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Meet 38th Street

I began walking 38th Street at the FDR Drive with my back to the East River. Behold, an empty six-acre lot! I felt as though I was at the city’s outer limits rather than central Manhattan. Seemingly abandoned, this property is owned by developer mogul Sheldon H. Solow, whose $4 billion project for the lot has yet to be realized. Though “one of the most valuable undeveloped pieces of earth,” says the New York Times, the property resembles a shallow but gaping pit, filled with an idleness that is so unlike Manhattan. I found its contrast to the surrounding residential towers and backdrop of rising midtown to be both fascinating and surreal.

Moving westward, I made my way through a thoroughly residential section of the city. There is a lovely stretch of historic townhouses between Third and Madison Avenues. At 152 East 38th stands a landmark row house, built in the federal-style. The house’s position set unusually far back from the street recalls the days when Manhattan was less dense, with space for a garden and even a basketball hoop! Across the street is a carriage house (148 East 38th) built at the turn of the nineteenth century. Its high gable roof line and exterior decorated with animal busts give a whimsical charm to this block.

In the gleaming light of a glorious afternoon, I sampled the diverse cultural offerings of 38th and Park. First, I ducked into the Church of Our Saviour after admiring its beautiful Romanesque, side street facade. Light poured in upon its golden-clad interiors and illuminated intricate carvings and vivid paintings. I was surprised to find that although the church recalled a distant century and gave off a European vibe, it was actually constructed in 1955. Across Park Avenue, the Kitano Hotel conjures a totally different environment, with its Japanese elegance that includes a side entrance to Jazz at Kitano, a restaurant that offers live jazz in the evenings and a Sunday brunch.

As it has done on the last few streets in the 30s, the Garment District continues to make up the mid-section of 38th Street with store after store selling buttons, ribbons, trimmings and every kind of fabric including spandex. The stand out, however, is Lou Lou Buttons, where Roz has been designing and manufacturing buttons for top designers and the theater world for some twenty years. Indeed, this side street reveals the economic backbone for Manhattan’s glitz and glam and the international fashion industry. Though clothing manufacturing has become a global practice, the street’s plethora of garment-related shops cannot help but remind one that this part of town was once the center of everything fashion.

There is a consistent overlap between garment production and clothing retail on 38th. An historic example is the department store, Lord & Taylor (Lost Gem). I also discovered newer businesses that are strategically planting themselves on this street in order to bridge retail and manufacturing. Elevee, where high-end custom men’s clothing is provided, and Nepenthes, a hip men’s shop that GQ voted as one of the best men’s boutiques in the country, are two perfect examples. These businesses view their location as an opportunity for vertical integration – bringing suppliers, designer, manufacturers and customers together for efficiency and synergy.

Though garment focused, 38th also offers plenty of places for relief and refreshment in the midst of Midtown’s hustle and bustle. For a festive drink on the east side, El Rio Grande serves multiple flavors of margaritas and guacamole prepared table side. Both Blaggards Pub and The Australian (Lost Gem) allow people to hunker down and relax over a cold beer, as does the brand new District Tap House where they have some sixty beers to sample. The Refinery Hotel is stunning with a rooftop bar and a relaxed American eatery, Parker & Quinn. Across from the hotel is Culture Espresso, an absolute favorite of the Manhattan Sideways team. Just as this area has continued to attract shoppers since the early twentieth century, we decided that Culture’s coffee and homemade chocolate chip cookies have a similar gravitational pull. I was equally delighted to visit the kitchen of Lauren Bohl White where she creates elegant and delicious wedding cakes for her two companies, A Simple Cake and A White Cake.

As I walked further west, I engaged in conversation with many of the people involved in their long-standing, family-owned businesses. Lucoral and Lupearl has been selling pearls and jewelry on this street since 1984. Blatt Billiards began settling into their new home on 38th at the beginning of 2014, after having had a presence on Broadway for some seventy-five years, and last, but certainly not least, Esposito’s Finest Quality where the family has been selling sausage at the corner of Ninth Avenue for over one hundred years.

On the artistic side, Last Rites Gallery offers an exquisite and aesthetic experience whether a visitor is viewing the gallery, holding a corporate event, or getting a tattoo.  Last Rites also has extraordinary architecture and a multi-faceted concept, making it a must-see.

As I approached the Hudson River, I found myself, once again, in a quieter, undeveloped section of Manhattan. In this part of town, taxis pulled in and out of auto-repair shops, horses rested up between carriage rides, and small memorials honored the firefighters of Engine 34 and Ladder 21 for their valiant efforts on 9/11. But as every street has hinted, change is coming as witnessed by the major construction happening from river to river. In the end, 38th Street uncovers all the work that goes into sustaining our city, day in and day out.

Read more about every place on 38th Street!