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.
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.