New York on foot: Mott Street

Already walking the streets of New York is an experience in itself. Mondo picked three streets leading to the best places in Manhattan and Brooklyn, each worth experiencing. The narrow Mott Street is bursting with nostalgia and authentic flavors.

New York on foot: Mott Street in Chinatown
The characteristic New York fire escapes were only added to residential buildings in late 19th century.

LOCATED IN MANHATTAN, Mott Street offers a nostalgic glimpse of the New York that many of us know from movies and TV series. The approximately 1.5-kilometer-long street stretches from Chinatown to Little Italy and Nolita, connecting many atmospheric neighborhoods.

The best place to start is Chatham Square, located deep in the heart of Chinatown, where East Broadway meets Bowery. The best thing that Mott Street has to offer is food – and there is lots of it.

At the beginning of the street, you can find the Chinese Ali Baba supermarket that lures shoppers in with a mouth-watering array of fruits. Even the scent tells you that you are in Chinatown: the dried fish and mushrooms sold in the stores emit a pungent aroma that mixes with the scent of noodles sizzling on the street grill.

New and old restaurants stand side by side, and it is difficult to say which one is the best. One of the most popular restaurants in the area is located right around the corner, on Doyers Street. There is always a queue for Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which was opened in 1920, and for a good reason: the milieu is wonderful, and so are the dim sum. If you crave dessert, just take a few steps in the direction of The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. Go for an exciting ice cream flavor, such as lychee or durian.

New York on foot: Mott Street in Chinatown
Starry Yan and Blade Zhang live in Chinatown. Their tip for travelers: get to know the history of the neighborhood.
New York on foot: Mott Street in Chinatown
Chinatown’s grocery stores offer a variety of different fish, as well as inexpensive vegetable and fruit.

The curved Doyers Street is also known as The Bloody Angel. The gentle curves of the blocks once served as ideal hiding places for past-day gang members trying to avoid each other.

There is still a tunnel leading up from Doyers to Chatham Square. It is said that in 1909, a Chinese actor involved in gang activity escaped an altercation using the tunnel – but only by a hair. Nowadays, the tunnel hosts a diverse group of Chinese stores.

Most of the buildings on Mott Street are rental properties known as tenement houses. In the old days, the crowded lodgings were mostly inhabited by immigrants. The fire escapes, which are today seen as a hallmark of New York buildings, were only added during the 19th century in order to improve fire safety of the rental homes, which were considered dangerous to live in.

New York on foot: Nolita square
Estonian Erkki Engso sells accessories at the Nolita square.

After crossing Canal Street, you will start to notice Italian signs in between the Chinese ones. The strong scents fade into the distance. Chinatown turns into Little Italy, which then turns into Nolita.

Since the 1880s, Little Italy was inhabited by Italians. Nowadays, the only traces that remain from this tradition are the Italian restaurants and their barkers. The name “Nolita” is shorthand for “North of Little Italy”. The area is dominated by small stores, restaurants and bars.

On Mott Street, you can experience a bit of that old New York charm that many still crave today. At least here, not all buildings are covered with glass. Instead, there are handwritten signs, stalls and street sellers. People do not seem as busy as they do downtown.

But the further north you go along Mott Street, the trendier the surrounding businesses become. There is, for example, the Milk & Cream Cereal Bar that serves cereals around the clock. Their cereal bar features 18 different flavors, and you can also enjoy your favorite cereal in the form of a milkshake or a cereal infused ice cream.

New York on foot: Little Cupcake Shop on Mott Street
Little Cupcake Shop is known for its cupcakes and the Brooklyn Blackout cake, which was named after the power outages the city suffered during World War II.

At the corner of Mott and Spring, you will find Lombardi’s, which claims to be the first pizzeria in New York. True or not, the history of the restaurant stretches back to at least 1905, and the pizza is good – even though it’s not the best in town.

Mother’s Ruin serves delicious cocktails right around the corner. The bistro Rintintin next door shines with its flower decorations, rude yet oh-so-fashionable waiters, and its inimitable atmosphere.

Once you reach the next block, take care to not pass the best attraction in the whole of Nolita. Elizabeth Street Garden is an endangered sculpture park that offers passers-by a sweet, peaceful oasis in the middle of busy Manhattan. Between the rose bushes, you can catch a glimpse of a young couple on a date, and further back, an older man is rehearsing his arias.

Elizabeth Street Garden is an endangered sculpture park that offers passers-by a sweet, peaceful oasis in the middle of busy Manhattan.

The city has threatened to build apartments on the park plot. A mass movement has risen to protect the park, which is more than 200 years old. The fight over the park has been going on for years, and there is no solution in sight.

From the park, our journey continues to the wall of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where you can find a small artisan market. The market is open around the year from Friday to Sunday. Among the sellers, you can spot the Estonian Erkki Engso. Engso, who has called New York home for years, sells leather clothes that he designs and makes himself.

On Mott Street, the traffic is slowing down. A bridal couple in an old-fashioned yellow cab is about to arrive at the church. Even though the street is flooded with wedding guests and photographers, New Yorkers will not stop or stare. Here, small surprises are an essential part of everyday life.

New York on foot: Elizabeth Street Garden
Caroline Tisdale spends her coffee break in the Elizabeth Street Garden. The sculpture park is Nolita’s only park and a true lifeline for the community.

Visiting the Little Cupcake Bakeshop is the perfect way to reward yourself after you have finished your walk on Mott Street. The cake slices the café offers are huge, and there are various vegan alternatives available.

If you are looking for something slightly stronger than cake or coffee, Cafe Gitane is a good choice. The bohemian waiters and clientele offer an ideal setting for people-watching. The tiny Gitane always has a good atmosphere. The place is perfectly cramped, and their couscous is especially tasty.

Read also:

New York on foot: Fifth Avenue >
• New York on foot: Bedford Avenue >

Text: Liisa Jokinen Photos: Lina Tegman

This story was first published in Mondo's issue 3/20.

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