November 2002 -- In those first few grim weeks after the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, just about every family we knew asked themselves The Big Question: Does it still make sense to live in New York City? Not that we hadn't asked ourselves before--that always sort of went with the territory. New York, and especially Manhattan, is expensive, crowded, and sometimes hard to navigate even if you know all the secrets. In those haunted months of late 2001, it was awfully hard to remember why we had always before answered The Big Question with a resounding "Yes."
And yet, a year later, no one I know has moved out. No, we're not in total denial: If anything, New Yorkers' collective outpouring of kindness, generosity, and community spirit in the tragedy's aftermath made us feel even more rooted than ever. (That image of NYC as a cold, heartless urban jungle? Blown forever.) The T-shirt motto that started appearing everywhere says all you need to know: I STILL [HEART] NY. More than that: We still think it's the greatest place on earth to raise children.
It goes without saying that this is a city of unparalleled cultural richness, but what isn't so widely known is how much of it is accessible to families. In my New York years BC--Before Children--I did all the things folks think Manhattanites do: I went downtown to CBGBs to hear head-banging new bands; I did the standing-room thing at the Met and Carnegie Hall; I saw experimental theater pieces in dingy alternative spaces way downtown; I stood in line all day to get free tickets to Shakespeare in the Park. And granted, after my husband and I had our first baby, I thought my life as a Manhattanite was over. If ever we wanted to stay out late, we'd end up paying a fortune to a babysitter, and if we ordered tickets to anything in advance, we'd end up giving away our seats when the baby came down with an ear infection. We went out to eat as a family, but we stuck close to pizza, Chinese, and burger joints, where baby wails and spilled Cheerios would be tolerated.
Well, we've got three kids now and I've come full circle. I feel as though I never really got to know Manhattan until I began exploring it with children. We actually talk to passersby now--there's no better way to strike up conversations with New Yorkers than by the simple virtue of having a baby strapped to your chest in a Snugli. (Alec Baldwin actually stopped me to have a chat when he spotted my week-old daughter, Grace.) Taxi drivers, most of them immigrants from far-flung lands, teach us about their native countries and coach us to speak words in their own languages. Deli clerks slip us tidbits; greengrocers pop extra strawberries into our pint cartons. When we pass fire stations, we're allowed to go inside and climb all over the hook-and-ladder truck, not to mention pat the firehouse dog.
I used to rush around the city underground, crammed into the subway cars at rush hour; now we take buses at off-peak hours, peering out the windows as the city rolls past, or we stroll across Central Park, stopping frequently to feed ducks or watch the horses on the bridle trail. We still go to museums, but we go to the same ones over and over; I've been to the American Museum of Natural History at least 100 times, and I'm ready to go again today if the kids so choose. After much trial and error, we know which restaurants are kid-friendly and still manage to have palatable food for adults. (Along the way, I've learned to accept the idea that a toddler will be just fine if he eats only bread or french fries for 1 night.) We started grooming our kids early with children's theater and puppet shows and dance concerts, and now they're happy to go with us not only to Broadway musicals but to the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet. They'll have to see the head-banging bands at CBGBs on their own--and they'll probably be begging to do that all too soon.
Many families we know ditch the city every weekend to flee to a country house in the Hamptons or Connecticut, but we're rarely free to visit them. If we haven't got a soccer or baseball game in Central Park (or Riverside Park or out on Ward's Island), we probably have tickets to a show or concert or ballgame. En route, we may find ourselves wandering through a street fair, joining a nature walk in Central Park, riding our bikes along the Hudson River bike path, or threading our way through the glitz and glitter of Times Square. On weekends we take the kids on subways, which they happen to love--what's not to love about whooshing through a dark underground tunnel in an air-conditioned stainless-steel bullet?--because that's the best way to get out to the Bronx Zoo, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, or Shea Stadium.
