The Aesthete

Midtown Mystery

With the addition of 6 1/2 Avenue, the West 50s finally get a little weird

by Sarah Nicole Prickett Photography Alex John Beck

Midtown is an unlikely place for enchantment. It teems less with life, more with routine. Every store looks like a corporation. Every cab is occupied. Everybody dresses appropriately, except for the tourists, who dress like they lost a poker game at summer camp. Once, I paid $16 for cigarettes at a newsstand up here. Midtown is why your parents used to love New York and now won't even visit.

It's where you go when you're not going anywhere.

And yet, a month or so ago, there was a mystery in the middle of Manhattan that would’ve made Woody Allen proud. The story involves a raggedy old man, a subway, a cryptic note, a recipient who also happened to be a Reddit user and a crack team of Internet addicts who solved the code, but not the mystery. On Thursday, July 12th, a crowd of 200 formed around the no-longer-secret location. At last, the Reddit user/recipient — whose handle was actually “delverofsecrets” — appeared. Whomever he was to meet did not. (Check out the full story here.)

Can you believe that shit? Of course you can, or should, because it's good to believe until proven gullible. Some commenters called it a viral marketing scheme gone awry, but I'd rather think there are some genuine super-weirdos left on the uptown D.

In any case, I'm not interested in solving for X. I just love the spot it marked. The code that Reddit cracked led to a new, bizarro and, yes, enchanting address: 6 1/2 Avenue. Not Sixth Avenue, not Seventh, but Six and a Half, a new causeway for pedestrians, office workers, mystery-seekers, great compromisers and confused Fellini fans that runs from 51st to 57th Streets. It was the first I'd heard of it, and as I sit here writing, that was six and a half weeks ago to the day. See? Finally, something is strange in midtown, even if it's only less than a half-mile long.

It bears investigating.

On the Friday morning Alex and I arrive to shoot photos and do interviews, Rockefeller Center feels in near-lockdown mode. There are cops at every subway exit. It's 9:30 a.m., and by the time I reach the foot of 6 1/2 Avenue at 51st St., Twitter is all choked up with the news of a shooting 17 blocks down, near the Empire State Building. Then it’s not a shooting, but a mass shooting: two dead, nine wounded. Moments go missing as men who mill around us ask what's happening, as though my phone might be smarter than their phones. The daylight is — they always say this — broad. I'm suddenly concerned about walking up to strangers and asking if we can shoot them for a magazine, even if the weapon in question is a Nikon. But another twenty minutes and two cigarettes go by, and the shooter is dead. Soon it is business as always.

A brief, horrible thought: Maybe it's not crowded enough here for a shooting.

Or: Midtown must be the place where people most trust police.

There are no first dates here. If there are lovers they're acting like cheaters: straight-faced and recently washed.

All six blocks constituting 6 1/2 Ave., a collection of alleyways that was renovated by the Bloomberg administration before officially getting its own street sign in July, are owned by private businesses. There is glass, but there are no windows: “The true has no windows,” Walter Benjamin wrote of the arcades in Paris. “Nowhere does the true look out to the universe. And the interest of the panorama is in seeing the true city, ‘The city in the bottle,’ the city indoors. What is found within the windowless house is the true.”

There are more corporate men and women here than you can shake a rolled-up Financial Times at: the men in square shirts, often colored mint and lavender and schoolboy blue; the women in slingbacks and blazers, but over feminine shirts that suggest the possibility of after-work rosé. Also, there are hotel maids and janitors and security guards. There are couriers and cooks. Even the tourists have their standard-issue uniforms of new T-shirts and practical footwear, although there aren't so many tourists yet. When they come, they take photos of the elephantine bronze sculptures between 51st and 52nd Streets, or the murals between 52nd and 53rd, not realizing or caring that like most public art it's also corporate art.

It's easy to spot the people who don't come here every day: the German tennis players in off-duty sport casual, the two panther-legged women in espadrilles and sundresses with matching yellow sweaters or the stoned teens loitering for kicks. They're in the uniforms of other worlds. They stroll through bemusedly, as if this is a tiny, no-stoplights town, an off-highway curiosity. It does have that feel, despite the bigness that owns and surrounds it. It's a non-place. You can just pass through.

"There's a restaurant, Remi, that doesn't get more than a third full. Even in businessland the white tablecloths bore."

If there is one place worth stopping, it's Myzel's, run by chocolatier, licorice connoisseur and neighborhood enthusiast Kamila Myzel. “Bloomberg has a lot of ideas,” says Myzel, an ebullient busybody who knows the name of every UPS driver who passes. “Some work. Some don't. The business owners who drive did like this idea, but it has been very good for my business. Many older people and people with children who were afraid to walk down the cross streets before come here now.” Later, she asks us what we know about the shootings. We say nothing. “There are shootings every day,” she says, “it's just that they are in the Bronx and in Bed-Stuy.”

At lunch hour, class is visible and divisible by the bags in which busy workers carry their lunch: brown paper (Whole Foods, indie gourmet markets) versus plastic (convenience stores, or maybe leftovers from the fridge). Between 53rd and 54th there's a restaurant, Remi, that doesn't get more than a third full. Even in businessland the white tablecloths bore.

There are no first dates here. If there are lovers they're acting like cheaters: straight-faced and recently washed.

After lunch the smokers come out. At 57th St., a lanky guy with a Gallic tan and “Teenage Jesus” hair carries on a five-cigarette phone conversation. He's wearing hand-weathered jeans, a green bandana as a bracelet and a pinky ring. He looks misplaced from Nolita or the West Village or wherever dirty rich French people live. But no, when he's finished he disappears into the obsidian glass of the nearest enterprise. Is he an actor? A corporate artist? I want to follow him, but then remember my thesis about mystery. Better to leave it.

At 53rd St., a beautiful Korean girl cools her feet half out of her five-inch heels, while a ginger boy, almost manlike in maybe his first real suit, plays iPhone games with the concentration of a day trader. At 52nd a super WASP in pearls, kitten heels and honest-to-god tweed walks with a man who looks imminently divorceable.

The office day is not over, but we decide to stop, I think, just because we can. By the time I get home it has been discovered that police shot all nine of the wounded bystanders. There was no mass shooting. The midtowners were right to not seem afraid, but they were also very, very wrong. In Bronx or Bed-Stuy the bystanders would know better about the cops.

The last woman we stop and snap turns out to be Roberta Myers, editor-in-chief of Elle. She is wearing a Calvin Klein peach-skin sheath, Tom Ford sunglasses and — endearingly — flip-flops.

"These are the real New Yorkers," says Myers, "because not everybody knows about this yet."

She means Manhattanites, of course.