New York City history

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street book coverDid you ever wonder after whom Bleecker Street or Abingdon Square were named?  Is Union Square named so after Civil War soldiers?  Was there a spring running down Spring Street?  New York’s history can be gleaned from the history of its street names as outlined in Henry Moscow’s The Street Book: An Encyclopedia of Manhattan’s Street Names and Their Origins, one of several books available about the namesakes of our city’s streets.

Here are excerpts from a few of many interesting ones:

Abingdon Square

The Namesake: Charlotte Warren, a pre-Revolutionary War Greenwich Village belle, who became the bride of the Earl of Abingdon.  Here father was Admiral Sir Peter Warren, a naval hero and New York social lion, and her mother was the beautiful and wealthy Susannah de Lancey. (page 20)


The Namesake: Peter Stuyvesant’s farm, bouwerij, to which the road led from the more settled parts of New Amsterdam,  The farm’s main house stood between 15th and 16th streets, just east of First Avenue.  (page 29)

The mansion of Sir Peter Warren, through whose property Bleecker Street ran.

The mansion of Sir Peter Warren, through whose property Bleecker Street ran.

Bleecker Street

The Namesake: Anthony Bleecker, an early 19th-century Greenwich Village literatus.  The street, the land for which was deeded to the city in 1807, already ran through the Bleecker family farm.  … Bleecker was a friend of Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant. His prose poetry appeared in a variety of periodicals during some thirty years, and Bryant once reported that Eliza Fenno had left town in 1811 simply to get away from Bleecker’s puns. (page 29)

William Bedlow Crosby (1786-1865) painted by Samuel Lovett Waldo

William Bedlow Crosby (1786-1865) painted by Samuel Lovett Waldo

Crosby Street

The Namesake: William Bedlow Crosby, early 19th-century philanthropist.  When both of his parents died two years after his birth in 1786, Crosby was adopted by his mother’s uncle, Henry Rutgers.  Crosby inherited the Crosby wealth and devoted his life to good works. (page 42)

Rivington Street

The Namesake: James Rivington, publisher of the pro-British newspaper Royal Gazette in New York during the Revolutionary War. …Because the paper printed both sides of every poitical issue, an unprecedented practive, its plant was wrecked by patriot extremists and put out of business.  Under British occupation of the city, Rivington resumed publication, and supported the King.  Rivington Street was named for him during thewar.  The street name was retained and Rivington himself was allowed to stay after British evacuation because he publicly repented his Tory sympathies and because, it was said, he had secretly aided Washington’s spies in the city.

Spring Street

The Namesake: a spring that originated there, at West Broadway, and once served as a source of water for residents.  (page 96)

Union Square

The Namesake: the junction of many roads and streets there. The square was named Union Place in 1808, when the commissioners who were laying out the city onthe grid plan decreed that the area should remain open.  It was renamed Union Square in 1832. (page 102)


This and other books about New York street names:

Feirstein, Sanna. Naming New York: Manhattan Places & How They Got Their Names. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

McNamara, John. History in Asphalt: The Origin of Bronx Street and Place Names, Borough of the Bronx, New York City. Harrison, N.Y: Published in collaboration with the Bronx County Historical Society [by] Harbor Hill Books, 1978.

Moscow, Henry, and Thomas Tracy. The Street Book: An Encyclopedia of Manhattan’s Street Names and Their Origins. New York, N.Y: Fordham University Press, 1978.

Rogerson, Don. Manhattan Street Names Past and Present. New York: Griffin Rose Press, 2013.

Ulmann, Albert. A Landmark History of New York: Also the Origin of Street Names and a Bibliography. New York: D. Appleton and Co, 1906.

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whalen 1The saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  This expression came to mind the other day as I was browsing in Housing Works Bookstore and came upon a book by Richard J. Whalen entitled A City Destroying Itself: An Angry View of New York.  Whalen, a native New Yorker, originally wrote a shorter piece on the same theme for Fortune Magazine that was so popular, he expanded the article to a book-length diatribe about all the myriad things he feels are destroying New York.  Written in 1965, it is noteworthy that the complaints he had then are the complaints we still hear today in 2013.