The pulse and tempo of New York City can be dizzying at first if you're not used to it--I'll grant you that--but once you attune yourself, you'll find it tremendously exciting, even for youngsters. When my kiddos return to the city after an idyllic 2-week vacation at the beach, I've seen them stride down the sidewalks and look around eagerly, glad to be back in a place where there's something happening every few yards. They love the fact that when they go to a playground there's always someone else to play with. World-class museums are their after-school classrooms, where they encounter more art, science, and history than I'd been exposed to by the time I graduated from college. Central Park is their backyard, all 840 acres of it, and it provides them with nature ponds, tennis courts, horseback riding, ice-skating, and on and on and on.
Serendipity is the name of the game in New York City, all the more so if you've got kids. So many things are coming at you all the time, you can't help but stumble onto something interesting. Let me tell you about one Sunday we spent. Right after breakfast, from our own apartment windows, we heard via loudspeakers the pope--the pope!--saying mass in Central Park. Walking outside afterward, we saw legions of the faithful trooping home, festooned with pope pennants, badges, and memorabilia. As we rode the subway downtown, we had an earnest conversation about who the pope is and why so many people wanted to see him--that is, until we changed trains and got distracted by the guy who plays electric harmonica on the N/R platform in Times Square. We went on to a SoHo furniture store where we saw performance artist Eric Bogosian busy trying out the rocking chairs (my kids weren't impressed, but my 5-year-old admitted that Bogosian's young son's leather jacket was pretty cool). When we ran into Bogosian and Bogosian Jr. minutes later down the street at the Fire Museum, we all smiled at one another with recognition. ("Your kids bugging you to buy souvenir fire engines, too?" Bogosian's weary chuckle seemed to say to us.) Then on the subway ride home we sat next to actress Sarah Jessica Parker, who kept sneaking eye contact with our baby. By the time we got home, it was too late to cook, so we ordered in Chinese food; my older son, who we've nicknamed the Bok Choy Boy, snarfed down Buddhist Delight with his chopsticks like an old pro, while our toddler delicately dismantled an egg roll on her plate and smeared her face with cold sesame noodles. A whole family of satisfied customers.
We've come to realize that Manhattan isn't one monolithic city but an amalgamation of different cities sharing the same space. Just as the Alternative Art New York is worlds apart from the Wall Street New York, so is New York with Kids a quite different place from Singles New York--a sort of parallel universe, like the kids visit in A Wrinkle in Time or The Chronicles of Narnia. It just takes time to scout out the turf. I've been scouting it for more than a dozen years now, and yet there's always something new for me to discover--some fresh reason to proclaim I STILL [HEART] NY.
The Best Hotel Bets for Families
Most Family Friendly: The Doubletree Guest Suites, 1568 Broadway (tel. 800/222-8733 or 212/719-1600; www.nyc.doubletreehotels.com), not only provides standard two-room accommodations sleeping four or six, but also kitchenettes, baby equipment, childproof rooms, and a super toddler playroom. The hotel is busy developing a children's activities program as well, and you can just tell when you walk in that the staff is happy to see children. The Metropolitan Hotel, 569 Lexington Ave. (tel. 800/836-6471 or 212/752-7000; www.metropolitanhotelnyc.com), and Le Parker Meridien, 118 W. 57th St. (tel. 800/543-4300 or 212/245-5000; www.parkermeridien.com), are two more friendly Midtown hotels, both with essential child equipment on hand and welcoming packets for young guests.
Best Suite Deals: The Doubletree Guest Suites, 1568 Broadway (tel. 800/222-8733 or 212/719-1600; www.nyc.doubletreehotels.com), is a sensible family option, sleeping the whole crew in one unit for a relatively easy price. If you need a lot of space, any of the Manhattan East Suite hotels (tel. 800/ME-SUITE; www.mesuite.com)--the Surrey Hotel, 20 E. 76th St. (tel. 212/288-3700)); the Lyden Gardens Suite Hotel, 215 E. 64th St. (tel. 212/320-8022); the Beekman Tower Hotel, 3 Mitchell Place (First Ave. at 49th St.; tel. 212/355-7300); and six other Midtown properties--deliver a small apartment with a full kitchen for a reasonable amount of cash. In Midtown, the Roger Smith Hotel, 501 Lexington Ave. (tel. 800/445-0277 or 212/755-1400; Rogersmith.com), has some homey country-decor suites with lots of room for a fair price. The Embassy Suites Hotel, 102 North End Ave. (tel. 800/EMBASSY or 212/945-0100; www.embassynewyork.com), offers some very favorable rates on weekends for its roomy, sleek suites.
