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, March 4, 2011

The Bowery & Chatham Square, Then and Now

While preparing Part II of  The Story Behind the Lower East Side, I came across some old photographs of Chatham Square and couldn't resist checking out their locales…hence this post.

Here’s a photograph from Kenneth Dunshee’s As You Pass By. This is reportedly a funeral procession heading up the Bowery through Chatham Square in 1869.  Doyers Street would be in front of the tall building with the arched windows. Unbelievably, two of these buildings are recognizable today!

Chatham Square

Can you see them?…


The windows have lost their pediments, and the facade has gotten a 1970s-style brick makeover, but the dimensions and arrangement of the windows leave no doubt that this is the same building.

Chatham Squarei

This building has a distinct 3-angled facade, “curving” to accommodate Doyers Street. 

Chatham Squareii

It has the same number of windows (three) across the middle section, and though the windows have lost their arches the corbelled cornice is still evident on the Bowery side.  The next picture shows it more clearly…

Chatham Square2

Different angle, same cornice detail…


I couldn’t get the elevation of the photographer, but the next picture shows the street level today.

Chatham Square


  (added 3/5/2011)

To give you an idea of the area in 1869, we were four years out from the Civil War, and the Draft Riots of 1865 1863 probably still loomed large in the city's consciousness (and conscience).  The Draft Riots were a nearly week-long "event" that started out as a legitimate protest against the policy of permitting wealthy people to buy their way out of military service that, over the course of days, devolved into vicious gang assaults on African-Americans, wealthy abolitionists, and Republicans.  That was in the city at large.

Chatham Square had been developing as a working class entertainment district since the depression of 1837. By 1869, the upper classes had long since moved uptown, and the Bowery Theater, once the entertainment focal point for the genteel enclaves at the Battery, St. John's Park (the entrance to the Holland Tunnel today), and Bond Street, had changed its format to appeal to working class. 

The Bowery was, of course, a famous entertainment district. This entry from Allston T. Brown’s, A History of New York Stage from the First Performance in 1732 to 1901 (v.2), says what was going on at 7 Chatham Square (the building to the left of the first old building above) in 1854.  

Gotham has a place like this in mind when it says, “‘Variety’ shows refused to specialize in any one popular entertainment form but mixed them all.  Starting in 1865 Tony Pastor, a former clown and veteran concert saloon entertainer, ran one out of an old Bowery theater.”  Tony Pastor would go on to invent vaudeville, a cleaned up, family-oriented version of the variety show.  When you look at that old picture above, you’re looking at vaudeville and its pre-history.

Also important to note is that Chinatown was just about to start.  Once again, Gotham reports, “In 1872 [3 years after the picture] Wo Kee, a former Hong Kong merchant, moved his general goods store from Oliver to Mott [just down Doyers], dropping the first anchor in the area that would soon be known as Chinatown.”   

They're far from beautiful or important buildings today, but it's amazing to see how substantial and good looking they were back then.  

(added 3/6/2011) 

Shorpy's is a great website and had this great image of the area, circa 1905, when the 2nd and 3rd Avenue elevated trains merged in Chatham Square.  

The 3-sided facade is beautiful with its arched lintels and its cornice, which now completely wraps around. In 1905 it was the Chinese Tuxedo Restaurant.  

The other building to the left looks more like it did in 1869 than it does today, though in this picture it's gotten its fire escape.  One thing that's new here since 1869 is the building with the mansard roof and the triangular pediment over the windows. It is only an echo of its former self...




  1. Nice post, but one correction: the draft riots were in 1863, not 1865.

  2. Thanks, Stephanie--that was a sloppy mistake.

  3. Is that a dirt road or cobblestones? It's hard to tell from the picture... And where did you find the picture? It's great.

  4. Thanks, I believe it is a dirt road. I'm not expert about street surfaces but perhaps because Chatham Square was so wide and expansive, it would have been inefficient to pave with belgian block or cobblestone. Chatham Square was the first clearing outside of the city that was on solid high ground, and the Boston stage (and others) terminated in Chatham Square. Perhaps the low risk of flooding made paving unnecessary.

  5. No mention of the Chatham Theater? Very important venue.

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