The opening of chapter 3 reads:

New York shows alarming signs of spiritual malnutrition and death-by-inches. It is frowning, tight-lipped, short-tempered, the most nervous city in America.  It is a city without grace.  It is humorless, able to mock and taunt, but too tense to gain the release of laughter.  It is a city that cried “Jump” to a would-be suicide perched on a window ledge.

Richard J. Whalen

Richard J. Whalen

I, too, am a native New Yorker, and I happen to disagree with Whalen here, but I have heard this sentiment expressed by countless others, although usually from those who were born and raised in other, more peaceful and bucolic, places where people are polite, even if they don’t mean it.

Whalen opens the book with:

All but a few years of my life have been spent in and around New York City, but I cannot claim an intense feeling of identification with the city.  In a sense, one is cheated by being born here.  The newcomer never entirely recovers from his stunning first impression, while the native becomes aware of the city gradually and without a thrill of wonder.

whalenPoint well taken.  I do find newcomers to New York have a strong reaction to it, whether negative or positive.  The excitement in the eyes of those whose lifelong dream it was to move to “The Big Apple” is almost blinding, whereas this is all I ever knew, I thought everyone grew up riding graffiti covered-subways and having year-round access to the world’s greatest museums.

Here is another refrain, oft heard, especially from old-time natives:

New York exists only in he present tense.  Just as there is no sense of obligation to the future, so there is no feeling of pride in the past.  Although Manhattan is quite old—it was first settled in 1615—is, as Alexander Woollcott once remarked, “a town without any attics.”  The city seems to regard the past with contempt and hastens to obliterate its heritage.

In 1965, the Landmarks Preservation Commission New York was a newly established institution, and was born too late to save the old Penn Station:

Symbolic of New York’s self-destructive frenzy is the demolition of Pennsylvania Station. Now being razed to make way of a $120 million complex including a new Madison Square Garden arena, an exhibition hall, bowling alleys, and a thirty-three-story office tower.  This will be the fourth Madison Square Garden in eighty-five years.  There will never be another Penn Station.

I wonder what Whalen would have to say about our city’s current plans for Moynihan Station, an attempt to harken back to a time when trains arrived in terminals both grand and central.

What fun I had perusing this volume of complaints and criticisms that also contains thirteen illustrations by Feliks Topolski.  The jacket copy declares, “Here is a city of endless human discomfort, inconvenience, harassment and fear…one which strives and dehumanizes its inhabitants…a city destroying itself.”  Though obviously rather one-sided, Whalen’s prose is very readable and his arguments astute.  Had he been writing today, he would have made a first-rate blogger!

Whalen, Richard J. A City Destroying Itself: An Angry View of New York. New York: Morrow, 1965.


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The Stone Bridge, from The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (1865)

The Stone Bridge, from The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (1865)

One of the many perks of working at New York Bound Books is that I get to pore through lots of rare books about New York, for research and just for fun.  I recently photographed a few for our catalog that included several image of old SoHo, and when I say old, I do not mean when Dean and Deluca on Prince Street old, I mean when Canal Street was a canal old.

Title Page of the Valentine Manual 1865

Title Page of the Valentine Manual 1865

The first image, of the Stone Bridge (see above) in 1800, is from the 1865 edition of the Valentine Manuals.  Officially titled The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York, this series of books was commonly called the “Valentine’s Manuals” for David T. Valentine, the clerk of the Common Council who compiled the volumes that included the city’s annual reports and directories. (read more about Valentine Manuals here at New York Bound Books).

