Meet 34th Street
It is a milestone for me each time I complete another side street journey and post it to our site. Somehow, however, reaching 34th, where I have so many fond childhood memories, feels like a particularly significant accomplishment. There are over two hundred entries for this vast two-way thoroughfare with the majority of them being branches of chain stores. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to rediscover some hidden Manhattan gems quietly tucked away.
Both El Parador Cafe and Villa Berulia have been at their present address on 34th for over thirty years. I remember dining at each of them when I lived in Kips Bay in the early 1980s. Chatting with Alex, the owner of El Parador for the past several years, I learned of his culinary background and the history of this Mexican restaurant. Having the pleasure of eating dinner with my son and meeting the owners of Villa Berulia made for a special night. Brother and sister, Johnny and Maria are quiet, modest people who run an outstanding Italian restaurant where the food is absolutely divine.
On a chilly winter morning, I climbed a few steps and wandered around the plaza before entering through the massive and intricately decorated doors into St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral. At this early hour, I was alone in the church and stood in awe as I gazed up at the domed ceiling and wandered throughout, appreciating the magnificent stained glass windows and the true grandeur of this structure.
With its close proximity to NYU’s Langone Medical Center, there are numerous doctors’ offices on the east side of 34th, a handful of restaurants, and various businesses scattered between First and Madison Avenue. Once I crossed Fifth Avenue, the shops increased considerably. There were times when I felt as if I might be the only New Yorker standing between Fifth and Seventh Avenues. It is difficult to walk 34th Street and come away feeling passionate about it. Particularly during the holiday season, it is jam-packed with tourists waiting on line for hours to go to the top of the Empire State Building, or to experience shopping at the famed Macy’s department store. After pushing through the crowds at various hours of the day, however, 34th did manage to lure me. Like every street prior, I embraced what it had to offer and came away feeling exhilarated.
I developed my own personal relationship with the Empire State Building when I was a young child in the 1960’s. My father was a business friend of its owners, the men behind the company Wien, Lane and Malkin. They kindly gave our family a pass which allowed entry up to the observation deck at any hour of the day. The past few months, I have been brought back to my childhood, once again, as each time we crossed a street, or turned a corner, or, better yet, were up on a rooftop, I would immediately look for the Empire, and it never disappointed. Esteban caught on to my enthusiasm quickly, and was kind enough to appease me with his photographs. Thus, we have quite a collection of pictures, taken from every angle.
Macy’s also conjures up warm feelings for me, as my family never missed the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. No matter what the weather, my parents bundled my brothers and me up, and drove us into Manhattan. Standing with family and friends on the steps of the Spanish Portuguese Temple at Central Park West and 70th Street, we watched the parade pass by, and then traveled farther uptown to my grandparents for our turkey dinner.
Once past all of the frenzy, I made a few more noteworthy discoveries on 34th. The Manhattan Center has a fascinating history that dates back to the early 1900s when they were an opera house. The Westside Jewish Center has been home to the Orthodox community since 1925, and there is a sweet, brick-lined oasis, Alice’s Garden, hidden above the Lincoln Tunnel.
The construction farther west cannot help but make a New Yorker feel exuberant. There has so been so much development and change in the past years – some of it still underway. For example, the number 7 Subway extension to 34th Street and Eleventh Avenue was finally opened on September 13, 2015. The third and last phase of the magnificent Highline, stretching the walkway from its previous terminus at 30th Street to 34th Street, was completed in 2014, and the Javits Center has plans to expand at its Northern end. Both residential and commercial building projects are being erected all along the street.There is no doubt that shortly this area will be unrecognizable to those of us who knew it when.