NEW YORK—No one comes to Manhattan for the peace and quiet. This is, after all, the city that never slows down and wouldn't think of sleeping.
But it only seems that way. One of Manhattan's quietest neighborhoods also is one of its most creative -- and lately its most desirable location for fledgling artists and fashion designers to launch their own businesses.
It's called NoLita, which stands for North of Little Italy, a nickname chosen a few years back by real estate agents eager to give the area some much-needed cachet.
It's a tiny region, even by New York standards -- about nine blocks spanning Mulberry, Mott and Elizabeth streets between Houston and Kenmare. But it's now home to several dozen one-of-a-kind shops, a few chic restaurants and a smattering of galleries and antique stores.
There's enough to fill an afternoon and more, depending on how involved you become in browsing the eclectic selection of clothing, jewelry and vintage housewares -- everything from shiny Russel Wright pottery to timeworn wooden garden benches.
Look elsewhere for your "I (heart) New York" T-shirt or green foam Statue of Liberty crown. Look to NoLita for more singular treasures.
The gateway to NoLita is the corner of Broadway and Houston streets, a bustling intersection crammed with taxis, rank with the fumes of bus exhaust, and pulsing with the hip-hop beats that blare from cars that have stopped to refuel at Gaseteria.
But two blocks away, the din disappears. The streets are so narrow -- just one lane for traffic -- that few cars bother to traverse their length and buses simply can't.
Most of the buildings are small and low -- five or six stories at most. The sun shines, filtered through trees instead of blocked out by the likes of Trump Tower or the newest Philip Johnson skyscraper.
Go in, take a chance
Pedestrians rule road and sidewalk. There's time to stroll, and that's a good thing, because the sidewalks are sometimes cracked and uneven. Step carefully, or you might miss something.
You might miss the pretty blue-tiled entryway at Blue Bag on Elizabeth Street, a place where purses come in leather, in fabric, with embroidery and without, in sizes large enough to tote a day's worth of belongings or small enough to fit in the palm of a hand.
You might miss the innovative knitwear at Claire Blaydon on Mott Street, where the selection includes not only hooded sweater vests with separate sleeves but delicate knitted tubes meant to be worn as bracelets.
You might miss the back room art exhibition at Language on Mulberry Street, where the owners offer clothing by a host of international designers alongside art exhibits that change eight times a year.
You might even miss whole stores. The signs are sometimes so discreet -- tiny letters on a small window, a little plaque on a door -- that you've got to figure things out for yourself. So go in. Take a chance. In this part of town, the individualist is the rule, not the exception.
"All the people who have located here are really trying to do something," says Katy Rod- riguez, co-owner of Resurrection Vintage Clothing on Mott Street. "They're trying to be designers, or they're trying to get their cafe or restaurant open. They're on the move."
Young designers move in
In the storied history of New York, NoLita and its environs had a quiet start. It was farmland at first, as civilization on the island of Manhattan spread north from its southern tip. By the 19th century, wealthy merchants were putting down roots in the area, but immigrants soon moved in -- first Irish, then Italian.
Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Asians eventually followed, but it was the Italian presence that was strongest. Martin Scorsese immortalized it in a series of films, including Mean Streets. Francis Ford Coppola staged scenes in two of his Godfather movies at St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, founded by Irish immigrants in 1809 in the center of what is now NoLita.