A little research produced an article entitled “The Old Stone Bridge at Canal-street and Broadway” by Capt. Walker Bicker in The New York Times about his memories of  the bridge and its environs in the early 19th century, published April 9, 1886:

Broadway was not paved beyond “the stone bridge” which stood where Canal-street now crosses Broadway.  This was a famous resort for us schoolboys.  It was considered “out of town”—all north beyond as well as the immediate vicinity was country, post and rail fences dividing the land into different sized parcels.  This bridge spanned a small stream which conveyed water from the Collect on the east side of Broadway (where now stands the Tombs) to the west side, where was an extensive meadow covering most of the ground from Broadway to the north River and from Lispenard-street to Spring-street.

Here’s another image of Broadway, just one block to the north, in 1824.

Corner of Broadway and Grand Street, 1824 from The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (1865)

Corner of Broadway and Grand Street, 1824 from The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (1865)

Perhaps even more enlightening than the Valentine Manuals is Edward W. Browning’s New York Real Estate Brochure that lists buildings, apartments, apartment hotels, tenements, and stores to be sold at public auction on June 17, 1929.

Edward W. Browning’s New York Real Estate Brochure

Edward W. Browning’s New York Real Estate Brochure


513-519 Broadway through to 84 to 94 Mercer Street from Edward W. Browning’s New York Real Estate Brochure

513-519 Broadway through to 84 to 94 Mercer Street from Edward W. Browning’s New York Real Estate Brochure


This brochure contains a lot for sale at “513-519 Broadway through to 84 to 94 Mercer Street,” a plot that contains three buildings on Broadway, two of which go all the way through to Mercer Street, that would bring in an estimated whopping $80,700.00 in rent when fully occupied, presumably annually.  I found a recent article on Curbed about a unit in this lot for rent today:

Hank Azaria, best known for doing his voices on “The Simpsons” (Moe, Apu, Chief Wiggum among others), told the Wall Street Journal that he’s renting out his loft at 84 Mercer Street for a cool $16,000 per month. For that moolah you get a 4,000 square foot loft with 3 bedrooms. He picked the place up from photographer and director Cindy Sherman for $4.25M back in 2005, but he plans to spend a lot more time on the West Coast.

If a renter will pay $16K per month for a loft, imagine how much one of those retail spaces fetches!  I pride myself on being pretty good at math, but I’m not even going to attempt to figure out the percentage of appreciation between 1929 and 2011.  (And I don’t know if Azaria is BEST known for his Simpsons voices, fantastic though they are.)

Last, but not at all least, here is a newspaper clipping from February 9, 1907 of a picture of The Hall of Science, “where the freethinkers foregathered seventy-five years ago.”


This building on Broome Street (probably between Mott and Elizabeth)  was purchased for $7,000 by educational reformer Frances Wright in 1829. According to the entry on Wright:

Commencing a career as a lecturer, she bought a Baptist church and renamed it the Hall of Science, housing a lecture hall, a secular Sunday school, and a bookstore for free-thinkers. Wright’s lectures challenged evolving concepts of domestic ideology when she explained the experience and ideals of Nashoba, criticized evangelical revivals, and advocated education and equal rights for women. Her favorite topic was educational reform. She proposed a “guardianship system” through which state government would establish district boarding schools, where Americans could be raised for social equality through a curriculum that instructed all children in free inquiry and the physical sciences. Wright found admirers in New York among the reformers and artisans who comprised the city’s Workingmen’s Party and who also advocated enlightened public education and such issues as the ten-hour workday, abolition of imprisonment for debt, and attacks on the privileges of banks and capitalists.

Three random items.  Three SoHo locales.  Three interesting stories.  All in a day’s work.


This post originally appeared on The SoHo Memory Project on December 12, 2012.

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Marking Spaces at the Queens Museum

Marking Spaces at the Queens Museum

The Queens Museum of Art‘s new exhibition, “Marking Spaces: New York City’s Landmark Historic Districts on the Panorama of the City of New York,” commemorates fifty years of the New York City Landmarks Law founded on April 19, 1965.  This exhibition kicks off a two-year anniversary celebration by placing yellow flags on the museum’s Panorama of the City of New York indicating the 109 historic districts throughout the City.

