Discoveries and Delights in New York City

SoHo cast iron district
Even areas such as the Cast Iron District in SoHo which may be well-known to locals can be a discovery for you if you’ve never been there.

New York City provides endless opportunities for discovery and delight. But on a recent trip to New York, three experiences stood out. These aren’t your typical tourist exploits, but deeper insights that emerged from seeing New York in a different way using principles from Hidden Travel.

The markers of a tourist versus a local

On this work trip to New York, I’ve brought my Lumix G-85 camera and a wide-angle lens. There’s always so much to photograph in New York that I find it worth lugging my camera with me, but I limit myself to one lens both for weight/space in my bag, and also for the creative challenge it provides. With this lens on, it’s not a big camera, but in today’s world, any camera with interchangeable lenses looks serious.

I’m standing on the raised platform overlooking Columbus Park, across the street from my hotel at the south end of Chinatown. Below me, there are scores of people playing poker, mahjong, or other games. Others stand nearby providing commentary (not all of it welcome) on the player’s decisions.

When taking photos of people, I usually try to ask first. But asking in this crowd would just interrupt the games and not be appreciated. So I take a shot from a distance capturing the entire scene rather than any individual before realizing that it’s not really that interesting a shot from this far away.

See what I mean about not being very interesting? There’s no real focal point. But at least you can get a sense of what the park looks like on a warm day.

As I do this, a man walks up to me and points at my camera. I’m expecting perhaps a scolding for invading privacy. Instead, he asks me if I’m with a newspaper. I say no, and explain, however, that I might use the images for a magazine or online article. “About what?” he asks. “Don’t know yet,” I reply. And because of his quizzical look, I explain that with freelance travel writing these days, the editors rarely tell you ahead of time what to write but decide based on the finished piece. I can see that my explanation adds about as much clarity as an IRS form preparation guide. So I change the subject and we have a nice chat about the neighborhood before we part amiably.

View of the Williamsburg Bridge (foreground) and the Brooklyn Bridge in the distance

Later that evening, I walk over to one of my favorite spots in Manhattan, the East River Bikeway. I didn’t have a specific destination in mind, but just kept going east from where I’d had dinner and arrived at this point just north of the Williamsburg Bridge.

From this vantage, Brooklyn lies across the water, aglow in the fading sun with the shadows of the bridge adding visual interest to an already lovely scene.

From there, I walk to the point directly underneath the Williamsburg Bridge on the Manhattan side. If you look up and look around, you discover hidden beauty on the underside of the bridge. It seems as if the Brooklyn Bridge gets all the love. I understand that because it is older and its stone towers are more unique. But the Williamsburg Bridge has its own appeal, especially if you examine it from different angles and follow it to where it starts on the Manhattan side.

New York's Williamsburg Bridge from the underside
Even the underside of the bridge is fascinating.
Underside of Brooklyn Bridge
Note that even this small pediment near the base of the onramp platform of the bridge has intricate details.
Tunnel under Williamsburg Bridge
Still underneath the onramp to the bridge and more interesting architectural features such as this tunnel.

I then walk past the local skate park, also beneath the bridge onramp, and pause to watch.

New York skate park under Williamsburg Bridge
The skate park under the bridge is several blocks in from the water.

I take a few shots and one of the skaters rolls up to me and asks what kind of camera I have. I tell him. I’m not sure it registers. But I’m not sure it matters. I think he’s just hoping I’ll take his picture and it will show up in a place where he can show others.

A half hour later, I head back toward Chinatown and Tribeca when two college-aged women approach me and say, “You have a camera so we figured you know the area. Is it safe?”

New York from near the Williamsburg Bridge
Some of the area around the Williamsburg Bridge.

Later that evening, as I stroll through Little Italy, not once, but three times couples from out of town approach me and ask for directions. Me. Not any of the dozens of locals around us. Me. Why? The camera.

When did having a camera around your neck make you NOT a tourist? And then it struck me. The only other person I saw with a camera like mine that evening was a guy who was clearly a dedicated street photographer. Otherwise, every tourist I saw taking pictures did so with their phone.

