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Autumn Journeys: New York

Manhattan's Hip New Strip

Boutiques, Bargains and Attitude on Lower Broadway

September 22, 1996|LESLIE GOURSE | Gourse is a New York freelance writer and author

NEW YORK — I became aware that a trendy new neighborhood was blossoming near my Greenwich Village backyard a few years ago when a friend, jazz pianist Kirk Lightsey, mentioned the NoHo Star restaurant on Lafayette Street, a block east of lower Broadway. I had never heard of it. Lightsey, who is fluent in the tastes of cutting-edge Manhattanites, told me he loved the food--the hazelnut waffles and brioche French toast in particular. "It's a wonderful place. I thought everybody knew about it," he said.

The NoHo Star has a typical SoHo ambience--not surprising since Lower Broadway is an architectural and spiritual offshoot of SoHo, an acronym for South of Houston Street, the artists' neighborhood. White pressed-tin ceiling, wall tiles painted with stars, wicker chairs, critically praised food and piped-in, calming harpsichord music are part of the NoHo Star package.

During the past few years I've watched the revitalization of lower Broadway spread east to the side streets as New Yorkers scratch for more affordable living and working space. The newly flourishing area slices not just through NoHo (the area north of Houston street with New York University on the west, Astor Place on the north and the East Village on the east) but south down a corridor from Union Square through Greenwich Village, NoHo, SoHo and Little Italy to Canal Street and Chinatown.

On the northern end, revitalized Union Square is surrounded by new high-rise apartment buildings. Sidewalk cafes and restaurants border the square and its popular green market (Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays). A statue of Mohandas K. Gandhi remains un-vandalized, and people have actually planted a little garden around it and placed flowers around Gandhi's neck.

Book publishers congregate around Union Square; magazines have settled in the Village/NoHo/SoHo sections. Some publishers came here to escape the high rents in Midtown and others have never set up shop anywhere else. Time Out magazine, emulating the well-known London guide, began publishing last year at 627 Broadway, between Bleecker and Houston streets. Details, a men's magazine at 632 Broadway, is on the same block. The trendy Paper--a hip guide to New York--entered the action in the late '80s at 529 Broadway in SoHo. New York Press, a news and entertainment magazine, moved into the Puck Building, a historic landmark on the corner of Lafayette and Houston, a block east of Broadway. And The Village Voice, born and reared in the Village, has moved to the Bowery a few blocks east of Broadway.


Some shops and restaurants have been observing the changes since the early 1980s. Among them is the Time Cafe in NoHo on Lafayette Street, which has a simple front room and sidewalk cafe. The Time Cafe also houses a sprawling, dark restaurant called Fez that is decorated in Levantine style with ottomans, copper-top tables, wood latticework and portraits of prominent contemporary North African women. Time Cafe and Fez are so established that they have lost their cutting-edge reputation and are now comfortable fixtures.

Across the street stands the venerated Joseph Papp New York Public Theater. It was started by the late Joseph Papp in a building that had been bequeathed $400,000 by John Jacob Astor for New York's first free public library.

The popular, rickety Strand Book Store, 12th Street at Broadway, now 68 years old, has always stocked thousands of secondhand books. In its cellar are reviewers' copies sold at half the retail price. The store's staff will search its stacks for books called for by prospective customers, and there's a rare book department upstairs.

Climbing on the bandwagon in the 1980s, the Asian/Cuban Bayamo restaurant at 704 Broadway draws a young crowd that dines on meals set out on banana leaves. The decor is a collage of color with loud rock music as an accompaniment.

Nearby, a weekend flea market in a Broadway parking lot near Waverly Place attracts shoppers from around town. And the lights of Tower Records, Broadway at east Fourth Street, have become a beacon shining every night until 12. Tower Books and Tower Video have opened on Lafayette, facing the Time Cafe/Fez, and nighttown keeps getting better.

Pen American Center, a prestigious writers' group, moved its headquarters from the Village to the Broadway strip on the south side of Houston Street. The Antique Boutique on Broadway, with its mix of kitschy antique clothing and stray pieces of designer wear, became popular, in part, by keeping late hours. Canal Jeans, which moved to Broadway from Canal Street in the 1980s, is a store for new sports clothes and bargain-priced antique clothing.

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