Publication Date

December 1, 1996

A profession is like a great snake that wraps itself around you. Once you are enwrapped, you are in a slow fight for the rest of your life, and the lightness of youth leaves you. You don't have time, for example, to think about the city even as you are walking through it. Unless you make it your profession.
Mark Helprin, A Soldier of the Great War

The location of the 1997 AHA annual meeting is perfect for those who enjoy the built environment. In spite of the fairly rigid grid pattern of many of its streets—imposed to facilitate expansion, development, and the early 19th-century market for land—New York remains a strikingly varied city. Fluid neighborhood boundaries, mixed commercial and residential spaces, and architecture of widely varied style and shape all make it an excellent place to explore.

New York is the quintessential walking city. Short walks from the meeting site lead to varied urban geographies that include parks, tenements, skyscrapers, museums, and performing spaces. (Subways and buses can take attendees further afield; we note more distant points of interest at the end of this article.) From a geographic center contrived as the New York Hilton and Towers, walkers may want to head north to Central Park and both the Upper West and Upper East Sides, or they may want to explore the midtown and Times Square area to the south.

Central Park and North

New York is full of museum art collections, but the most impressive (and certainly the largest) work of art in the city is Central Park. It begins five blocks north of the Hilton at 59th Street and stretches over two miles northward to 110th Street. The park divides the Upper East Side from the Upper West Side and stops midtown's northward progress. It is a good place to dip into the last few centuries of city history.

Central Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux to offer a faux natural landscape in which, according to Olmsted, "every tree and bush … has been placed where it is with a purpose." That purpose, he elaborated, was to allow visitors to "stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets." But even before park construction was completed in 1865, New Yorkers began contesting and modifying notions of appropriate park use, leading to civic, commercial, and recreational additions that altered the designers' wishes. Outside the park, the city has grown tall enough to forever deny Olmsted's desire that visitors would "find the city put far away from them." instead, today's park visitors find themselves in a space built for the 19th century and reshaped for the 20th—both part of the city and apart from it.

The land we now call a park was home to several communities in the decades before construction. The largest of these was Seneca Village in the West 80s, a community of about 250 African Americans that included three churches and a school. This village began in the 1820s when 25-year-old Andrew Williams and the AME Zion church bought lots on a former farm. By the 1850s the community had a sizable Irish minority, including, as a boy, Tammany politician George Washington Plunkitt. Seneca Village and all of the park's settlements were razed as the city either bought the land from property holders by right of eminent domain or evicted squatters.

Because the park has many paths and can be confusing to the first-time visitor, walkers may want to get a park map from the visitors center in the Arsenal at Fifth Avenue and 64th Street or at the Dairy Visitors Center in midpark at 64th Street. To get to the park, walk north five blocks on Sixth Avenue (Avenue of the Americas) to reach 59th Street. You will be facing mounted statues of three American revolutionary heroes—Simon Bolivar, Jose de San Marti, and Jose Marti. Cross 59th Street. (which is known as Central Park South here), turn right, and walk one block to Grand Army Plaza with its bright gold-colored statue of General Sherman completed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1903. Sherman's horse is trampling a pine branch said to signify Georgia. To the south is the 1907 Plaza Hotel, one of the city's overdecorated best.

You may want to enter the park by the steps opposite the Sherman statue, which will take you down to the pond. Walk north along the shore of the pond to the Gapstow Bridge at about 62nd Street. All of the bridges and underpasses in the park are different, and this one gives an excellent view to the towers of Central Pad West. You will be standing at the edge of what the designers called the Childrens’ District. Here, in the late 1860s, children could get fresh milk from the cows at the dairy, play on the Kinderberg, and ride the carousel—all of which can be found a few blocks north and west of where you stand.

If you do not choose to enter the park at the Sherman statue, walk a few blocks north on 5th Avenue and you come to the Arsenal, home to the Parks Department and the Central Park Conservancy, a private organization that has been instrumental in renovating, maintaining, and rebuilding the park for the past 15 years. If you walk alongside the park rather than in it, you will pass some of New York's best-known museums. Depending on how far you want to travel, you can reach the Frick Collection (70th St.); the Whitney Museum of American Art (75th and Madison, one block east of 5th); the Metropolitan Museum (82nd); the Guggenheim (88th); the Jewish Museum (92nd); the Museum of the City of New York (103rd); and El Museo del Barrio (104th). Joggers can run up 5th and enter the park just north of 85th Street to use the 1.58 mile path around the reservoir.

Go into the park at the East 60th Street entrance known as Scholars' Gate if you are feeling "in character," In most cases, the entrances to the park are named after occupations (although only three have inscriptions). The entrances include Miners' Gate, Artisans' Gate, and Warriors' Gate. Have a look at the huge "Hand-Like Trees" sculpture by Magdalena Abakanowicz on East 60th Street, then take the path that runs a few blocks north to the zoo, a much-loved later addition whose caged animals Olmsted would have derided as a "deduction" from the park. You will be walking parallel to East Drive, an auto and carriage road. When the park first opened, only those with enough money to own what police considered appropriate carriages were allowed on the carriage road. Today anyone with money can hire a carriage for $34 per half hour.

