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April 18, 2015

New York: The Other Madison

Text by Geeta Rao

Made famous by America’s advertising boom there is more to New York’s Madison Avenue, like Pierpont Morgan, Proenza Schouler and a leaky tap amongst other things, says Verve

It is 6 a.m. and severely jet-lagged and bleary eyed, I have placed a kettle of water on the gas for a cup of tea. The gas range is making ominous clicking sounds with metronomic frequency. I have turned and twisted all the knobs in sight but there is a worrying buildup to the clicks that convinces me an explosion is imminent. Thoughts of inadvertently blowing up a building on my first day in the country cross my mind. I call the doorman. New York apartments are divided into a strict hierarchy — with doorman/without doorman. If you are lucky to be in a ‘with doorman’ apartment then you are blessed.

Don the doorman is clearly quite used to this misbehaving gas range. He has other secrets to share. The flat above he tells me conspiratorially had an overflowing sink for 10 days. These are old buildings. That explains the gas versus electric top. Reminds me of home. With some expert twists and thumps he has the gas knob and flow control. But I am not ready to test the waters yet so I head out for some fresh air. I need an extra strong coffee now for my jangled nerves but I tell myself this is wishful thinking at 6 a.m. One block away I arrive at Starbucks and see a queue snaking outside. The line increases exponentially. Shift workers, corporate types, bankers, everyone hops off a train and gets to Starbucks for their giant java fix and breakfast before heading out to work. This pre-dawn rising ritual is commendable even for a city that never sleeps. New York gets to work early! This morning I am really glad it does – I need that coffee.

I am at a co-op in a by-lane off 37th Street and Madison and I soon become a Madison Avenue loyalist. At 37, you get home delivery. D’Augustino will send you your organic fix of veggies and fruit. Yes, bhaajis at my doorstep. The 24-hour Korean stores will deliver. Mapu Tofu, my favourite Chinese takeaway will deliver. The 24-hour CVS pharmacy down the road will deliver. This beats Mumbai and its delivery service. Theresa, the cleaning lady arrives once a week armed with some impressive looking cleaning equipment and impressive track pants. But her cleaning is globally integrated. It is not very different from that of Koynabai in Mumbai – great shortcuts, dust swept under the carpet literally and some rather dodgy stains on glasses. Then there is Don the doorman, who collects parcels, vets visitors and keeps the takeaway in case I am out. And he is right about old buildings. One week later the sink overflows. I am home.

On the other hand so what if I have a leaky tap and a temperamental gas top. I live diagonally opposite the home of America’s richest man. Correction, the man who was once the richest man in town. The Morgan, once the home of Pierpont Morgan at 36th Street is a must-visit museum.

I like homes converted into museums because they always reveal the quirks of the owners. See it as much for its architecture that speaks of New York’s Gilded Age as for an enviable collection of books and art – the Gutenberg Bible, a 17th century edition of the complete works of Shakespeare, Thoreau’s journals and works of 20th century American writers. Pierpont Morgan came from a rich banking family and yes, J P Morgan bank is named after him. In the 1900s he amassed a fortune that he spent wisely on an enviable book collection that charts the history of book binding, stunning illuminated medieval manuscripts and outstanding art. Much of his collection has been gifted to the Metropolitan Museum but an interesting mix remains here at the Morgan, especially the books. The museum has a modern extension added on by the famous architect Renzo Piano. I love walking around just for the architectural details but ending up in Mr Morgan’s library and den where the great deals of banking were struck makes me feel closer to the seat of power.

Madison Avenue runs parallel to Fifth and Park avenues. It used to be the place for advertising agencies to cluster and became synonymous with the advertising boom in America. Watch Don Draper do the throwback adman thing in the television series Mad Men and you will get the point that those were good times. Most agencies have moved out now but it continues to be a delightful place to shop, see old brownstones and pretend-live the life of the rich and famous. Touristy Fifth Avenue may have Bergdorf, Bloomingdales and the Plaza, but snootier Madison has Barney’s, Hermes and until very recently the Whitney Museum of American Art which has just moved to the High Line at Chelsea.

