City Guide Part 17
Modern day 5th Avenue is a shopping mecca. Retailers strive to offer the latest in fashion. Store windows are full of shirts, dresses and accessories that, in a few months time, will be considered out of style. But when you near the corner of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, the frenzied feel of consumerism changes and is replaced with the pastoral calm emanating from the classically "Beaux-Arts" inspired grounds of the New York City Public Library.
It was late afternoon as we walked between the two large lion statues guarding the main entrance. The library's archive room was preparing to close, so we slipped in before the doors were locked for the evening. Inside the archive room, rare books, maps and important government papers are kept for public viewing. The centerpiece of the archive room was a Gutenberg Bible.
This library has a feel similar to that of the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Unlike the neighborhood libraries most of us are accustomed to, this library is meant for serious study and not for tourists like us to poke around. We decided to go back outside and join the dozens of people enjoying a rest on the cool stone steps of the main entrance. We talked about what we wanted to do that evening. I remembered the two men the evening before at the exit to the ferry selling exotic merchandise. I suggested we go back to Canal Street to see firsthand some of the bizarre items we could find there.
Canal Street is one of only a few streets on Manhattan that do not run on a grid of right angles. Back in the 1600's, lower Manhattan was a Dutch village, and the land north of the village was cultivated. Farmers built a canal running diagonally from the northwest the southeast. When they harvested their produce, they simply took it to the canal where it could easily be transported down to the village and to the the harbor where ships waited to transport it to Europe. Gradually, as the town grew, buildings went up on either side of the canal, until citizens decided to drain the canal and build Canal Street in its place. That is not the only contribution of the early Dutch settlers on Manhattan. They built a long wall just north of their village to separate the village from the farmland. Eventually the wall went down, but the name remained, so that today we have Wall Street, the hub of international commerce, on the original location of the stone wall that separated agriculture (commerce) from village life.
One more contribution of those early Dutch - Among the first settlers in that little village was Claes Martenszen van Rosenvelt, whose descendents would eventually change their name slightly, and from that line came two of our country's presidents - Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt.
Modern day Canal street is lined with small sidewalk stands and shopkeepers who invite passers by to look at their goods. Several men came up to me and asked in a hushed tone, " Would you like to buy a Rolex watch? Very cheap; Fifty Dollars."
We stopped in several shops, but all we found found were low quality sunglasses, towels and t-shirts.
After exiting one of these shops, Mom, Dad and I stepped out on the street expecting Scott to be right behind us. After walking down the street we realized that Scott was nowhere in sight. We traced our steps, looking in each shop until we entered the shop where we last saw him. Right at that moment, the wall at the back of the store opened up. Scott poked his head out and said, "Hey guys, in here!" Mom, Dad and I walked through this hidden doorway into a small room with shelves of beautiful handbags. Many of these handbags looked perfectly identical to the handbags I had just seen in the glamorous windows of 5th Avenue. After a while, Mom found a bag she was very impressed with. Because there were no visible prices, she asked the man attending this speakeasy the price. After he quoted a price, mom set the bag down, thanked him and started to walk back out the door. The man stopped us, and quoted a much lower price for the bag. Mom agreed that the price was fair. Dad paid for the bag, which the shopkeeper then placed in a nondescript black bag, and he let us out of the room. Mom was pleased with her new bag.
The plan for our last evening on Manhattan was to watch the sun set from the top of the tallest building in the city. We took the train back uptown and entered the first floor level of the Empire State Building. On the train ride uptown, I noticed the handbags of several women sitting in the train car, and wondered if they had bought their bags on 5th avenue or Canal Street. It was impossible to tell. It was early evening as we entered the ground floor of the Empire State Building.
Continued in part 18