Sign up for our Headlines morning newsletter.

The most interesting things on the web, handpicked each day. Sign up for our Headlines morning newsletter.

New York, New York

Here Is 47th Street

New York City’s diamond district is a zone of secret laws, hidden shops, and real-estate chicanery. Watching as one-block buff and guide Stephen Kilnisan pulls back the curtain.

A Living Tour

“I wouldn’t call myself a history buff,” says Stephen Kilnisan at the beginning of his regular Wednesday morning walking tour. “I’m just interested in the world around me. I like to find out how it got this way.” For the last 16 years, the world around Kilnisan has been the single, ever-evolving New York block known officially as Diamond and Jewelry Way, but more commonly referred to as the diamond district: 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues.

It’s a world whose surface intrigue sets it noticeably apart from the city, even while its history and character offer uncanny reflections. Kilnisan, a jewelry designer and dealer who set up shop here in 1990, has become the block’s unofficial historian. A year after he arrived in the neighborhood, he began collecting stories from its denizens, poring over old photographs in the library, and providing hundreds of tourists with his $10 “living tour,” the only tour he knows of that is “a one-hour tour of one city block.” He calls it “living” because, in his estimation, the block is constantly changing and so to have a set script would be useless.

Instead, he relies on the life around him—the million-dollar deals being made in the street, the hushed conversations witnessed between members of the diamond bourse, the sudden appearance of a “for sale” sign on a building—to serve as plot points for his narrative. In his heart, Kilnisan would like to write a book about 47th Street, but in the peripatetic moments of his daily life, he feels that creating a single portrait of this mercurial block would be impossible. His literary ambitions thus dashed, he employs an oral tradition more suitable to a block whose economy is still rooted in Yiddish, trust, and handshakes.

The one aspect of 47th Street that is not in constant flux, of course, is the past, and so this is where Kilnisan begins. “We’re going to go back to 1850,” he says, standing on the southwest corner of 47th and Fifth, and with a single gesture, as though erasing a chalk board, he wipes away a century and a half of progress. “We’re in the middle of a cornfield.” He points out the 38-story French Building on the corner of 45th Street, a slab art-deco skyscraper designed in the 1920s as a bold symbol of business and a clear evocation of Babylon. At the top of the tower, emblazoned onto a colorful frieze, is a rising sun flanked on either side by two winged griffins and two beehives. On a panel facing west is the head of Mercury, god of commerce and speed. “In 1850,” says Kilnisan, “that was a farmhouse. And it was the only building in sight.”

Kilnisan goes on to explain, in a nutshell, New York’s architectural history. By the 1880s, the grid so intelligently laid out for Manhattan in the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan was almost fully implemented, and New York’s first Beaux-Arts buildings—ornate four-story residences—could be seen along Fifth Avenue. Around the turn of the century, the invention of the elevator “caused New York to go vertical” and by the late 1920s a new crop of office buildings was beginning to sprout north of 42nd Street. Among them was the one that would become the diamond district’s distinguished headquarters: 580 Fifth Ave. (aka 11 W. 47th St.), a building whose exterior, which features an elaborate summit meeting of gargoyles protected by battlements, is a telling reflection of its interior, where the Diamond Dealers Club of New York—one of only 20 diamond bourses in the world—enforces from on high the uniform and ethical trading practices of the street.

His architectural preamble over, Kilnisan is ready to begin walking. “You can read the postmodern history of New York,” he says, gesturing toward the eclectic, 125-year-old array of buildings lining 47th Street, “just by looking at this block.”
 

Trader of Babylon

Stephen (he goes by Steve) Kilnisan is a large, bearded, schmoozy man in his mid-fifties. He’s gregarious but not pushy, distinctive but not eccentric. Over the years, he has quietly observed and asked questions of the block’s merchants without ever calling too much attention to himself; despite having conducted his tour weekly for more than a decade, he only occasionally seems to know a passerby. As both tour guide and subject, he has the curiosity of an outsider but the demeanor of an insider: unassuming, respectful, careful to never betray his sense of wonder.

Originally from Budapest, Kilnisan and his family emigrated during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and settled in Hoboken, N.J., where they remain today. Unlike many of the artisans and dealers in the diamond district, Kilnisan was not born into the jewelry trade. His family owned a restaurant, which he took over briefly in the 1970s before selling in order to focus on his real interest: computers. A graduate of Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken and an early computer programmer, Kilnisan started one of the first jewelry websites in the mid-1980s and later created 47th-street.com, an informational site that serves as a quirky, ad-hoc chamber of commerce for the block. It is here that Kilnisan advertises his Wednesday morning “historic/shopping” tour.

