Ode to a Tourist Trap

New Yorkers like to grouse about the places we won’t be caught dead in: Times Square, Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, Lady Liberty and anything ending in “Hard Rock Café.” Tourist traps, we mutter under our breath, as we skirt 42nd Street, curse idling tour buses and avoid eye contact with…well, let’s face it, just about everyone.

It’s all about proving our New York City cred and it’s worse among those who’ve been here for the shortest time. Show me a newbie, someone who’s been in the city less than a year or two, and I’ll show you a virulent anti-tourist, someone who rolls her eyes at the mere mention of the Circle Line, smirks at any interest in Madame Tussauds, groans at the suggestion to meet in Herald Square.

I get it. I mean, we think we’re so sophisticated; we live in THE CITY, after all. We’d rather die than be mistaken for—gasp!—a tourist. But sometimes, me thinks thou dost protest too much. And sometimes, a tourist trap is a tourist trap because…it’s magnificent!

When was the last time, for example, you visited Macy’s Herald Square, the flagship store that became a legend?

I know, I know. It doesn’t have—as far as “the department store” goes—the hipness of, say, a Bloomingdales, the cachet of Bergdorf Goodman, the scent of grand dame that wafts through the original Saks Fifth Avenue.

Macy’s is pure middle class and I love it, from its “cellar” to its Siberian-like furniture and bedding department on the 9th floor. (And btw, if housewares were situated in the cellar the last time you visited Macy’s, it’s been too long. The subterranean level is now home to a food court, an “open kitchen” eatery called Rowland’s and a tourist trap within the tourist trap called the Arcade, where all manner of Macy’s memorabilia can be had for a price. Macy’s oven mitt, anyone? Or better yet, gum balls?)

RH Macy and Company built the original nine-story facility on Broadway between 34th and 35th Street in 1901-2, adding the Seventh Avenue building around 1922. The weird thing about the site, other than the fact that it is two separate buildings, from two different eras, joined at the hip, is that Isidor and Nathan Straus and their heirs—who purchased the business in 1896—were unable to acquire the entire tract of land that formed a full city block. Two tiny parcels of land, on the southeast and northwest corners respectively, remain, to this day, untenanted by Macy’s. The small building on the southwest corner is occupied by “sunglass hut,” although Macy’s leases the air space above for its giant sign cum shopping bag.*

Before you enter the store make sure to check out Macy’s giant shopping bag on the southeast corner; it’s definitely worth taking note of this odd bit of Macy’s infrastructure.

The other parcel of land Macy’s couldn’t acquire for the Seventh Avenue build is on the northwest corner, currently occupied by a deli.

Over the years, Macy’s interior has been renovated and tweaked, remodeled and refurbished, mostly for the purposes of modernizing a shopping mecca in an ever-changing retail environment. But some things, thankfully, remain constant.

Both the Broadway and 34th Street facades retain a solid, irrepressible kind of dignity that says, somewhat softly, “I’m not going anywhere,” a comfort in this age of razed tenements, glass towers, air rights and new development.

Standing in Herald Square in front of the building’s Broadway entrance, I’m not struck by its beauty as much as its permanence, or the sense of permanence that it gives me amidst my city’s fickle real estate landscape. The structure is basically one big box, its accouterments and fixtures skin deep: a classical mishmash of metal grillwork gone green with age, flattened columns, arched windows, red marble cladding, a bronze three-sided clock that seems shoved into the space above the massive awning that shades the main entrance.

Macy’s Broadway entrance on Herald Square.

My favorite entry is mid-block at what’s been dubbed the “34th Street Memorial Entrance,” a grand welcome with a red marble façade, bronze clock and multi-globed wall sconces flanking an arched doorway. Dentil molding, fancy grillwork, wreaths and other decorative flourishes add intricacy and a sense of symmetry. I particularly love the four Greek maidens, paired on either side of the clock, wearing togas and clasping hands, seeming to support with their heads the entire “entablature” above them, once again proving that it’s often women doing the heavy lifting.*

Don’t miss the memorial plaques just inside the 34th Street entrance, one inscribed “…the voluntary token of sorrowing employees” in memory of Isidore and Ida Straus, who famously perished on a sinking Titanic; the other a World War I memorial to honor “…those gone from our midst to defend a principle and bring peace to a stricken world.”