Times Square and South

To the south of the Hilton is one of the most famous districts in urban America—Times Square, the "Crossroads of the World." The neighborhood is about 20 square blocks of theaters, businesses, and residential space whose center is Times Square. The "square," which is actually a triangle as many New York squares are, is at the intersection of Broadway, 7th Avenue, and 42nd Street. Times Square is not only the city's premier theater district, but also one of the most contested contemporary spaces in New York—a neighborhood that went from pastoral to residential to theatrical to pornographic. It is now being forced, only partially, into the safe and sinless theme park mode.

Part of the Times Square area was developed as an exclusive residential neighborhood in the first half of the 19th century, but as greater numbers of New York's population moved northward, so did commerce. The 1883 Metropolitan Opera House at 40th Street and Broadway was the first major theater in the district. With the arrival of Oscar Hammerstein's now-demolished 1895 Olympia Theater on Broadway between 44th and 45th Streets, Times Square was confirmed as the city's fifth theater district. Streets, speculators, agents, hotels, theater people, and the subway followed. A few years after the streets were lit by electric lights, an adman christened the strip the "Great White Way." The peak year of performances was 1927, during which some 76 theaters produced a record 264 shows The Depression and the emerging film industry sent the neighborhood toward its latter 20th-century incarnation of porn, hustling, and crime. Now city government and corporate interests are remaking the neighborhood again, much as they did at the tum of the last century. The cornerstone to these recent changes is a new city zoning ordinance barring sex businesses from the new 42nd Street and from within 500 feet of residences, schools, houses of worship, and each other.

At the center of the square is 1 Times Square, originally the Times Tower. When the New York Times moved into the building on December 31, 1904, with a fantastic display of midnight fireworks, a New York tradition was born. Ever since then, Times Square has been the place to welcome the New Year by watching a giant lighted ball descend from the roof of 1 Times Square. The original sign that ran all the way around the building was the first “moving” sign in the world. It informed passersby of the 1928 presidential election returns. Although the building has been renovated a number of times, a moving sign remains although a 3-million-diode, multi tiered competitor has appeared a few blocks to the north.

Also to the north, at 47th Street and Broadway, is Duffy Square (another triangle), which can be seen as the northern end of Times Square. The two triangles together were once called Longacre Square. Father Francis Duffy was a parish priest at the West 42nd Street Holy Cross Church, but he is best known for serving as pastor with the "Fighting 69th" Regiment in France during World War I. Duffy's statue stands just north of George M. Cohan's, who is forever "giving his regards to Broadway" on this spot. Also located in Duffy Square is the TKTS booth, which sells half-price tickets to on- and off-Broadway shows. Tickets are sold only on the day of performance and must be paid for in cash.

There are over 45 landmarked theaters in Times Square, but almost all have had their ornate fronts removed or covered up with film marquees. The current owners of what was the Paramount Theater at 43rd and Broadway have announced that they will be re-creating the theater's original marquee, but the re-creation will lead patrons to a "restaurant-entertainment" space and not to a theater. One theater not to miss is the incredible Lyceum Theater at 149 West 45th Street. Built in 1903 in the neo-Baroque style, this is the oldest theater in New York still used for stage productions, and was the first to be landmarked.

Several other theaters are currently being restored through a combination of private funds and city-financed low-interest loans. At 214 West 42nd Street is the 1903 Art Nouveau New Amsterdam Theater, which was home to the Ziegfeld Follies from 1913 to 1927. Florenz Ziegfeld converted the New Amsterdam's roof garden into a second theater, the Aerial Gardens. These two theaters hosted Fred and Adele Astaire, Ina Claire, W. C. Fields, and Will Rogers. The New Amsterdam is currently being renovated by the Walt Disney Company, which expects to open it this spring with a performance of the musical King David.

The Lyric at 213 West 42nd Street was the great rival to the New Amsterdam. It welcomed Douglas Fairbanks and Al Jolson while competing for the Astaires. It was here that the Marx Brothers opened George S. Kaufman's The Cocoanuts on December 8, 1925, with music by Irving Berlin. The 1900 New Victory across the street at 209 West 42nd Street was built by Oscar Hammerstein as the Republic. The Republic was 42nd Street’s first theater, opening with Lionel Barrymore in Sag Harbor. The New Victory was the first theater to reappear with plays on 42nd Street after the city evicted the sex businesses. It is now a performance arts center for children.

