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

Friday, December 31, 2010

Why the West Side is Different

The west side and the east side are frequently sized up against each other, and it's often the residents themselves who are the first to point out the defining personality traits—the "energies" if you will—of the two parts of town.  The conventional wisdom holds that the east side is younger, more bustling and vibrant; the west side more family-oriented, bohemian and quiet.  And it always comes across that somehow it's the west side that's different and that the east side is more like the rest of the city.  It's all true, and there's a reason for it:  Morningside Heights. 
Today’s Broadway, that “main thoroughfare” and old Native American path, goes right through the heart of Morningside Heights, a high plateau at the northern extreme of the upper west side and home to Columbia University,  St. John the Divine and other renowned institutions and monumental works of architecture. Its north-south boundaries are from 110th Street to 125th Street; the steep cliffs of Riverside and Morningside Parks define its west and east boundaries. To the north a precipitous drop begins at about 122nd Street leading down into a valley and the old village of Manhattanville, dating from 1806.  The valley was once called the Hollow Way.  Here is an image of Morningside Heights, with the Hudson River to the left.

Morningside Heights' history is one of rural farmland surrounded by country estates, interrupted for a brief spectacular moment in the Revolutionary War with the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776 (one of Washington's and the Continental Army's few victories).  In 1821 the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum moved to the quiet plateau, followed in 1843 by the Leake and Watts Orphanage (both continue their work today in Westchester).  For nearly 50 years the two institutions existed in close proximity on the windswept, sun-soaked plateau.  But in quick procession starting in 1887,  St. John the Divine would take over the orphanage site and Columbia University replaced the insane asylum, accompanied to the area by St. Luke's Hospital and Teachers College. Grant's Tomb would open to the public in 1897.  Later, other institutions would follow, including Union Theological Seminary, Riverside Church, and Julliard (which eventually moved to Lincoln Center and was replaced with the Manhattan School of Music).

Here’s the same image with many of the landmarks identified. Broadway is just to the left of the “M” in “Manhattanville.”
The image below is down in the valley of Manhattanville, looking west along 125th Street toward the Hudson River.  For an island whose nearly every hill was used to fill in every dale, the two viaducts that connect Morningside Heights with Hamilton Heights over the valley of Manhattanville are evidence of a terrain the city couldn't conquer. In the foreground is the viaduct that conveys the no. 1 subway along Broadway (the ground actually drops out from under it), and beyond it is the Riverside Drive viaduct. Both traverse the old Hollow Way.  In the image above, the photographer would be standing just above the “M” in “Manhattanville.”
viadcuct 1  
Here's the Riverside Drive viaduct (farther back in the above image). 125th Street goes through the wide arch while St. Clair Place goes through the narrower arch. See the street sign for 129th Street intersecting 125th Street!?  That's part of the story which we'll see soon.  This viaduct was built in 1900; the one for the subway was built shortly after.

viaduct 2
An old postcard view of the Riverside Drive viaduct from just north of Grant's Tomb. See the wider, slightly lower arch to the right of the lamp post?

Most of the west side of Manhattan is an ever-rising chain of plateaus followed by valleys, with an occasional drop all the way to sea-level before steeply rising again. And just as people today opt for elevators instead of stairs and cluster their cars in parking lots close to supermarket, people in the past didn’t waste energy getting from point A to point B.  Before the grid was laid out scores of roads criss-crossed town linking travelers to ferry terminals and bridges (the few that there were), and to other locales within the city. With the coming of the subway (and perhaps even moreso cars) topographical considerations became a non-issue when traveling. Only skaters and bikers consider hills when planning a trip through Manhattan.

One side effect of this paradigm shift in mass movement has been an interesting case of historical geographic amnesia. Considering the wear on horses, or a foot-traveler's exertion, if there were viable alternatives, why would someone climb a hill just to go down again? We'll take a closer look at that in a moment.

Another mind eraser has been Central Park. In addition to the people displaced by the creation of the park in the mid-1800s (perhaps most famously from Seneca Village) many old roads were also obliterated. Let’s resurrect a few old roads, starting a bit farther downtown.

Union Square and Madison Square Parks (technically it's simply Madison Square, and not Madison Square "Park," 1/3/11) were once inextricably linked as functionaries of the pre-grid road system. Together they worked from 14th Street to 26th Street as a nexus point for travelers, acting as a sort of switching station. 

