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, May 19, 2011

The Big Picture of New York in the 1850s (Literally)

(2nd Ed. 5/20/11)

Old landscape drawings and panoramas of the city can be mesmerizing. And they’re not just curious, interesting images of the past. Each is a one-of-a-kind, information-rich artifact. In a time when we record more data about the city in an hour than we did through all of its first 300 years, these images tell a rare story of the city’s growth.

This post takes two old panoramas and puts them together, creating a super-panorama of the mid-19th century city.  Amazingly, they are just three years apart in the 1850s, and show contiguous parts of the city. 

A month ago, I was researching St. Patrick’s Cathedral and saw a panorama I’d seen many times before. It showed an industrious, bustling town from 42nd Street to the Battery. The date was 1855. Later the same day I saw another wide-angle view of the city, this one was from Valentine’s Manuel.  It depicted a more rural, uptown city, and was from 1858, just three years after the first one. Put together, the two pictures show the island from just inside Central Park all the way to the Battery.

A single building can be seen in both images, the Crystal Palace.  And we should start there anyway since it will bring us to the first panorama (shown at the opening of this post).


The Crystal Palace stood where Bryant Park is today.

The monumental glass and cast-iron structure was supposedly fireproof. According to the Encyclopedia of New York City, it “opened on 14 July 1853 as the site of the first world’s fair in the United States, an event entitled, ‘Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations,’…. [The fair] exhibited the products of agriculture and industry, and housed a collection of sculpture; it was also the first world’s fair to exhibit paintings in a picture gallery.” It's amazing to think about all the inventions Gotham lists, they were the height of technology.
Crowds roamed the building’s halls past shimmering fountains and glaring clusters of gas lights, marveling at the miracles of the age, great and small: scales, meters, guns, lamps, safes, clocks, carriages scientific instruments, agricultural instruments, a Fresnel lighthouse lens, telegraphy and photography equipment, fire engines, ships and plans for an elevated railroad above Broadway  [which would be built about 30 years later]. And machinery, everywhere machinery—machinery to pump water, sew, print, finish wood, refine sugar, set type, make ice cream, and wash gold.
Here is a Fresnel lighthouse lens (in case you were wondering)…

Fresnel lighthouse lens

The building had an astonishingly short life, just 5 years, from 1853 to 1858. The purportedly fireproof building had wooden floors and burned down in 1858.  

Across the street from the Crystal Palace on the north side of 42nd Street was the Latting Observatory, built about 1854.  But it was also constructed of iron and wood and it would burn down in 1856!


Here’s the site today from about the same perspective, near the corner of 40th Street and 6th Avenue, Bryant Park. The WR Grace Building is about where the Latting Observatory stood.


If you don’t know the WR Grace building (Bunshaft, 1974), it’s one of the most recognizable buildings in the city. A little originality goes a long way on 42nd Street.

The Latting Observatory housed a demonstration of Elisha Otis’s new safety elevator. But it only went up two floors and guests had to climb to the top of the tower to take in the view.  Which someone did to make our first image.


From 1855.… See the dome of The Crystal Palace in the foreground on 42nd Street? The Croton Aqueduct Distributing Reservoir (where the NYPL is today) stands to the left of the Crystal Palace. See the people walking along the walls of the reservoir?  It was a favorite activity of Edgar Allen Poe.

The East River and Long Island are to the left, and the Hudson River and New Jersey are to the right.  What is most striking is how clearly the city was growing in a certain pattern, from the outside in.  Fifth Avenue (the road coming out of the left corner) is relatively undeveloped compared to the avenues at the sides. In fact, bands of activity belted the island—ports for shipping were on water, factories and warehouses lined the shore, and shanties and tenements for the working class occupied the avenues and streets a few blocks in from the shore.  The interior was left in relative quietude. And the wealthy elite, who had been moving up Fifth Avenue since the 1830s, would march though this spot on Fifth Avenue in a phalanx of brownstones in the coming decades.


In 1855, 42nd Street was used intermittently as a cattle drive. To the far right was (is) Hell’s Kitchen, already with dozens of slaughterhouses on 10th Ave. To the left (east), where the UN is today, was Dutch Hill, one of the poorest shantytowns with bottom-of-the-barrel industries like bone-boiling.
Now here's the next image, from Valentine’s Manuel.  It shows a very different New York in 1858 (three years later).  The view is from 63rd Street, just inside the new Central Park, and again Fifth Avenue is coming from the lower left of the picture. You can see the dome of the Crystal Palace to the right. This stretch of road will have many full and half-block mansions before it becomes home to the Plaza Hotel, Tiffany’s, Trump Tower, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and Rockefeller Center. NBC and CBS will broadcast their national morning news programs from here.
valentines 19213

The workers are creating Central Park, the designs for which were approved the same year in 1858. You don’t see the Latting Observatory because it burned down two years earlier, in 1856. The Crystal Palace will meet the same fate a few months after this picture was made in 1858.

The big building is St. Luke’s Hospital, between 54th and 55th Streets, which will move up to Morningside Heights in the 1890s.  Across from St. Luke’s is the unfortunately named Deaf and Dumb Asylum, which was taken over by Columbia University in 1857, and will also move up to Morningside Heights in the 1890s. 

Prominent in history, but not visible because it would be behind St. Luke’s, is the Colored Orphan Asylum, attacked in the horrific week-long Draft Riots of 1863 (five years after this image).  The orphanage was 10 blocks behind St. Luke’s, and one block north of the Crystal Palace. It stood on Fifth Avenue between 44th and 43rd Streets, and was literally around the corner from the Crystal Palace. 

Both images will be looked at in more detail in next posts.
valentines 19212
Valentines Manual, 1921
Here are the two images side-by-side (or top-to-bottom).  A line is painted down Fifth Avenue to connect them.  Together, they'll give you a sense of the city’s uptown growth like you’ve never seen before.

lattingAAAAFinal 6a
I was surprised at how little development there was in this part of town, so late.  And remember, the lower image was three years after the image above it. 

And you can almost pinpoint the uptown growth in 1858, somewhere around the mid-50s. This zoom-in floored me. Currently about the most expensive real estate on Earth, in 1858 was cow pasture.  You can see the exact boundary of progress, the buildings almost seem to be eying the cows!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

WTC Progress 2

No commentary along the way. An afternoon walk around the World Trade Center and the things I encountered, May 2, 2010.



































I continued along the sky way  a few feet into the next building, and a cruise ship passed by the window.








If you want to see a post from November, 2010, about the WTC Progress, click here.