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There are more than 8.5 million people living in New York and the city gets more than 60 million visitors every year. With so many eyes on it and so many cameras clicking away every minute of the day, you'd think there would be nothing left to uncover. But Manhattan still holds delicious secrets that many tourists – and even a lot of locals – don't know about. This checklist of New York curiosities and hidden treasures – and the stories behind them – will make you an instant Big Apple know-it-all.
THE COAT HANGER'S TWIN
Look at that picture. It's the Sydney Harbour Bridge, right? What's it doing here in this story? Simple – it's in New York. In fact, if you're arriving from La Guardia airport you might be able to see it from your taxi on your trip into the city. When it was built in 1917 it was the longest steel arch bridge in the world. Fifteen years later, a bigger twin sister – it's 60 per cent larger – appeared 16,000 kilometres away in Sydney. The bridge spans Hell Gate, a stretch of treacherous water between Queens and Manhattan known for turbulent currents, reefs and rocks. Many urban legends have sprung up around the bridge, including ghost stories and tales of lost souls and phantom trains.
WHERE? Hell Gate Bridge, connecting Astoria, Queens and Ward Island
"I worked just a few blocks from there for years and I never knew that existed!" said an American friend of mine when she saw my photos of 6½ Avenue. Tucked between 6th and 7th Avenue is the only New York street with a fraction in it. It's actually a series of connected walkways that threads through colonnades, arcades and atriums, so you can stroll six midtown blocks between 51st and 57th Streets without having to negotiate a traffic light, a crowded footpath or New York traffic.
WHERE? Between 6th and 7th Avenue and running between W51st and W57th Street
THE BERLIN WALL
There's more than a little irony that a symbol of communism sits inside the lobby of a building at the heart of Manhattan commerce. The slab of concrete, which is six metres long and almost three metres high, is a section of the Berlin Wall. The side that faced East Berlin has been kept intact, complete with bullet holes, a sobering reminder of what happened to those who tried to cross the boundary. The other side features a mural by German artists Thierry Noir and Kiddy Citny.
WHERE? Jefferies Building, 520 Madison Avenue, in the 53rd Street lobby between Madison and Fifth Avenues.
THAT SUBWAY GRATE
It's probably the most famous subway grate in the world. At one o'clock in the morning on September 15, 1954, while filming The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe stepped onto the grate as an uptown 6 train rushed by underneath. Her white halter neck dress blew up, exposing her legs as the train passed and an iconic image was born.
WHERE? Lexington Avenue near E52nd Street, southwest corner.
THE WHISPERING GALLERY
Countless visitors go to Grand Central Station to witness the incredible architecture and the mass human ballet created by rushing commuters in the city's biggest rail hub. But just outside the station's famous Oyster Bar is a little secret you can share with a friend. The series of archways and the curved, ornately tiled ceiling create a strange effect. If each of you stands at diagonal opposite ends of the archway, both lean in close to the wall and one of you whispers, the other person will be able to hear perfectly above the background noise. It's rumoured that jazz bassist Charles Mingus used to play at this spot because of the acoustics. These days it also serves as a site for those in the know who choose to whisper a marriage proposal to an unsuspecting loved one.
WHERE? Grand Central Station, E42nd Street at Park Avenue, lower level
PIZZA-SIZE PRIVATE PROPERTY
Old-school New Yorkers have a reputation for not budging from their apartments, whether it's developers, landlords or city authorities that are demanding they move. Back in 1910, David Hess was told that his building in the West Village was one of almost 300 that were condemned to be demolished to make way for subway works and street widening. He held out for four years, until finally, in 1914, he was forced to sell – but not before claiming a small concrete triangle as his own. He had the triangle, which is as big as a slice of large pizza, decorated with a tile mosaic and the words "Property of the Hess Estate Which Has Never Been Dedicated For Public Purposes."
WHERE? Corner of Christopher Street and 7th Avenue outside Village Cigars
PLEASE DON'T TELL
The hot dogs at Crif Dogs in the East Village are mouth-watering. But the place has a secret. Enter the phone booth in the middle of the shop. Dial "1". Someone will answer, then the back wall of the booth will open up and you'll find yourself inside PDT (Please Don't Tell), a hideaway bar with stuffed raccoons, owls and bear on the walls and killer cocktails on the menu.