In his small, cluttered office above the National Jewelers Exchange, Kilnisan designs and manufactures his own jewelry using computers and high-end prototyping machines. He specializes in combining modern and ancient designs. Accordingly, his company is called Traders of Babylon. “The ancient city of Ur was a great jewelry center around 2000 B.C.,” he explains. “But ‘Jewelers of Ur’ didn’t sound right. So I went to a map.” Nearby Babylon struck a chord. When one considers the two different interpretations of Babylon (“confusion,” according to Genesis 11:9, and “gateway of the god” in Akkadian), Kilnisan’s company seems right at home on West 47th Street.
 

Block Philosophy

Like Babylon and Ur, 47th Street is both a center of commerce and a holy place. Jammed with stores, exchanges, and unexpected corridors lined with booths; windows ablaze with diamonds; signs in a chaotic blend of Hebrew and English characters; aggressive hawkers in front of every store; sidewalks bustling with Hasidim. Because it has the feel of an ancient bazaar, it seems as though 47th Street must always have been the heart of the diamond district. This is what Kilnisan believed when he first started working on the block, and he was surprised to learn that in fact, the district as it exists today is only 60 years old. Until the mid-1940s the jewelry trade was headquartered downtown, at Maiden Lane. According to Kilnisan, the brownstones along 47th Street housed small publishing houses until the 1920s. “It was where every major publisher started. It was a publishing mecca.”

When the publishers began to expand and move into larger buildings, 47th Street became a rag district. New, taller manufacturing buildings were erected over the next two decades. During the World War II, the market boomed and Maiden Lane transformed into a financial capital. Jewelers began to scout for cheaper rents and were attracted to 47th Street. At the same time, Jews fleeing the diamond centers in Antwerp and Amsterdam came to New York, bringing with them new expertise in cutting and polishing, and soon New York’s growing Hasidic population was attracted to the business, in part because working with fellow Jews allowed them to practice their traditions with relative ease. In the aftermath of the war, industry on 47th Street made a quick and literal journey from rags to riches.

Kilnisan’s tour follows a simple plan: He walks west along the south side of the street, then pauses slightly on Sixth Avenue to imagine, once again, when that spot was a rocky knoll surrounded by rivers and streams, and Sixth Avenue was a Native American trail leading straight up to what would become Albany. He then crosses 47th Street and heads back east along the north side of the block to Fifth Avenue. All the while, he “pulls over” intermittently, inspired by a building’s design or a hidden sign, to explain the history and character of the block.

“Generally,” says Kilnisan, “the quality of the jewelry decreases as you approach Sixth Avenue, with the higher-end stores on Fifth Avenue.” But he’s quick to qualify the statement: “That doesn’t mean you can’t find quality pieces further down the block.” He shrugs. “It’s just a little block philosophy of how the stores line up.” The first shop to greet visitors approaching from the east is the pristine Jewelers on Fifth, an exchange housing more than 50 booths at 578 Fifth Ave. “In there they cater to the carriage trade,” says Kilnisan, using a term held over from the nineteenth century, when wealthy women would travel down Fifth Avenue in horse-drawn carriages to shop at Maiden Lane.

These days, most New Yorkers wonder where to begin on 47th Street—which dealers are reputable, what to ask for in terms of paperwork, how to feel confident that they’re getting a good deal. One of Kilnisan’s objectives is to educate potential shoppers—to convey some of the “block philosophy” it has taken him years to acquire. He warns against doing business with hawkers (“Shopping for jewelry should be fun, not an exercise in dodging bad salespeople”), he urges comparison-shopping, and reminds people to look for a quality stamp (e.g., 14K) and a manufacturer’s trademark to back it up. On his website are detailed instructions for identifying quality metals and a step-by-step guide for resolving disputes with retailers. “Our jewelers can offer you a tremendous variety of precious goods,” he claims, “and precious knowledge.”
 

Secrets

Standing in front of the National Jewelers Exchange, Kilnisan reveals the first of the block’s many secrets, his catchall word for all the tidbits of insider information he’s collected over the years. He motions inside the bustling exchange and asks if anyone can guess what might be in there besides jewelry booths. In 15 years, not one of his hundreds of tourists, he says, has ever guessed—and why would they? Tucked into the mezzanine of the National Jewelers Exchange at 4 W. 47th St., past a labyrinth of curio cases and up a staircase in the rear, sits the Diamond Dairy of New York, a small kosher luncheonette where the waitresses still wear white blouses and black skirts, and dozens of local Orthodox businessmen gather everyday for mincha, the afternoon prayer.

