NYC: Soho, Little Italy & Chinatown walking tour 

With all my spare time whilst waiting for yet more paperwork to be read by various government officials, I have been to NYC quite often. I love wandering around aimlessly taking pictures, people watching & admiring the diverse architecture. It’s such an accessible place with so many transport options, it makes it a joy to travel round.  

The sheer number of attractions and activities the city has to offer is astounding. In my first week I jotted down a list of things I’d like to do in all 5 boroughs. I’ve been here almost 2 months now and I’ve barely scratched the surface! Every museum I visit convinces me to revisit, every green space I enjoy encourages me to stay longer & all my walking has taken me through neighbourhoods begging for me to return to explore further. 

Another wonderful thing about NYC (oh, there’s countless..) is that many institutions provide free day’s or ‘pay as you feel’ admission. Museums, libraries, botanical gardens, memorials, zoo’s, art galleries, breweries and that’s just a few examples. By researching these endeavors I stumbled upon ‘Free tours by foot’, a company who operates a variety of walking tours around NYC and other locations in the US on a pay as you feel basis. 

I chose this tour for no other reason than that I had liked the buildings in Little Italy on a previous visit and had planned to return. The list of tours on their website is extensive and diverse; food, street art, a range of neighbourhoods, several boroughs and central park. Our tour guide was Joshua, a native New Yorker and a very interesting guy. He was a history teacher for 35 years, travels extensively to unusual places and once walked the entire length of Broadway just for fun (13 m/21 km.) 

We began our walking tour on a noisy corner in SoHo. Our tour guide had purchased a microphone headset that very morning but had already managed to break it on his way to meet us. He was doing his best to compete with sirens wailing, jackhammers hammering and the intermittent screeching of the headset. To add to all that, a few members of our group were then accosted by 2 homeless men. Without skipping a beat Joshua welcomed us all to New York.

SoHo (South of Houston Street) now known for trendy fashion labels, grand cast iron buildings & high apartment prices wasn’t always so in vogue. Initially the land was given as a gift by the Dutch to liberated black slaves who established farms. The slaves were shipped over from Africa to build a wall to keep out the British who had settlements in the north at Boston and in the south at Washington. The wall was constructed along what we now know as the infamous Wall Street.

For a long time it remained fairly undeveloped due to natural obstructions but by the mid 19th century the street known as Broadway became home to department stores and theatres. SoHo soon became the entertainment district of NYC. On the other hand, this identity encouraged brothels to open up on side streets and it emerged as the red light district. The neighbourhood continued to down spiral and a large portion of it’s residents left to live elsewhere. Manufacturers moved in, followed by wholesaler’s and printing plants. By the 1950’s sweatshops had taken the place of the larger companies but it was deserted during the dark hours and known as ‘hell’s hundred acres’.

It wasn’t until the 1960’s that the government came up with a plan to offer artists the opportunity to buy or to rent the buildings for cut prices. They had huge open spaces with large windows which had been designed for manufacturing but would also be perfect for painting. The neighbourhood began to evolve, gentrification has continued and now an apartment averages at $15 million.

My favourite part of SoHo is without doubt the architecture. It has claim to fame of having the largest collection of cast iron buildings in the world. The original concept was to design the area to look like the Champs-Élysées in Paris to attract wealthy homeowners. Cast iron was chosen for it’s cheap price tag but also because It was adept for creating intricate designs. Most of the initial buildings were constructed between 1840-1880 but today new projects are modelled to fit into the neighbourhood. 

Little Italy is an interestingly strange place. Little being the operative word nowadays, it’s made up of just 1 street with 3 blocks. At it’s peak in 1910 there were 10,000 residents after the influx of Italian immigrants but due to crowding, families would often move out to the suburbs and other parts of the city soon after arriving. It’s shrinkage can also be attributed to it’s neighbour Chinatown who has been encroaching ever since the travel ban was lifted on Chinese nationals. 

Today it’s an eclectic mix of souvenir stores, restaurants & specialized deli’s with cannoli stands outside. It’s home to the first pizzeria in the United States (Lombardi’s-1905) and possess some of the oldest stores in the country dating from 1891. You could hear the disdain in our tour guides voice for this neighbourhood, it’s obviously had it’s day but continues on the charade for the tourists. Instead he recommended going to Little Italy in Queens for a more authentic experience or to Brooklyn for better pizza. 

Chinatown was the last section of our tour. By this time I was absolutely starving having reluctantly dragged myself away from several pizza spots only to be taunted with dumplings around the corner. You leave the main drag behind and feel like you accidentally ended up in Asia somewhere, this sounds cliche but that’s exactly how it was. Bent little old ladies with shopping carts, jade bracelets resting lightly on their thin wrists. Vegetable sellers stationed on corners occasionally shrieking out offers on strange looking produce. Turtles and frogs hunkering down in the market trying not to be noticed. Soy sauce and cooking oil wafting through the air mixing with cigarette smoke. 

There’s actually 9 Chinatown’s in NYC totalling to a population of 573,388 (2014), with the biggest one being in Queens. This makes NYC home to the largest Chinese community outside of China. Ah Ken was the first recorded Chinese man to come and settle in the US. He made his living by selling cigars and running a boarding house which catered for newly arrived immigrants. Many of the Chinese had come over to make their fortune in the gold industry, due to this there was a huge imbalance of numbers between men and women. The Chinese Exclusion Act was enforced in 1882 and not lifted until 1943.

Despite the sheer number of tourists and horrible, repetitive souvenir shops you cannot argue it is a great place to find some lunch. After the tour was finished I ended up in a restaurant with no windows, shared tables and quick service. One of the largest plates of noodles I’ve ever seen was plonked in front of me which I began to wade through as I observed an older lady opposite me. She had ordered a huge bowl of rice porridge, a plate of greens and some sort of egg-meat battered monstrosity. I thought she couldn’t possibly polish it all off but in the 30 minutes I was there she demolished it all like she was training for a weight lifting competition. 

I really enjoyed doing the tour, I learnt lots of historical facts and useless information which I absolutely love spouting to my friends. I would definitely recommend doing one of their tours if you come to the US! 🙂

http://www.freetoursbyfoot.com/