‘On the Avenue, Fifth Avenue’

A stroll along New York City’s grand boulevard.

Looking down 5th Avenue from 50th Street (photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)
Looking down 5th Avenue from 50th Street
(photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)
‘On the avenue, Fifth Avenue, The photographers will snap us And you’ll find that you’re In the rotogravure’ Those are a few of the words of one of the most famous holiday songs in America, “Easter Parade,” written by one of America’s most famous songwriters and lyricists, the late Irving Berlin, who also wrote “White Christmas” – and who was Jewish.
“On the Avenue, Fifth Avenue” captures America a century ago, when the denizens of New York and the fashionable people paraded on the glamorous avenue which, to this day, vies with Broadway as New York’s most noted.
Parades are still part of the excitement of this grand boulevard. Three of the most famous parades which signify what many still call the three “I’s of NYC,” Italy, Ireland and Israel, hoist their colors on Fifth: the Columbus Day Parade, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and the Celebrate Israel Parade.
This past June, for instance, 35,000 Jewish marchers trooped up Fifth Avenue, a feat which prompted New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to declare: “I enjoy these parades. They remind New Yorkers how lucky we are to live in New York, how diverse and mixed we are and how proud we are of that.”
Today, Fifth Avenue retains its power and charm. Paris may have the Champs-Elysees; London, Bond Street; Rome, the Via Veneto; “but only New York has Fifth Avenue.”
A recent stroll along Fifth Avenue reveals that this business and shopping superhighway, always chock full o’ traffic in certain sections, seems more crowded, touristy and ethnic, especially in the number of foreign languages heard.
Moreover, Fifth Avenue seemed to be losing some of its luster in terms of prestigious shops, as discount stores seemed to grabbing space – but yes, it’s still ranked among the most expensive shopping streets in the world. And some of the most coveted real estate on Fifth Avenue is taken up by the penthouses perched atop the buildings.
Sauntering up and down the byway that runs north and south through Manhattan, I realize that much of what makes most of the Big Apple manageable in terms of directions is that Fifth Avenue serves as the dividing line for numbering the houses and buildings on the city’s west-east streets.
Few streets in the world can provide “a more varied tour of extremes” in its run from Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village northward through the heart of Midtown along the eastern side of Central Park, where it forms the boundary of the Upper East Side; then though Harlem, where it terminates at the Harlem River at 142nd St. Traffic then crosses the river on the Madison Avenue Bridge.
Lest we give the wrong impression, Fifth Avenue is not just for shoppers or tourists. Many a businessperson is seen daily, hustling at a fast pace up and down the avenue, visiting clients in office buildings, obtaining contracts and yes, stopping off for lunch in the literally hundreds upon hundreds of eateries and coffeehouses, some upscale but not all at astronomical prices.
One is Burger Heaven, where businesspeople and midtown workers put up with, as one observer described it, “the hellish noontime crush [to eat] at this burger joint, which has a long, dinner-style menu with plenty of options.” Indeed, there isn’t a fast food outlet worth its name that isn’t located somewhere along Fifth Avenue.
There is also a good selection of kosher restaurants, especially in Midtown: Prime Grill, now at a new location at 25 W. 56th St.; Wolf & Lamb, 10 E. 48th St.; Milk N’ Honey, 22 W. 45th St.; Mendy’s, at that great tourist spot, Rockefeller Center – that is, 10 Rockefeller Center (entrance on ground level, 37 W. 48th St.); and Le Marais, 150 W. 56th St.
Certainly among New York City’s tourist attractions are Rockefeller Center, 45 Rockefeller Plaza, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, both on Fifth Avenue at 50th St. The two, national historic landmarks, draw thousands of tourists each day. If you’re in New York City in the winter, Rockefeller Center’s ice skating rink is a must, where it’s worth bearing the cold to stand and look down at the skaters below.
To see one of the most famous beaux arts landmarks, I begin a walk at one of the main crossroads of Manhattan, at Fifth Avenue and 42nd St., and admire the wonderful New York Public Library known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, often referred to as the “main branch.” The library’s Jewish Division came into being in November 1897, when Jacob H. Schiff donated $10,000 “for the purpose of Semitic literature.”
Patience and Fortitude, the world-renowned pair of marble lions that proudly guard the library, have captured the imagination and affection of New Yorkers and visitors since the library was dedicated in 1911.
I pass Lord & Taylor Department Store, one of the few major high-level emporiums south of 42nd St., a fine and popular place to shop.
Nearing 34th St., I recall that one of those responsible for its transformation into a “retail center” was Benjamin Altman, whose store Altman Brothers was located on the northeast corner of Fifth Ave and 34th St. B. Altman and Company was an American department store and chain founded in 1865. When the new B. Altman store opened in 1906, Fifth Avenue was essentially a small-scale street filled with shops catering to the upper crust of New York society. Today, I notice Altman’s is now the site of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).
I arrive at the world’s most famous skyscraper, the Empire State Building, at 350 Fifth Avenue. Standing on Fifth between 33rd and 34th Sts., at the entrance to the observation deck, I’m amazed at the number of foreign visitors all passing through the entrance to ride up to the top of “this giant rocket to the sky.”
Past the Empire State, I stop at J. Levine Books and Judaica, 5 West 30th St. Walking south to 175 Fifth Avenue, I spy the triangular Flatiron Building, unique in architecture and design and once described as “looking like a monster steamer.”
At the end of Fifth Avenue is Washington Square Park. No matter how you get there, by car, bus, subway or on foot, amble through the impressive marble arch, known as Washington Arch. Washington Square remains the symbolic heart of Greenwich Village. If you were born and grew up here, or moved here at a young age – the latter, of course, being the best New Yorkers – then you remember those splendid Sunday afternoons reveling in wonderful, inspiring folk songs, especially in the 1950s and ’60s when poets and musicians flocked there.
Want to shop till you drop? Head north from 42nd St. up to 60th. From jewelers like Tiffany & Co. to high-end designers like Louis Vuitton and Gucci to more mainstream apparel like Abercrombie & Fitch and Ralph Lauren, “if you can’t find it on Fifth Avenue, it probably isn’t worth finding,” says the website nyc.com, listing about 40 of the world’s most famous designers, department stores and electronic establishments such as the Apple Store, as well as Trump Tower.
In the last quarter of the 19th century, Fifth Avenue was a street of fine residences.
At the site of the old Vincent Astor residence, Fifth Avenue and 65th St., stands Temple Emanu-El, one of the city’s largest houses of worship.
Further up the avenue is Museum Mile, where some of America’s finest cultural treasures are housed in fabulous museums that line the east side of Central Park, from 82nd St. to 104th.
At 1071 Fifth Avenue, between 88th and 89th Sts., stands the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, founded in 1937 by the man whose name it bears.
The Jewish Museum is on Fifth Avenue at 92nd St. in the former home of Felix M. Warburg, a prominent banker. His widow presented the structure to the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1944 with the understanding that it would be used as a museum – and so it has.
If you have time for only one museum, stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 82nd St., home to more than 2 million pieces of astounding art.
The Museum of the City of New York is at 103rd St., while El Museo del Barrio is a block away at 104th.
Whether its culture, shopping, dining, entertainment or people-watching, it’s all here, “on the Avenue, Fifth Avenue.”
The writer is a journalist who covers travel; he is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel (Marion Street Press) and The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond (Globe Pequot Press). Blog: www.bengfrank.blogspot.com; Twitter @bengfrank