The image below is of both parks. Just below Union Square a number of roads converged, three of which can still be seen today (in fact it’s why it's called “Union” Square). From right to left the roads entering Union Square are: The Bowery (the oldest), Broadway (being paved up to this point by the late 1830s), and University Place (formerly Wooster Street, but named for NYU in 1838).
Broadway leaves the top left corner of Union Square and slices past the lower left corner of Madison Square at 23rd Street. As an interesting side note, there is no Broadway between 14th and 17th Streets!

Here’s an old view from the top of Union Square looking south.  (I left out University Place, but Washington Square Park and Fifth Avenue are shown.)
If a traveler were heading north along any of these three uptown roads from Union Square, they were in an area called The Common Land. Going a few "blocks" farther, they could choose from a host of uptown roads to continue their journey. Together the two parks constituted a hub for foot, cart and carriage traffic, a half-mile long switching station. 

Below is an 1828 view of Madison Square Park from As You Pass By, by Kenneth Dunshee (21 years earlier than the view of Union Square above, a few blocks away--and we think the city changes fast today!). The view is looking north from 21st Street along Broadway where it transitioned to the Bloomingdale Road (going off into the horizon in the picture).  The Bloomingdale Road was the main road up the west side of the island to Morningside Heights. It would be widened in 1868 and renamed The Boulevard before becoming Broadway in 1899. The road turning to the right in front of the large building surrounded by the wall (originally an arsenal converted for use as the House of Refuge for Juvenile Delinquents), is the Boston Post Road. Though you can’t see it in the image, once you made the right turn onto the Boston Post Road, a number of other roads opened up before the traveler.

Except for today's Broadway,
none of the old roads leading out of the area of Madison Square exist today.

Important note: The Boston Post Road, and different parts of it, had a number of names through history, including: the Wecksequageck Road, the Kingsbridge Road, and the Eastern Post Road. Old roads were forever tapping into new roads, and new roads were always being built while old ones straightened out, leaving a historical path of nomenclative chaos and destruction up and down the island.

Just because it's interesting, here is the same view today looking up Broadway from 21st Street. It's hard to imagine the gambrel roofs, gable peaks, chimneys and porches of 1828! The tall, beautiful building to the left is an uncharacteristic view of the Flat Iron building. The Bloomingdale Road is Broadway today, and bears to the left of the small building in the middle of the street in the distance. The Boston Post Road no longer exists. Fifth Avenue bears to the right of the small building, past the trees of Madison Square Park and continues up past the Empire State Building (see it there?). If Fifth Avenue were shown in the above picture, it would crash diagonally across the scene, right through the House of Refuge.
Now let’s look at the bigger picture and at some of the roads that started out from this area. Below is an image of Manhattan from 14th Street to around 125th, including Morningside Heights in the upper left--notice the green arc of Morningside Park near the top left corner of Central Park.

Here were the main roads that led uptown starting at around 23rd Street. They're color coordinated with the map below, along with the years they existed before the grid.

The Bloomingdale Road (early 1700s - late 1800s). Much of it exists as Broadway today. 
The Kingsbridge Road (early 1700s - late 1800s). This is a remnant of the old Wecksequageck Road, following today's St. Nicholas Avenue.
 The Boston, aka Eastern Post Road (early 1700s - mid 1800s).  This route was originally the Wecksequageck Road.
The West Road, aka Albany Avenue (1805 - mid 1800s). Generally followed today's Sixth Avenue, inlcuding through Central Park.
The Middle Road (late 1700s - mid 1800s).  Generally followed today's Fifth Avenue.
To be sure, many more roads branched off, merged and diverged from these main roads, along with myriad cross town streets, all the way uptown. These, though, were the main arteries.  As well, dozens more cart lanes, paths and roads entered the Union Square-Madison Square area from all sides linking places like Chelsea, the Village, Kips Bay, and Belle Vue.

Broadway is often described as the main cosmopolitan thoroughfare and an old Native American path—the "road of roads." But that historic Broadway is downtown; throughout most of history the section of Broadway from 23rd Street to Morningside Heights was a country road named by the Dutch for its beauty and its “vale of blooms.”  Though the Bloomingdale Road was considered a "main thoroughfare," the road most used to go in and out of town was the Boston Post Road through its many names and incarnations.

