Tuesday, April 1, 2014

47's Sidewalk & Second Story

47th Street between 5th and 6th, otherwise known as Diamond Way, is one of the last blocks of the old New York business districts left in Manhattan. Walking on it feels like walking back in time. Barkers stand outside the diamond shops, calling to you as you pass.

Merchants put pretty young women in the windows to seduce passing customers, in case the diamonds aren't seductive enough. Everything is protected by the watchful eyes of security cameras and blue-glass nazars to ward away evil.

The street is both dreary and utterly alive--though it has changed in recent years, with luxury glass towers going in. It still breaks my heart to see Gotham Book Mart gone.

So much is happening on the sidewalk--Hasidic men make deals in dark huddles, while other men shine shoes and itinerant merchants lend the block an air of menace as they try to lure you into sidewalk buying and selling--against which signs warn, "Shoppers beware: Do not buy from or sell to street solicitors."

You expect the old cliche, a man opening his trench coat and whispering, "Psst. You wanna buy a watch?"

Above ground, 47th Street has a lively and strange second story. Up flights of stairs plastered in advertisements, you'll find winding corridors filled with bare-bones barber shops, and workshops that are nothing more than holes in the wall, where jewelry polishers labor, and gold and diamonds are bought and sold.

For lunch, stop in at Taam-Tov, a glatt kosher Uzbek joint serving the foods of Bukharian culture, from the Jews of the Silk Road. Traditional music plays in a casual dining room where a rabbi watches over and the walls are painted with murals of Uzbekistan--palm trees, deserts, the Mausoleum of Tamerlane with its lapis lazuli and gold-encrusted cupola.

Try the plov, also known as Uzbek pilaf, but skip the drink described as "Russian lemonade."

Samsa and "Russian lemonade"

Through the second-story hallways, an elderly Hasidic man wanders from shop to shop. He begs for money, holding up a note that explains a long, sad story about family left behind in Israel. Inside Taam Tov, the manager gives him a dollar and waves him away.

Finally, you can't walk down this block without thinking of that incredible scene from Marathon Man, where the holocaust survivors recognize the evil Nazi Dr. Szell as he goes to appraise a case full of Auschwitz diamonds.


James C. Taylor said...


Anonymous said...

Fantastic tour. Thank you.

I remember the notions/button/ribbon blocks that we used to go to, as kids, when we were dreaming up decor for our dresses, bought at Orbach's or Kleins, and needed for school dances. West 30's. They were magical places. A few are still there I think but it used to be dense with them and cover many blocks.

It was just above the equally dense flower/plant wholesale district, most of which is now gone too.

Anonymous said...

Though I only knew it for its last couple of decades, I, too, miss Gotham Book Mart (among so many other book sellers that used to be around town).

I was really glad to see your portrait of Taam-Tov. I have ventured there a few times over the years and have even managed to dine in the front balcony area that overlooks (through some sort of signage/facade) the bustle of the Diamond District. Good cheap food and trip in the time machine included in the tab.

ShatteredMonocle said...

I love this block. It's great at night too, completely vacant with empty mannequin parts in the windows and LED signs still blinking.

Your buddy over here doesn't care for it.

Anonymous said...

You ain't seen nothing until you've passed the through the gauntlet of security and seen one of the big safes. There's probably *hundreds* of them scattered through out the floors of some of the old-style Julius Knipl buildings.

Anonymous said...

Yea 47th street is like no other in the country, maybe the world. Went with a friend once as he priced diamonds for his engagement ring. You gotta do your homework before trying that.

I always wondered why Zell did not find some off the beaten track jewelry store or maybe just call one up. He would have greatly lowered the chances of being spotted. I guess there would not have been a movie then.

Great report.

Anonymous said...

Wow, great. Didn't know about the restaurant even though I worked near there for nearly 20 years.
I still miss Gotham -- "wise men fish here." Lunch break sanity jaunts!

BirdOnAWire said...

I know, Jeremiah! That and the garment district are the only places left in Manhattan that feel like they used to.

Anonymous said...

This is one NY block I wouldn't miss if it went up in smoke. If you walk down it twice a day to and from home and the office as I do, it's the quickest way, you'll learn to despise this corner of the city.

I'm amazed at the people who actually come here to buy jewelry. I assume all the sellers are goniffs and if I shook someone's hand I would check to make sure I still had all my fingers.

I will miss the places like Rizzoli's, Bowlmore and the LES of my youth, but not this corner of hell.