Some years ago, for no particular reason, I made up my mind to walk the length and breadth of the island of Manhattan.
I was living in the Midwest at the time and had never been in New York City. I had never been much of anywhere. But I was planning a trip to Maine via New York City. What better way to explore Gotham than to walk from north to south, east to west along the streets of Manhattan?
I arrived at the Port Authority one sweltering Thursday afternoon in August with roughly 50 hours in hand before continuing my trip by Greyhound on Saturday evening. I had a room in a midtown YWCA, a Michelin Tourist Guide, and sturdy walking shoes.
I left my bag in a locker at the bus station and walked west on W. 42nd to the Hudson, returned for my bag, continued east through Times Square, crossed Broadway and Fifth Avenue, slipped into Grand Central Station to gawk, and ended at the United Nations Headquarters on the East River. Here, by going to the Esplanade, I was actually able to see the river, which I had not been able to do at the Hudson River because I could not cross the West Side Highway.
I was surprised at how quickly I could walk across Manhattan. It is only about two and a half miles at this point and I was accustomed to weekly cross-country hikes of 12 to 15 miles. The north-south length of Manhattan is twelve and a half miles (as a crow flies), but I figured it would mean roughly 15 miles of walking. I still had all of Friday and the best part of Saturday to reach my goal. Maybe I should plan several bridge walks as well?
By the time I had checked into the "Y" and showered, I began to feel the effects of the long bus ride and the pavements of the city. I stretched out on my bed for a few minutes and awoke some three hours later. It was early evening and the residents of the YWCA were returning from whatever it was they did during the day. I was enchanted to have this glimpse of the NYC working girl.
I don’t remember where I ate that night; it was probably somewhere in Chinatown. I don’t remember eating in the city, although I must have done so. What I do remember are the streets. That night, Thursday, I walked south on Broadway below 42nd, almost to the Battery.
Construction on the World Trade Center was just starting, and I stayed on the East Side. At West 14th Street I crossed to Fifth Avenue, striding past the sidewalk cafes to Washington Square. I immediately went east again, returning to Broadway and avoiding Little Italy.
As I went deeper into lower Manhattan and approached the Financial District, the streets were more and more deserted even though it was only around ten o’clock. I went past St Paul’s Chapel and its cemetery, past Trinity Church, and circled Bowling Green. Then I cut over to Broad Street. As I went past the N.Y. Stock Exchange at Wall Street, a police car came along and slowed down while the occupants looked me over. I must have appeared harmless and in no danger, as they did not stop.
I think about this, some 30 years later, and I am amazed that I could walk around the city as I did without being accosted. Since then I have had the same experience in many places in the world. I am not dainty and I walk purposefully. So far this has served me well, although I am more careful now where I venture.
The next day I took the subway north and went across the Harlem River to what was then still known as Marble Hill, once the northernmost point of Manhattan. Today this is not a part of the Manhattan land mass, but it originally was before the riverbed was changed. My main destination was the Cloisters, but I also stopped at what I remember was described as the original John Audubon farm. I wanted to visit it because my research had revealed that it was the only original farmland still remaining on Manhattan.
While it is acknowledged that the Washington Heights Museum Group occupies land that in the 19th century was part of the Audubon estate, I am currently unable to find any reference to the original farmland, even in the WPA Guidebooks series.
That morning I visited the Cloisters, Fort Tryon Park, and the views of the Hudson and the Palisades. Today, visiting the Cloisters would seem a bit like visiting Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum with its jumble of historical periods, but at the time I was suitable impressed. It was all so old.
The rest of that day (Friday), I walked through Harlem as far south as the northern boundary of Central Park. It was August and very hot. I cannot remember doing much else. I was disappointed with myself for having covered so few miles. I cannot remember what I did that evening; that first trip to Manhattan is jumbled in my memory with subsequent trips.
My final day, Saturday, was devoted to filling in the blanks. I went to back to Central Park, walking north on Broadway from W. 42nd to Central Park West, then north and across the top of the park on 110th, then down the east side as far as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Later that afternoon I took the subway down to Bowling Green and finished walking from there to the Staten Island Ferry terminal. I celebrated my marathon by resting while going back and forth on the ferry.