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Urban Walks - East Village to Gramercy Park

Veniero's on E. 11th

Along Gramercy Park

Stuyvesant Square Park
[From Winter 2009]

[First in a recurring series on urban walking] - New York is an infinitely walkable city. Despite Manhattan island’s relatively small size (23 square miles, or 13 miles long and about 2 miles wide – at its widest point), many New Yorkers can’t claim to have explored all of this borough, let alone the other four (Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island) that together with Manhattan comprise greater New York. Over a period of more than 12 years beginning in the late 1980s, I first lived in and then regularly commuted to Manhattan, yet large swaths of the city remained a mystery to me. On foot, I frequented my own neighborhood of Soho, the area around Union Square and Gramercy Park where I worked, and the doctors’ and dentists’ offices, museums and hospitals of midtown and the Upper East Side.

In the last nine years or so, I have made at least twice- yearly trips to Manhattan. Each time, I walk as much as possible to explore the streets and neighborhoods that I often bypassed during my day-to-day life in New York. On a recent balmy fall evening, a friend and I walked – or more accurately, strolled – from the far East Village to her building on Gramercy Park South. Along the way, we passed 19th century row houses, flat-fronted brownstones and Victorian-era Queen Annes and neo-gothics. These last always make me think of old London and Mary Poppins.

Our walk began after a late dinner at Momofuku Noodle, on 1st Avenue. The casual noodle eatery is one of David Chang’s group of restaurants dotting the East Village along 1st and 2nd Avenues. After a savory meal of steamed buns, ginger noodles and white wine, we set out on foot back to Gramercy Park. We immediately turned off of 1st Avenue at East 11th Street to stop in at Veniero's Pasticceria, a New York institution since 1894 and famous for its cheesecake, almond torte and biscotti. My favorite: the regina biscotti, a semi-sweet biscuit coated with sesame seeds. I bought a small bag that barely lasted through the walk.

From Veniero's, we passed by the low-rise row houses along East 11th street on our way to 2nd Avenue. Before turning northward, we glanced south in the direction of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, an East Village landmark since 1799. St. Mark’s occupies the oldest site of continuous worship in the city of New York and has been a center for art, dance and poetry since the early 20th century. Originally part of a farm, the land was purchased by Petrus (Peter) Stuyvesant, the last Dutch director-general of the New Netherland colony (today New York).

Walking north along 2nd Avenue, we fell deep into conversation. At East 15th Street we came upon Stuyvesant Square Park. If not for the sounds of 21st century traffic, we might have imagined ourselves in the pages of an Edith Wharton novel. Named for the aforementioned Mr. Stuyvesant, the Park is lighted at night by classical lampposts atop the wrought iron fence that surrounds the square. The early private houses around the square were built mostly between the 1850s and 1880s. The Romanesque Revival St. George’s Church lies on the square’s west border. At the north end of the square, we turned left at East 17th Street and made our way to Irving Place.

Just six blocks long, Irving Place begins its run amid the cacophony of 14th Street and ends at quiet and fashionable Gramercy Park. Irving Place is an appealing amalgam of arts buildings, restaurants, period houses and some of the best cupcakes in town at 71 Irving Place Coffee & Tea Bar. After the filling noodle dinner at Momofuku, the cupcakes would have to wait for another day. Irving Place is also home to the legendary Pete’s Tavern. Although I’d been to this tavern on several occasions – not to mention having seen it featured in countless films and television programs – the memory that came to mind that night is its connection to the poet O. Henry. It was in a booth at this tavern that he is purported to have written the heartrending story, The Gift of the Magi.

As we neared the end of Irving Place, we took a short detour to the east on to 19th Street. The picturesque block between Irving and 3rd Avenue, designated as a “block beautiful” since the early 20th century, is regarded for its varied architectural details – brick, tinted stucco, decorative ironwork, shutters, tile roofs, vividly colored tile work and gables.

Back on course, we arrived at Gramercy Park. Originally a swamp, Gramercy Park is now one of only two private parks in New York. The Dutch called it krom moerasje (or “little knife”). The name eventually evolved into the anglicized Gramercy. Residents living in buildings facing the leafy park may buy a key to the park (changed annually). Surrounded by a circa-1844 wrought iron fence, the park is also open to members and guests of the nearby Players Club, the National Arts Club, and the Gramercy Park Hotel. [The Players Club, at 16 Gramercy Park South, was founded in 1888 by the actor Edwin Booth, brother of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.] During daylight hours the park is alive with birds and laughing children. On this warm fall evening the park was quiet, save for the sound of dry leaves scuttling across stone paths.

Guide to Points of Interest:
Gramercy Park is bordered on the south and north at E. 20th and 21st Streets. The eastern and western boundaries are Gramercy Park East and West. Stuyvesant Square Park is bordered on the south and north by E. 15th and 17th Streets. 2nd Avenue bisects the park. Irving Place runs from East 14th to East 19th. A map of our walking route appears below.

- Momofuku Noodle Bar, 171 1st Avenue (btwn E. 10th & 11th),
- Veniero's Pasticceria, 342 E. 11th St.,
- 71 Irving Place Coffee & Tea Bar, (btwn E. 18th & 19th), Tel. 212.995.5252
- National Arts Club, 15 Gramercy Park South,
- The Players Club, 16 Gramercy Park South,
- St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, 131 E. 10th St.,

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Story by Melissa Cicci, editor, Beyond Doorways Travel.

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