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

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Inwood Park & Robert Frost

The Tuft of Flowers, by Robert Frost, came to life today at the start of a 90 minute walk on a desolate cold day through Inwood Park.  I’ll take you just that far, we’ll save the rest for another day…

Looking south to the George Washington Bridge, near the Dyckman Street entrance and the lower level of the park…
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My walk already started out special.  I passed this, what appears to be a devotion, along the banks of the Hudson.  IMG_0794 IMG_0792
Not so unusual, actually.  Inwood is a special community.

I’ve posted this view before, but not from this perspective, at sea level, the fjords (palisades) across the Hudson.
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Looking north towards the Tappan Zee, up the Hudson…
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Just a little bit further to the right of the above image, a bridge for Amtrak and the entrance of the short Harlem River…
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Here’s the bridge that takes you over RR tracks, deeper into the park. This is the first time I crossed the bridge because I’d always been on skates before...
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I didn’t wait here more than a minute…
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when a train came by…
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Inwood Park is the closest you get to an expanse of “woods” in Manhattan,  and considering what most perceptions are of Manhattan, it’s pretty incredible…
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As soon as you cross the tracks, “street” lamps from a by-gone age mark the path…
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Can you see both lamp posts in the woods?
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I will leave off with this.  The tunnel ahead leads the traveler under the southbound Henry Hudson Parkway.  This is where I encountered something that I realized, later when I looked closely at the pictures, was Robert Frost’s The Tuft of Flowers.  I mean that explicitly; considering the country:city thing, this is not even a metaphor, but exactly and really what Robert Frost experienced that caused him to express the beautiful sentiment in that wonderful poem (which is included at the end).  Follow closely…
Here is the tunnel as you approach…
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Notice the tunnel has been painted midway up, first a peach color, and another coat of white paint came later…
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The view through the tunnel…
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But down to the left upon entering the tunnel, in the dirt, started by someone, at some time, a mosaic of flowers.

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The flower mosaic was installed between the two coats of paint. Look how the painter who came later was careful to avoid getting paint on it…
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It’s literally this poem. Two workers met without meeting.  The latter appreciated what the former had done, and in so doing, came to see the world a bit differently… 

A Tuft of Flowers, by Robert Frost

I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the leveled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

`As all must be,' I said within my heart,
`Whether they work together or apart.'

But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a 'wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o'er night
Some resting flower of yesterday's delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

`Men work together,' I told him from the heart,
`Whether they work together or apart.'

5 comments:

  1. Thank you for the revisit to Inwood park and the train tracks. I have 3 tiles like the ones pasted to the paint. Thanks for the poem, too. I'm 'wildered by your keen eye.

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  2. and, furthermore, the view of my old apt in the dyckman swing bridge pic. i think the fruits are for the dead, possibly someone killed there. I used to come across the same on Palisade Ave. usually a cake and some coins as well.

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  3. Thanks Susan--that makes sense. Rob

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  4. Thanks, Rob. This blog is terrific. I've walked on the other side of the river, under the "fjords", and appreciate seeing them from the NY perspective. Inwood Park is amazing. Looking forward to reading more.

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