I was very eager to take my first walking tour here in New York, because it involved going around the SoHo-Little Italy-Chinatown Lower Manhattan area. These three neighbourhoods are actually located side by side, but over the years the “territories” of each neighbourhood have either expanded or shrunk. I heard that Little Italy used to be much bigger, but after many Italians moved over to New Jersey, the Chinese began to take over their vacant homes.
I don’t suppose the size really matters. In my opinion, what’s important is that the people who still do live in this area manage to release their individual ethnic personalities through their neighbourhoods. There’s no mistaking the moment you step into Chinatown or Little Italy. The sights, the sounds, the smells… All of it is completely distinct from one another! It’s like they’ve reconstructed their neighbourhoods into their very own slices of home, and I’m just happy they keep the doors open to the rest of us.
Our first stop for the day was SoHo, bordered by Canal Street to the south, Crosby Street to the east, and West Broadway to the west.
New Yorkers are fond of these abbreviated names for certain districts: SoHo is short for South of Houston. Read as HOW-stin. Similarly, they have a neighbourhood called ‘TriBeCa’ (Triangle Below Canal Street), and they refer to the North of Little Italy as ‘Nolita’. You know, stuff like that!
SoHo as it is now is known as a high-end shopping district and an area where real estate is as expensive as the sky. It’s mostly socialites and celebrities who can afford to live in the beautiful cast-iron buildings over here, but hey, looking is free!
The cast-iron buildings display themselves with authority and elegance, and lined up this way one could say New York is showing off its lovely collection! Doesn’t Greene Street kind of remind you of a catwalk? But of course, it’ll be really difficult to walk these streets in six-inch heels. You’ll probably get stuck.
My foodie side knows that SoHo is the place where the famous Dominique Ansel Bakery is located. We started our walking tour around this area (Spring Street) but despite trying to remind myself to come back here a little later I… forgot. Yet another missed opportunity!
It was easy to feel so utterly in love with the picture-perfect cast-iron buildings, but before they were apartments they were actually factories and warehouses. (And even before that, this whole area was a farmland. Kind of hard to imagine now isn’t it?) Because it was faster to complete structures using cast-iron, many factory owners used it to construct their buildings.
During the 1870’s, residents of the area moved away after textile and dry-goods factories opened shop. But by the 1950’s these factories also ran out of business, leaving the area desolate and even referred to as “Hell’s Hundred Acres”. Yikes.
But then, artists displaced from other areas started moving into the abandoned industrial lofts. Suddenly, the whole area evolved into an art community filled with galleries, exhibits, dance, and theater. Thanks to these artists the whole area became hip again, and people flocked to become part of the “in crowd”.
Today, SoHo is one of the most expensive neighbourhoods to live in. Lofts sell for just around $3 Million. No big deal. Unlike many of my tourmates who dream of co-renting a space in this neighbourhood, I was happy enough just to walk in it and look at the amazing and historic cast-iron buildings, like the Gunther Building.
Walking along Broome Street, this mural by Tristan Eaton called ‘Big City of Dreams’ has officially become my sign that I’m about to arrive in Little Italy. I’ve become a huge fan of Eaton’s work after my visit to New York! You might’ve noticed that this mural seems fashion-themed, and that’s probably because it was commissioned by GUESS, Inc.
Little Italy is much busier than SoHo, and you’ll immediately know you’ve crossed over the moment you see your first Italian restaurant. Well, the giant sign is a big give-away, but mostly it’s the smell of pizza. 😉
This whole area has a very colourful past, and that’s all thanks to the American Mafia, or as our guide calls them– “The Family”. It’s really interesting to hear about some tidbits of that history from our walking tour guide, but nowadays Little Italy is packed with eateries. It’s hardly anything that resembles ‘The Godfather’.
If you’ve seen photos of the Audrey Hepburn mural pictured above floating around online, this is the place to find it. Indeed it is by the same guy that drew ‘Big City of Dreams’— pretty evident by his signature patchwork design. ‘Audrey of Mulberry’ is at the wall right beside Caffe Roma, at the southeast corner of Mulberry and Broome.
I completely forgot to take a closer photograph maybe because I’ve seen it so many times on my Instagram feed, but seeing it in person you can’t help but be drawn in by the way she looks at you. There’s this twinkle in her eyes that says so much!