This is New York. And it’s a small sampling. But I find it fascinating that a “real” camera now is a marker of being a local rather than a tourist.

Public space is private space

Little Italy in New York
Is it a street or a dining area? In nearby Little Italy, it is both as is the case across the city due to COVID.

Earlier that evening, I’d dined outside on one of the tables set up on the sidewalk and spilling out into the street. COVID has clearly changed the landscape of dining locations. Eating out is easier. Driving down streets narrowed by the expanded outdoor seating is not.

I’m on a business trip to New York, so I’m eating solo when three young women sit down at the table next to me. The closest is maybe four feet away. Try as I will (and I did try, really), I can’t help but overhear their conversation as I eat. It’s a chat about the most intimate of subjects, topics I’d be embarrassed to share with my closest friends in private. But this isn’t “in private.” At least to me. But clearly, I’m not from these parts.

My friend Sara who used to live in New York told me something fascinating on a previous trip to the city. She said that people in New York rarely invite others to their homes. Apartments are just too small. So your entire social life is conducted in restaurants, cafés, bars, and other public spaces. You don’t spend money on interior design. You spend it on fashion because you wear your individual style rather than having people over to experience it where you live.

The table next to me isn’t a public space to the women sitting their sharing these personal details. It’s their living room. This insight changes so much of how I now understand and appreciate New Yorkers.

Outdoor dining area in New York's lower east side
The view from my table of another public/private space.

A bridge where you look inward rather than outward

The next evening, I’m tired from a long day of meetings, but hey, this is New York. I can’t just rest in my hotel room while so much lies outside my door. I decide to play tourist and head toward a different bridge this time, the Brooklyn Bridge.

Brooklyn Bridge
The approach to the Brooklyn Bridge from the Manhattan side.

Instead of going under this one, I’m going to walk across it. I’ve done this before on previous trips, so I figure the experience will be as novel as a subway ride to a regular commuter here. But it isn’t. Because walking across it at night reveals a whole new way of seeing and thinking about the bridge and your relationship to it.

As you first start to cross the bridge from the Manhattan side, you do notice the city around you. At night, you may not recognize all the buildings, but the brilliance of their lights still captivates.

New York from Brooklyn Bridge
View of the surrounding buildings as you start your way across the Brooklyn Bridge on foot.

But here’s what’s unique about the Brooklyn Bridge. First, it was an engineering feat in its day and its stone towers still intrigue, both architecturally and aesthetically. It’s just a beautiful bridge. And here’s why you notice that: The pedestrian walkway goes up the middle of the bridge. Unlike on most bridges such as San Francisco’s Golden Gate where the sidewalks are on the outside of the bridge, this one is in its center.

Tower of Brooklyn Bridge
See how you’re visually drawn into the first tower?

This means that all those support cables serve as leading lines for your eye to travel not to the area around the bridge, but to the towers of the bridge.

New York from Brooklyn Bridge
Shot from near the same spot as the above image but I’ve turned back toward Manhattan.

It’s almost as if you’re inside a large hallway rather than using the bridge as a viewing platform to the surrounding landscape. I can’t think of any other bridges where you look in and up rather than out as you cross.

Traffic on Brooklyn Bridge
Well, mostly you look in and up. But when you get to the tower, the walkway extends out over the traffic beneath.
East River view from Brooklyn Bridge
And yes, sometimes you do look out over the side, particularly when colors like these catch your eye.

And especially at night, with the towers of the bridge all lit up, you feel drawn to them. You are physically, mentally, and even emotionally centered in this bridge. And for however long you choose to linger, the bridge itself is your world.

Brooklyn Bridge walkway
There’s always something else to see as you cross the bridge.

What to do with this

If you’re headed to New York City, take in all the sights. But see what else you notice. What small discoveries and delights can you find? Pursue those moments that communicate far greater insights than they should.

Without being rude, listen in to the conversations around you. Notice what causes some people to be seen as locals and others to be seen as tourists. And take a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and pay attention to what you pay attention to. You’ll see—and appreciate—New York in a whole new way.