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Meet 52nd Street

My walk across 52nd Street began in the tranquility of early morning, watching the liquid sunshine dance atop the East River. Calm and residential, the eastern tip of 52nd is home to historic apartment buildings that celebrities including Humphrey Bogart and John Lennon once called home. These famed denizens would often dine at nearby Le Périgord, which has been offering fine French food for fifty years. Indeed, New York’s history is infused throughout the street, despite the steady gentrification of the past decades.

The international character of the city is obvious on the East Side, highlighted by the Hungarian, Zambian, and Thai flags hanging from these countries’ consulates and missions. In addition to these, I discovered the Norwegian Seamen’s Church and, further ahead, the Austrian Cultural Forum housed in a masterpiece of a building. The international flavor of the street is also evidenced in the restaurants and bars that line its sides, including the newcomer on the block, Etienne Wiik’s Ground Central. It joins the famed La Grenouille, the fifty-year old Victor’s Café, which offers traditional Cuban fare in a setting reminiscent of Havana, and the Russian Vodka Room across the street.

Although 52nd is now home to imposing high-rises, banks, offices, and stores, certain icons have withstood the test of time. These include the magnificent Four Seasons, the 21 Club, the city’s most famous speakeasy during Prohibition, and Gallagher’s Steakhouse further down the street – also a former speakeasy. However, almost no trace of “Swing Street”, as the blocks between Fifth and Seventh Avenues were known, remains. Between the 1930s and 1950s this was the center of the jazz world. Musical legends, including Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and Thelonious Monk played to rapt audiences in crowded basements. Unfortunately, when urban renewal began in the 1940s, virtually all of these clubs were razed or abandoned.

The shift in the urban landscape has continued unabated and is perhaps most apparent in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, at the Western end of 52nd Street. Although flashy new buildings are rising alongside run-down blocks of tenements, this section of the street has retained its historic grit and its ties to the theater district – witnessed by the Latino theater INTAR, and the 52nd Street Project where children are mentored by some of Broadway’s finest. New developments have brought along a selection of hip wine bars and restaurants including Casellula and Ardesia, and a delectable stopping point, La Bergamote. Moreover, according to papers filed by the Manhattan Community Board Four, there will be three new gardens between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues when their building projects are complete. Signs of these are already in the works. ​

A friend, artist Doug Florian, has had his studio on West 52nd Street for some twenty-five years. When he learned about my journey through the side streets of Manhattan, he invited me to come to his building. It was at No. 500 that I had the pleasure of meeting several others who have also been renting space here for decades, and who openly and honestly shared their stories with me. These people inspired me to spend the past two years revisiting the west side of 52nd Street, meeting business owners and residents in an effort to capture and comprehend a small piece of their lives. I had the pleasure of recording some of their stories and learning in great detail the history behind the neighborhood and its people. From this, I have created a Sideways Story, West 52nd Street – A Work of Art. Enjoy!

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