Mayor Robert Wagner enacted the city’s landmarks preservation law a year and a half after the Beaux-Arts Pennsylvania Station, designed by McKim, Mead & White was razed.  The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was formed to protect New York City’s architectural and cultural landmarks.

According to the Queens Museum website:

The designated historic districts of New York City represent some of the oldest and most distinctive areas in the city. Designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, these neighborhoods have been singled out for their unique “sense of place”. Each one is rich with history and architectural character, and together they help tell the story of New York City and its development into the world capital it is today.

Brooklyn Heights was the first historic district designated in November 1965, followed the next year by districts in Greenwich Village, Gramercy Park and the Upper East Side. Today, there are 109 historic districts with 18 historic district extensions numbering more than 30,000 buildings across all five boroughs.

Robert Moses originally had the Panorama, 9,335-square-foot architectural model of every building in the five boroughs, built for the 1964 World’s Fair. By placing the flags on the Panorama to designate historic landmarks, the museum will highlight the work of the Landmarks Preservation Commission over the past fifty years, and, one hopes, will allow the visitor to imagine what the city would look like had the commission not existed.

This exhibition will be on view through June 02, 2013.

Read more about The Queens Panorama of the City of New York, as well as Otis Bullard’s Moving Panorama of New York in my post Struck By Wonder: The Queens Panorama of the City of New York and Otis Bullard’s Moving Panorama of New York

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“St. George’s” by Gene Schermerhorn

In 1888, Gene Schermerhorn, a member of an old New York family, ended a series of letters to his young nephew in the finest spirit of personal recollections:

Now my dear Phil I have tried to tell you what this great city was like when I was a boy but little older than yourself, and I hope I have succeeded in interesting you somewhat. I have begun with my earliest recollections of New York and I will leave it now about 1856 when the population was only 629,810…It is estimated now at over 1,500,000.

I cannot help looking forward and wondering, if it can possibly be that you can tell of as great changes. It is my firm belief that you will be able to do so and that you will live to see the entire island as thickly built as it is now below 59th St. and perhaps the district above the Harlem also. Or it may be that you will see changes that I don’t even dream of, although my faith in the future of New York is unbounded…I hope you will sometimes enjoy reading what has given me so much pleasure to write for you.

Your loving Uncle Gene

First hand accounts like these are sparks of New York life.  Many writers, including Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, E.B. White and Joseph Mitchell, have illuminated the city, but the words of New Yorkers outside of literary circles, people like Gene Schermerhorn, are often equally eloquent and distinctive. Unlike histories, contemporary diary entries, letters, and other eyewitness accounts offer a view of New York life that is umblemished by the sensibilities of a later time. Read the rest of this entry »

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Memories of Manhattan in the Sixties and Seventies by Charles T. Harris

Memories of Manhattan in the Sixties and Seventies by Charles T. Harris

When I first picked up the book Memories of Manhattan in the Sixties and Seventies, I thought to myself, oh goody, a memoir about the New York of my childhood.  I opened the book, and to my surprise and delight, this catalog of memories, written by Charles Townsend Harris, is a look back not on the twentieth century, but on the 1860’s and 1870’s.  I perused the pages of Townsend’s recollections as I sat in the New York Bound Books office here in Greenwich Village and read about the neighborhood’s origins:

I was born in the erstwhile village which in its earliest days was separated from the main city by Lispenard Meadows.  People in the early part of the last century visiting Greenwich literally went into the country, as the village was truly a rural settlement.

By the 1860’s and 70’s, however, New York had become a newly bustling metropolis, as Barbara Cohen writes in her post on 1850’s New York:

As New York City left the 1850′s behind, the nation entered into the bloodiest war in its history.  Although the battlefields were in the south, the Civil War exacerbated class tensions, culminating in the infamous Draft Riots in 1863, and left a lasting impact on life in the city.  The seeds of transformation, from a seaport town to an international metropolis in the decades leading up to the war, however, could never be unsown, and New York continued its meteoric rise, despite domestic conflict, to become the epicenter of the Western world.