WHERE? 113 St. Mark's Place between 1st Ave and Ave A, call 212 614 0386 to put down your name if there's a wait.
LITTLE BRASS PEOPLE
There's art in the New York subway if you go looking for it, sanctioned and funded by the MTA. By far the most delightful and intriguing display is at the 14th Street/8th Avenue station, where sculptor Tom Otterness created Life Underground, a series of over a hundred whimsical bronze figures scattered throughout the station. There's an alligator coming out of a manhole cover, two men using a saw to cut through an iron beam, a couple of figures trying to sneak under a barrier to avoid paying their fare, and many more to discover.
WHERE? 14th Street/8th Avenue Subway Station
THE LENIN STATUE
From 1994 to 2016 he stood on top of a Houston Street building known as Red Square, his right arm raised to the west. Last year the 5.5 metre high statue of Communist leader Vladimir Lenin was taken down after the building was sold, but it now has a new home on top of a building in nearby Norfolk Street, still standing in the Lower East Side and still pointing and maintaining the rage. The statue was reportedly made just before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and was then found in a trash heap before being transported to its new home in the US.
WHERE? 178 Norfolk Street
THE LOFT FULL OF DIRT
The mind boggles at how much it would cost to rent a loft in SoHo. But since 1977, one such loft has just been sitting there, filled with 335 square metres of rich, brown dirt weighing 127 tonnes. It's actually an artwork by Walter de Maria and since 1989 it has been manned, maintained, watered and weeded by its constant companion Bill Dilworth, the self-proclaimed "Keeper Of Earth And Time" – he also looks after a nearby clock tower.
WHERE? 141 Wooster Street, open to visitors mid-September to mid-June, Wednesday to Sunday, noon-6pm.
THE MUSEUM IN A LIFT
Everyone knows about the Museum Of Natural History and MOMA. But how about the smallest and quirkiest museum in New York? Finding it is your first quest – Mmuseumm is tucked inside a disused service elevator in a tiny Tribeca alley. There's just 1.8 square metres to play with, and only three or four people can stand inside at any one time, but it's filled by a regularly rotating array of offbeat items that have included toothpastes from around the world, ingenious objects made by prisoners and the shoe thrown at George W. Bush during a press conference in Iraq.
WHERE? 4 Cortlandt Alley between White and Franklin, open Saturdays and Sundays, noon-6pm.
WORLD'S LARGEST CHESS BOARD
Yes, you've seen big chessboards. But nothing like this baby, which spans three floors of the wall of a midtown skyscraper. And yes, you may have witnessed slow games of chess. But nothing like this baby, where a piece is moved each Wednesday at noon with a cherrypicker. There's a method to this madness – they're recreating famous games in history.
WHERE? 767 Third Avenue, corner of E48th Street.
THE SCULPTURE THAT SURVIVED 9/11
For three decades it stood at the foot of the World Trade Centre and somehow it survived the 9/11 attacks – broken and battered, but intact. "The Sphere" weighs 25 tonnes and was constructed in 52 interlocking segments by German sculptor Fritz Koenig. It was moved to Battery Park in the months following September 11 as a centrepiece for the city's mourning, but was then locked in years of legal wrangling about where it should stand. In September this year it finally found its resting place in Liberty Park, overlooking the site of the 9/11 memorial. Sadly, Koenig died eight months before seeing it unveiled in its new home. In 2002 he said: "It was a sculpture, now it's a monument."
WHERE? Liberty Park, Liberty Street near West Street
Barry Divola travelled as a guest of Brand USA and AKA Times Square.
Qantas offers three flights from Australia to Los Angeles each day from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, connecting to their daily LAX-JFK service. Phone 13 13 13. See qantas.com
AKA Times Square offers stylish apartment-style accommodation right in the heart of midtown Manhattan, with spacious studios and suites, most with a full kitchen. 123 W44th Street. See stayaka.com/aka-times-square