Today I went down and walked the Civic Center district and the remainder of Chinatown (and a few streets of cleanup on the Lower East Side too), about 11 miles in total.
I'd already done a number of streets of Chinatown in my Lower East Side walk, but today I went through the heart of Chinatown, which in my mind is the square bounded by Canal St, Worth St., Centre St. and Bowery, with Columbus Park in the middle.
Chinatown may have begun on Mott St. where a Chinese-owned bunkhouse rented bunks to Chinese immigrants in the 1850s / 1860s. The Chinese population of what would become Chinatown was around 200 in 1870 and grew to 7,200 by 1900. However, due to immigration restrictions imposed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, fewer than 2% of the residents were women. This dynamic would not change until well after the Act's repeal in 1943. Today nearly 100,000 Chinese Americans (men and women) live in Manhattan's Chinatown and it is one of the oldest ethnic Chinese enclaves outside Asia. Also interesting is the fact that for most of its history, the primary language of Chinatown was Cantonese, not Mandarin (the official language of modern China).
It's a bit of a tourist trap, but I really enjoy walking around Chinatown. It has a very foreign feel to it - half of the fruit you see in the produce stands looks like it shouldn't be fed after midnight or allowed to to get wet. Columbus Park is pretty cool too. It used to be the center of the infamous Five Points slum, and today it's a popular public gathering place with interesting people watching. On any given weekend you'll find multiple traditional music ensembles, with vocalists and full Chinese instrumentation (a little harsh on Western ears, but cool nonetheless). There are also crowds of chainsmoking old men surrounding tables where games I don't always recognize are being played (I assume money has to be changing hands - these guys look intense).
Funny story: I was walking through Cortlandt Alley and randomly saw a small window in a door that led to a small room of display cases. I'd heard of this before - it's the Mmuseumm, a closet-sized museum full of items that look like junk, but are in many cases kind of interesting. Later that day I passed by a store called "Fook On Sing Funeral Supplies", which I thought was funny because the products in the window were a bunch of (I thought) 3D paper decorations/toys; paper cars, paper motorcycles, paper houses, etc. I didn't think much of it, but when I was looking at the Mmuseumm website that night, I noticed a similar paper model in their collection. It turns out the store's sign was right - these were funeral supplies. These paper models, called Joss Paper, are burned in many Asian funeral practices as offerings to dead relatives, the intention being that the item will be transferred to the relative in the afterlife. Well, I thought it was a funny story.
The Civic Center district is pretty self explanatory. It's city, state and federal government buildings that run the gamut from remarkable to unremarkable.