Because Macy’s can be a clusterf*ck of tourists and bargain shoppers, I rarely visit on the weekends or holidays, and when I go, I’m always among those waiting to enter at 10:00 am, when doors open. Despite my mission to avoid the crowds, there are always shoppers raring to get inside, and who can blame them? Shopping at Macy’s is fun and iconic and the bargains are amazing. Plus the sales force—and the shoppers themselves—are a true cross section of New York City’s melting pot. I don’t look to Macy’s for cutting edge fashion, but when it comes to stocking up on underwear or linens or Levis or even a basic winter coat, Macy’s never lets me down.

So what if the merch isn’t cutting edge; that’s part of Macy’s charm.

Despite the fact that Macy’s has undergone tremendous renovation, some remnants of earlier eras remain. If I ever hear plans to remove the original “steel and mahogany escalators,” I will lay down my life in protest to prevent that from happening. As far as I’m concerned, they’re part of what makes Macy’s, Macy’s. Up until now, good sense has prevailed and the escalators remain: clunky, old-fashioned, the source of a particular kind of ruckus, and I pray to the gods they will rumble on long after I’m gone.

Classic revolving doors still turn on the Broadway, Seventh Avenue and 34th Street entrances and, although they’re not currently in use, the curved bronze gates at the Broadway and 35th Street entrance still stand and are worthy of attention.

Other details call to mind earlier times. From brass elevator buttons, to gargoyles to vintage fixtures, each new visit uncovers harbingers of days gone by.

When I have the time, I love to wander the more remote areas of the store, the furniture department on nine, with its original, creaky wooden floors, being a favorite. It was on such a trek that I discovered Macy’s still offers watch and jewelry repair, has a coat check and package holding area, can provide alterations and has a bank of swift(er) elevators (on the 35th Street side) used mostly by employees.

On a lark, I decided to lunch at Stella 34, an Italian trattoria on the 6th floor that opened in 2013, and not a bad place to enjoy a salad along with mighty fine views of Herald Square and the Empire State Building. If you have the means, hunger isn’t an issue while shopping at Macy’s, with a Starbucks in every other corner, a McDonald’s, Macy’s own version of food trucks in the aforementioned cellar, plus other assorted snack bars and eateries popping up throughout the store, which is billed as the “largest in the world.”

View of the Empire State Building from Stella 34.

Stella 34 satisfies with its selection of “small plates,” oven-fired pizza, an array of colorful cocktails, arresting views, a surprisingly well-heeled crowd. But that’s not what brings me to Macy’s. You don’t come to Macy’s for a fancy meal or a reserved seat with a view, at least I don’t.

I come for the good customer service and the never-ending sales; for the plain cotton underwear, for the bathrooms that are clean. I come for the large selection of socks and because I’ve memorized the store’s layout. I come because New Yorkers of every age and origin ring up my purchases and, well, those escalators, just because.

And I come for a little bit of constancy in a town forever changing, a place always on the make. We’re always reconfiguring the skyline, pulling down and pushing up. Seems like every time I turn a corner there’s another hole in the ground, another unapproachable wall of glass shooting up.

Another hole in the Manhattan schist.
A photo of a photo from Macy’s administrative office, no credit given. Thank goodness some things endure.

But then there’s Macy’s, forever Macy’s. So glad am I to see that regal and constant presence at 151 West 34th Street, perhaps a little stodgy, a bit worn, a tad behind the times. So go ahead and call it a tourist trap but I see the face of old New York, a striver made good, an icon, a survivor and I say: long may it reign!

*Some of the facts cited here regarding Macy’s history and physical structure were gleaned from the National Register of Historic Places, which I found online.