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

Thursday, February 3, 2011

298 Grand Street, Then and Now

Just a quick fun post. Going through the Museum of the City of New York’s archives I found this 1932 picture of 298 Grand Street.  The Federal-style home below was already 100 years old at the time (they'd stopped building dormer windows around 1840).  By 1932, this was in the heart of the Jewish Lower East side, and textiles were the major industry—it looks like Haddad’s is selling Linens, Curtains, Bed Sets, Silk Underwear

Most single family homes lasted just a few decades before becoming multiple family dwellings and/or businesses, such was the vortex-like growth of Manhattan’s population.

You can see the tracks of the Second Avenue railroad in the street.  Horse-drawn cars ran south on Allen Street, west along Grand Street (below), and turned north up Second Avenue.

MNY80077 1932 298 Grand StiMuseum of the City of New York

And here it is today in the middle of Chinatown.  All three buildings are still there, slightly modified.


  1. That's awesome! Crazy how much a neighborhood can change. Maybe a post on the origin and growth of Chinatown is in order?

  2. Absolutely! I'm trying to figure out how to approach the whole area. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Phenomenal. I just can never get enough of then and now photos, it's like an addiction.

  4. Great photos! According to the link below, the tracks may have extended on Grand St. all the way to the East River where they met the Grand St. Ferry:

    "The tracks had been part of The Forty-Second Street and Grand Street Ferry Railroad, a 19th century horse-drawn streetcar line which began operations in 1862, extending from the 42nd Street Ferry on the Hudson River to the Grand Street Ferry on the East River."

  5. More research turns up additional streetcars that ran on Grand St, including one that went from City Hall to Brooklyn (over the Williamsburg Bridge). It ran on Bowery, Grand St, Essex St, and Delancey St. It was called the "Post Office Line."

  6. Thanks for the complete picture, Randy! I had looked up that part of Grand Street in The Historical Atlas of New York City, Eric Homberger (1st ed. p. 99), to see what he had to say about the area. If you look at the map on that page, from 1865, he has the Second Avenue railroad running down 1st, across Grand, and up 2nd. It was obviously part of a much more extensive system. Thanks again!

  7. After a passage of time, everything gets change. As you have shown both the pictures of Grand Street, there is a lot of difference between both. Really very nice.

  8. Anyone know where I can find a photo of a milliner (hat maker /seller) working on The Grand around the 1840s?

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