Before skyscrapers took over midtown Manhattan, brownstones and small apartment houses filled the blocks. And if you lived in one, you probably knew a way to slip out the back, duck through tiny alleys and airshafts, and come out in the next street. Those days are gone.
But New York City gives skyscraper developers a few perks if they leave spaces open to the public; and enough midtown buildings have taken advantage of those perks to create a sort-of passageway from the middle of 46th Street north to the middle of 56th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. All are designated “Open to the Public,” and a few stay open 24/7. Take a stroll uptown along this route, and here’s what you’ll see.
The first segment—one must admit—is uninspiring. Starting at 114 West 46th Street, it takes you to 47th Street through a bare, square tunnel. (The bike rack on the east wall is for office tenants, not the public).
More attractive is the passage that begins at 133 West 47th. On your way to 48th Street, you’ll find meals from Fresh & Co. on the east side and Proper Food on the west, that you can take away or eat at tables indoors and out.
Make a little dogleg west to 137 West 48th and walk north through a “moon gate” into a sparse—though wide—passage.
There you’ll find two bronze anthropomorphic sculptures: “Paparazzi Dogman” and “Paparazzi Rabbitgirl” by artists called Gillie and Marc. A plaque on the wall nearby gives people who worked at Rockefeller Center and McGraw Hill credit for making “this serene park” in 1973-74.
The next passage is called 745 Plaza, as it sits behind 745 Seventh Avenue. The Plaza begins on 49th Street; it’s flanked by trees and shrubs, and provides plenty of movable chairs and tables. As you approach 50th Street, the plaza doubles in width, with a greater variety of seating options centered on a sunken water feature. 745 Plaza is gated; from November 1 to March 31 it’s open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; in the warm months it’s open till 9 p.m.
On 50th Street the City has installed a mid-block crosswalk, and there’s a crosswalk (some with stop signs for traffic) on every subsequent street along this jaunt.
The next northbound passage takes you indoors, through a food court. It’s called Urban Hawker after the famous “hawker stalls” in Singapore, which the southeast Asian city-state created to consolidate (and sanitize) its street-food vendors. A sign on the entry door encourages you to “Wok Thru to 51st Street.”
Inside you’ll find stalls for signature Singaporean dishes like Chicken Rice and Chili Crab, as well the multicultural offerings that Singapore itself has in abundance, such as dim sum, curries, Indian and Indonesian specialties. There’s a full bar, too. Urban Hawker is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays.
Giant bronze sculptures, like Barry Flanagan’s “Hare On Bell,” dominate the covered passageway (open 24 hours) that starts at 151 West 51st Street, and is pictured at the beginning of this article. On the east side is Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, with indoor and outdoor seating. In the middle is a glassed-in escalator down to the private Athletic & Swim Club.
Starting at 135 West 52nd Street is a passage whose south end is roofed over, and whose north end has a skylight. Wooden benches line the walls; movable chairs and tables are in the middle. The passage is open daily from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
From 53rd Street, the northbound passage is called “1325 Avenue of the Americas” as it’s behind that Sixth Ave. office building to the east. Most of the space is taken up by a French restaurant, Le Grand Boucherie, but there is enough space on the east side of the passage to walk past it. Officially, 1375 Avenue of the Americas is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. But the restaurant’s maître d’ told me the last seating is at 7:45, and everything closes by 11 p.m. All of these mid-block passageways start and end at sidewalk level, but this one has five small steps up from the passage floor to the sidewalk on 54th Street.
Directly across 54th Street is a parking lot; but just to the west of it, at 151 West 54th Street, is the next covered passage. It has no works of art, no decorations and no furniture. But it does take you directly to one of Manhattan’s cultural landmarks: New York City Center on 55th Street. An architectural gem, it’s home to the Encores! series of revived musicals, and the Manhattan Theater Club.
Next door, at 135 West 55th Street, is a passage decorated with City Center posters and banners that’s open daily from 8 a.m. to midnight.
And there you are—you’ve come out on 56th Street, having walked ten whole blocks through midtown Manhattan without setting foot on either of the two wide avenues that flank this offbeat pathway. New York City has many little urban oases with chairs and benches, landscaping, works of art, and places to eat. But few if any of these “vest-pocket parks” line up so neatly as to make a meander like this worthwhile.
Photos by Hal Glatzer