Riding the M103 to Chinatown

One New York City neighborhood that attracts tourists is Chinatown, and I journey to this exotic neighborhood the old-fashioned and slow way.

New York City's Chinatown during rushhour traffic. (photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)
New York City's Chinatown during rushhour traffic.
(photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)
‘Do you know New York City well? How long since you’ve been here?” I was asked.
“Not long,” I answered, “I lived here for half a century. But I’m sure if I lived here another 50 years, I still would find more hidden gems geared for travelers, tourists and residents.”
Accordingly, for many years I’ve been taking the M103 to Chinatown – and now I’m ready to write about it.
One New York City neighborhood that attracts tourists is Chinatown, and I journey to this exotic neighborhood the old-fashioned and slow way, via the city’s bus line, M103. I board on Lexington Avenue and East 86th Street on the Upper East Side, and head south to Pell St. and Bowery, just south of the Manhattan Bridge – the latter a suspension bridge that crosses the East River in New York City. Actually, the bridge connects Lower Manhattan at Canal St. with Brooklyn at Flatbush Ave. extension.
Along the way, we pass some of the greatest cross streets in the city: 57th, 42nd, 34th, Delancey and Houston. From our bus window, I see some of the most magnificent structures and institutions of Gotham.
Lexington Ave. alone has two famous Jewish landmarks: The first at 92nd St. and Lexington, the 92nd Street Y, a cultural icon and world-class cultural and community center. A quick glance at the institution’s website shows the following speakers in May: Elie Wiesel, Kenneth Pollack, David Grossman and George Stephanopoulos.
About 40 blocks away, at Lexington and E. 55th St., stands Central Synagogue, said to be the oldest Reform synagogue in New York City and in continuous use by a congregation longer than any other in the city. Built in 1872 in the Moorish revival style, it is a copy of Budapest’s Dohany Street Synagogue and celebrates Jewish existence in Muslim Spain. Following a devastating fire in August 1998, this house of worship has been restored to honor its historic character. Viewers of this fascinating building will certainly observe the round Moorish finials on top of its two columns, each surmounted by a Star of David.
The 103 bus crosses one of the most famous streets in the city, none other than 42nd St. Any visitor to Manhattan should, if he/she is able to walk, stroll along the entire length of this street, from the East River and the United Nations building to the Hudson River, passing such landmarks as Grand Central Station; the New York Public Library, known as the Stephen A.
Schwarzman Building; and Port Authority Bus Terminal.
As you walk, just keep humming that famous Broadway musical tune: “Come and meet, those dancing feet, on the avenue I’m taking you to, 42nd Street.”
Moving further south on Lexington, we pass Stern College for Women, the undergraduate women’s college of arts and sciences at Yeshiva University, at 245 Lexington Ave., just north of 34th St. in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan. And it’s a few blocks to walk over to the Empire State Building, which stands 124 stories to the top of the antenna.
Meanwhile, south of 34th St. we start picking up signs of New York’s celebrated diversity among its restaurants: Cuban, Malay, Indian, foods such as sushi and Philadelphia cheese steak. Other eating establishment signs sport names such as “Greek taverna,” “Bulls Head Tavern,” “Paddy McGuire’s Ale House,” and a sign that quickly grabs my eye, “The best falafel in town is not just for vegetarians.”
The bus leaves Lexington Ave. when it makes a left on 21st St., passes Baruch College and reaches 3rd Ave., where it makes a right heading south along 3rd Ave., which eventually changes into Bowery.
Fourteenth Street features the headquarters of Con Edison Building at 4 Irving Place, a 26-story tower topped by a Tower of Light, designed to look like a miniature temple and capped by a bronze lantern which lights up at night. Also on 14th St. is the city’s famous Union Square, once the open-air, rally headquarters of the city’s laborers, union members and radical Left.
Known as New York’s Hyde Park, Union Square was the scene of many union and political demonstrations.
Once the square housed S. Klein on the Square Department Store. Today, office buildings, boutiques, and high-end outdoor cafes and restaurants circle the square, though the Amalgamated Bank still has a building at 10 East 14th St.
The bus now passes an historic landmark, Cooper Union, in the East Village. Here, Abraham Lincoln gave a major election address on February 27, 1860. The speech electrified Lincoln’s listeners and garnered him important political support. Officially known as the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, the school established in 1859 was – until this year – one of the few American institutions of higher learning to offer a full tuition scholarship.
As we proceed south along 3rd Ave., we note that it becomes the Bowery. Crossing Houston and Delancey, one recalls the famous Lower East Side, gone in all but name as the onetime center of Jewish culture, a place of Jewish beginnings in America. Yes, there are still vestiges of the area’s Jewish heritage, in shops on Hester, Essex and Grand streets and in the Orthodox Jewish community and its yeshivas. Here were the famous kosher restaurants, synagogues, community centers and newspapers such as The Forward; a few are still there.
All the famous Lower East Side streets are within walking distance of my bus route: Grand, Rivington, Broome, Essex. But Chinatown has so expanded that where once signs in Yiddish populated Houston and Delancey, we now have posters in Chinese.
Chinatown has been described as one of Manhattan’s busiest, most chaotic sections, and it lies in the area bound by Worth, Baxter and Canal streets and the Bowery. Mulberry and Mott are lined with shops and restaurants; vibrant Chinatown has eclipsed nearby Little Italy.
The present-day Asian community of New York is estimated at 1.165 million. Manhattan’s Chinatown now holds the largest Chinese immigrant community outside of Asia, and the majority of the city’s 195,000 Asians reside in Chinatown.
In this section of Chinatown, we find open-air markets containing all manner of snakes, snails, frogs and fish, as well as glistening golden-skinned roast ducks hanging in restaurant windows. Walking up and down Canal Street, our ears and eyes still smart from sidewalk vendors hawking knock-off designer bags and watches.
The most famous Jewish site in this area is located on a small piece of land near Chatham Square, and is known by various names: New Bowery Cemetery, Oliver Street Cemetery or Chatham Square Cemetery.
According to Bernard Postal and Lionel Koppman in A Jewish Tourist’s Guide to the US, “The history of the cemetery begins in 1682, when it becomes the successor to the ground granted in 1656 to the Jews of New Amsterdam by Peter Stuyvesant.” The cemetery played a part in the American defense of New York in 1776, as Gen.
Charles Lee placed several of his guns in the “Jew Burying Ground,” and among the graves today are those of 18 Revolutionary soldiers and patriots.
In the last analysis, Chinatown, founded in 1870, is a vast, vibrant shopping market. One dare not recommend a restaurant as they are aplenty on Pell, Mott and Bowery; literally hundreds of restaurants, some only big enough for a few tables. The eating establishments are also bustling and perpetually congested, as are the boutiques. As one tourist book put the shopping: be prepared to sift through “everything from treasure to junk,” which takes a keen eye and loads of patience.
It is the same to see the city by bus. To observe the difference in New York City’s diverse neighborhoods, the attractions of one as compared to another, there is nothing like riding the city’s buses. If I had my druthers, I would take the M103 bus every day, ride it for 10 blocks, get off, head east or west and explore and discover various sections of Manhattan. The next day, another 10 blocks.
True, many tourists travel in New York City from point to point, via the underground subway. But the real life of Manhattan is aboveground, even if it takes a little more time to see it.
Ben G. Frank is a journalist, travel writer and 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 and Beyond (Globe Pequot Press). Blog: www.bengfrank.blogspot.com; Twitter @bengfrank.