Grand Central Depot, from Memories of Manhattan

Grand Central Depot, from Memories of Manhattan

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A drawing titled “The Genius of Advertising” from an 1880 issue of the National Police Gazette shows men outside a brothel gazing at pictures of some of the attractions awaiting them inside (photo via The New York Times)

A drawing titled “The Genius of Advertising” from an 1880 issue of the National Police Gazette shows men outside a brothel gazing at pictures of some of the attractions awaiting them inside (photo via The New York Times)

During the early 1800′s, the posh shopping and dining neighborhood in downtown Manhattan called SoHo (which stands for SOuth of HOston), enjoyed  its previous heyday as a commercial destination for well-to-do New Yorkers.  By mid-century, however, while Broadway around Prince and Spring Streets remained for some time the “Fifth Avenue” of its day, bordellos began popping up on side streets, and the area soon became New York’s first red light district: Read the rest of this entry »

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A drawing by F. O. C. Darley published in Harper’s Weekly on January 1, 1859 (image and text: HarpWeek via The New York Times) The caption for this untitled cartoon reads: Mrs. Pegu, and drawing-room, are all laid out in state to receive New Year’s calls. Thirty-two young gentlemen make a brief appearance at the door, and recite the following shibboleth: “How d’ye do, Mrs. Pegu. Happy New Year. Can’t stay a minute. Made seventy-six calls this morning; got thirty more to make. Adoo! Adoo!” The young gentlemen vanish, to be succeeded by others.

Although I’ve lived in New York City my entire life, I have never been to Times Square on New Year’s eve.  The idea of standing out in the cold with close to a million others to ring in the new year sounds dreadfully exhausting to me, but perhaps not quite as exhausting as the old New Year’s tradition of “calling” or “visiting.”

In 1907, Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times, dropped the first illuminated ball from the flagpole on the recently constructed New York Times Building that was located in the newly renamed Times Square and started a tradition that would last over a century.  Predating this tradition, according to The New York Times Learning Network’s On This Day, nineteenth century New Yorkers practiced another ritual that seems to have been long forgotten:

New Year’s Day was traditionally considered the best time of the year for renewing, reviving, or reaffirming friendships. During the nineteenth century, it was the custom of urban gentlemen to pay formal visits to the households of friends and relatives on that holiday. Gentlemen were expected to dress appropriately in morning costume, consisting of a dark coat, vest and tie, dark or light pants, and somber-colored gloves. Receiving the gentlemen callers were the ladies of the house, dressed in their sartorial finery or, occasionally, in the costume of famous female figures in history or myth.

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The following is an excerpt from an article by Sibyl McCormac Groff entitled “Gothamtide: Words and Images in Nineteenth Century New York,” that first appeared in Antiques magazine.

New Yorkers have long promoted the Christmas season, or Gothamtide as I like to call it, which begins in early December and lasts until the twelfth day after Christmas, or January 6. While Christmas day was not declared a national holiday by the United States Congress until 1870, it was recognized as a holiday in New York State in 1849. New York’s prosperous ports (enhanced by the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825), the development of the transcontinental railroad system, and the rise of industry and commerce led to an increase in the number of immigrants settling in New York City, and the emergence of the family-centered middle class. Read the rest of this entry »

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New Books

By Robert Sullivan

CITY OF PROMISES: A History of the Jews in New York
By Deborah Dash Moore (Author) , Howard B. Rock (Editor) , Annie Polland (Editor) , Daniel Soyer (Editor) , Jeffrey S. Gurock (Editor) , Diana Linden (Editor)

THE RICHEST WOMAN IN AMERICA: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age
By Janet Wallach



By Robert Sullivan

259 pages, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.00

From the Macmillan website:

Like an almanac, My American Revolution moves through the calendar of American independence, considering the weather and the tides, the harbor and the estuary and the yearly return of the stars as salient factors in the war for independence. In this fiercely individual and often hilarious journey to make our revolution his, he shows us how alive our own history is, right under our noses. Read the rest of this entry »

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