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Meet 47th Street

Beginning my walk across 47th Street, I was delighted to find a green market filled with fresh baked goods, fruits, vegetables, fish and little trinkets in the quiet Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. What a perfect start on a Wednesday summer morning. I also found this area charming when strolling past on a Saturday as bench sitters were treated to the talents of street performers, while others were grabbing a bite to eat at Dags, the small kiosk in the plaza. Seemingly influenced by the United Nation’s presence, the east side abounds with international shops and organizations, most notably the Japan Society, where they host performances, art exhibitions, language classes, and family gatherings.

As much as I have adored discovering the magnificent hundred-plus-year-old churches and synagogues on the side streets, I was drawn into the far more contemporary Church of the Holy Family. Elegant and with its own storied past – including the part that remains from the original stable prior to 1924 – the church was honored to have Pope Paul VI visit in 1965, shortly after their completed renovation. The last fascinating stop on the east side, before entering the frenzied Diamond District, was The Center for Fiction. In the same location since 1932, the library is the only one of its kind in the country that holds an immense collection of books comprised entirely of fiction.

Meeting a friend when I reached Fifth Avenue, I listened as Linda shared her stories of growing up on 47th Street and standing at her father’s side in his jewelry business for some fifty years. Walking the block with her, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, was an eye-opening experience. She pointed out the Hasidim on the street, huddled in conversation and making deals “sealed only with a verbal oath.” Linda went on to tell me that her father, like many Jewish immigrants who had survived the Holocaust, wound up in Manhattan working in the Diamond District, as this was the only trade he had learned while in Europe. She spoke of his booth, so small that he and his business partner could not be in it at the same time. Linda further noted that the culture behind the stalls was what made the district come to life.

This block has always had an abundance of exchange booths, similar to an arcade, where each address is filled with hundreds of jewelry dealers spread out over thousands of square feet. Today, Linda relayed to me, the rents have attained such exorbitant heights, that booth owners can no longer afford to remain. At one point I commented to her that I had noticed, when walking by on a recent weekend, that many businesses were open on a Saturday. I know that for decades the Diamond District was virtually closed down for Shabbat. Moreover, those who previously were solely wholesale have now become retailers. Once again, Linda said that “everything has changed, simply in an effort to bring in more customers.”

Stopping into Delicate Gem Corp, Linda introduced me to the warm Armenian family behind this business, and I was able to hear, first hand, about their experiences in the rough and tumble industry that is diamond dealing. When faced with thousands of competitors on the same street, they explained, it was of the utmost importance to make a name for their products and – most importantly – for themselves. In a realm often run by conglomerates, hearing their story and their commitment to honesty and unparalleled diamond jewelry was both heartwarming and impressive.

When we left Delicate Gem and continued walking, Linda began chatting again about the changes taking place. Numbers 2, 4, 6, and 8 West 47th have all been closed down and sold to one of the large real estate development companies. “They are building the Diamond Tower in an attempt to get people to move off the street.” Frustrated, Linda went on to say that “they believe that the streets aren’t safe and it is better to be upstairs.” According to Linda, however, “it is all hype and not true at all.” When we reached the other side of 47th, closer to Sixth Avenue, I commented on the stunning, massive building that is almost complete. “Oh yes,” Linda sighed, “IGT Jewelry Shopping Mall – they, too, are forcing the old-world dealers out and putting the new merchants inside where there will be state-of-the-art facilities for them to sell their diamonds.”

As I walked underneath the diamond-shaped lampposts I was, once again, in the Theater District, surrounded by numerous famed theaters, and, right in the heart of Times Square, the ever-busy TKTS booth. Slipping past the masses and into Hell’s Kitchen, I realized that the noise level and crowds had thinned out. I was able to meander and appreciate the beautiful architecture and many of the other hidden gems. I was pleased to find that the Copacabana (Lost Gem) had not disappeared from Manhattan, but instead found a new home for their famous nightclub upstairs on 47th. An absolute highlight was meeting Rabbi Jill Hausman and learning the history of The Actor’s Temple, as it was home to anyone and everyone who was Jewish and involved in theater. Delphinium Home has been a fixture on 47th for years selling novelty gift items, while Fountain House, exists quietly as an organization with a proven approach to helping the mentally ill.

As is the case on every street, rueful closings are balanced by grand openings. I was thrilled to meet Murat Yimaz as he stood on a ladder working on the last details before opening his Jolly Goat Coffee Bar. I have no doubt that this personable man will be successful in his latest venture. And it does not get any better than discovering Sullivan Street Bakery at the end of my walk across town, unless one is as fortunate as I and finds the owner, Jim Lahey, there to greet me.

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