“There are little secrets about the block,” says Kilnisan. “They change all the time, so they become more obscure.” In the course of the hour, he’ll present the following amusing smorgasbord of obscurities:

1. On the third floor of 30 W. 47th St. is a synagogue, Radio City Synagogue. Which would be interesting enough, given its name, but this one comes with a story: When the city cracked down on the sex industry in the 1980s and adult shops were forced out of Times Square, many of them trained their sights on 47th Street. When local tenants got wind of the impending shift, they discovered an ordinance preventing sex shops from opening within 1,000 feet of a religious institution and quickly documented the synagogue’s location (it was already in existence but never on record). A few other temples in the vicinity followed suit, and now 47th Street is not, as it might have been, a porn strip.

2. The block’s largest exchange is at 55 W. 47th St. (and it’s not exactly a secret; “World’s Largest Jewelry Exchange” is sprawled across the storefront in enormous red letters). Inside are more than 500 jewelers, including a frenzied basement-level bazaar of mostly Korean and Chinese booths, as well as a barbershop, a beauty salon, and a falafel joint.

3. The first exchange to open on the north side of the block was at 37 W. 47th St.

4. On the south side of the block, the back of the Wentworth Hotel provides a little-known egress to 46th Street. On the north side, the Plaza Arcade provides passage to 48th Street. The average New Yorker would have no reason to know about these alternate routes, but according to Kilnisan, “Everybody on the block knows, if you want to get to 46th Street you go through the Wentworth; if you want to get to 48th Street you go through the Plaza Arcade.”

5. The dealers at 10 W. 47th St. are not interested in selling you jewelry. Their antique estate pieces are one-of-a-kind, and if they sold them they’d be out of business. Instead they rent their real McCoys to filmmakers interested in period accuracy.

6. For 58 years, 41 W. 47th St. was home to the Gotham Book Mart, a literary mecca sandwiched between diamond dealers. Since Gotham’s high-profile relocation to 46th Street in 2004 (acquiescing to the swelling price of diamond district real estate, Gotham’s owner, Andreas Brown, sold the five-story townhouse and bought another one two blocks away for $2 million less), 41 West now boasts a new jewelry exchange and, on the second floor, Manhattan’s only Bukharan kosher eatery, Taam-Tov, where a devoted clientele of Central Asian Jews gather daily for traditional shish kebabs, platters of plov (rice pilaf), dense hummus, and thick, crusty bread.
 

Microcosm

To the outsider, 47th Street, whose business population is 95 percent Jewish, may seem like a separate and exclusive world. But over the years, Kilnisan says, it has been surprisingly diverse and accommodating. “This is the block I would use to study immigration. It’s a great example of how America absorbs immigrants and allows them to plant roots.”

Its immigration history has also been an excellent barometer of jewelry trends. First came the post-war Jewish refugees, who made “busy” jewelry—for example, a large basket of fruit. “You needed heavy clothes to wear them,” says Kilnisan. “Everything was big and sort of gaudy. They wanted to show, or simulate, wealth.” In the late 1950s and 1960s came highly skilled Puerto Rican and Cuban jewelers, who brought more finesse to the craft. Throughout the 1970s an influx of immigrants from East Asia resulted in smaller, lighter designs. Since then, intricacy has been the fashion, thanks to technology and an overwhelming Russian influence on the block (the “Russian style” is historically ornate and detailed). In many of the designs today, according to Kilnisan, you can see the influence of the Fabergé egg. “Hidden behind the simple shape,” he says, “is intricate enameling and engraving.”
 

Mazel and Broche

If 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues were to disappear tomorrow, says Kilnisan, so would 60,000 jobs. He arrives at this number by combining the 35,000 jobs on the block itself with the 25,000 jobs he estimates are supported by the block (security companies, delivery services, nearby restaurants, gemological institutes). When the city designated 47th Street a Business Improvement District (BID) in 1997, it identified it as both the smallest BID, being only one block long, and one of the largest, because it contained more than 2,600 independent businesses. Today, Kilnisan puts that number closer to 5,000. “Every single nook and cranny of this block is used,” he says. “Smaller companies are squeezed out. They squeezed out the Gotham Book Mart.”

For the privilege of operating within a BID, building owners pay a special tax assessment in exchange for additional services, such as increased sanitation, heightened security, marketing and promotion for the merchants, and “beautification.” Hence the enormous diamond-shaped pylons at either end of the block, which serve as a shimmering gateway to the district and eliminate any doubts a potential customer might have about what to expect when they arrive here. Kilnisan seems slightly embarrassed by the towering art-deco totems. “They put in period lights,” he says. “I’m not sure what period they’re referring to.”