The most well known block for New York's contemporary Broadway theaters is West 44th Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues. At 225 West 44th is the Sam S. Shubert Theater. The Shubert, built in 1913, creates the western wall of Shubert Alley, which runs north-south between 44th and 45th Streets. Thought of today merely as a pedestrian shortcut, the private alley was once a gathering place for aspiring actors, who would collect in front of the offices of J. J. and Lee Shubert when they were casting plays. The Shubert organization was the most powerful theater group in the country until an antitrust action forced it to change practices in 1956.

To escape midtown commercialism and Times Square, go west to 9th Avenue in the 40s and 50s. The neighborhood is still known as Hell's Kitchen in 'spite of the desire of gentrifiers to change it to "Clinton.” Formerly home to stables, slaughterhouses, factories, and groundlevel and elevated railroads, Hell's Kitchen is now known for its wide variety of good restaurants and food shops. In warm weather, it hosts the best food festival in the city.

West 44th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, adjacent to the theater district, is an interesting mix of public and private institutions. At 20 West 44th Street is the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, which was founded in 1820 as a free, evening technical school. The interior is open to the public and holds a three-story gallery, a library, and a collection of old locks. A few doors beyond, at 37 West 44th is the landlocked New York Yacht Club, sponsor of the America's Cup Race. The club was founded in 1844 and raised this building in 1900 on land donated by J. P. Morgan. Note the waves, seaweed, ships, and other nautical themes worked into the exterior. At 7 West 43rd Street is the Century Association, founded by William Cullen Bryant in 1846. The club for artists, authors, and their supporters has been located here since 1891.

Slightly further to the west is the literary center of Times Square. The Algonquin Hotel at 59 West 44th has long been a meeting place for literary and theater figures. In the early 1920s the Oak Room was the venue for literary America's most famous luncheon club, the Round Table. Regulars included Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Robert Benchley, Edna Ferber, and Ring Lardner. James Thurber lived at the Algonquin in the 1930s and again in the 1950s. Other residents included H. L. Mencken and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The modern counterpoint to the Algonquin is the Royalton Hotel across, the street at 44 West 44th, which has its own history of literary residents, including George Jean Nathan and William Saroyan. Today the Royalton's restaurant is so populated with Conde Nast staffers at midday that it is jokingly referred to as their cafeteria.

Elsewhere in the City

There are several sites elsewhere in the city that are of particular interest to historians. On the west side of 5th Avenue between 42nd and 40th Streets is the main research branch of the New York Public Library. This 1911 Beaux Arts building is the mainstay of one of the largest libraries in the world. The current periodical room on the south side of the main floor has a beautiful wooden ceiling, ornate walls, and current publications from around the world. Also visit the Gottesman Exhibition Hall.

Bryant Park, immediately behind the library, is midtown's only green space. Originally the site of an 1823 potter's field, it was turned into the Egyptian-style Croton Reservoir in 1842. The four-acre reservoir had walls 50 feet high and 25 feet thick, and the promenade at the top (featured in Caleb Carr's novel The Alienist) was a popular place for New Yorkers to cool off. In 1853 New York’s imitation of London’s Crystal Palace opened on the site, only to burn down in 1858. The park was established in 1871. It was named for poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant 13 years later Beneath the park are the library stacks for New York Public Library.

The Museum of the City of New York at 5th Avenue and 103rd Street was founded in 1923 as the first museum in America dedicated to the history of a major metropolis. Its founders were inspired by large city museums in Hamburg, London, and Paris. In January the museum will feature Drawing the Future: Design Drawings for the 1939 New York World's Fair and Revisiting the Scene: New Research, New Discoveries. This second exhibition, which will present new research on the content and authorship of more than 20 paintings, will be of special interest to historians.

Adjacent to the Museum of the City of New York, at 104th Street, is El Museo del Barrio. Founded in 1969 in an East Harlem classroom, it has since grown to become the largest museum in the United States dedicated to the culture and history of Puerto Rico. It has a permanent collection of books, artifacts, and objects dating from pre-Columbian times to the present.

Across town at Central Park West and 77th Street is the New-York Historical Society. Founded in 1804, it houses an excellent collection of material on New York City. in January the society will be showing a major costume exhibition exploring the 40-year career of New York fashion designer Arnold Scaasi and unveiling the desk upon which Clement Clarke Moore wrote A Visit from St. Nicholas. New York City in January can be quite chilly. Using the subway is probably the best way to travel longer distances throughout the city. But don’t let the weather put you off. Even in January, there are many exciting things to see and do. Indeed, one could spend a lifetime exploring New York City.

Suggested reading: Kenneth T. Jackson, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York City (Yale Univ. Press, 1995); Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, The Park and the People (Henry Holt, 1994); William R. Taylor, ed., Inventing Times Square: Commerce and Culture at the Crossroads of the World (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1991); Gerald R. Wolfe, New York: A Guide to the Metropolis (McGraw-Hill, 1988).

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