An excerpt from Valentine’s Manual of Old New York, 1923 of Laura Dayton Fessenden’s reminiscences gives an idea of the nature of this part of town, along with the people who traveled the Bloomingdale Road.

When I was a little girl, in 1867-1868, the upper part of Manhattan Island, on the west or Hudson River side and north of 59th Street, was suburban.
There was one line of street cars that penetrated ''through the quiet" at stated intervals (but never on schedule time) to the jingling of not unmusical harness bells. The route was up Eighth Avenue, and Eighth Avenue skirted the west side of Central Park, as it does to-day, and Central Park was in 1867 a comparatively new city acquisition.

There was also once in every two or three hours (I think it was from six in the morning until six at night) a stage line that followed the windings of the Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway) through Bloomingdale, Manhattanville, Carmansville and on to Washington

It might be interesting to mention en passant that the people who used these street cars and stages were mostly known to one another, not perhaps personally, but as belonging to the same country-side neighborhood.

As an instance of this fact, I recall a tall, dark, sallow man, who always wore a cloak and who was a tea merchant. He was a brother of Susan B. Anthony and, as Miss Anthony was then considered to be a young woman of startlingly progressive ideas, we children gazed upon her brother with interest. Then along the Bloomingdale Road there lived a colony of actors, and Mr. Joseph Jefferson's little daughter, who afterward married the English novelist, Fairjohn, was almost like going to the theatre to ride beside in the car or the stage.

The stages only ran on week days, for an old observance of the Sabbath was still held in half remembrance in New York. Of course, there had been a great change since 1830, for in his book, "The Last Days of Knickerbocker Life in New York," my father says: "When the church bells had ceased tolling and services were about to commence, heavy iron chains were drawn tightly across the streets containing the 'Houses of Worship' and only the doctor's gig, on an errand of mercy, was allowed to pass through the barred roadway"; and again he says: "Sometimes on a lovely summer afternoon a brave sinner would get out his carriage and pair for a drive from town into the country, knowing that for this lapse, and an indefinite period thereafter, he would be a subject for intercession at family evening prayers."

To go back to the stage route in 1867, by the time 60th Street was reached the Bloomingdale Road and the contiguous neighborhood became country stretches of land, filled with lovely homes, many of them like Marshall Hall at 92nd Street, having been the country seats of representative New York families since pre-Revolutionary times.
The coach line along Eighth Avenue that Fessenden mentions opened in 1851 and originally extended only to 59th, a relatively recent development in the scheme of things.  Still, even with that additional transit line, it seems those who traveled the Bloomingdale Road did so because they lived in the area, they were visiting (or going themselves) to any of charitable institutions or houses of refuge in the area, or they were out for a ride in the country (which was a popular pastime). But it wasn't a completely cloistered part of town; there were inns, hotels and taverns up and down the west side. Yet, if one were on business, or simply entering or exiting the city, today’s Broadway on the west side was just about the last route you’d opt for.

And the names of the roads say a lot: The “Post” road was for destinations upstate and New England; it’s not a puzzler to figure why “Albany Avenue” was so named; and the Middle Road is self-described. But Bloomingdale, in addition to being a description of the whole of the bucolic west side, was a village at around West 100th Street. And though by Ms. Fessenden's time the Bloomingdale Road passed through Mornignside Heights to points beyond, it originally ended at the top of Morningside Heights and was, in effect, a west side cul-de-sac.

It’s also an indication of traffic that there were so many roads branching off the Boston Post Road so far downtown, going in the same basic direction. There appears not to have been the demand on the Bloomingdale Road that there was on the Boston Post Road, such as it was to necessitate at least two additional parallel roads to accommodate the traffic. 

Even if you were going to the village of Manhattanville just above Morningside Heights (or delivering goods from the ferry terminals), it made sense to skirt around Morningside Heights. And those roads are actually still there!
Today, three separate roads link together to make the old route that bypassed Morningside Heights leading to the ferry terminals and the village of Manhattanville. The route is formed by St. Nicholas Avenue (yellow)-Hancock Place (white)-125th Street (green). The old path went: Kingsbridge Road-the fork in the road-Manhattan Road.

