Elisa Mala, New York
Special to Extra Times
It’s the most famous saying about New York City: “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”
On the island of Manhattan, one of the city’s five boroughs as well as its economic heart, every neighborhood has a way of bringing this wisdom to life. In their expensive dark suits and power ties, the bankers of Wall Street compete against the stock market. In Chinatown, fast-talking vendors hawk their wares – fresh fish, rare fruits and vegetables and even pet turtles. A trip on the underground subway train
But in SoHo, this spirit of survival hides beneath the surface. The neighborhood has a history for providing a haven to those who crave freedom. In the 1700’s, the area became Manhattan’s first settlements for freed blacks who had escaped slavery in the south. These days, it is a center for artistic freedom – this is where the newest crop of unknowns become stars almost overnight.
Named for a former red light district in London as well as its posh New York address – the entire neighborhood is located South of Houston Street, in lower Manhattan – the newer SoHo is less about infamy and more about potential fame. In other areas of the city, skyscrapers reach high into the heavens and hotel lobbies might be on the 35th floor. But SoHo understands that big things come in smaller packagers. With its narrower streets and short but intricate cast-iron buildings, SoHo remains a place for small, designer-driven brands that are difficult to find elsewhere.
Once a haven for edgy artists and fashion designers, it’s now culinary creations now draw the crowds. Only something magical could make harried New Yorkers queue for hours, but at Dominique Ansel Bakery the whirlwind of whimsical, perfectly-executed French pastries inspires lines that wind around the block at all hours. Before the sun rises, diehards stand in wait for the Cronut, a half-croissant, half-doughnut that rocketed Chef Ansel to dessert stardom. Arrive by 6:30 a.m. or so to reserve your spot, and expect to wait for at least two or three hours. At 3 p.m., the special du jour becomes the cookie shot (a cup-shaped chocolate chip cookie filled with milk). Don’t want to wait? Try classic deserts like eclairs, tarts and canneles, unique concoctions like waffogato (a waffle-shaped vanilla ice cream in a pool of espresso), or savory soups and sandwiches that are available throughout the day.
For a feast for the eyes, there is the Drawing Center, a small but well-curated museum that is exclusively dedicated to contemporary and historical drawings. Exhibits might integrate reinterpretations of literary classics or include doodles from less traditional sources – like sketches from the Ferran Adria, the Spanish chef with three Michelin stars – but each work redefines the idea of what a drawing is and what it could be. And unlike other museums in the city that are so large enough for guests to explore for days, this gallery and the many other local ones like it embody the spirit of SoHo by offering a quirkier and more intimate experience.
Pick up your own treasures at the posh boutiques that line every street in the area, often housing unique, hard-to-find or foreign brands. Even if you leave with empty shopping bags, wandering through the racks can be an eye-opening experience to the possibilities of design. The mother of all downtown unisex clothing boutiques is Opening Ceremony, where quirky labels like Proenza Schouler and the Acne Studios are displayed alongside the store’s exclusive house-made capsule collections, which incorporate pop culture phenomena like Mickey Mouse or the Spike Jonze movie, “Her.” No room left in your luggage? Write about your troubles in the stylish leather-bound notebooks of Moleskine, which were once used by the famed Spanish artist Pablo Picasso and the great American writer Ernest Hemingway.
What is it that is so inspiring about these streets? Beneath the pristine facades of glorious old buildings, ordinary people work to bring their dreams to life. And if you do as real New Yorkers do and skip the luxury of cars and subways to simply wander around on foot, taking in the sights, sounds and smells produced by these creative folks, inspiration might strike you, too.
“If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” This is especially true in SoHo.