On a recent trip into New York City, I had to finally give up my role as navigator and admit I'd gotten us lost in Chinatown. My husband and I were walking and we'd hit a huge intersection where hundreds of tourists, natives, street vendors and cars converged in a nearly overwhelming cacophony of sights and sounds.
Tom found a little tourist info booth and, with a disgusted shake of his head at me, picked up a free street map. I sort of deserved the attitude. I hate asking for directions (I know, I'm an affront to womanhood) and we'd been wandering around Chinatown, tired and thirsty, for what seemed like hours in our efforts to find SoHo. For the past several minutes I'd rejected Tom's pleas to ask a traffic cop for directions.
I hate looking like a tourist.
We'd spent the previous day at the New York International Auto Show, where I was on assignment for my other gig as editor of The Day's weekly auto section. Today I wanted to get as far away as I could from the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds of tourists in Midtown and do a story about shopping and eating in lower Manhattan.
Which is why I was so undone by the hordes of tourists at this particularly busy intersection in Chinatown.
We'd started the day in relative harmony, leaving our hotel early, around 8 a.m. We hopped a downtown train for Little Italy and hoofed it the few blocks to Mulberry Street from the subway station. The morning was warm and the narrow apartment-lined streets we traversed were largely free of traffic. This may be the city that never sleeps, but on this morning it was downright somnolent.
I was headed to one of my favorite shopping destinations in the city, the Market NYC, on Mulberry Street. The Market is where fledgling fashion and accessory designers sell their wares and it's become a weekend hotspot in the neighborhood known as Nolita.
I'd stumbled upon it (Yeah, I was lost then as well) several years ago on a Christmas-time trip to the city. I'd almost walked right by without noticing it, tucked behind the doorway of the St. Patrick Youth Center. I'm so glad I didn't. You can find all manner of handmade and funky stuff here, from leggings (when did they come back?) to leather cuff bracelets. It's a welcome relief from the huckestering of street vendors selling cheap chotchkies in Little Italy and Chinatown.
In warmer months, and sometimes even in the cold ones, the market spills charmingly outside and winds its way down Mulberry Street and partway up Jersey Street. On this particular Saturday the artisans outside were mostly selling jewelry. Inside were more jewelers, along with folks who make leather purses, knitted scarves, woolen hats and mittens, and a variety of one-of-a-kind clothing.
Prices here are more than reasonable - a few streets over are trendy shops selling similar goods for twice, even three times, the price - and vendors in The Market sometimes negotiate.
We bought a couple of T-shirts from a woman who designs and silk screens them herself. We nearly went for the one that said "Crap," with a logo the same as Gap, a clear indication of what this particular designer thinks of that chain store, but thought better of it. We headed down Mulberry, past the Italian restaurants on either side of the street where at 11:30 a.m. maitre d's were already outside, trying to lure folks in for lunch.
Little Italy was once home to a burgeoning tide of Italian immigrants but has shrunken over the years since its heyday in the early 20th century. Today, the neighborhood makes up just a few city blocks, but there are still dozens of authentic Italian restaurants, bakeries and stores in the area around and along Mulberry Street, most of them with reasonably priced menus.
You can get a dish of pasta marinara or a brick oven pizza, along with a glass of Chianti, in one eatery, then stroll the street for a bit and get a cappuccino and cannoli, or a glass of brandy, in another.
We checked out a few menus as we headed down Mulberry, making a mental note of where we'd like to eat when we came back later.
We headed for SoHo - short for South of Houston - and I thought I knew how to get there. Somehow, we took a wrong turn and ended up deep in Chinatown, which is the next neighborhood over from Little Italy, alongside throngs of tourists. It was afternoon at this point and I desperately wanted a beer in some out-of-the-way pub and to get away from crowds.
That's when Tom took over as navigator, got the street map and re-routed us back down Grand Street. We walked for about another 10 minutes and I was just about giving up on finding SoHo and a quiet bar, when there it was, Onieal's, an American bar on the corner of Grand and Baxter streets.
There weren't many crowds this far down Grand and it was soothingly quiet inside Onieal's, a bar with tons of hand-carved oak from the ceiling to the floors. We had our pick of tables and we ordered a couple of beers, then sat and watched the street through the bar's large windows.
When we were almost done Tom got out the map again, just as a tour group converged on the bar, snapping pictures and taking videos as they bellied up to the bar. I swear, every woman in that group bought a cosmopolitan. I pondered that for a minute while I headed to the restroom. Standing in line there with the tourists, I scanned the photos on the wall and started reading a framed newspaper review of the bar.
Turns out Onieal's is famous because it was featured several times in the HBO series "Sex and the City." That explained the tour stop and all the women ordering cosmos. The other tidbit I gleaned from the review was that Onieal's is located at the juncture of three well-known New York City neighborhoods: Little Italy, Chinatown and, wouldn't you know it, SoHo.
I came back to the table to tell Tom I knew where we were but he'd already figured it out. We hit the street and within minutes we were in the heart of SoHo.
People who are well acquainted with New York City's villages bemoan SoHo's evolving character from a relatively inexpensive residential neighborhood populated by artists in the 1960s and 1970s, to a trendy and upscale (and expensive)area of galleries, boutiques and shops. But if you never saw it in its earlier days you'll probably, like me, regard SoHo as a fun and eclectic shopping area. It's not unusual here to find well-known celebrities poking through the stores or strolling the streets. After all, some of them live here.
The most vibrant areas of SoHo are along Spring and Prince streets, where there are dozens of vintage clothing shops (we call them consignment stores in these parts) and you'll often find used clothes and goods with triple digit price tags. Besides a multitude of independently owned stores, some famous design labels and national chains also have outlets here in SoHo, including Lucky Brand jeans, Anthropologie, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger.
After poking around in some of those shops we headed back to Little Italy for dinner. By now Mulberry Street was packed with tourists, but this time I didn't mind. The neighborhood at night comes alive with lights and sounds, and crowds of people add to its charm.
Here, it's actually kind of fun to just be another tourist.