept seeing me walk through the complex.
Between Third Avenue and Lexington, there is a nice place to sit and relax at the Marketplace Plaza. This small pocket plaza was created between to newish buildings and provides a comfortable place amongst the flower beds to sit and relax and people watch. There are benches and rows of flower beds to admire and rest your legs on the long walks up the Avenues.
Third Avenue is the most commercial section of the neighborhood dominated by stores and restaurants along the way. It is again a street of extremes as new buildings dominate until you reach the Lexington Houses at 98th Street and then the street is juxtaposed again with a series of public housing, luxury buildings tucked away and commercial buildings that are in the process of renovation.
I reached the Poor Richards Playground outside the Tag Young Scholar School and Junior High 117 by mid-afternoon and the kids were letting out for the day. The place was mobbed with children and parents from the neighborhood. Kids were playing basketball and tag on the school’s playground and I got quite the looks from the teachers as I watched the kids play basketball especially when I had to throw the ball over the fence when it flew over to me. I just smiled and continued the walk.
Across the street from the school and the surrounding blocks there are some really nice reasonable restaurants for lunch. These are places that the kids and their parents were eating at after school. Make & Bake Pizza at 1976 Third Avenue (See review on TripAdvisor) has terrific pizza at $1.00 a slice and it is so fresh because the place is so busy. Another great place to eat is Mr. Moe’s Deli at 2001 Third Avenue (See review on TripAdvisor). They make a terrific chopped cheese sandwich that competes with Blue Sky Deli up on 110th Street. The nice part about Mr. Moe’s is that their chopped cheese sandwich comes with a Coke for $3.50. It is a great bargain and it is delicious.
The best part is on a nice day take your lunch to the White Playground on 106th between Third and Lexington Avenues and relax on the benches. It is such a nice playground and is beautifully landscaped and I thought very safe with all the parents and grandparents around watching the kids play.
Lexington Avenue and Park Avenue are also the land of extremes as well. Walking up Lexington Avenue to about 98th Street is an extension of the Upper East Side until you hit the Lexington Houses at 98th Street and those go on for a block until you reach between 101st and 102nd Streets, where you will see the most beautiful set of brownstones with art work from local Harlem artists on the west side of the road across from the gas station. The is also a few outdoor cafes that are very nice in the area so you can see the area is getting gentrified.
The street art in this neighborhood is varied and very unique. On 106th Street off Lexington Avenue, there is a painting dedicated to Puerto Rican Poet Julio de Burgos entitled ‘Remembering Julio de Burgos’ that has excellent detail and you should take the time to see. Also along 110th Street and Lexington Avenue on the wall of the Success Academy, there is another interesting mural that is very colorful. The art work featured on this blog was my favorite piece of street was the man dressed in animal costumes that I saw on 106th Street. I was not too sure if it was a Central American theme to it or just tagged. Whatever the story to this artwork, who ever did it I thought was extremely talented.
Travelling back down Lexington Avenue, there is all sorts of architecture to admire. There is a beautiful row of brownstones between 106th and 107th Streets. A small private gated park by Bean Y Vino is at Lexington Avenue and 104th Street that I could only see from the outside is nicely landscaped.
Between 100th and 101st Streets on Lexington Avenue, there is Maggie’s Magic Garden, which is a whimsical little oasis of trees, flowers and plants with imaginative statuary all over this little space tucked between two buildings. I was lucky that the garden was open that day and met Maria ‘Maggie’ Amurrio herself who created the garden over a decade ago from a weed ridden lot to this little piece of paradise that is perfect for kids to visit.
She and I talked for about a half hour and she explained that she was sick and tired of this lot looking like this and wanted to do something about it. Like many of the Community Gardens and their creators whom I have met along my travels, she took matters into her own hands and with the help of other volunteers started to clean the lot up and plant it. She told me that later the Parks Department recognized this effort and now she has the seal from the city. Not only does she grow flowers here but is also growing fruits and vegetables and took me on a tour to show me where birds live in the trees. It is amazing how the determination of one New Yorker and a group of volunteers shows in creating this creative piece of landscape. Try not to miss this little oasis on your travels up and down Lexington.
Traveling up Park and Madison is interesting because when you get past 98th Street, it is pretty much public housing complexes from 98th to 110th Streets, stretching from Park Avenue to Madison Avenue. This is dominated by the Washington Carver Houses from 99th Street to 106th Street, the Lehman Houses from 107th Street to 110th Street, the Governor DeWitt Houses on the Park Avenue and Lexington Avenue from 110th to 108th and then to 106th to 104th Streets and the Lexington Houses from 98th to 99th Streets. So walking through this area of Park and Madison Avenues make sure to go through while school is out and people are outside. I never felt unsafe but there will moms and kids all over the playgrounds in the projects and everyone ignored me.
The projects also cut the neighborhood into sections as you have to keep walking through them to get to the extension of the street. So as I was finishing the Avenues on my way to starting the streets, you have to make several trips especially on 107th Street through the projects to complete the grid.
Martha Stewart has been involved in helping Mt. Sinai Hospital and built a beautiful garden across the street between 99th and 100th Streets that was locked both times I tried to visit it. Her and her staff did a nice job landscaping and planting this part of the Washington Carver Houses gardens and the playground. Many of the staff from the hospital use this area to relax on their lunch breaks and the kids are very active here.
Mt. Sinai creates the border between the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem on this side of the neighborhood and the campus spreads two blocks over. Between this and the Park Avenue train creates the border on this side of the neighborhood. The between the west side of Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue are the most expensive housing in the neighborhood that faces Central Park. Even here the housing is being updated and renovated. You have also some of your nicest stone buildings with elegant carved entrances. Businesses also dominate this side of Madison Avenue.
There are some good options to eat at in the neighborhood. On the corner of 97th and Madison Avenue at 1398 Madison Avenue there is Famiglia Pizza. This has some of the best pizza by the slice in the city and their prices are fair. Their plain and sausage pizzas are really good. For a quick snack, I also like Tu Casa Grocery at 29 East 104th Street right next to the Museum of the City of New York. For a dollar, they have excellent chicken and beef pastilitos and they sell soda and candy for a reasonable price. I took a couple of pastilitos and a Coke and went into Central Park to relax after finishing the Avenues.
I finished the Avenues on May 15th by relaxing at the Conservatory Garden at 104th and Fifth Avenue. It was an interesting and tiring day and it was just nice to relax.