His eye is caught by two gentlemen huddled in conversation outside 11 W. 47th St.“You see that?” he says. “They’re making a deal.” He narrates the transaction as it unfolds. “One of them pulls out a pouch containing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of diamonds. They haggle for a while, then the handshake. Deals are still made on handshakes here.” In fact, according to the Diamond Dealers Club bylaws, “Any oral offer is binding among dealers, when agreement is expressed by the accepted words ‘Mazel and Broche’ [‘good luck and a blessing’] or any other words expressing the words of accord.” Even more remarkably, since the Talmud prohibits resolving conflicts in non-Jewish courts, disputes on 47th Street are not handled by civil courts but upstairs at the Diamond Dealers Club, where a board of arbiters presides over oral hearings (notes are never taken and the hearings are never recorded) and deliver judgments based on common sense, trade customs, and principles of Jewish law. For generations, this is how diamond dealers throughout the world have conducted business, and it continues to be the principal mode of operation on 47th Street.

The irony of a modern-day block fueled by old-fashioned trust, of course, is that every single inch of diamond district is nevertheless under video surveillance. The extreme security exists for good reason: 95 percent of the diamonds imported into the United States pass through New York, and most of those are handled and cut on this block. And while deals on the street are still based on oral blessings, handshakes, and Talmudic arbitration, transactions in the retail shops are backed up by extensive legal paperwork. Between appraisals, receipts, gemological certifications, and insurance forms, a buyer might take home as many as seven pieces of paper along with her gem. “It used to be trust all the way,” says Kilnisan. “Then again, the GIA would be out of business if there were trust between retailers and consumers.”

The Gemological Institute of America (GIA), of which Kilnisan is a graduate, is the world’s largest gemological institute. Inventor of the “four C’s” (cut, clarity, color, carat), and sometimes referred to as the “fifth C” (for clout), its New York headquarters is located at 580 Fifth Avenue. The GIA grading report is widely considered to be the benchmark for the industry. Educated consumers know to request GIA certification, and the potential resale value of a gem is generally considered to increase if it comes accompanied by GIA paperwork.

But amid increasing technological innovations, it is ancient marketplace traditions and the enduring strength of Jewish laws, which stress internal resolution of disputes, that have enabled the diamond district to retain its cohesiveness and unique character within an otherwise contentious and litigious world. The story of 47th Street, writes anthropologist Renée Rose Shield in Diamond Stories: Enduring Change on 47th Street, is one of “transformation and re-creation through change. The diamond, a pebbly object transformed into a twinkling, astronomically priced jewel, has allowed Jews to transform themselves from rejected refugees of one country to respected businessmen of another.”
 

Enduring Change

If you find yourself on West 47th Street in the near future, take a good look at the five brownstones that stretch from 44 W. 47th St. to 52 W. 47th St. on the south side of the block, because in as little as two months they’ll be gone. Fast-forward to about 2010, and in their place will either be a 30-story global diamond exchange or a 40-story hotel, depending on whom you believe. There’s the official claim of the developer, Gary Barnett, who has reportedly asked the city for a subsidy package in order to build a state-of-the-art building for the diamond industry and has been wooing hundreds of companies up and down the block to be his tenants. And then there is the 47th Street rumor mill, which is distributing a different story: that Barnett is planning to erect a 40-story hotel, or a combination hotel/jewelry exchange, possibly in conjunction with W Hotels, and possibly with Donald Trump.

“Who knows?” says Kilnisan, whose attitude remains refreshingly neutral, the curiosity of the lay historian prevailing over the anxiety of the small business owner. “I’m not objecting. We’ll still have half our brownstones. And I’m for bringing more business to 47th Street. But if it’s a jewelry building, how will he afford to keep rents down? The designers won’t be able to afford those rents. The small people will get squeezed out.” Kilnisan has been on this block for 16 years and yet he never stops being titillated by the mystery surrounding every transaction; by the enduring ability of the block to adapt to change; by the evolving world around him that keeps his living tour so alive.
 

Pam Widener lives in Greenwich Village and generally only ventures north of 14th Street when she needs a paycheck or to gaze at the Catskill Mountain Range. On other days, she prowls around downtown Manhattan in search of single blocks that intrigue and inspire her. Eventually she hopes this good old-fashioned street haunting will result in a book. Meanwhile her essays have appeared in a small smorgasbord of publications, including The New York Daily News, Tango, Creative Nonfiction, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and the sadly now-defunct Prison Life Magazine, where she was an editor for two years. More by Pam Widener