There are so many restaurants to choose from here. You will find the oldest bakery, oldest cheese store, oldest pizza place, and the lot of them! But it’s best to dine at any of these establishments when you have some time to spare. Italians take mealtime seriously; and by that I mean you have to be prepared to sit and wait for them to cook the food from scratch no matter how long it takes. And once they serve you, they will encourage you to enjoy your food with as much gusto as you can muster.
Since my Dad and I were on a walking tour, we didn’t have time to go for a plate of gnocchi, much as I wanted to. Instead, we rushed towards one of New York’s iconic and long-standing bakeries– Ferrara Bakery & Cafe.
You can opt to sit down inside the cafe, but the line at the take out counter outside is much shorter, so that’s where we went.
There’s some pressure standing in this line, because you immediately see the multitude of pretty desserts in the glass case. Despite not having a sweet tooth (or maybe because of it) it’s always such a challenge for me to pick a few desserts from a display case.
I become so curious about them and want to try them all out because I want to see if I can replicate them in my kitchen. But I think regular dessert-lovers will have a hard time picking from this display as well!
And to make matters even worse, they got a load of gelato and sorbets to choose from!
I was craving for something refreshing and less sweet so I went for their Lemon Sorbet. Nice and tangy and it really hit the right spot for me!
I always tend to fall for fruit tarts like this, and it seems to be a weakness I share with my Dad because he ended up buying one. It tasted like a normal fruit tart haha!
HOLY CANNOLI! This was my first time trying this particular dessert out and I’m glad I could do it at Ferrara. It’s as close to Italy as I can get at the moment! It was surprisingly huge and had so much sweet filling it was impossible for me to finish it all by myself.
Even as my Dad and I shared all the desserts we bought I still could not eat my entire half of this before it got too sweet for me. I cannot handle you, cannoli! 😀 According to the Italian girl who was part of our tour group, the cannoli was almost as good as the ones in Italy, but it certainly hits the spot for anybody feeling homesick!
Walking along Grand Street, the sights and sounds begin to shift. I started hearing Cantonese being spoken first, and I became aware that we were moving towards Chinatown even before I saw the English letters transform into Chinese characters on the signages.
I speak Mandarin but I don’t really understand Cantonese, however I am able to recognize it when I hear it. I think most of the people here are Cantonese, though I’m sure people from all over China have flocked here as well since most of the people we encountered can also speak Mandarin.
Now Chinatown is known in pretty much every place in the world as a location for cheap but good Chinese food. It’s also a great place to find cheap and fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as Chinese dried goods and special herbs.
People who don’t really visit any Chinatown often never fail to mention that “it smells”. Well that’s the smell of dried seafood, dried roots, maybe some ginseng, and dried fruits. Admittedly it might be a little much to take in on your first time, but you get used to it.
I can’t help but be reminded of how the Chinatowns in pretty every country I’ve ever been to seem to have the same vibe. It’s always super busy too! Maybe the Chinatown here in New York is prettier because of the buildings, but it feels pretty much the same as being in a Chinatown anywhere else. To me at least!
I know most people come here for the restaurants serving cheap but good Chinese food, but I told my Dad that maybe we shouldn’t come here to eat something we often have back at home. But it’s actually very very tempting to have a meal here, because there are so many choices! The prices are cheap for New York I suppose, but not as cheap as eating back at home.
Our walking tour ended here in lovely Columbus Park, which you would never know was formerly one of the worst ghetto areas in New York. If you’ve seen ‘Gangs of New York’ you probably have an idea how this place looked in the 19th century since it was part of the notorious Five Points. A place that used to have wretched living conditions and rampant crime is now thankfully a beautiful place where children and adults alike can have a good time.
Columbus Park is now actually mostly a gathering place for the local Chinese community, since it’s right beside Chinatown. You will see a lot of people from the neighbourhood with traditional Chinese instruments in hand, and some would be playing mahjong or chess. What a dream come true it would be if we had a nice safe park like this over here!
I hope you enjoyed walking down memory lane with me for this little tour of Manhattan’s SoHo-Little Italy-Chinatown neighbourhoods! 🙂