The Viele Map

Created by Egbert L. Viele in 1865, the Sanitary and Topographical Map of the City and Island of New York (aka the Viele map), shows the pre-grid, natural state of the island, including some 500 hills, 88 miles of streams, 21 ponds and 300 springs.

“No other city is so spitefully incoherent.”

—James Baldwin

The walking tours offered here are part of decades-long project whose eventual goal is a soon to be completed book. I worked in the worlds of publishing and education before I became a New York City tour guide about 15 years ago to write the book I wish existed when I first moved to Madison Square in 1993 (aka the Flatiron District, and, now, NoMad).

When I moved into the Breslin Hotel at 29th Street and Broadway, now the swanky Ace Hotel but back then a Single Room Occupancy welfare hotel, I shared a $600/month studio with my best friend. In-line skating was new and all the rage and for three years I skated just about every square inch of Manhattan Island. It wasn’t long before I realized that on my daily excursions after work, any direction I went from where I was living the combination of buildings from history changed in a radical, inexplicable way. Beautiful French Second Empire apartment-hotels with elaborate mansard roofs that spoke to an upper class social scene were just feet away from blocks of much more low-brow, sad looking buildings from the same time. Art deco factories for garment manufacturing were across the street from country churches. Brownstone homes were wedged in alongside jewel-box like loft buildings. I had been reading many New York City history books but none came close to explaining the city I was seeing.

When it comes to New York City history on the Island of Manhattan everyone agrees that “the city” moved uptown, but what, exactly, moved uptown? Did everything move uptown? A wide and wild assortment of buildings of brick, cast iron, steel-frame stone-clad (so-called “loft buildings”), Modern and post-Modern day skyscrapers; built as a home, flat, apartment building, a store, factory, or office building, can make up any given city block. Manhattan is an inscrutable, information-rich cityscape that begs many questions: Which buildings came first, and why? Why did some buildings survive when others didn’t? What new buildings came in and why? How did the ones that stayed, change? There is likely nowhere else on Earth where land use, “the management and modification of the natural environment into built environment,” underwent such seemingly chaotic, intense, radical and rapid change, in so compact an area, and over such a relatively short period of time, as on the land mass comprising the roughly lower third of Manhattan Island. How does one make sense of buildings that have been adapted for re-use over time, at different points in time, sometimes many times over? Is there any way to make sense of how a jumble of neighborhoods, made up of a jumble of buildings, came to be “put together”?

I went on many walking tours of the city in the hopes of understanding the history the way I was seeing it. And while there were many good tours and tour guides, none were explaining what I would eventually come to call the Frankenstein’s Monster of history and architecture that New York City was Central Park down to the Battery.

Many a neighborhood’s architectural reputation precedes it. Soho has cast iron buildings, Tribeca warehouses, the Lower East Side tenements, Times Square theaters, Museum Mile mansions. Each neighborhood has its own particular and distinct architectural make-up and “streetscape sensibility” that is the assortment of buildings retained from history. Soho has a particular look, and it’s a different look from the blocks around Madison Square. And the Lower East Side couldn’t look more different than nearby Tribeca. And while the assortment of buildings from different eras tell the story of any individual neighborhood, it’s the different combinations of different buildings across all of Manhattan’s neighborhoods that tell the story of the whole city.

I ultimately came to realize that telling the story New York City on the island of Manhattan required gathering up the reins of a hundred different histories: architecture, shipping and trade, technology, transportation, manufacturing and industry, finance, real estate, newspapers and communications, theaters; cultural economies and the evolution of housing for the rich and the poor, the history of retailing, the history of theater and entertainment. In fact, I came to see there was the history of an American culture: how we lived, how we worked, how we shopped, how we entertained each other and ourselves, that was captured and recorded, unintentionally preserved, by the slow motion onslaught of manufacturing and industry, business and office buildings, as they made their way up through the middle of Manhattan Island. But what came first were the suburbs; homes churches and schools. I was determined to find a way to tell the story of the interplay of all of these histories, and discover the unifying principles that sort out, and in essence decode, Manhattan’s otherwise inscrutable cityscape.

And so when the author James Baldwin to remarked that New York City was “spitefully incoherent,” he could have been talking about any neighborhood or district between Central Park and The Battery; these were the parts of town that were created by a slow-motion cyclone of brick and mortar, glass, stone and steel, in a pattern of building up, tearing down and building again. What was left behind was the kaleidoscope of neighborhoods we know today as Museum Mile, Fifth Avenue’s shopping district, Times Square, the Garment District, Herald Square, Murray Hill, Madison Square, Union Square, Washington Square, NoHo, SoHo, the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Tribeca, the Civic Center, City Hall and the Financial District. These are the parts of the city that contain the history of the city's historic move uptown through the middle of the Manhattan over a roughly a century-long period of phenomenal expansion and growth.

I hope to see you on a Manhattan Unlocked walking tour!

Manhattan Unlocked Historical and Architectural Walking Tours
looks at the street walls themselves to untangle the densely integrated history of New York City's built environment on the Island of Manhattan, revealing a heretofore untold story of the world's greatest city.

Formerly a blog, and soon to be a book, Manhattan Unlocked looks at how making sense of any one particular part of town requires understanding the whole history of the city's historic move uptown through Manhattan Island.

We look forward to showing you a hidden-in-plain-sight history.

Click Here to See Tours

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ghost of the Broadway Central Hotel

My first post is a simple interesting one. I had just read Alone Together: A History of New York’s Early Apartments and had the book with me when I skated over to the site of the old Broadway Central Hotel (the west side of Broadway just north of the Bond Street intersection).  It was built in 1871 and collapsed, as a welfare hotel, in 1973.  The site is an NYU dormitory today. I saw a very distinct shape incised on the adjacent building where the hotel once stood. I pulled out the book and looked at a picture of the old hotel.  Sure enough, the mark on the building was left from the old hotel, sometimes referred to as a ghost or a palimpsest. Here it is...

Notice the distinct shape of the "Broadway Central Hotel" sign in the upper left corner. It juts out a bit from the main building...

The mark on the adjacent building (built after the above picture) matches perfectly...

The site of the old hotel today is an NYU dormitory (behind the trees). Also, you can see the red brick building from the old post card view is still standing!

Look closely at the side of the building above the tree branches!


  1. Bobby, this post and these photos are magnigicent! I love seeing New York through your eyes.

  2. Great blog! Like me, you take the time to stop and look up at our buildings to discover their unique beauty and history. I just started my own blog on it:

  3. Thanks so much, John, I'll check out your blog.


  4. Who told you the Broadway Central was a welfare hotel when it collapsed? It was the Mercer Arts Center, a theater complex! I saw a big show there a few months before the walls fell in. Take a look at this PDF archive and see what kind of a place it was...

    1. In 1972 I used to go there every night, hoping to catch a glimpse of maybe a Warhol Factory personality or a Mick Jagger or a David Bowie. Closest I came was attending a showing of LEMMINGS with John Belushi. It was shocking to hear that the old Mercer building just collapsed!

  5. Oh, this is a great view into the past, love the photos.

  6. Love the photos of the buildings.

  7. "Rock Flow" was the first DISCO in NYC located in the Broadway Central Hotel! It was about 1966-7 that I went with a couple of girlfriends. We entered the lobby and off to the right curtains was the dance floor. There were strob lights, infused smoke and two live bands. It was a "far out" evening. Anyone else remember?

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  11. Definitely one of the coolest hotels in NYC! Thanks for sharing the pics, especially the "then" and "now".

  12. I found this post today and found some information about the hotel's usage. It was both a welfare hotel and a theater.

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