November 13, 2011, New York: Saturday morning in Union Square begins with a jackhammer, a film crew, a farmer’s market, and a column of steam rising from the street outside L’Express. After a visit to 71 Irving Place for a cup of coffee on one of my favorite city blocks, I begin this walk through a neighborhood I’ve come to know well over the course of a decade.
My family moved to this neighborhood at the tail end of my college years here — timing that in part explains why New York has grown to feel more like home in the years since I left. My parents now live in one of the oldest apartment buildings in the city just a few blocks from my brother and his family. For one short semester of college, I lived at my brother’s place, too. That was the semester I discovered the orange-vanilla smoothies at this non-descript diner called the Gramercy Café, a required local stop ever since.
Morning here would not be complete without a loop around Gramercy Park. The exclusivity of this private park counters my belief in the importance of shared access to our cities’ green spaces, but there’s no denying the history and beauty of this place, even from its edges. Neighbors come here daily to circle these iron fences with their dogs, locked gates and all.
There is the bagel shop and Barfly on 3rd Ave. and Pete’s Tavern and Friend of a Farmer over on Irving and a long list of other places that play supporting roles in my memories. There’s an equally long list of new spots to try at some point soon. There’s always something coming and going.
Here to stay, of course, is the famous Greenmarket, a staple in Union Square since the late 1970s. I always think of Union Square as a neighborly place, ever since that rainy morning a decade ago when a good neighbor helped me out of a pinch by simply enveloping me under her umbrella to walk together. It’s especially neighborly on market days, where colorful food and more colorful characters wrap around the north and west sides of Union Square in the bright sunlight.
Autumn here is stunning.