This is the first in a series of NYC walking tours from Inside New York.
You’ll notice a trend at New York City parties: a good third of the young people “want to write.” This is a city steeped in stories—a walk through New York is a walk through the stomping grounds both of beloved wordsmiths and the characters they penned. With a good pair of shoes, an MTA day pass, and a Moleskin notebook, you can explore the sites that have inspired the likes of Jack Kerouac, Dorothy Parker, and Walt Whitman… and perhaps be inspired yourself.
Begin by taking the 1 train to 150th St and Riverside Drive. Standing across the street from the apartment of the Invisible Man author, the Ralph Ellison Memorial is an austere six-inch sheet of metal sporting a man-shaped cutout. Come back another time and frame the sunset through it.
Walk south and a bit east to get back on the 1 at 145th St, and ride it down to 116th and Broadway. Columbia University (2960 Broadway & 116th St) brims with literary history, but many of the prominent writers who studied there scorned i t. Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca lived in John Jay Hall (corner of 114th St & Amsterdam Ave) and Furnald Hall (corner of 115th St & Broadway). He was enrolled in Columbia’s School of General Studies, but spent most of his time romping through the city, intoxicated by “its extrahuman architecture, its furious rhythm, its geometry and anguish.” Likewise, Langston Hughes spent most of his truncated undergraduate career off campus exploring Harlem.
1940s students Jack Kerouac (who matriculated on a football scholarship and later dropped out) and Allen Ginsberg (who took six years to graduate) drank at 113th and Broadway’s West End bar, where they talked endlessly to other members of what would become known as the Beat movement. But times change—the iconic dive has been replaced by a Cuban restaurant, Havana Central at the West End (2911 Broadway, btwn 113th & 114th St). Kerouac and Ginsberg would likely have groused about this, but don’t let that stop you from stopping in for a frita—it’s definitely still Beat-worthy.
For dessert, cross one avenue west and walk a couple blocks south to the Hungarian Pastry Shop (1030 Amsterdam Ave & 112th St), long the home of many (slightly grimy) young literary men and women. Afterwards, step across the street to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (1047 Amsterdam Ave & 112th St) to see the American Poets’ Corner. Some of the nation’s most distinguished writers, including Robert Frost and Gertrude Stein, are honored here with quotations under a stained glass window.
Catch the M4 bus heading east on 110th St and ride it south along the edge of Central Park to the Frick Collection (1 E 70th St & 5th Ave). “It’s in the Frick,” Frank O’Hara wrote, “which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time.” A notable poet in the New York School, O’Hara wrote frequently about the twin gifts of anonymity and community provided by Manhattan’s neverending hustle. He worked for a long time at the Museum of Modern Art, but he loved the air of intimacy that immediately envelops visitors of the Frick—a gallery converted from a mansion.
Walk a few blocks east to Lexington Ave, and take the 4, 5, or 6 south from 68th St to Grand Central Terminal (87 E 42nd St & Park Ave). Edith Wharton pictured an earlier incarnation of the station when she wrote the opening of House of Mirth there, but Grand Central is where the character Lily Bart’s free-fall began. Walk a block east and then stroll north along Madison Ave just as Lily and Laurence did.
If your head’s spinning by this point, you’re not alone—”I might repeat to myself slowly and soothingly, a list of quotations beautiful from minds profound,” the ever-quotable Dorothy Parker once said, “if I can remember any of the damn things.” Turn left onto 44th St and cleanse your palette of excessive intellectualism with a taste of decadence at the Algonquin Hotel (59 W 44th St, btwn 5th & 6th Ave). Parker lunched here in the 1920s with the most delightfully bitchy circle of writers that this city may ever have seen. If you’re feeling well-heeled, you can grab a meal at its luxurious Round Table room.
Parker’s real solution to dilemmas was generally a stiff drink, and you might have better luck finding one of those at the White Horse Tavern (567 Hudson St at 11th St). Take the 1, 2, or 3 from Times Square to 14th St, walk a few blocks south on 7th Ave, turn right onto 11th St, and walk two blocks to the intersection with Hudson St. This old-fashioned bar is where Dylan Thomas raged off into his sodden good night in 1953. He fell into a coma on the sidewalk outside after finishing his eighteenth shot of whiskey.
When you’re done, walk south along Hudson St, turn left onto Christopher St, right onto 9th St, and right once more onto University Place. Stroll through the ever-cultured West Village, where young writers and bohemians flocked to from the 1940s to the 1970s. A few blocks further south on University Place will take you to the north end of Washington Square Park, home to the Henry James novel. Join James by frowning at the Arch, which he considered a gauche intrusion on the public square.
It should be evening now. Hop on the A just outside the square, get off at the Broadway-Nassau stop, and walk east on Fulton to watch the Brooklyn Bridge light up from the South Street Seaport. Everyone from Kerouac to Hart Crane to Marianne Moore has written about it, and if the Brooklyn Ferry is gone it will stand for Walt Whitman as well. Walk south and finish up with a slow round trip on the Staten Island Ferry. The MTA quotes Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem on the terminal wall in huge letters, and she really did catch a bit of the city’s sparer night-magic when she wrote:
“We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hilltop underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.”