Undiscovered New York: Times Square (?!)

Undiscovered New York is a series that investigates New York’s unexpected and off-the-beaten-path attractions. The places left off the “NYC tourist trail.” But like all good things, the series must come to an end. This week marks our final post. It’s not because we’re tired of the Big Apple – far from it. The effervescent shine and never-ending energy of New York will linger in our bloodstream for many years to come. But with the end comes a new beginning: there’s no better way to finish up than by helping visitors continue exploring this magical, one-of-a-kind metropolis on their own terms. And to prove it, we’re going to show how to visit one of New York’s most generic, overblown and monotonous tourist spots with fresh eyes. Lookout, we’re heading to Times Square!

Times Square is arguably New York City’s most famous tourist destination. Each day, thousands of visitors descend on this tiny pulsating strip of land, ebbing and flowing among Broadway shows and deep-fried chain restaurants, imbuing the area with a constant sense of energy. But this vitality has a way of robbing Times Square of all its fun. For an area that was once the city’s most notorious den of vice, it’s undergone a remarkable clean-up, morphing to a destination of squeaky-clean fun and glitzy nightlife. Yet for all these family-friendly charms, Times Square still retains vestiges of New York’s gritty charm and out-of-the-way attractions – you just need to know where to look.

Want to discover a forgotten gathering of magic and mystery in an old-school New York cafe? How about some of the city’s best BBQ north of the Mason-Dixon? Or perhaps some gorgeous vintage architecture from the days of old, hidden in plain view behind gaudy neon billboards? It’s time to leave your biases at the door – this week, Undiscovered New York is taking a fresh look at Times Square. Click below to see what we found…
The Magician’s Table – Cafe Edison

These days, magic is a dying art. The glory days of magic on Broadway are long gone and the craft has gone underground, finding favor at childrens’ birthday parties and the occasional Las Vegas casino. But if you’re looking relive the surprise and wonder of magic’s glory days, head over to Times Square’s Cafe Edison for the weekly Magician’s Table. The Society of American Magicians has held weekly meetings at this defiantly old-school cafe for over 60 years, dating back to the days when Times Square was a hotbed of New York’s flourishing magic scene. Magicians and regulars have been enjoying card tricks and the cafe’s top-notch Eastern European favorites like Matzo ball soup, Kasha varnishkas and blintzes for over 25 years.

Hidden Architecture
With all generic strip-mall restaurants and chain stores serving Times Square these days, it’s easy to forget the neighborhood is home to some of New York City’s most impressive architectural relics. Walk just a block or two from the frenzied movement of Broadway to corners like 46th Street and 7th Avenue, where visitors will find a the shocking remains of New York’s famous theatrical past, housing a facade with four statues from famous Broadway shoemaker Israel Miller. Just a few blocks south on 40th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue are the “40th Street Philosophers,” a group of incredibly detailed building sculptures hidden in plain view. For all the flashy digital signage and gaudy lights in the area, it’s surprising to realize there’s plenty of historic New York architecture if you just stop and look around.

Killer BBQ
You don’t have to head to Texas, Kansas City or North Carolina to get some of the country’s best barbecue. It’s actually found near Times Square at Virgil’s Real Barbecue, which has been dishing up down-home favorites like pulled pork sandwiches and chicken fried steak to patrons from around the world. Considering your average dinner in Times Square involves some kind of cheesy nacho popper or fried shrimp, Virgil’s represents a defiant culinary stake in the ground for anyone who cares about quality well-made food.

With that, our odyssey here at Undiscovered New York comes to a close. Over the past year, we hope you’ve had a chance to explore New York’s five boroughs with fresh eyes, discovering all this vast, multicultural, history-rich city has to offer. Hopefully the next time you find yourself in the Big Apple, you’ll step off that well-worn tourist trail and head off in search of fresh adventure. Because in a city like New York, you never know what might be waiting for you around that next corner. See you soon!

Do you collect souvenirs? Or “youvenirs?”

Upon returning from many trips abroad, I find I am unable to part with what many would consider the “garbage” that accumulates during your travels. I’m not talking about banana peels or tissues – more like readily disposable items such as mass transit tickets, nightclub flyers and entrance passes to monuments.

For example, I have a used subway ticket from Stockholm that I like to keep in my messenger bag. Or there’s the pack of playing cards I picked up in Buenos Aires. Each item is relatively mundane and not really worth displaying, yet it holds a highly personal story.

Every time I stumble upon these items again during my day-to-day life, it causes me to pause for a moment, remembering where the item came from and how I acquired it. For instance, I remember the 20 random minutes I spent in the crowded Stockholm subway station office trying to buy the tickets pictured above. Or that rainy day in Buenos Aires where we had nothing to do and decided to play poker, wandering around for about an hour in search of cards and trying to explain the concept of “playing cards” to local store owners in Spanish.

What do you do with these items? The more ambitious put them in scrapbooks, but I like to think of these disposable travel items as something altogether different – as “youvenirs.” What is a youvenir you might ask? For me, it’s any highly personal travel memento with little monetary value – that fleeting item that you’ve managed to hold onto because of a memorable experience or highly personal anecdote.
It’s for this reason that a youvenir is fundamentally different than a souvenir. Souvenirs are items you purchased with the intention of remembering and commemorating your trip – that beautiful colored glass bottle, an embroided sweatshirt that says “San Francisco” or a jar of Spanish olives you bought in Madrid.

I find myself collecting fewer and fewer souvenirs these days – there’s something about artificially buying an item just to remind me of a place that rings false. But a youvenir on the other hand is grounded in my personal experiences. As artists like Marcel Duchamp or Robert Rauschenberg have demonstrated, there is something profoundly interesting about everyday objects – something mundane and disposable yet incredibly meaningful depending on your personal context and experience with it.

I like to think that the more each of us travel, the less we acquire souvenirs so we can “brag” or give gifts to our friends and instead begin collecting youvenirs – items that have little monetary value but speak specifically to the unique emotions and experiences each of us attaches to travel.

What do you think about the concept of youvenirs? Do you have any memorable items you’ve acquired that would qualfiy? Click below to see our gallery of examples of “youvenirs” and leave some comments about your own favorite youvenirs below.