Most Peace & Quiet: It's all relative in New York, of course, but the Stanhope Park Hyatt, 995 Fifth Ave. (tel. 800/233-1234 or 212/774-1234; stanhopepark.hyatt.com), sits right on the cultured serenity of Museum Mile, and the Gracie Inn, 502 E. 81st St. (tel. 212/628-1700; www.gracieinn.com), is tucked away on an Upper East Side street near the East River. The Crowne Plaza at the United Nations, 304 E. 42nd St. (tel. 212/986-8800; www.crowneplaza-un.com), is your most serene bet in Midtown, sitting near the United Nations and residential Tudor City.
Best Views: Three downtown hotels feature dynamite New York Harbor views starring Lady Liberty and Ellis Island: The Ritz-Carlton New York, 2 West St. (tel. 800/241-3333 or 212/344-0800; www.ritzcarlton.com), wins hands-down for its glorious open westward views from a majority of guest rooms, but there are several rooms with great harbor views also at the Marriott New York Financial Center, 80 West St. (tel. 800/228-9290 or 212/385-4900; www.marriott.com), and the Embassy Suites, 102 North End Ave. (tel. 800/EMBASSY or 212/945-0100; www.embassynewyork.com). East River vistas and skyscraper skyline views are superb at the Millennium U.N. Plaza Hotel, 44th Street and First Avenue (tel. 866/866-8086 or 212/758-1234; www.millenniumhotels.com), while Central Park panoramas are worth requesting at the Mayflower, 15 Central Park West (tel. 800/223-4164 or 212/265-0060; www.mayflowerhotel.com).
When Price Is No Object: My vote goes to the Carlyle, 35 E. 76th St. (tel. 800/227-5737 or 212/744-1600; www.thecarlyle.com), for its dignified East Side calm, its well-nigh perfect service, and the spaciousness of its designer-decorated rooms, which really deserve to be called apartments. And since money is no object, make sure you get a suite with a Central Park view and a grand piano. The Four Seasons, 57 E. 57th St. (tel. 800/332-3442 or 212/758-5700; www.fourseasons.com), has a stylish Midtown address, sleek if somewhat small rooms (but then you're springing for a suite, right?), fabulous service, and a surprisingly kid-friendly gourmet restaurant.
When Price Is Your Main Object: Believe it or not, affordable--and clean--hotel rooms do exist here. In midtown Manhattan you can stay in any of the five Apple Core (get it?) hotels for right around $100 for midweek stays (tel. 800/567-7720; www.applecorehotels.com). Near midtown is Habitat Hotel, 130 E. 57th St. (tel. 800/497-6028 or 212/753-8841; www.habitatny.com), where you shack up from as little as $75--and it's right across the street from the building that served as Willem Dafoe's Oscorp HQ in the recent Spiderman movie. You can't go wrong with the Travel Inn, 515 W. 42nd St. (tel. 800/869-4630 or 212/695-7171; www.newyorkhotel.com), which delivers roomy, clean, fairly quiet motel rooms, plus a huge pool and free parking, for around $150 a night. Unfortunately, despite its unprepossessing location far to the west of the Theater District, it's booked up way in advance--the desk clerk laughingly told me people should call a year ahead to make a reservation. Families willing to sleep in bunk beds and forego en suite bathrooms should pounce on the very clean and safe, if somewhat spare, Vanderbilt YMCA, 224 E. 47th St. (tel. 212/756-9600; www.ymcanyc.org). If you head south, the recently built Howard Johnson's, 135 E. Houston St. (tel. 212/358-8844; www.hojo.com) is cheap, clean and ideally straddles the East Village, Little Italy and Soho--all neighborhoods worth exploring.
