Lifestyle & Culture

Super Women: Betsy Takes Manhattan!

July 18, 2021

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By Nancy McKeon

MY FIRST QUESTION to Betsy Bober Polivy: Are those your feet on the cover of Walking Manhattan Sideways?

The answer: yes, followed by how she hunted down the most neutral, unlogo-ed sneakers she could find.

And it was those feet that have in fact walked Manhattan sideways. Sideways meaning the east-west streets designed to be important corridors transporting goods and people to the ships on the Hudson and East rivers that kept the city supplied and kept the economy moving.

Why would she do that? Inspiration struck years back, just a whim really. The kids were mostly up and out, and Polivy and her husband had moved into the city (as we natives of the other boroughs call Manhattan). A small-business owner herself—Polivy had owned Once Upon a Time, a children’s bookstore in Westchester, for a decade—she began noticing how the city’s side streets were jam-packed with little businesses. Not the flashy names that line the broad north-south avenues, but small, sometimes quirky outposts, often the brainchild and passion project for one family or even one person.

A light went off. Assured by her family that she wasn’t nuts, Polivy decided she was going to walk the side streets, learning about the businesses, including the astounding fact that many of them had been there for a quarter of a century or more. How to decide just how much of the island would be her goal? After all, over its 20 miles of length, Manhattan starts way down in the almost mediaeval mesh of streets that were the early Dutch settlement, below the wall that became Wall Street, and way up into the 200s, even poking a bit into what would seem to be the Bronx.

The answer was Manhattan’s 1811 grid—when city leaders decided to regularize street patterns for easier development. Just as the grid did, Polivy would begin at 1st Street and go as high as 155th.

First stop on this decade-long journey was Polivy falling in love with the small merchants and their stories. Next stop was her creation of a website, Manhattan Sideways (sideways.nyc). Again, her husband and the kids helped make it happen.

Manhattan is full of dogs and dog businesses, like Doggie Dearest, a groomer in the East Village (543 East 5th Street). “Walking Manhattan Sideways” lavishes attention on these small businesses, with lavish photos and a clear understanding of the enthusiasm behind each shop. / © Walking Manhattan Sideways.

Then Google, a newcomer to the Chelsea neighborhood where Polivy and husband now live, took note of the website’s offerings, especially its celebratory spirit. Would Polivy be willing to organize small tours of retailers and restaurants for the tech giant’s New York  employees? How do you say “yes” in html?

A book was always an ongoing project, says Polivy, but once the pandemic hit and life became touch-and-go for so many retailers, she decided the book had to come out ASAP. And so it did, published by the Polivy family—no waiting around for a major publisher to go through a yearlong cycle or more. Besides, she adds, the publishers she talked to had wanted it to be more of a travel guide; she wanted it to celebrate the merchants, not a visitor’s itinerary.

It won’t surprise you to learn that as a former bookstore owner, Polivy is selling her handsome paperback ($27) only through her website and in the city’s independent stores, even restaurants. That was a bit of a gamble, but the initial printing ran out in three weeks, with small bookstores frantically ordering more.

It also shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that there’s more: The Art of Walking Manhattan Sideways—featuring art galleries, music venues, theaters, museums and sacred spaces—goes to the printer next week and will be available October 1.

Until then, and until your own copy of Walking Manhattan Sideways arrives (quite possibly hand-delivered by Polivy herself), here are a few of the businesses Polivy features.

Sebastian Laws, shown above, is the youngest son of the original owner of Sutton Clocks, where timepieces range back into the 18th century. Laws’s main occupation isn’t selling clocks, though he does; it’s repairing them. The hardest to fix? Cuckoo clocks, he says, which serve better as tourist souvenirs than trusty timepieces. And note: The chiming clocks that cover the walls are intentionally set to different times. Otherwise, Laws says, there “would be a deafening roar.” Founded in 1966, Sutton Clocks is at 218 East 82nd Street in Manhattan. / © Walking Manhattan Sideways.

As “Walking Manhattan Sideways” demonstrates, there are diverse riches to be found in New York’s Garment Center, especially in its sub-section the Trimmings District. Lou Lou Buttons, established in 1988, is one of those treasure houses. Iranian-born Roz Farhadi, above, offers metal buttons, bone buttons, mother-of-pearl, plastic, wood, fabric, buttons for Broadway shows and the Metropolitan Opera. In the unlikely event he doesn’t have what you want, he can manufacture it for you. Lou Lou Buttons is at 71 West 38th Street. / © Walking Manhattan Sideways.

 

Even with gentrification, the East Village still has surprises, in this case latex clothes and undergarments for the kinkier crowd. As The Baroness told “Walking Manhattan Sideways,” “These latex designs are the perfect antidote for excessive conventionalism.” Indeed. For a few more days, until July 31, 2021, The Baroness can be found at 530 East 13th Street. After that, she’s packing up and moving to France, where she will presumably be able to spread her unconventional wings a bit more. / © Walking Manhattan Sideways.



3 thoughts on “Super Women: Betsy Takes Manhattan!

  1. Barbara Kreger says:

    I always thought someone should come up with a story about the little gems on the “sideways” streets, part of what makes Manhattan marvelous.

  2. Nancy G says:

    I’ve always loved the side streets of Manhattan. Now there’s a real guide. Thanks. Think I’ll order my own copy.

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      Nancy, i do recommend it! i’ve learned that Betsy goes to great lengths to make sure the shops and restaurants and bars that she includes on her personal tours (esp. for Google) benefit from welcoming the groups. it’s nice to see someone working hard to give back to the city, in such an unusual way!

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