Manhattan Sideways is an online platform highlighting new, unique, and wonderful spaces on all of Manhattan’s side streets. The initiative has told countless stories of small businesses in Manhattan and served as a delightful guide to the city’s hidden gems.
We recently spoke with Betsy Bober Polivy, founder of the website Manhattan Sideways and author of the book Walking Manhattan Sideways about how she got this initiative started and how it has evolved over time.
We also talked about their new podcast series, where we hear heartwarming stories, the experiences and the joy from small business owners, and learn about the history and character of the people and places that make up the fabric of New York.
From the day I took my first steps on 1st Street, I knew that my primary goal was going to be to meet the small business owners, and share their stories.
Betsy Bober Polivy, Founder of Manhattan Sideways
Tell us about the Manhattan Sideways initiative.
What began as a whimsical idea, crisscrossing the side streets of Manhattan, quickly developed into Manhattan Sideways. I intrepidly began in 2011 and completed my journey six years later having walked the entire original Manhattan Grid – from 1st Street to 155th – from the East River to the Hudson. I am an ordinary New Yorker who has been on an extraordinary adventure, documenting every shop, boutique, church, synagogue, restaurant, bar, garden, hotel, gallery and so much more. From the very beginning, my aim has been to highlight the hidden gems of the side streets – giving them the exposure that they do not always receive. Along the way, I have had the privilege to glimpse into the lives of thousands of New Yorkers and became passionate about the need to recognize and promote these small businesses.
How has Manhattan Sideways evolved over time?
As I continued to work my way north, I was always going back to each street to discover what had changed. Sadly, many businesses, over the years, have come and gone, but it was also fun to seek out the brand new places. Each summer I would hire college interns who would re-walk every street with me as we were always trying to keep the site as up to date as possible. I have conducted thousands of interviews with the business owners and have had the pleasure of sharing their stories on the website alongside beautiful photographs. It is my true hope that someday soon I will be able to be back out there and begin on 1st Street again greeting everyone who has survived and meeting those new business owners who have been brave enough to open up a new business during these last several months.
(...) When my husband and I became empty-nesters, we made the decision to move back into the city, and we could not be happier. For a very long time, walking the side streets of Manhattan was just a concept going around in my head. Until one day, we were gathered around the table with our son and daughter, and I mentioned my idea to them. It was Evan and Joelle who literally took Manhattan Sideways and ran with it. They are completely responsible for making my dream into a reality. From designing and developing the site through their company, Polivision, to their editing ideas, photos, filming and content management, they have stood behind me and made this site all that it is today. And it was my niece Melanie who began this journey with me at 1st and 1st. Her insight, resourcefulness, support, and enthusiasm keep us moving north.
Betsy Bober Polivy, Founder of Manhattan Sideways
What are some new projects you have been working on?
Two years ago we began doing podcasts. There are now 44 completed. The primary focus has been to allow the business owners to share their own stories – the history behind their business, what inspired them to open, or to take over from a relative, to leave the financial world and follow their passion. Each interview is filled with terrific questions followed by funny and emotional responses.
Simultaneously, I have been working on Walking Manhattan Sideways. The concept of a book was always in the back of my mind. I just wasn't certain how it would look. My mom is an accomplished biographer and I owned a children's bookstore for ten years, so, for me, books have always played an important role in my life.
From the day I took my first steps on 1st Street, I knew that my primary goal was going to be to meet the small business owners, and share their stories - first it was on the website, and then when I completed my walking at 155th Street, my husband was the one who said to me that it was now time for me to memorialize my journey. It was then that I seriously contemplated a book. With thousands of stories to tell, I decided that I should focus on the businesses that have stood the test of time - those that have been around for decades... And, here we are several years later – in the middle of Covid – and I was able to self-publish Walking Manhattan Sideways.
How did you adapt to the pandemic?
Throughout the 2020 pandemic, I continue to be a dedicated advocate for Manhattan’s side street businesses. The book pays homage to those that have stood the test of time as well as those that were unable to endure the devastation of Covid. Each of the featured businesses has a history firmly rooted in New York. Whether their longevity is due to grit, family ties, or something else that has enabled them to withstand the challenges of owning a small business on the side streets of Manhattan, they deserve to be celebrated. Walking Manhattan Sideways is not meant to be a travel guide, but its treasure trove of stories will spark the adventurer in all of us to explore Manhattan’s side streets. The writing in each chapter is peppered with quotes that capture the essence and charm of the unique cast of characters who run local businesses. The accompanying photos will seduce readers and underscore the beauty of often-overlooked places.
There is no question that the best part – the most meaningful and memorable – of my now ten years spending time on the side streets of Manhattan with these business owners is feeling their passion, their commitment, their complete dedication to their craft. Whether it is their love of food, fashion or flowers, books, cigars, beads or animals, these small business owners were never going to allow any obstacle to stand in their way. Their determination to survive no matter what was thrown at them has been inspiring - be it rising rents, hurricanes or illnesses - they kept fighting. And now I am watching many of them try to reinvent themselves and their business to fit into these crazy and daunting times. I am in awe of these men and women, but, of course, terribly concerned. I do hope that they will survive and that we can all get out there soon and support the small businesses who have given so much to us over the years – they are the true fabric of our city.
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