Good Old New York

Manhattan: In the shadows of the skyscrapers and all that is new in the metropolis are the wonderful buildings and birthmarks that made the Apple big. Take a walk into history.

July 04, 1999|By Tom Condon | Tom Condon,hartford courant

Con Edison, the utility company, used to post signs at its New York City construction sites that said: "Dig We Must." The slogan was meant to excuse inconvenience, but it also captured the frenetic spirit of the Big Apple. The city is always being blasted, jackhammered and rebuilt.

New, taller skyscrapers seem to appear overnight. It's hard to believe there's anything left of the past.

But as writer Kevin Baker discovered, a remarkable amount of old New York is still with us.

Baker, 40, has published "Dreamland" (HarperCollins), an entertaining historical novel set in New York circa 1910. The story features real-life gangsters, Tammany bosses, labor organizers and Coney Island freaks, and is a vivid, sights-and-smells portrait of the period.

As he researched the book, Baker was amazed to find so many significant buildings, public spaces and other icons of the past still standing in lower Manhattan. He began exploring these sites on foot, then started taking friends along. Now his periodic walking tours have received enough word-of-mouth publicity to be something of an event among writers, history buffs and others who savor the fun of knocking around Gotham City. I joined him on a recent drizzly morning.

Note: We did a lot of walking. The Dutch got their $26 worth. As Baker told me, you forget how big New York is until you do it on foot. But the trip is easily broken up with stops for food or drink.

We started at Union Square. A park since 1811, it has seen countless political and labor rallies over the years. Baker directed my eye to the northeast corner of the square, where sits the New York Film Academy and Union Square Theater. This building was the fourth and last Tammany Hall, dedicated in 1929. Tammany, today synonymous with big-city bossism and political corruption, faded in the mid-20th century. But the power this Democratic machine wielded in the 19th century was such that it was able to hold the 1868 Democratic National Convention in its building, then nearby on East 14th Street. Its presidential candidate, one Horatio Seymour, was crushed by Ulysses S. Grant, but Tammany still called the shots.

We walked a few blocks south on Fourth Avenue to Cooper Union, built in 1859 by one of the country's truly remarkable entrepreneurs and philanthropists, Peter Cooper. The Union is still a fine (and free) engineering school. The school's Great Hall is where Abraham Lincoln and countless others have spoken to overflow crowds.

We walked west to Astor Place, where Joseph Papp established his Public Theatre in the exquisite former Public Library building. We continued west along Eighth Street, took a left on University Place, then walked through a gate on the right into the Washington Mews, a marvelously preserved 19th-century cobblestone street lined with two- and three-story houses.

The end of the street brought us to Fifth Avenue. We took a left and walked through Washington Square Park, in the heart of Greenwich Village. It really was a village in the 1830s, to which people escaped from the squalor and cholera of the city, then much farther downtown. We walked a couple of blocks, to Macdougal Street, one of the great Village thoroughfares, and stopped at Le Figaro, a classic coffeehouse.

We ambled back to Washington Square, taking a right on Washington Square South. We took a left on Greene Street.

At Greene and Washington Place stands the building, now owned by New York University, where the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire claimed 146 lives in 15 minutes on the Saturday afternoon of March 25, 1911. The company was on the eighth, ninth and 10th floors. The city's fire ladders only reached the sixth floor. The owners kept the stairway doors locked so the young Jewish and Italian seamstresses wouldn't steal small bits of cloth. The disaster led to the passage of 56 reform bills, and the building is the site of an annual labor rally.

We walked over to Broadway, crossed onto Great Jones Street, Baker's favorite New York street name, and took it to the Bowery.

Taking a right on Prince Street, we walked to the corner of Prince and Mott Street, where sits the old St. Patrick's Cathedral, which is surrounded by a small graveyard. Built in 1811, it was the seat of the Archdiocese of New York before the new St. Patrick's on Fifth Avenue was finished in 1879.

We walked south on Mott to Broome Street, and took a right. At Broome and Centre Market Place is the magnificent Old Police Station, a fascinating granite pile from which police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt reformed the department. We continued south to Hester Street, took a left and walked about eight blocks to Orchard Street and one of the most unusual of the city's museums. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum has a visitors center at 90 Orchard St. and an actual three-story, 1863 tenement building at 97 Orchard St.

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