People who live in New York might agree that there is very little reason to find yourself between Fourteenth and Forty-Second Streets unless you absolutely have to. Go past Union Square, and you’re liable to bump into everything from confused tourists to people selling knockoff Louis Vuitton and Fendi bags worse than the ones you can purchase on Canal Street in Chinatown. The twenties into the thirties can look like a never-ending row of scaffolding at certain stretches, with C-grade delis and fast food chains hidden beneath, leading you finally to the terrifyingly bright lights of Times Square.
For the better part of the decade in which I’ve lived in New York, this experience is probably what has kept me from the middle of the city. But when I moved from Brooklyn into Manhattan, and started taking daily walks up the various avenues from the West Village to an office on Twenty-Eighth, I began to learn the history of certain buildings I passed along my way: admiring the townhouse at 28 E. Twentieth Street where President Theodore Roosevelt was born; the splendor and history of Gramercy Park; the row of buildings in the Flower District that seems unremarkable, until you realize that this block of Twenty-Eighth between Fifth and Sixth was once known as Tin Pan Alley, and filled the American Songbook. With each block, the twenties became more and more magical, especially on the days when I managed to avoid the crowds scuttling down the sidewalks—those less hectic New York days when I could look up and admire the various gargoyles and the golden dome of the Sohmer Piano Building. The architecture of the twenties distracted me from my daily grind, but it was on an evening trip to the grocery store that the area I once shunned suddenly took on an entirely new meaning. That night I noticed the red plaque on a doorway next to a Starbucks at 14 W. Twenty-Third Street that read, “This was the childhood home of Edith Jones Wharton, one of America’s most important authors.”