Where New York City puts its best foot forward

`THAT enfabled rock, that ship of life, that swarming million-footed, tower-masted, and sky-soaring citadel that bears the magic name of the Island of Manhattan.'' Thomas Wolfe's description of the heart of New York City in his novel ``The Web and the Rock,'' published in 1939, could have been written today. How does one get to know a city of this immensity?

A good start is to take a walking tour.

On any given weekend there are a variety of guided walks offered by organizations, companies, and individuals. Several are listed in New York Magazine under ``other events,'' or in the New York Times on Thursdays and Fridays. In addition, the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau gives free information on all aspects of the city, including companies that provide custom-designed walks.

One Saturday, after consideration of all the choices - Soho's Shops, Firehouses of Lower Manhattan, Movie Stars' Homes of the West Side, Murray Hill's Historic Landmarks - I joined the group tour to see the Art Deco buildings of 42nd Street.

The tour began in front of the Daily News building. After paying the $8 fee, collected by the Art Deco Society of New York, we split into two groups.

Our guide, Kyle York, explained the criteria necessary for a building to qualify for the Art Deco classification. It was perfectly illustrated by the Daily News building in front of us: Craning our necks skyward, we saw that it rose 16 stories from its base, then the mass was gracefully cut back to a quarter of the lot size. This became the requisite ``free-standing tower.'' Windowless stretches of brick, alternating with sections incorporating glass, added significantly to the necessary vertical feeling of zooming straight up.

An intricate design on the fa,cade of the building looked as if it had been cut by a laser beam. The sides were ornate as well - a characteristic of Art Deco structures. The style, mainly derived from Cubism, also borrowed elements from Aztec, Mayan, and Egyptian architecture.

Next, we visited the famous silver curves of the Chrysler Building. Mr. York told with enthusiasm how this shining, elegant, rocketlike structure met Art Deco standards. ``Certainly, there is no problem understanding this is a free-standing tower, because they got the corner site. It's what all the Art Deco architects wanted. If they couldn't get it, they'd make it happen by cutting in an alley or doing a little bit of trickery to fool the eye.''

Mr. York, charging across busy streets with the bravery only seen in a New York native - temporarily leaving a few timid types behind - led us to look at 10 Art Deco exteriors in all. We also visited several lobbies - when the doormen granted special permission.

York said the lavish detail so apparent in the construction of these buildings was affordable only because of the skilled immigrant artisans who came to the United States before the 1930s, when the style was popular.

After a few stops, we turned our attention to what was once the ``tallest building in the US,'' the Empire State Building. York told us wonderful stories about how the edifice got its ``hat,'' or very top portion, designed by architect William Lamb. He also told us about the B-25 bomber that crashed into the tower in 1945, during a blackout. Then he pointed in the opposite direction: 500 Fifth Avenue is almost a mirror image - without the top - and thus is nicknamed the ``Little Empire State Building.''

Three-and-a-half hours after beginning, we finished the tour with the original McGraw-Hill Building, unusual because of its green color. This is attributable to a tinted terra-cotta exterior. The interior is reminiscent of the old Flash Gordon movies, with lights circled with several parallel metal bands, like cylindrical Saturns.

The next day, Sunday, there was an even wider selection of walks. A morning tour called ``Archaeological Lower Manhattan,'' sponsored by the 92nd Street Y, sounded interesting - and perfectly suited to an early-afternoon train departure.

Karen Rubinson, a petite woman with a doctorate in archaeology, led us through the winding streets from Trinity Church to Battery Park. She showed a remarkable command of her subject - as well as her control over the intents of a watch vendor, when he tried to sell us wares that came from who knows where.

``The Indians used [these] islands as fishing grounds,'' Dr. Rubinson explained. Then came the Dutch immigrants, who built a wooden wall along what is now called Wall Street.

That wall was searched for, but never found, on the archaeological digs that take place whenever new buildings go up that require a building code variance. Searching through the remnants of long-forgotten cisterns and privies can provide valuable information about New York's earliest European inhabitants, who lived here back about 1625, when this area was known as New Amsterdam.

With obvious sadness, Rubinson pointed out some other buildings under construction right on top of remnants of that era - all legally, within the city's building code. She showed us a spot where most of a ship had to be left beneath a newly paved street; archaeologists were able to excavate only the prow in the time allotted them to do the job, she said.

Our group tour ended at South Street Seaport, where most of the ``finds'' are kept in its museum.

This walk took a little under two hours.

If you go

There is a varied assortment of walks throughout the summer and into the fall. A few tours are offered during the winter. The Art Deco tours are in May and September, the archaeology tour in May.

On sunny days it would be a good idea to bring a hat and sunglasses. It might be wise to check whether a rest stop or facilities are provided along the way.

To learn more about New York's theater scene, this writer recommends ``Backstage on Broadway,'' a theater tour given Monday through Saturday mornings.

If none of the scheduled group tours fit with your visit in the city, there is the option of purchasing audio walking-tour tapes for a self-guided tour at your own pace.

Guide to walking tours

Several organizations offer regular New York City walking tours. Among them:

The 92nd St. Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10128. Phone: (212) 427-6000. Tours range from $8 to $13.

Municipal Arts Society, 457 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022. Phone: (212) 935-3960. $12.

Museum of the City of New York, Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street, New York, NY 10029. Phone: (212) 534-1672. Sunday tours, fee from $10.

New York Walks, the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West at 77th St., New York, NY 10024. Phone: (212) 873-0125. Sunday tours, $10.

Walk of the Town, 280 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10025. Phone: (212) 772-5927 or (212) 663-2174. $8.

Specific location tours

Art Deco Society of New York. Phone: (212) 925-4946. $8.

Park Rangers Tour of Central Park. Every Sunday at 2 p.m. Phone: (212) 397-3080 or (212) 397-3081. Free.

Backstage on Broadway: (212) 575-8065. Fee is $6. Cassette tape tours

Talk-a-Walk Tapes, Sound Publishers Inc., 30 Waterside Plaza, New York, NY 10010. Phone: (212) 686-0356. Cost is $9.95 each, plus $2 mailing charge.

Pathfinder Productions Inc., Box 3426, Noroton, CT 06820. Phone: (203) 854-0880. Tapes priced at $10.95, plus a $1.50 mailing charge.

For more information on New York City including sources of specially tailored or self-guided walking tours: New York Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc., Two Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10019. Phone: (212) 397-8200.

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