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Traveling In Style : Street Wisdom : To Understand And Embrace Its Character, To Feel A City's Throb, To Be Swept Up In Its Spirit, Is To Walk Its Streets

March 15, 1987|Sam Hall Kaplan | Sam Hall Kaplan is The Times' design critic.

New York's skyline can be dazzling, Rio's beaches enchanting, Paris' museums engaging, London's hotels luxurious and Brussels' restaurants memorable, but if any one thing marks the distinct character of a city, it is its streets. To understand and embrace that character, to feel a city's throb, to be swept up in its spirit, is to walk its streets--be they grand boulevards or pedestrian malls, shop-lined avenues or landscaped lanes. Here is where a city

bares its soul.

There are famous streets and favorite streets; different streets to stroll when shopping or searching for a place to eat, when feeling romantic or scholarly or simply curious.

For example, in New York, for art and architecture, there is Fifth Avenue north of 59th Street, past the Frick, Metropolitan, Guggenheim, Cooper-Hewitt, Design, Jewish, and Photography museums, to about 94th Street. For styles and shopping, walk down Madison Avenue from 94th Street to 59th Street. Then there is Lexington Avenue, from 59th Street south to 42nd Street and Grand Central Terminal, a stretch that's a crush of stores and people, restaurants and food stands that gives New York its special, frantic ambiance.

For a neighborhood flavor, my personal choice as a born-and-bred New Yorker is West 72nd Street. From Central Park West and the hulking Dakota west to Riverside Drive, the street, as long as I can remember it, has always had an engaging array of ethnic restaurants, convenience stores, bakeries, cafes, a bar or two, a mix of apartment towers and old graystone and brownstone houses, plus a hearty goulash of sidewalk characters.

At the intersection of 72nd Street and Broadway, at the entrance to the IRT subway, there is one of those great, sprawling newsstands where one can get the morning newspaper the night before. It is something I still do when I return to the neighborhood, crossing the street to read the paper standing up at a snack bar at Amsterdam Avenue, consuming a hot dog and an orange drink, or, better yet, farther along 72nd Street, sitting down in a bakery, with a piece of pastry and a cup of coffee, or in a Chinese restaurant, while indulging in a steaming bowl of wor wonton soup. To me, in my extended youth, 72nd Street was Paris, London, Vienna and Hong Kong. Now I know it to be simply my favorite street in New York.

When I eventually did get to Paris, I found the streets there as diverse and diverting as New York's. For shopping there is Boulevard Hausmann with its department stores, or Victor Hugo Avenue or Rue du Faubourg Saint Honore for the smart shops; for street scenes, Boulevards Saint Germain or Saint Michel. And for me, there are sentimental streets: Boulevard de Reuilly in unfashionable east Paris, where my youngest son learned to walk holding my hand, and in the Marais, where my father once lived. Now brimming with new museums, galleries, shops and restaurants, the Marais is a promenader's pleasure, if only to circle the Place des Vosges, or to meander from the Centre Pompidou to the Place de la Bastille.

But for instant identity and grand tradition there is still only the Champs Elysees. Though the broad avenue may be getting a little seedy, overrun with teen-agers and tourists, too many car showrooms and airline offices and not enough good bistros, the Champs Elysees perseveres. What particularly attracts me there is not what lines the street, but the view of what anchors the grand avenue: at the top is the Arc de Triomphe, and below, the Place de la Concorde. It is a scintillating scene that on select nights, when the arch is spotlighted in the French tricolors, sends shivers up and down my spine. It might be hokey, but for me there is no scene, and therefore no street, more French. It almost commands that you sit at one of the overpriced cafes on the street and toast the scene with a glass of wine.

For a street that does not awe, but rather teases, flirts, then embraces and sweeps you away, it is the Ramblas in Barcelona. "It is the most exciting street in the world," W. Somerset Maugham declared. It is hard to take issue with the late British author's judgment of this Spanish delight.

The Ramblas is a street for staring, be it at the architecture, at the book, bird or flower stalls, the sidewalk cafes, the art nouveau signs, well-dressed couples on the way to the opera, punk-styled teen-agers going nowhere, gaping tourists, sophisticated travelers, backpackers from the Costa Brava, tannned jet-setters from Mallorca in town for a night, the obvious prostitutes, the not-so-obvious pickpockets, or the Catalans themselves, who daily promenade along the broad walkway beneath a canopy of trees. Small wonder that the young Picasso used the passing scene and its myriad personalities as studies for his sketches.

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