Close-Up on Columbus Circle

The night breeze from the Hudson River hit my face as I leaned over the railing of the 56th Street penthouse balcony, peering far down at the glistening waterway and, to the right, the rooftops of Central Park West. Inside the party, heat and beats radiated from the small crowd of women with intentionally big hair circulating among men emulating Will Smith. The cool air gave me a chance to reflect: "This is Hell's Kitchen?"

"No," a sleek-haired woman said. "This is Columbus Circle, honey."

For decades a tiny landmark of steel and stone buildings west of boiling-pot Hell's Kitchen, Columbus Circle has lately argued its case as a full-featured neighborhood. Credit for the categorical leap goes mostly to a host of top-shelf clubs, classy hotels, and pricey restaurants that have popped up in the past five years, all giving a consistent feel to the blocks at the southwest corner of Central Park. Thanks is also due to the Time Warner Center, a defining landmark with innumerable angles and windows (unlike the neighboring "lollipop" building) that serves as a destination amid midtown clutter.

Globe spotters: A different perspective awaits at Trump International Hotel and Tower
photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com
Globe spotters: A different perspective awaits at Trump International Hotel and Tower

Compared to the recent growth spurt, the history of Columbus Circle has been a story of unused potential. When the Ninth Avenue elevated train made the area—previously the site of John Somerindyck's farm—accessible in the 1880s, speculators and homebuilders could have swarmed. Instead, warehouses and tenements popped up, as did another train line, which ran directly through what is today the CBS broadcast center on West 57th and delivered supplies to a horse farm located at today's Trump International Tower and Hotel.

Just before the turn of the 20th century, an experiment in luxury housing, the Dakota, led the way to developing nearby Central Park West into a world-class address. But by the 1960s, the area's building boom had produced a gaudier community to the south that, with its buskers and playhouses, rivaled Times Square's vaudeville and orchestra scene. In recent decades, though, the Hell's Kitchen effect has shriveled, and the northern 50s and blocks west of Broadway have traded a bohemian, non-residential chaos for the cozy uniformity of ritzy neighbors to the north.

Walking along Columbus Circle west of Broadway today, you'll find the tony Hudson Hotel, several Starbucks, a Coach store, and a Mandarin Oriental. It's all very pristine. But moreover, it has the consistency of a neighborhood—with each spoke of street extending from Columbus Circle home to apartments as well as luxury hotels.

The area's newest development is the removal of concrete construction barriers that had masked the $20-million, redesigned pedestrian enclave surrounding the Christopher Columbus statue. The leveled granite loop of space bordered by fountains and barely-there yellow buckeye trees is neither a must-see destination nor particularly welcoming for tourists—much less workweek pedestrians. One of the redesign's harshest critics, Newsday, called it "a pathetic little disc of greenery and granite floating in a soup of car exhaust."

Still, viewing the circle from above, especially from the Time Warner Center at night, is a bit breathtaking—much like having your preconceptions shaken up at a predawn party you thought was in Hell's Kitchen.


Wading in a soup of exhaust at Columbus Circle
photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com

Boundaries: If you can see Columbus Circle, at or near street level, you are probably in Columbus Circle. A swath south to 56th Street, west to Tenth Avenue, and north to 61st Street is frequently described as a footprint for the neighborhood.

Transport: Subway trains: 1; A; B; C; D; N; R; Q. Buses: 7; 10; 20; 31; 57

Main Drags: Broadway, Eighth Avenue, 58th Street and the spoked loop they form, known as Columbus Circle.

Prices to Buy: Co-op apartments between West 57th Street and Lincoln Center sold for (surprisingly) less than average for Manhattan in 2004: $883, 624. According to Douglas Elliman's market report, studios sold for an average of $290,000; one-bedrooms, $475,000; two-bedrooms, $1.3 million; three-bedrooms, $2,8 million; four-bedrooms, $9.6 million.

Prices to Rent: Studios, $1,300 to $2,100; one-bedroom, $1,400 to $2,800; two-bedroom, $2,200 to $4,500.

What to Check Out: Newspapers in places like Phoenix have featured the Time Warner Center, which rams up against Columbus Circle between 58th and 60th Streets, as an all-day vacation destination. Six Flags for the Burberry set? Don't scoff: For all its sleek design and attractive shops, the complex is worth a gander. The Whole Foods downstairs is one of the less expensive (and more reliable) places to grab lunch in the area. The "Inside CNN" tour on the center's third floor will please the cable news junkie. Likewise, asking a clerk to show you rooms at any of the areas high-rise hotels (Hudson at 356 W. 58th Street; Mandarin Oriental, check in on 35th floor of 80 Columbus Circle) provides a classy—and free—way to view the Central Park from above.

Hangouts, Parks: With several hospitals and schools within the few blocks west of Columbus Circle, a place to sit down and rest is never far. If gummy-worm shaped wood-slatted benches at the circle itself that force a lingerer to gaze at the conqueror-on-the-pedestal or face the outer traffic circle aren't appealing, cross the intersection to friendly Central Park. A green space at Ninth Ave and 57th Street is the site of weekday farmers markets in the summer and is even home to a small café kiosk.

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