In New York City, entire and distinct worlds are compressed into each city block. The sense of the block as community has been passed down among those who grew up on its stoops and balconies and ingrained in those who came from elsewhere, raised on pop-culture portrayals of the city’s neighborhoods as early as Sesame Street, as trenchant as Do the Right Thing.
When the photographer Chris Mottalini and I began a series exploring the five boroughs, we decided to whittle our focus down to five blocks. There’s no way the stories could be representative—in a city like this, that’s impossible. But we tried to find a block-size portion in each borough that would tell a larger story.
We started with a stretch of the Bronx’s City Island—the part of the borough that has been a destination for generations on weekends and for celebrations. Here, tucked away on a slim, sleepy street stacked with boats, a 135-year-old yacht club anchors a block split between its nautical roots and modernist houses, a place home to individualists of every stripe: artists, scientists, lawyers, bus drivers, film editors, fishmongers, electricians.
In Manhattan, we explored the homes of equally singular dwellers in I.M. Pei’s Silver Towers and the adjacent Brutalist complex, Washington Square Village. The dancers, architects, lawyers, and professors lucky to qualify for apartments here count as their neighbors NYU, Greenwich Village, and one of the only two outdoor Picasso sculptures in the United States.
This summer, a beautiful block party outside Louis and Lucille Armstrong’s beloved Queens home-turned-museum drew both jazz fans from afar and his Corona neighbors from down the street. As one put it: “Whenever I tell people that I live on Louis Armstrong’s block, they forget whatever they’re talking about and the conversation becomes about Louis Armstrong.”
On Staten Island’s Lighthouse Hill, we were drawn first to the elusive beacon that gave this neighborhood its name, and found ourselves exploring the wooded cliffs below, including the first example of Himalayan-style architecture in this country—the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art—and the fairytale-like home of the woman who founded it.
The only better way to see all of the city’s blocks is perhaps to run the length of them. The annual New York City Marathon travels 26.2 miles through all five boroughs, and the longest part of the route takes place in Brooklyn, where, like thousands of runners, we followed the joyous sound of the Total Praise Choir, which delivers its annual concert on the steps of the Emmanuel Baptist Church.
Here, our block-by-block trip through New York.—Rebecca Bengal
Writer: Rebecca Bengal
Photographer: Chris Mottalini
Editor: Sara Polsky
Photo director: Audrey Levine
Copy editor: Emma Alpern
Special thanks: Amy Plitt