History On Foot

by Don Friedman on August 2, 2016

4a06900v City Hall park, circa 1900: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/det/item/det1994007068/PP/

A great read from Curbed, describing several not-so-great but historic reads. In short, tourist guides are not new, and why shouldn’t we be able to take a 150-year-old walking tour?

Some of the highlights of the main route are mapped here.

I don’t know that there’s much to be learned for Manhattan aficionados by reading James Nevius’s account of the route today or the guidebooks’ descriptions, although there’s a lot of meat there for people new to touring the city. What the guidebooks and Nevius do, however, is try to get you into the mindset of a mid-nineteenth century tourist. New York was smaller and had slower transportation, but certain issues – such as gridlock – were already taking hold. More importantly, urban density and size are relative phenomena, so a smaller New York may have been just as or even more impressive to visitors then compared to the current city and its visitors now. Similarly, a building like 55 Wall Street was impressively big for its time.

Facts are the easy part of history. It may take some digging to find them, but they are there. The hard part is interpreting them, and part of interpretation is understanding what they meant at the time they came into being. When the picture at the top of this post was taken, the tallest building in the country, and the tallest occupiable building in the world, was the Park Row Building, at 26 stories tall. So a 15- or 20-story building was, to most people, incredibly tall and impressive in a way that I’m not sure we can comprehend by thinking about architecture. In The Great Bridge, David McCullough compares the effect of the Brooklyn Bridge on the public to the Apollo moon landings a hundred years later. To fully understand those old tourist guides, we have to try to see the world as their readers did. Walking around lower Manhattan is a good way to start.

One last note, as a point of pride. There are 23 locations on the map, three of which are completely gone. Of the twenty that remain, we’ve worked on seven: Castle Clinton, Trinity Church, Federal Hall, Trinity’s Church’s Cemetery, St. Paul’s Chapel, the Haughwout Building, and Grace Episcopal Church. Speaking as a baseball fan, a batting average of 0.350 is something to brag about.

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