Tag Archives: maps

NYC Urbanism: A spectacular snapshot dip into New York City history

The photo sharing service Instagram is a tricky site if you’re a history buff. By design, it’s meant to capture the immediate moment, often drenched in a filter to make things seem nostalgic or historic. The Bowery Boys have an Instagram account if you’d like to follow us along there, although we are mostly just documenting our journeys through the city, stopping to photograph places we are researching for upcoming shows or simply locating hidden spots of historical interest.

However I’d like to draw your attention to somebody else’s account which I think you’ll enjoy. Josh Vogel, a curator at the Skyscraper Museum (you can see his work at their latest show Ten & Taller), operates an independent Instagram account called NYC Urbanism, offering up old photographs, maps and drawings of Old New York for you to ogle in place of the usual selfies and photos of food.

The images, many of them rarely seen, provide a rich and interesting portal into the past via a photo app that seems initially unsuited for such fascinating discovery. NYC Urbanism has taken a tool meant to render superficial displays of nostalgia and turned it into something legitimate.

Vogel recently helped me out on the latest episode of The First podcast, focusing on the invention of the first electric chair. (Check out the episode if you haven’t; it’s a fascinating and bizarre tale set in upstate New York.) 

Below are a few of my favorite posts from his account. Head over to Instagram and follow NYC Urbanism for little daily doses of eye-popping New York history:


#MapMondays! 1930 plan to fill New York Harbor with landfill! The proposal by T. Kennard Thomson was originally published in 1911 in Popular Science and would have filled the entire east river with landfill in addition to creating new peninsulas off of Staten Island, Bayonne and Sandy Hook, totaling fifty square miles overall! With the East River gone, Thomson proposes connecting the Long Island Sound back to the harbor by digging a new channel from Flushing through #Brooklyn. Thomson revised the plan in 1930 (seen above), naming the new landfill City of New Manhattan, half of which would be in the state of New Jersey, separated by the extension of Broadway which would be a grand boulevard over railroad tracks and end in a tunnel to Staten Island – no need to keep the Staten Island Ferry around! This grand boulevard would be four miles long and three decks high, with levels for trains, automobiles and airplane landings! Tunnels would also go from Sunset Park to Bayonne, Red Hook to Jersey City and Cobble Hill to Jersey City. #MapMonday

A photo posted by NYC URBANISM (@nycurbanism) on

MYSTERY! “Doctor Busted” and the skeleton of College Point

Above is an illustrated bird’s eye view of College Point, Queens, from a 1917 guidebook “Illustrated Flushing and vicinity.”

As that book goes on to describe, “COLLEGE POINT is essentially a manufacturing town—the industrial center of the Flushing District.  It is an old settlement like Flushing and Whitestone, both of which it immediately adjoins on Flushing Bay, and like both, it is rich in its possession of old trees and old houses. It has many fine modern residences, too; and even the proximity of its scores of factories doesn’t seem to spoil its charm as one of New York City’s pretty home suburbs.”

But for a ‘pretty home suburb’, you never know what you’re going to find as you’re digging up out in your yard.  I found the following disturbing notice in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 7, 1914:

“College Point, LI, October 7 — The police of the College Point station thought they had a first-class mystery on their hands today for a time after John Kanter of 622 North Fourteenth Street [sic] dug up in his yard the skeleton of a man.

Just when the keenest Sherlock Holmeses in the College Point service were beginning to concentrate their minds on the subject, however, it was recalled by an old policeman at the station that the premises had been occupied until his death a few years ago by Dr. Busted whom, the police believe, buried the body after using it for dissecting purposes.”

It’s more likely the doctor’s name was Busteed.  Dr. Busted sounds like a character from a 1980s horror film.

Here’s a proper mystery: Would somebody like to figure out where 622 North 14th Street in College Point, Queens, is today?  Many streets and roads in Queens were renumbered in the 1920s.  I believe the house mentioned in the article above is on today’s 14th Avenue, but there’s also a 14th Road.  And neither of them is numbered in the 600s.

If there was one skeleton in the yard, might there still be others?

Below: A College Point home from the brochure described at top, belonging to a silk manufacturer.  From the brochure:

“As a bit of prophecy, the reader is asked to lay aside this book for ten years and then compare this portrayal of College Point-Flushing conditions as they now exist with those of a decade hence. It is pretty safe to say that the two old mansions, pictures of which are printed with this article—the Stratton and Graham homesteads — that today stand as landmarks on the trolley line between College Point and Flushing will long since have disappeared, and in their places and on their surrounding acre swill have risen many beautiful, modern residences and apartment  houses, and that the meadows some distance away will have been covered with manufacturing plants all th eway from the hills to the waters of Flushing Bay.”

Rediscovering the rediscovery of a 350-year-old city view

This is not a land of hobbits. Despite looking like an illustration from a J.R.R. Tolkien novel, the map above is actual drawing made of early New Amsterdam as it looked to one cartographer in 1661. It’s most likely an alternate image of New Amsterdam by the city’s surveyor Jacques Cortelyou who provides us with some of the first bird’s-eye drawings ever made of Manhattan. Or else, it’s a drawing by another artist derived from Cortelyou’s more famous image of the young town.

You can see a full color version of this very map here. Upon its re-discovery in the mid-19th century, the crude map was elaborately repainted and enhanced.

Its full title is “The Duke’s plan: a description of the Towne of Mannados: or New Amsterdam as it was in September 1661 … Anno Dominus 1664.” That last date holds the secret of the map; it was commissioned not by the Dutch, but by the British, who took over the port city in a near-bloodless invasion in September 1664. Most likely the original map was completed by Cortelyou in 1661, then later revised by an unknown artist (or perhaps by Cortelyou himself) for New Amsterdam’s new owners, with a flattering array of British vessels in the water.

I think I’ll let New York city leaders from 1859 do the talking here, from a yearly manual of Common Council business, discussing the map when it was newly discovered in the possession of the British Museum archives:

“It is not an unreasonable supposition that the English officers, being desirous of presenting some pictorial illustration of the newly-acquired city to their master, the Duke of York, made inquiry for a plan of the city and were presented with this; and, having added the agreeable accessories of British men-of-war in the harbor, they dressed it up in its present shape, added the date 1664, and forwarded it to England, where it has hitherto been preserved in silent obscurity.”

The only building labelled in the little ‘Governor’s House’ right above Fort Amsterdam, the purported home of Peter Stuyvesant and a building later named White Hall. Not a surprise to discover that the building that sits near that spot today is Whitehall Ferry Terminal. You can probably figure out where a couple other modern features of the city sit as well.

The 1859 manual gives makes a detailed, if rather quaint, stroll through the streets of the map above, an interesting look at both early New Amsterdam and mid-19th century New York’s version of New Amsterdam — two very different things. Some of sites that may sound familiar to you will be, for instance, Kolck pond (Collect Pond), the Heere Graft (a water canal that once ran down the length of today’s Broad Street) and the good ole City Wall.

The World of Transportation 1918, via Grand Central

A Grand Central-centric Rand McNally map of transporation options in 1918, “the subway, elevated and surface lines” available for residents of Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn. (Sorry, Queens. Your borough would not be extensively served by New York’s centralized train system for years.)

For a much clearer view, click into the picture or click here for a closer look. Or much better yet, visit the David Rumsey Map Collection, where this is from, to maneuver around the map in detail and look at other old New York maps in the collection.

Again, the most striking detail of maps like this one is the fringe-like, uninterrupted cluster of piers along the west end.