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Special Travel Issue | Cover Story : MANHATTAN

Up All Night In New York

Can A City Really Be Easier To See After The Sun Goes Down?

October 13, 2002|JONATHAN KANDELL | Jonathan Kandell last wrote for the travel issue of the magazine about eating in Singapore, the Asian capital of "street food."

The premise was simple enough: New York prides itself for being "the city that never sleeps," and having spent much of our lives here, my wife, Joan, and I decided we would finally prove it ourselves. This was a chance to discover New York anew--on our terms. We would ignore the critics' choices-of-the-moment in favor of an eclectic mix of normally crowded landmarks where even experienced New Yorkers can feel dwarfed, and of less-visited gems that could make us feel as if the city had been created just for us.

But, of course, complications arose almost immediately. How to choose from New York's cornucopia of diversions in those dozen hours between dusk and dawn? Should we favor a Latino disco over an Irish music tavern, a Chinese banquet over gourmet Greek food, an art museum over a Broadway play?

We soon realized our journey to the end of the night required as much planning as any overseas vacation we'd ever undertaken. We confined ourselves to Manhattan because traveling to the other boroughs would take too long. Yet we wanted to visit as many neighborhoods as possible and expose ourselves to a broad range of culture, food, entertainment and just plain idiosyncratic behavior. All places had to be of considerable quality, not just selected because they stayed open late or could be shoehorned into our schedule.

Pacing and layering would be important as well. Encounters with frenzied revelers would alternate with locations where quieter, more reflective moments were possible. Homage would be rendered equally to an anointed palace of high culture and a cramped jazz cellar neglected by the going-out guides. We hoped all our careful calculations would still leave room for spontaneous, bizarre incidents that make any voyage more memorable. Finally we chose a Saturday night for the great adventure, because we would need a full day's rest before setting out and another full day to recover.

SATURDAY, 7 P.M.

Our odyssey begins on the Upper East Side at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The huge main hall reverberates with a Mozart sonata from a string quartet hidden in the mezzanine above and the less sublime chatter of a very visible crowd below that is lining up for a Gauguin show. The Met is terrifically successful at drawing spectators to temporary blockbuster exhibits. But whatever hasn't been consecrated as must-see by the New York buzz tends to be sloughed off, including much of the museum's permanent collection.

This creates great opportunities for art lovers who want to luxuriate in virtual solitude. Until 9 on a Saturday night, it's possible to stand in front of a Velazquez or Rembrandt for a dozen minutes with few visitors in sight. What Joan and I have in mind, though, is to explore parts of the museum that draw few visitors during the day. Rather than meander aimlessly, we organize our very private tour under the theme of "residential interiors"--how the urban wealthy lived and entertained at home throughout the world and through the ages, achieving a calm amid chaos that many New Yorkers would find admirable today.

We start at the Nur Ad-Din Room, a reception space re-created from a 1707 upper-class house in Damascus. Here was truly an oasis. Residents and guests were isolated from the heat and noise of the streets in this serene, aesthetic setting of velvet cushions, marble floors and carved wood panels. The only sound was the soft, splashing water from a fountain. Filtered through stained glass windows, harsh sunlight became soothing and the room stayed cool even in mid-afternoon.

For a Chinese residence under moonlight, we visit a Ming scholar's retreat (between the 14th and 17th centuries). In a garden court with a bubbling stream and limestone boulders eroded into abstract sculptures, the master of the house and his guests sipped tea and dedicated poems to the moon. In the adjoining reception room, furnished with armchairs of purple sandalwood and wall panels inlaid with veined marble, the scholar sat on his couch reading, writing or conversing with visitors.

We wander through a late 17th century English bedroom, a French belle epoque dining room and a Colonial American drawing room. These spaces are spread across the museum, and we have to resist the temptation to be pulled off course by Monets and Manets, Medieval ivories and Renaissance jewels, Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, Maya and Inca ceramic figurines. We can spare the Met only 90 minutes because the rest of Manhattan beckons.

9 P.M.

We emerge from the Canal Street subway stop in Chinatown. When we were college kids, Chinatown was a mere 20-square-block triangle. But during the past several decades, the older Cantonese community has been joined by newer arrivals from Fukien, Hunan, Sichuan and other provinces. The neighborhood has burst its traditional boundaries and swallowed up almost all of Little Italy to the north and much of the formerly Jewish Lower East Side.

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