Photographing New York: Chinatown, Little Italy, and Nolita

Canal Street, Chinatown Photography, New York Photography

(This guide is part of The New York Photographer’s Travel Book, which is available as a free digital download.)

Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood is home to an estimated population of 90,000 to 100,000 people, and it holds the largest group of Chinese people in the Western Hemisphere. Chinatown began around the late 1800s on Mott, Mosco, Pell, and Doyers streets, just east of the notorious Five Points district.

Begin in Columbus Park, named for Christopher Columbus and built on what was once the center of the Five Points neighborhood, one of the most dangerous immigrant ghettos and made famous by the film Gangs of New York. Now it is a park where mostly Chinese people gather to hang out, play Chinese chess, and gamble on Chinese blackjack and Chinese poker. Besides the coldest days of winter and during dinnertime, people will be here playing games whenever you come. It is crowded on most days, but on weekends it will be packed. Outside of the main enclosure, there will be many people surrounding the chess tables and watching the chess players. Get close and watch. It is usually okay to take photos here politely of the tables with men. The tables with women do not like it as much.

Go into the enclosure and watch the gamblers. I suggest not taking photos here unless the situation is right. Everyone is nice and lots of tourists visit, but they usually have a quick eye towards people photographing. A good way to take a photo here is to sit away from it all on one of the ends for a while and to take a photo of the entire enclosure with everyone playing.

Columbus Park, Chinatown Photography, New York Photography

Columbus Park, Chinatown Photography, New York Photography
Leave the park and walk east to Mott Street, noticing the carved stone tenement buildings and the ornate fire escapes. On Mott Street is Shanghai Asian Manor, one of the best restaurants in Chinatown with the best soup dumplings. Walk half a block on Mott to Pell Street and then on Pell until you see the curved alleyway that is Doyers Street. Doyers Street is also known as “the Bloody Angle” due to the frequent killings among the Tong Gangs in Chinatown that lasted into the ‘30s. Law enforcement officials have said that more people have died violently on this street than on any other intersection in the U.S. On Doyers street is the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, opened in 1927 and the oldest dim sum parlor in New York. However, if you want dim sum, walk a couple blocks to Elizabeth between Canal and Bayard to Jing Fong, a huge dim sum parlor that feeds thousands of people in a fabulously chaotic atmosphere every weekend. Just make sure you get there before 1pm. On the Bowery by Canal Street is the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge pedestrian path.

Chinatown Photography, New York Photography

Walk a few more blocks to Mott Street between Hester and Grand, which is the main market street in Chinatown. The street is bustling all day until dinnertime. Take your time walking up and down both sides of the street, photographing both the people and the stands. There is a huge variety of food sold here, a significant amount of which I have never heard of. Try some of the dragon’s eye fruit. I promise it is delicious!

If you notice on the map, technically you are now in Little Italy. While it may be called Little Italy on the map, most of the Italians have moved away over the last 30 years, and much of Little Italy is now pretty much Chinatown. What is left is a five-block stretch on Mulberry Street that has become fairly touristy. Unfortunately, many of the restaurants (not all) have followed suit and the quality of the food has deteriorated.

Chinatown Photography, New York Photography

That does not mean it is not worth seeing. Head west on Grand Street and you will see Ferrara Bakery. While this bakery is now popular for its baked goods, that was not always the case. Many of these shops used to make their money from illegal gambling and activities in the back, and the baked goods would be a ‘come-on’ to keep people there and happy.

On the corner of Grand and Mulberry is the Italian American Museum with many old photographs from the neighborhood. Make a left on Mulberry Street and explore for two blocks to Canal Street as Italian men try to convince you to have lunch at their establishments. These are the two most beautiful blocks in Little Italy, and the most important aspect to pay attention to is the architecture of the detailed tenement buildings. While some of the restaurants have sold out, the buildings are still the real deal. Halfway between Hester and Canal is an empty alley, which houses gorgeous street art from many famous artists.

If you are in the mood to shop, turn around completely and walk north on Mulberry Street for five blocks to the neighborhood called Nolita, which stands for North of Little Italy. This neighborhood has some wonderful shopping from all types of clothing stores.

Make a right on Spring Street and walk a block, and you will see Lombardi’s Pizza. While they have very good pizza, it is not usually worth the long wait of tourists, but it is good. Make a left and halfway between Elizabeth and Prince Street will be the Elizabeth Street Garden, filled to the brim with old statues, busts, and people eating lunch. Make a left on Prince Street and walk for two blocks, where you will see St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, which has underground crypts that are home to many well-known New Yorkers. From here, if you have an interest at looking at some photography, the new International Center for Photography museum is two blocks east on the Bowery between Houston and Prince Streets.

(This guide is part of The New York Photographer’s Travel Book, which is available as a free digital download.)