Best Lobby: You've gotta love the classic Art Deco lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria, 301 Park Ave. (tel. 800/WALDORF, 800/HILTONS, or 212/355-3000; www.hilton.com), with its marble-faced pillars, deep red-patterned carpeting, ornamental plasterwork touched with gilt and silver accents, and parade of neoclassical figures on the cornice frieze. Guests ensconce themselves in the plush armchairs, and Peacock Alley and Sir Harry's Bar open off to the sides; budding Eloises will be tempted to wander around all sorts of corridors trailing off to elevator lobbies, ballrooms and banquet halls, and classy shops. For hushed elegance and big-city buzz, it can't be beat. The Plaza, 768 Fifth Ave. (tel. 800/759-3000 or 212/759-3000; www.fairmont.com), rivals it in architectural detail, but the Plaza's lobby has one fatal flaw: There's absolutely no place to sit and drink it all in, unless you want to pay through the nose for a table at the Palm Court cafe.
Best Pool: The pool at the Millennium U.N. Plaza Hotel, 44th Street and First Avenue (tel. 866/866-8086 or 212/758-1234; www.millenniumhotels.com), has it all: views, cleanliness, handsome tile work, and not much of a crowd.
Best Fitness Center: The largest and best equipped are the health clubs at Le Parker Meridien, 118 W. 57th St. (tel. 800/543-4300 or 212/245-5000; www.parkermeridien.com) and the Crowne Plaza Times Square, 1605 Broadway (tel. 800/2-CROWNE or 212/977-4000; www.manhattan.crowneplaza.com). Both also sell memberships to nonguests, so people staying in the hotel don't have exclusive use of the facilities. If you do take your kids with you into the fitness center, don't let young children "play" on the exercise equipment; if they want to try to work out with you, make sure equipment is adjusted properly to their size and strength levels.
Best Room Service: The Surrey Hotel, 20 E. 76th St. (tel. 800/ME-SUITE or 212/288-3700; www.mesuite.com), has room service provided by Café Boulud, headed by master chef Daniel Boulud--many foodies claim his Restaurant Daniel, now moved nearby to 65th and Park Avenue, is the best restaurant in Manhattan these days.
Best Coffee Shop: I'm kind of partial to Raffles, the bright and cheery coffee shop attached to the Radisson Lexington New York, 511 Lexington Ave. (tel. 800/448-4471 or 212/755-4400; www.radisson.com), but the Crowne Plaza Times Square, 1605 Broadway (tel. 800/2-CROWNE or 212/977-4000; www.manhattan.crowneplaza.com), comes in a close second with its skylit Balcony Cafe, offering a hearty breakfast and lunch buffet.
Tops for Toddlers: When all is said and done, the Hotel Wales, 1295 Madison Ave. (tel. 212/876-6000; www.waleshotel.com), wins for its Carnegie Hill location, friendly staff, residential calm, and Puss-in-Boots theme. The complimentary continental breakfast buffet is another big plus when you've got a fidgety youngster. The Doubletree Guest Suites, 1568 Broadway (tel. 800/222-8733 or 212/719-1600; www.nyc.doubletreehotels.com), scores big here, too, for its suite convenience and toddler playroom.
Tops for Teens: Budding bohemians may want to be in Greenwich Village at the Washington Square Hotel, 103 Waverly Place (tel. 800/222-0418 or 212/777-9515; www.wshotel.com), while the athletically minded are likely to appreciate the fitness options at Le Parker Meridien, 118 W. 57th St. (tel. 800/543-4300 or 212/245-5000; www.parkermeridien.com). Trendsetters will gravitate to the way-cool decor and hipster cachet of the Paramount, 235 W. 46th St. (tel. 800/225-7474 or 212/764-5500; www.ianschragerhotels.com) or the Zen-like minimalism of On the Ave Hotel, 2178 Broadway (tel. 800/509-7598 or 212/362-1100; www.ontheave-nyc.com).