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Maps As History

by Don Friedman on April 20, 2018


That’s a plate from the 1899 Sanborn fire map of New York. (Click to enlarge.) There’s so much going on here that it’s hard to know where to start. The lower right corner is Tenth Avenue and 22nd Street; the left edge is the Hudson River; Manhattan grid north is up.

In broad terms pink buildings have masonry exteriors and yellow buildings are wood frame. Because these maps were meant to categorize fire hazard, green buildings are not a separate construction type but rather “special hazards,” i.e. buildings that would have abnormal fires or abnormal behavior in a fire. This is a mostly industrial area, with residences only along its eastern and northern edges, so there’s a fair amount of green. “Special” really does mean special: there’s a complex of wood-frame buildings on the west side fo Eleventh Avenue labelled as a kindling factory, which seems to me to be a fire waiting to happen, but it’s not green. I guess even a very bad wood-fueled fire is still an ordinary fire.

Thirteenth Avenue is also seen here in all its short-lived glory.

On the north side of 23rd Street, between Eleventh and Thirteenth Avenues, is a large building belonging to the Metropolitan Street Railway. That’s the company that ran the streetcars, and this building is labelled as containing both a “car house” and a stable. The cars and horses had to go somewhere at the end of the day.

Two blocks north of that building and also immediately south of it are railroad freight yards run by railroads that never entered Manhattan. Because of the difficulty in building a rail crossing of the lower Hudson, only the Pennsylvania ever made it from New Jersey to NYC. The B&O and Erie, among others, had their passenger and freight terminals on the west side of the river, and ferries for both people and freight to the east side. The “car float” – a ferry that carried entire railroad cars – enabled the freight yards visible here.

My favorite item here is the full block between 26th and 27th Streets, Eleventh and Thirteenth Avenues that was occupied by the J.B. and J.M. Cornell iron works. This was one of the great cast-iron shops in the city – amusingly enough, in a wood-frame building – and this was their NYC shop during the end of the cast-iron era around 1900.

Three Maps

April 19, 2018

Thanks to advances in database and mapping technology, we seem to be entering into a golden age of visualizing spatial data. Three new maps available in New York are examples of this trend. They’re not the first or necessarily the best of their kind, but they are displaying an enormous amount of data in a […]

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A Nicely Restored Artifact

April 18, 2018

Thanks to Guy Jones, here’s a film of New York created by a Swedish film company in 1911, restored and speed-corrected to remind us that people in the past didn’t move comically fast: Fixing the speed and cleaning up the images helps a great deal: the people seem very real, very much like us. Personally, I […]

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By Another Name

April 17, 2018

  That weird little street is Sylvan Terrace. It’s one block long and not on the regular grid, although parallel to it. It’s more or less 160.65 street, running from St. Nicholas Avenue to Jumel Terrace, another weird little street. Per the loomed article, Sylvan Terrace is what’s left of a carriage drive to a […]

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Things Change Postscript: A Facelift

April 16, 2018

That’s 1 Broadway circa 1900. (A very high-resolution version of the picture that this was cropped from can be found here.) It was completed in 1882 with a then-current but soon-to-be-old-fashioned structural system: the exterior facades are bearing walls and support iron floor beams. There are also iron interior columns. Here’s a modern picture, showing […]

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The Past Is Very Strange

April 15, 2018

A short history of pneumatic tube systems in New York: here. Apparently we’re obsessed with compressed air. The failed experiment of the Beach subway (pictured above) is reasonably famous, the post office delivery system less so, and the others are quite obscure.

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Things Change

April 14, 2018

I used a small piece of the picture above for yesterday’s post about the history of the 29 Broadway site. Here’s the whole thing and here’s a link to a very high-resolution version. That’s 1900. Bowling Green looks much the same today, which is not surprising since the park itself is some 300 years old […]

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Matching New To Old

April 13, 2018

That’s a view up Broadway from just south of Bowling Green, looking very Metropolis-like. I want to talk a bit about the horizontally-striped corporate-deco building in the center, 29 Broadway. Specifically, I want to talk about the five-story extension just north of the main tower. Here’s a close-up: That’s the base of the main tower […]

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New Mixed With Old

April 12, 2018

That picture, of the 157th Street Station on the 1 train, shows the unevenness of adoption of new technology. It’s right there, can’t you see it? Here’s a close-up with the contrast cranked up high: You see that thing in line with the column and below the platform lip? That’s cast iron. That’s the metal […]

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Seeing The New Technology

April 11, 2018

I wanted to call this post “The Shock of the New” but apparently I’ve been beaten to that phrase. I was talking briefly yesterday about how new technologies are absorbed into existing cities, with any given tech being adopted at different speeds in different places and the various technologies being adopted at different speeds in […]

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