Last week, inspired by Fiona Davis‘ New York City-centric historical fiction novels, we went on a literary inspired tour of the east side of Manhattan. This week, we’re headed across Central Park for a literary tour of the west side, inspired by two of Fiona’s other historical fiction novels. I am a west side girl, having spent a chunk of my childhood and adulthood in Chelsea and on the Upper West Side, so I’m especially excited to be on this side of the park. Many of the places I mention are currently open in some form in light of the pandemic. If visiting now is not in the cards, be sure to bookmark this list for later. Shall we head out?
The Dakota as featured in The Address. “When I was a kid, this was all farmland!” Haven’t we all heard that expression? Well, it was more of less true during one of the eras when The Address is set, a novel which intertwines the stories of two women at the infamous apartment building; one story taking place at the time of its construction in 1884, the other, about 100 years later. Beyond being an architectural feast for the eyes, the Dakota has a storied history. It is where John Lennon was murdered under the iconic archway entrance in 1981 by a deranged fan and where Roman Polanski’s legendary film Rosemary’s Baby starring the incomparable Mia Farrow was filmed in 1968. If the walls of The Dakota could speak…
My suggestions for places to eat and check out nearby:
Kirsh Bakery & Kitchen – Amsterdam Avenue between 86th and 87th streets. Located a stone’s throw from the people lined up to dine at the iconic Barney Greengrass is my can’t-miss-love-it-like crazy spot to eat on the Upper West Side. I go to the café side because I have a borderline obsession with their ricotta pistachio loaf and their shortbread (best shortbread outside of Scotland!) I’ll grab a slice of the ricotta and a hot tea to sit and stay if it’s cold out, or a slice of the ricotta and an iced decaf coffee to go wander back to Central Park if it’s hot out. And always, a piece of shortbread to go for later. In addition to slices, they also sell loaves of this glorious ricotta delight, which makes for a great gift for somebody hosting…or for a few breakfast/tea snacks for yourself! Kirsch has recently opened back up for take-out (and delivery from the kitchen).
Zabar’s – Broadway btw 80th and 81st streets. An absolute New York City institution. It’s a specialty food store, it’s a housewares store, it’s heaven. They’ve had over 80 years to master the art of food preparation and they do not disappoint; from their legendary cheese selection to their famous smoked fish, it’s the perfect place for fancier groceries or to pick up prepared food for a picnic in Riverside Park, which is just a few blocks west of the store. I typically spend a lot of time here wandering the aisles. I bought a saucepan when I was 19 and truly believed I had officially made it to adulthood.
The Grounds at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine – Amsterdam Avenue btw 110th and 111th Streets. Are we in Europe? That might be what you ask yourself when you step into the majestic Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, a few blocks south of Columbia University. The cathedral is currently closed due to COVID, but luckily, the grounds are open, and they are equally magical. The Pulpit Green is the perfect place to catch a little serenity from the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam Avenue and the Peace Fountain brings me just what it’s name suggests: a feeling of peace. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the peacock that wanders around the grounds.
The Hotel Chelsea as featured in The Chelsea Girls. Oh man, do I miss the Chelsea. Yes, it is still standing. No, it is no longer what it used to be. The Chelsea, a designated NYC landmark with a well-deserved place on the National Register of Historic Places, is legendary for being a home to a rainbow of artists over the years. It has sheltered everybody from Mark Twain to Jack Kerouac, Arthur Miller to Sam Shepard, Titanic survivors to off-duty sailors. It was sold to a developer a few years ago and controversy has since ensued about how scrubbed clean of its colorful past it would be, how many longtime residents would be evicted. You can no longer go inside and El Quijote, the gloriously time frozen restaurant that had been an iconic part of the hotel since 1930, is now closed, but you can look up at the building in awe, as it stands stoically frozen, waiting for its next chapter.
My suggestions for places to eat and check out nearby:
Gotan – 20th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. One of my absolute favorite places for lunch, breakfast or one of those fancy, specialty coffee drinks (looking at you, turmeric latte!) They’re currently running a limited menu and open for take-out and delivery only, but especially important to note is that they have been working tirelessly to deliver food to frontline healthcare workers during this pandemic. I like putting my money where not only delicious food is made, but there is a commitment to physically and emotionally nourishing one’s community.
The High Line Hotel – 20th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. I have mixed feelings about this place. I love it, but I mourn what it used to be. Now, it’s an undeniably beautiful hotel with a fantastic courtyard with a bar for low-key cocktails and coffees. a cozy lobby bar where you can curl up with a tea or hot toddy in colder weather, dog in tow. Once upon a time, it was the Desmond Tutu Center, part of the General Theological Seminary. I’m old enough now to remember when there were more nuns and priests coming and going from the Seminary than millennials in yoga clothes. Slowly but surely, parts of the seminary were sold off: the building once at the corner of 20th and 9th, now a shiny, new apartment building. But I digress, I guess I’m glad they didn’t fully raze this beautiful, old campus or sell off all of its buildings.
Third Cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue – 21st Street btw 6th and 7th Avenues. I’m always very surprised when people who live in Chelsea and walk this main artery of the neighborhood on a regular basis say they have never noticed this tiny, old cemetery and a peak into the past. It’s the final resting place for people of Spanish and Portuguese descent who were members of a Jewish congregation from the 1800s. There is a “second” cemetery that is located in Greenwich Village. A much needed reminder of the people who came before us and walked these same streets. Imagine what 21st street looked like back when burials were taking place here? Reverence for the past. So many stories in this city.
I hope you enjoyed the sites today and they inspired you to read Fiona’s books, which of course, inspired this little tour. As always, stay connected, stay curious and keep sharing stories.