Lunchtime Walks in the City: TGIF Uptown

DukeWayA premonition of things to come…Duke Ellington Blvd.

If you’re not familiar with the locale of this street sign — it’s near West 96 St. — it was my departure point on Friday for my lunchtime trek. How did I manage that, you may wonder, being so far from my office building on 57th St.?

Well…I had the day off! Weekdays are such a great time to explore the city because the streets are so much emptier.

I took the F train to 57th St. and walked to Columbus Circle, where I caught the #1 train to West 96 Street.

Lucky me, this time I had a traveling companion. I’m so used to eating lunch at my desk before starting out on my walk. So it was a nice treat to actually stop for lunch and have scintillating conversation. The Mexican place we found, Cascabel Taqueria at 2799 Broadway, offered delicious options for vegetarians (namely, us).

Cacabel1The restaurant’s theme was Mexican Wrestlers. Nacho Libre!

We began our trek up my favorite thoroughfare, Broadway. Our plan was ambitious. The first destination would be the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It had been decades since my last visit, but the good feeling I had taken away with me that afternoon so many years ago still resonated.

At West 111 St., we stepped inside a community garden called “The People’s Garden.”

 PeoplesGardenSituated slightly off busy Broadway, the garden is open to anyone that passes by. I love community gardens. When I lived in California, I worked for a while as a reporter for a local paper. My “beat” was “gardens.” You couldn’t beat that with a stick. Hands down, it was my most favorite job ever.

Gardeners are delightful, peaceable folks with interesting and diverse backgrounds. They’re kind of like artists. They garden out of love (and generally scrape by running a nursery or working at some loathsome “day job.”)

GardenMemorialThis lovely memorial was also posted on their fence

BirdBathFor the epitome of simplicity, check out their birdbath

DogWalkersEven this seems better than my “day job”

St. John the Divine was close by, on Amsterdam Ave. Before we went inside, we walked around the Children’s Garden, which is adjacent to the cathedral. Small bronze relief sculptures were installed in the hedges around the circumference of the garden. Each was created by a different artist in homage to someone in the arts or person of good works. These two were my favorites:

BACHBecause I love the music of Bach and the sentiment inscribed thereon


DogNamedSueThis great piece of folk art. Note the inscription: “1805-1901 — Greek composer who wrote many songs.” And the right side depicts a page of sheet music, titled “I Have A Dog Named Sue.”

StJohnsGardenA view inside one of the gardens of St. John’s

StJohnD1One of several entrances in the facade of St. John’s

Before starting our walk, our reason for visiting St. John’s was to view an installation by South African artist Jane Alexander. However, after we entered the cathedral and paid the admission fee, the cashier asked, “Would you like to take the tour? It’s just beginning.” We said YES.

Our tour guide was an eloquent older gentleman who told us we were his only guests. A few minutes later, however, a sweet young Italian couple from Milan, joined in. Nonplussed, our guide welcomed them and started speaking fluent Italian, informing us and them that he had lived in Italy for 10 years.

There were too many highlights on this tour to mention. The guide discussed in detail the mixed-up architecture in the cathedral (a characteristic of most cathedrals, he added). St. John’s construction is half-Gothic and half-Romanesque. He compared the mixture to that of the duomo (cathedral) in Milan.

In a classic “6-degree-of-separation moment,” 4 of the 5 of us present on the tour had been, at one time, inside the exquisite duomo of Milan.

This is a tour for everyone, and especially those who embrace history, art and architecture, and humanism. The trivia concerning the cathedral, the philosophy behind it, and the original artwork inside (paintings, tapestries, sculptures, Asian ceramics…) — plus the many interesting personalities involved in helping the cathedral sustain its vision (“A house of prayer all all people, and a unifying center of intellectual light and leadership”) — is fascinating and enriching.

The design of the cathedral, as we were informed, was centered around the principles of  “sacred geometry.” The mystical numeral 7 plays a prominent role (as in the 7 naves, 7 trumpets, multiples of seven re the pipes of the organ, the seals on the floor, the chapels…).

In the funeral chapel sits a white piano once belonging to Duke Ellington, who lived uptown and worshipped at the cathedral. His funeral mass was held at St. John’s. After his death, his wife donated the piano to the cathedral. It gave me chills when our guide lifted the quilted blanket to give us a glimpse of the keyboard.

SEPT11This moving sculpture is dedicated to September 11th.

VOTIVESMarkers are provided to write messages on the votive candles


I need to mention artist Jane Alexander. The following is a sampling of her sculpture (which addresses themes of apartheid and bigotry, which, regrettably, is still very much alive in South Africa). It’s a haunting exhibition.



We thanked our wonderful tour guide and said goodbye to the Italians. After almost 2 hours on our feet, we were in need of sustenance and chairs to sit on. We bid adieu, by touching  (according to the artist’s original wishes), the elegant Nakashima prayer altar occupying a space near the front door.

Exiting onto Amsterdam Ave., we headed for The Hungarian Pasty Shop cafe across the street (how could we not?). Once inside, we figured out that it was a kind of hangout for brainiacs from nearby Columbia University. The atmosphere bristled with intelligence.


HUNGARIANInsideBehind the counter, where you place your order

The proprietor was a raven haired, somewhat intense, friendly women who (to borrow a line from Moonstruck) had “eyes like a gypsy.” We ordered one slice each of flourless chocolate cake made with freshly sliced bananas and topped with shredded coconut. It was amazing.

This cafe reminded me of cafes of older New York, maybe the ones you’d see down in the Village or in Soho before the mega bucks and designer stores showed up. The kind you don’t see around much anymore. At least, not here in the city. Which is to say, simple decor, no tourists, busy minds at work — basically, not a scene. In fact, this entire part of town feels that way. It’s great.

Sitting opposite me in the corner of the cafe was a rather tragic looking young woman:


And I couldn’t help but eavesdrop into the conversation of two bearded young men sitting next to me. One was a budding screenwriter. The other, possibly a writer.

Guy #1 (spiritedly) : I just got an internship at [such and such] company!

Guy #2: Well, I can’t imagine them getting better free labor than you.

Guy #1: Why, thank you. I take that as a moderate compliment.


For our walk back to West 96 Street , we chose beautiful Riverside Park:

 RVSideDown We descended into the park from the street

RVpromenadeThe Promenade

RVSoccerThe Soccer Field (Hudson River in the background)

TragerTerraceTrager Terrace

ViewFromTerraceOverlook from the Terrace

OnPhoneMy lunch companion taking a call

96StationFinal Stop — West 96 St. Station

96TilesHeins & LaFarge, who designed a beautiful ceiling segment of tile work inside St. John the Divine, were the same artists responsible for many of the ceramic motifs inside the New York Subway System.


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