It also has very chic, standalone luxury stores that are worth a look. Walk from the sixties to the eighties and you see Valentino, Proenza Schouler, Alexander McQueen, Lanvin, Lieve and Graf. Ralph Lauren is spread over four floors at the historic Rheinlander building. I window shop literally — the window designs are often so inspired that they are an art walk themselves. The Sundaram Tagore gallery where my ex-colleague and yes, adman Probir Purkayastha had a recent photography exhibition and the Gagosian Uptown gallery are both here too. Drop in for coffee at the chic Nespresso boutique bar at 786, where stunningly dressed women and their lap dogs come out to play at mid afternoon. Or brunch under Serafina’s yellow umbrellas at 1022. There is the posh Mark Hotel at 77th Street to buy your mid morning espresso or your own hotel residence if you so desire.

M4, M5 and M6 from the Morgan served as my hop-on hop-off guides to Madison Avenue. They run one way down the length of Madison until they merge into Spanish Harlem. In New York everyone takes the subway. Grand Central is a two-blocks walk away from me. But, hey I tell hardened New Yorkers, I like trundling buses that let me see buildings and sights. I learn my lesson though. Hopping onto a bus to get to an appointment at 101st Street I think will be a cakewalk. It is a straight road down on M4. But it takes an hour and a half with traffic and a stop every block or so it seems. I blow my appointment and learn what every New Yorker knows. When in doubt dive into the subway. It takes me six minutes on the way back. On the subway.

A great place for shortcuts is 37th Street and Madison. Cut across the street at 42nd onto Fifth Avenue and you come up to the magnificent New York public library and Bryant Park, the place to eat your gluten-free wrap in summers. Ess-a-Bagels my go-to-place for my ‘everything’ bagel with a tofu cream cheese ‘shmear’ is a short walk at 57 and 3rd. Buzzing K- town with rows of psychic healers, trendy beauty salons (remember the Koreans gave us BB cream) and food to die for is close by at 33rd and 6th. Despite my love for beef bulgogi and all the fish and fowl I savour at various K-town eateries, vegetarian organic Hangkawi proves a tough act to beat. I don’t really miss Indian food but am prepared for the time I will. Fortunately, Indian restaurants cluster around 29th Street and Lexington. Every Indian in New York has a favourite Lex place though Sarvanna Bhavan comes up quite often.

Walking is the New York thing. New Yorkers are formidable walkers and formidable jaywalkers as well. But only a New Yorker knows how to time the latter perfectly and confidently. One day, feeling like a New Yorker, I try walking 30 blocks from 64th Street back to 37th Street. My Indian heels give up halfway through and I dive into Clarke’s to buy sensible walking shoes — I ruefully conclude I am nowhere near being a New Yorker.

From the Upper East Side to midtown are two contrasting worlds each with its own character. Away from the posh eighties there is Madison around the twenties and thirties with old buildings, beautifully restored hotels, stores selling rare books and small delis.

Madison ends around the twenties at Madison Square Park, a place to sit and watch the world go by or take in architecture of the Met Life building across the street. Part of the Gilded Age, it was modelled on the Campanile or tower in Venice’s St Mark’s Square and if you throw back your head you can see the gold top and four clock faces. It yields here to NoMad an acronym for North of Madison Park. This is an area that includes the Flatiron building (the building that features on every NYC postcard) and bits of Broadway.

NoMad is the newest offering of New York’s love for poetic acronyms. There is Tribeca (Triangle below Canal Street ),SoHo ( South of Houston),  DUMBO  (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass)  NoLIta ( North of Little Italy) and even an Alphabet City ( A,B,C D Avenues in the East Village).

But NoMad’s Land and Alphabet City are part of another tale.

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