Mercer or Wooster?

In City Form, New York City, A Sense of Place by Moi Nihalani2 Comments

In the last few months I have had plenty of opportunities to explain my city to friends who come to visit or who are going to study away in Madrid. And of course, I take out my map of the city, and with my fingers I start tracing my steps through the streets of the city. I find myself projecting myself and my choices onto their introduction to the city. I find myself suggesting to my friends to get to take an hour-and-a-half walk from Moncloa to Paseo del Prado, through calle de la Princesa, Plaza España, Gran Vía, Alcalá, and Retiro, encouraging them to get lost and find themselves again on the way. This long but straight (for the most part) walk, would probably take at least three or four hours in proper Spanish manner. A cup of coffee here, an ice-cream cone there, some reading over here, some day-dreaming over there. This personalised path includes parks, palaces, and museums, whole districts and landmarks. From my experience in European cities like Madrid and Rome, in which I find very pleasing similarities, landmarks are usually unavoidable in our meandering through the city.

Jardines del Buen Retiro de Madrid

In Madrid, this never troubled me as much because I felt like these landmarks belonged to me. In Rome, however, I wished they did, I craved an intimacy with them, but having to share them with all the other tourists made discomforted me because I was trying so hard not to be one. And they still kept popping up in my face wherever I walked in the centre, until I escaped. In New York, on the other hand, I find that was I to experience this problem, there is an easy solution. The reason for this I think is the grid structure of Manhattan.

When the days were warmer (and before I discovered the free bus ride to campus from where I live), I would walk to campus from Broome St. After a few days, I realised that by all means I had to avoid Broadway for the sake of a good morning walk. I used to briefly cut through Broadway on Spring St until I got to Mercer St, which I would take until I got to NYU. On the way back, I would take Wooster St instead because of the art galleries that inhabit the street and because of the Momofuku Milk Bar that make mouth-watering cornflakes-marshmallow-chocolate chip cookies.

Mercer Street, SoHo

I don’t know whether it’s because of the long zebra-crossing or because of my own preconceptions, but I always imagine a banner on Mercer St and Houston reading “NYU” (with Coles and Think Coffee lying ahead) which really is just the entry to Greenwich Village. The aesthetic differences northward and southward, the latter more industrial SoHo, of Mercer St and Houston, marks this edge in my mental map of New York. Whenever I go into the Think Coffee on Mercer St, I wonder whether the people unrelated to NYU present at the coffee shop want to be surrounded by college students, or whether it’s not that obvious to them. Perhaps we students do blend in the city well enough.

During my first semester of freshman year, I got to go to the Casa Italiana for my Intensive Elementary Italian, and while walking down Fifth Avenue, I got to see for five days a week a Greenwich Village that was less and less NYU with every step further away from Washinton Square Park. It made me think of NYU as a pocket inside Greenwich Village, overflowing with students and university-related people, while outside the pocket there was a continuation but a lot less dense, without the need for an extra patch to fit more people.


  1. Hello Moi!

    First of all, I like how you didn’t stick to only one city and yet you were able to balance generalities with specificity and detail. You talk about about Spain briefly but with obvious heart, passion, and pride, combined with the particulars of street names. Your criticism of Rome and Broadway, or at least your perceived disconnect, is something that I share with you. I have been a delivery person on foot during the summer at a restaurant that delivers to SoHo Broadway and I always took great care to avoid having to wade through Broadway’s crowds. My question then is: are there any places in New York where you feel a similar intimacy and sense of ownership that you express in your description of Madrid? Do those long meandering walks down the sidestreets of SoHo remind you of Madrid at all?

    Thanks for the good read, see you in class!

    1. Author

      Hello Dylan,

      Thanks for the compliments! With Rome, I think it is more about a feeling of frustration for having to share with the experience with tourists, while trying so hard not to be one. In the end, I found a solution to that, but that disconnect and disappointment was there at the beginning. Broadway, on the other hand, I always try to avoid. I talked to one of my friends about this and he explained to me about the restructuring of Paris and the building of avenues such as Broadway, with the idea of performance, where everyone is watched, what you wear, where you shop, and those kind of things. I really enjoy street performers and visual and moving arts, but as a way of life, living and walking in the city, I don’t think we need that. I think performance, like everything, has its place and its time.

      In New York, the only places where I feel that intimacy are more private, like the courtyard in the Casa Italiana or any of the Muji stores I’ve been in, perhaps because I am not from here and I accept that these things don’t belong to me, but honestly, it doesn’t trouble me as much. I think I get why walking through the sidestreets of SoHo could remind me of Madrid, because of the narrow, cobblestone streets, but I think the two places still have very different aesthetics and very different histories behind them.

      Thanks and see you in class!

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