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Meet 14th Street

Moving north just one block to a two-way street, the first of fifteen major cross streets in the grid, is an eye-opening New York experience. The changes are monumental and it made the initial walk – in 2012 – rather daunting. Many retailers think of 14th Street as an avenue set on its side. Gone are the quaint residential blocks and, for the most part, the unique mom-and-pop shops. Instead, 14th Street is awash in chain restaurants, drug stores, bars, convenience shops, cleaners, food stores, electronic stores, and a multitude of ATM machines.

Compared to approximately 150-180 Manhattan Sideways listings on each of the streets from 1st through 13th, we have documented over four hundred places from Alphabet City to the Hudson River on 14th. That said, after many strolls across both East and West 14th, I have grown fond of it. I have certainly found several special gems, which I have written about, but I have also met many fascinating people. I had conversations with people who have lived on 14th for decades and were thrilled to share their stories. The common thread is the significant and depressing change that they have witnessed. Everyone misses the family-run businesses and the feeling of community that they proclaim once existed.

East on 14th, it was so dense with shops and restaurants that it was surprising and exciting to discover Madman Espresso. As a chatty Australian woman shared with us one day, “I have lived across the street for many years and was thrilled when this coffee bar opened – it is a great place for people to begin to get to know one another – to open up the lines of communication.” She went on to explain that many people have tried to “upgrade this area” and that Madman is a move in the right direction. And did I mention their exceptional cup of espresso?

Many more interesting bars line 14th street. My non-stop entertainment continued at the amusement-filled Crocodile Lounge, and I was all smiles when I entered and met one of the owners of Beauty Bar. Mike, another local we chatted with, had lived in the area for twenty years, and told us that 14th is “hardly recognizable” from the original street he remembers when he first arrived. “Everything with charm and feeling is gone, all being replaced by chain after chain.” Shockingly, there was not another bar to be found between Third Avenue and Sixth Avenue until I arrived at Offside Tavern, which had made a name for itself as one of the most popular sports bars in Chelsea. Walking just another block farther west, I was greeted by six bars in a row – all with their own personality and loyal customers.

When reading about the history of 14th Street, I realized that it has as rich a story as every other street I have covered thus far. Unfortunately, though, so many of the buildings have been torn down and replaced by large, commercial establishments. The few that remain are worth noting, including Engine Company 5, the fire department’s home since the 1800s, Immaculate Conception Church (designed in 1866), and Tifereth Israel Town and Village Synagogue (formerly a church built in the 1860s). Stuck between an abundance of fast food restaurants is the former Baumann Brothers Furniture and Carpet Store. Built in 1881 at 22 East 14th, the building was designated a landmark in 2008 and is presently occupied by the New School.

Union Square and its surrounding area has its own history that dates back to the early 1800s. It includes a statue of George Washington placed here in 1865 and it is where, 136 years later, people gathered from all parts of the city to find comfort and sit vigil following 9/11. It was here that I chose to bring my own children a few days after September 11th, so that they, too, could experience this soulful moment.

In 1999, a mystifying piece of art was erected high up on a 14th Street building facing Union Square. The Metronome, as it is known, is accompanied by a series of fifteen changing numbers that are meant to be a “reflection on the passage of time.” The artists, Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel, have explained, “The composite work intends to evoke contemplation of the dynamic flux of the city.” On any given day, there are many who look up and ponder the significance of the “modern-day hourglass” and its components. I view it as a reminder that with so much of 14th Street open 24 hours a day, time is on my side.

Moving to the equally historic west side of 14th Street, I found two stunning townhouses sitting side by side. The Spanish Benevolent Society of New York has maintained a presence in its townhouse since 1868, whereas the adjoining townhouse has changed considerably over the years until 2005 when Norwood, a members-only-club for artists, purchased this exquisite building. The Salvation Army has occupied its imposing structure on West 14th Street since the 1930s and the building has continued to serve as one of its primary facilities.

Perhaps the best discovery for me was each magical bite I tasted at Beyond Sushi – everything veggie rolled in colorful rice with no fish in sight. The Donut Pub has been at the same location since the 1960s, serving the freshest doughnuts 24 hours a day. Just when I needed to take a seat and relax, I bumped into The Crooked Knife. A cross between a bar and a living room, this basement pub’s cozy, relaxed ambiance and delectable sliders make it the perfect place to unwind for a few hours.

Wigs and Plus had to have been my greatest surprise on 14th Street. It has a serious side, where they offer a wide assortment of choices for women who are suffering from hair loss, and a fun side, with wigs that come in every shape and color. I have been to many vintage clothing shops over the past year, but was delighted to stumble across two particularly unforgettable collections in the same block – the colorful and eclectic assortment at Rags-A-GoGo and the extensive array of stylish yet unique pieces at Screaming Mimis are both a must-see.

There are certainly plenty of pizza joints running across 14th, but it is Artichoke Basille’s Pizza that has carved a niche for itself between First and Second Avenue. At any hour of the day, there can be a line of customers waiting to grab a slice of their exceptional pizza. And, a bit farther west, Joe’s Pizza, which has been an institution on Carmine Street for close to forty years, opened its first outpost.

People always remark to me how surprised they are when they discover one of the several excellent restaurants and bars east of the Meatpacking area. Hotel Tortuga offers mouthwatering Mexican cuisine in a homey venue. Crispo is highly rated, serving memorable Italian food.

Traveling crosstown, just a few steps from Eighth to Ninth Avenue, the people, the ambiance, the stores…everything changes to a new world. This transition into a more modern and sophisticated setting is marked by Gansevoort Market, a food hall that houses a diverse selection of high-quality eateries in a communal dining space. It was exciting to then explore a realm of high-end glamor while perusing Diane von Furstenburg’s boutique and the mini department store, Jeffrey New York.

No matter where one begins walking on 14th Street, there will always be a reward waiting at its western edge. In 1934, a thirteen-mile long elevated rail called the High Line was constructed to replace the accident prone, street-level freight line. It ran through factories and warehouses, allowing direct offloading and pick up. After closing in 1980 due to the rise of interstate trucking, the line was wild with brush and disrepair, but well loved by urban explorers and rail enthusiasts. The non-profit Friends of the High Line, headed by locals Joshua David and Robert Hammond, saved it from the chopping block in 1999, proposing it be transformed into an aerial greenway. By 2011, two sections were completed between Gansevoort Street and West 30th street. The view afforded by the unique layout of the park grants visitors stunning views of Mid-Manhattan and the Hudson River. Landscapers have held true to the self-seeded ecology; light shade provided by trees makes the park pleasant and the space is open for exhibitions and events. A respite on the High Line is always a great way to end my 14th Street journey.

Read more about every place on 14th Street!