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When I think of Tribeca, several things come to mind. The first is the cover of Jay McInerney's novel Bright Lights, Big City. I remember looking at it as a suburban teenager in the 1980s: The neon sign for the now nearly 30-year-old restaurant The Odeon represented everything that was glamorous and fast and dangerous about New York City. Next is a memory of John F. Kennedy Jr. leaving his loft apartment on North Moore Street and being snapped by paparazzi as he rode away on his bike. The third is the camaraderie that occurred after 9/11 when there was worry as to whether the neighborhood, which had existed in the shadow of the Twin Towers, would lose its families and businesses (it didn't). While Tribeca has evolved over time from manufacturing hub and downtown backwater to underground hot spot to family-friendly enclave, a whiff of its glittery past remains.
A walk down the area's cobblestoned streets—Tribeca's borders are Canal Street to Chambers Street and Lafayette Street to the Hudson River—conveys a palpable sense of the neighborhood's past lives (residential development began in the late 1700s) and its present as an urban suburbia. The industrial loading ramps of former produce warehouses are now front porches to loft residences. The looming 19th-century cast-iron architecture now houses chic restaurants like Tribeca Grill and modern Scandinavian furniture stores. Narrow alleyways like Staple Street—where wagons freighted with fruit once passed through—invite passersby to make a detour.
One of Tribeca's longtime social anchors is the Manhattan Youth Center (120 Warren St, 212-766-1104, manhattanyouth.org), which recently, after a decade of planning and post-9/11 delays, was able to open its first community center. The space offers after-school programs, sports leagues and enrichment classesfor all ages. Founder and executive director Bob Townley began overseeing youth programs in Tribeca 20 years ago, when the neighborhood realized it needed to address the influx of new families, which included his own. "What makes us unique as a community," he says, "is a great park system, great schools (P.S. 234 and P.S. 150) and relatively low density compared with other parts of the city." While Tribeca is often associated with its millionaire inhabitants, Townley says the area is actually quite diverse. "There are the old converted lofts for wealthier people, but there are also big apartment towers, subsidized housing and an international population."Because high-end activities abound, the center focuses on affordable programs for tykes. The next challenge, according to Townley? "People are concerned about the lack of teen activities, when all these little people turn into young adults." Agreed—they'd better get to work.
• Kids can climb on the water-tower-themed jungle gym at Washington Market Park (enter from Greenwich St at Duane St) or play in the boat-shaped sandbox. The park is said to be one of the most charming in Manhattan.
• The Tribeca Performing Arts Center at Borough of Manhattan Community College (199 Chambers St, 212-220-1460, tribecapac.org) hosts a variety of children's shows throughout the year.
• It's almost impossible to walk by the Balloon Saloon (133 West Broadway, 800-540-0749, balloonsaloon.com) and its storefront of giant inflatable toys without making a pit stop. Inside you'll find a huge collection of gag gifts and dime-store trinkets.
• Tribeca is a foodie wonderland, offering the entire gamut from white-tablecloth fine dining to coffeeshop comfort grub. Locals swear by Landmarc (179 West Broadway, 212-343-3883, landmarc-restaurant.com). Parents can keep an eye out for celebs (John Stewart and his family were recently spotted there) while tykes chow down on green eggs and ham. For dessert, stop by Billy's (75 Franklin St, 212-674-9958, billysbakerynyc.co) for a red velvet cupcake.
• Playing Mantis (32 North Moore St, 646-484-6845, friendlymantis.com) features handmade wares from far-flung artisans and toy makers (check out the stacking cheeseburgers from Michigan's Puzzle Man toys).