canal street chinatown manhattan

Canal Street – Backbone of New York City’s Chinatown

History of Canal Street NYC

On the intersection of Centre and Leonard Street and stretching out about a block in each direction there once was a small body of water known as Collect Pond (“Collect” being an English corruption of the Dutch word “Kolch” meaning “small body of water”).

Chinatown Information Kiosk
The Official Chinatown Information Kiosk. Here visitors can find maps, brochures and other information to make the most out of their Chinatown visit.

Local residents drank from the pond until the late 1700’s when pollution made the water unfit for human consumption.

Collect Pond was once an idyllic retreat for the inhabitants of New York City, but too much pollution made it a cesspool of filth and lead the city to petition for its drainage.

In 1808, out of fear that the pond was harboring disease, the city built a canal to drain it.

Once the pond was drained, the canal was no longer necessary and the stench from it became so unbearable that the city covered it up.  Canal Street now stands as a landmark to where this canal once flowed.

View Canal Street, Manhattan in a larger map

Today, Canal Street is reminiscent of a foreign bazaar.  The backbone of New York City’s Chinatown – it’s bustling streets are lined with outdoor markets where vendors clamor for attention as you pass.

Visiting Canal Street NYC

Starting off at the 6 stop subway station at the corner of Lafayette and Canal Street and making your way east, you’ll be instantly bombarded with store after store selling cheap clothing, bags, and jewelry.

“Rolex, Luis Vuitton, Coach” venders will whisper unassumingly as you pass. If you’re interested, let them lead you to their underground stalls where you can peruse their merchandise of knock-off duds privately.  If not ignore them and continue forward. At the intersection of Canal and Walker Street is the Chinatown visitors kiosk, the unofficial starting point on any Chinatown tour.

The Southern end of Canal Street, heading East towards Mott Street is a home cooks mecca.  Here you will find meat and produce stands with prices better than you’ll find anywhere else in Manhattan.  Expand your palate with some fresh boy Choy, lychee or hundreds of other exotic-looking fruits and vegetables.

new york city Chinatown vendor
A vendor selling Dragon Fruit – a type of cactus grown in SouthEast Asia – just one of many interesting types of produce you can find in Chinatown.

A heads-up to tourists: visitors to Chinatown should heed the warning “caveat emptor” (let the buyer before).

The “bait and switch” is a favorite scam amongst many fruit and fish vendors in the area so make sure that what you see displayed on the table or rack is what is actually being put into your shopping bag. On more than one occasion I have arrived home only to discover that the fresh fruit I thought I bought had been replaced with last weeks’ decaying produce.

On that same note, any bargains that seem too good to be true (i.e. a $50 authentic Louis Vuitton bag) probably aren’t. At the intersection of Mott and Canal, keep an eye out for Yao’s Dragon Beard Candy, if you see him, make a detour and grab some Traditional Chinese Sweets, if not continue on to Bowery, loop around to the South and continue exploring Chinatown.

fish markets in Chinatown
The fish markets in Chinatown can be smelled a block away. Fortunately, the fish are usually pretty fresh.

 

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