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

Sunday, June 5, 2011

42nd Street to the Battery: 1855

The last post showed the city from 63rd Street to the Battery by putting together two pictures from the 1850s.  Here they are again; click here to read the original post.  A painted line runs down Fifth Avenue in both pictures, and you can see the dome and flag of the Crystal Palace on 42nd Street in both. The top one is from 1855, the bottom from 1858.

This post looks more closely at the first image.  Most people know that the city grew from the bottom up, but what stands out is how much the city also appears to have grown from the outside-in. Many of the blocks in the center of the island have only a handful of structures.

There are a few notable geographic features visible in the picture.  Murray Hill was a swath of land owned by a wealthy Quaker family during the Revolution.  It’s where Mrs. Murray famously (perhaps apocryphally) delayed general Howe with her hospitality, allowing General Washington and the Continental Army to escape to the north of the island. As good Quakers, though, the Murrays did not take sides in the Revolution (and their economic interests, which were mainly shipping, straddled both sides).  For their neutrality, many Quakers were expelled after the Revolution, and although they were permitted to return a short time later, many opted to remain in England.

You can detect the slope in the terrain of the actual hill extending from around 39th Street downtown past where the Empire State Building is today.

And you can see the Murray Hill railroad tunnel that today is an 8 block-long covered traffic tunnel running down the middle of Park Ave south of Grand Central.  Below, the future tunnel appears as narrow empty blocks between the two sides of Park Avenue (then, 4th Avenue) that straddled the sunken passage. Today Park Avenue has one of the widest medians of any of the avenues, the only indication above ground of the dozens of railroad tracks running below the avenue from Grand Central (to the left out of the scope of picture) up to 96th Street.  

The passage was cut through Murray Hill so the railroad wouldn’t have to climb up it.  After 1855 (the year of the picture), railcars were required to be horse drawn below 42nd Street so as not to be a nuisance to the growing population.  Here’s the tunnel today.  (I made these especially big and they overlap the side panels, but it's worth it to see the pictures).

It’s also interesting to see what an ordinary road Broadway was in this part of town.  Back in 1855 above 23rd Street it was the Bloomingdale Road, and would be renamed The Boulevard in 1866, finally taking the name Broadway in 1899.
And there’s a good reason Madison Square and Herald Square do not appear to be significant parts of town…

The center of town back in 1855 ran the stretch of Broadway from today’s NoHo and SoHo all the way to to City Hall.  The town center would begin its shift to Madison Square around 1859, with the construction of the Fifth Avenue Hotel.

Here’s a rather dramatic view from the same perspective, using Google Earth.  The NYPL and Bryant Park have replaced the reservoir and the Crystal Palace (though that structure only stood five years, 1853-1858).

The commercial center of the city moved up Broadway, which from the tip of the island to within a few blocks of Union Square is uncharacteristically straight. The Bowery (in yellow) was the high ground, and the main route in and out of lower Manhattan though most of history. The city grew first up the Bowery before Broadway bridged Canal Street and the center of the city shifted over to Broadway around the 1830s.