The solid green line in the image below is 125th Street, on the grid proper. So intransigent was the route that 125th conformed to it! That's why 129th Street intersects it.  
Below is and old postcard view from 1865 of the Kingsbridge Road somewhere along the yellow dotted line leading from Central Park on the way to Manhattanville. Though it’s labeled “Harlem-Lane from Central Park to Manhattanville” the road was more generally known as the Kingsbridge Road (and is today’s St. Nicholas Avenue).
Back on the Bloomingdale Road, here’s a picture from before it became The Boulevard, and then ultimately Broadway.  The Palisades appear to be in the background.
Some of the theories I’ve heard and read explaining the difference between the east and west sides of the city are that: 1. the west side developed later than the east side; 2. the Tweed scandal of the 1870s set development of the west side back a generation; 3. real estate investors and speculators put their money in the east side earlier. All of these make sense and are true, but even they don't explain why the two neighborhoods would have such different characters. And the reason all those things are true probably has to do with the fact that the east side of the city always had much more traffic. And not just more traffic, more cosmopolitan traffic--in a city that was the very definition of the term!

The Bloomingdale Road may have been a main thoroughfare, but it wasn’t a "through" street for many years, and when it was, there were many smarter, more energy efficient ways to travel through the city. Commerce absolutely would have preferred to flow up and down the east side rather than deal with the west's terrain. With commerce comes people, ideas, and "energy," everything that defines a city. 

It doesn’t help matters either that the old suburban road carries the name Broadway today, making it easy to infer that it has some relationship with the Broadway made famous for its shops, theaters, hotels and the hustle and bustle of city life.

The suburban, more quiet disposition of the west side has existed throughout history, and in relative terms has carried down to today. That's why the west side is different.  


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lunar Eclipse, Every 15 Minutes

The last time a lunar eclipse occurred on the winter solstice was in 1638.   Back then, New Amsterdam had a population of about 300 people speaking more than a dozen languages.  If the eclipse had been visible in this part of the world, here’s what they would have seen…

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Holiday Spirit Around Town

…and a few special links.  

The Solow Building, 9 W57th Street (the best surface for skating!)
From down the block…
The Exxon Building, 1251 6th Avenue
exxon i
Trump Tower, 721 Fifth Avenue.  Two things: Fifth Avenue is always spelled out, and this building looks like this all the time.
This is what the rest of it looks like for the holidays…
Barneys, 660 Madison Avenue, used celebrity chefs for their window dressing.  The men are in a food fight which Mario Batali appears to have lost, his head on a platter surrounded by orange crocs.  Happy Holidays?
Here are the women, who display more decorum.  Though someone appears to be in the oven underneath Martha Stewart. Weird.
The Pulitzer Fountain in front of The Plaza, 768 Fifth Avenue.
Nutcracker on 6th Avenue
Bryant Park’s blue lighted tree…
Bryant Park
Rockefeller Center…
IMG_1146   rockii

radio city

The Snowflake hanging over Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, and the Crown Building
Midtown lobby trees…
The Exxon Building
1251 6th Avenue…

 …comes with a wreath.

The Bertelsmann Building
1540 Broadway

millennium hotel

The Millennium Hotel
145 west 44th Street

The New York Public Library…
…has the best ornaments…
nypl ii

Happy Hanukkah…
Macy’s dual holiday theme is Miracle on 34th Street and Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus. Unfortunately, there was too much reflection in the windows to get good pictures… 
But I remembered last year that Justin Ferate, preeminent NYC tour guide and selfless clearinghouse of all the best information, had forwarded this video of Virginia O’Hanlon reading the response she received to the letter she wrote to Frank Church in 1897, the editor of The Sun.  She went on to receive her doctorate from Fordham University and wrote a dissertation on the importance of play in children’s lives. She eventually became a junior principal in Brooklyn at PS 401. Here’s the short letter she wrote that would elicit perhaps the most famous editorial of all time.

Dear Editor:
I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘if you see it in The Sun it’s so.’  Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
                                                                                                Virginia O’Hanlon
115 West Ninety-fifth Street

Virginia O’Hanlon herself, in her 70s, reading the letter Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus in 1961…(Vintage WTEN) <>
And, if you like Christmas music, more gratitude to Justin Ferate for sending this link via Patricia Myers.  O Holy Night, sung by Bryn Terfel. If you right click and open the the link in a new window you can then come back and look at the rose window (below) in Saint John the Divine.  They go well together...


Merry Christmas!