clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

10 Fascinating New York City Secrets, Courtesy of The Bowery Boys

New, 3 comments

Greg Young & Tom Meyers divulge ten of Manhattan’s most interesting secrets

Since 2007, Greg Young and Tom Meyers, better known as The Bowery Boys, have been spitting out knowledge about the obscure and even secret histories of New York City in their eponymous podcast. After producing more than 200 episodes covering topics ranging from the history of the city’s first apartment building to NYC’s representation on TV from the 1970’s on, Young and Meyers have collaborated on their first Bowery Boys book.

Out now from Ulysses Press, The Bowery Boys: Adventures In Old New York brings Young and Meyers’s hyperlocal knowledge of Manhattan to the page for New Yorkers and tourists alike. We asked the duo to pick the ten most fascinating spots they found while researching the 508-page book—check those out below, along with some backstory from Greg Young.

The Hessian Hut at the Dyckman Farmhouse

The Hessians were German mercenaries who fought for British during the Revolutionary War. An excavated hut was rebuilt behind the Dyckman House when that old farmhouse was opened as a museum in 1916. Today, as we reflect upon the Revolutionary War in our own way (Hamilton: The Musical, AMC’s Turn), it’s fascinating to look at the ways the war was remembered one hundred years and the things New Yorkers chose to preserve for future generations.

"One of the running themes of this book is not just about the history of New York but how New Yorkers looked at their own history throughout history," Young says. The Dyckman Farmhouse became a museum about 100 years ago, when Young says New Yorkers really started to take account of their history.

At the time, new construction was occurring so rapidly throughout the city that private individuals—remember this was before the LPC or any similar body—would take over buildings to preserve them. Such was the fate of the farmhouse. While excavating, the Hessian ruins were discovered. "To me it’s a great example of this unique period of history and how New Yorkers chose to remember 1776 back in 1916," Young says.

The Grave of Richard Churcher at Trinity Church

A small child died in 1681 when he was only five years old and his gravestone, standing in Trinity Church cemetery today, is the oldest one of its kind standing in Manhattan today.

"What’s curious about this," Young says, "is that the grave marker is so old that it actually predates Trinity Church itself." The current Trinity Church is the third of its kind—the first one burnt down in 1776—but the grave marker predates even that. "That particular grave marker is the oldest standing grave marker in New York City," Young says. "It’s an extraordinary reach into the past," he continues, noting that the marker dates back to a New York City whose northern limit was a wall. Today we we know that limit as Wall Street.

The Owls of P.S. 110

Why on earth are there so many owls standing upon this school in the Lower East Side? You’ve probably seen them staring back at you as you cross the Williamsburg Bridge. There’s a good reason for their existence – this is the Florence Nightingale school, named for the English founder of modern nursing. Nightingale loved her owls; in fact she kept her pet owl Athena with her in her pocket for many years.

New York City’s architecture may seem disparate, but there are actually several things that unify it, Young says. Of those unifiers is the strange number of buildings that have bird or owl statues. Young says the birds are a trademark of the Gilded Age era, and are all steeped in some kind of profound (or pretentious) meaning. Another example? Herald Square, named for the New York Herald, whose editor believed owls to be symbols of spirituality and wisdom.

The Slightly Erroneous Plaque to Alexander Hamilton on Jane Street

Speaking of Hamilton, a plaque in the West Village marks the spot where the Founding Father died of wounds sustained in the legendary duel with Aaron Burr in 1804. However, the plaque is slightly misplaced; the house of William Bayard Jr (in whose bedroom Hamilton died in) was actually somewhere across the street.

"The plaque is famously wrong. That might be fine when you’re talking about a normal celebrity," Young says of the error, "but when you’re talking about the Founding Fathers people get very particular about these things."

The Haunting Children of 295 Park Avenue South

The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded by Henry Bergh in 1874, several years after he founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). In 1892, an impressive new headquarters was built for the children’s society. It’s an apartment building today, but you can see the visages of small children along the top of the building, a reminder to the building’s original noble cause.

The ASPCA was founded well before anyone thought to found a similar institution for kids. "It gives you a little sense of the priorities of the late 19th century," Young says, "when children were selling newspapers on the street and horses were the key to keeping New York running."

Beach's Pneumatic Transit

In 1870 Alfred Ely Beach, an inventor and publisher of "Scientific American" magazine, constructed the city's first subway line less than a block from City Hall—without the city's permission! Best of all, it operated on pneumatic power, using immense fans to propel a single car one city block. He hoped it would inspire the construction of a city-wide pneumatic subway system, but it closed in 1873, a victim of a tumbling economy.

New York City’s existing subway system didn’t open for over three decades after Beach created the pneumatic tunnel. Beach’s tunnel doesn’t exist anymore—it was demolished about 100 years ago—but it was on Murray Street and stretched one block. "That is some mega-ephemera for travel-train heads," Young jokes.

Outdoor Prohibition Liquor Market

In 1921 the intersection of Kenmare and Mott Streets functioned as an unofficial "curb exchange" for liquor wholesalers to peddle their illegal wares to speakeasy owners. Surrounding buildings served as warehouses, and were packed with booze ready to ship off to speakeasies around town. Although it was mostly controlled by mobster Joe Masseria, the exchange came to an abrupt and violent end in 1922, and the market dried up.

The stretch in front of the Kenmare Street garage that’s currently being transformed into luxury condos was a hotspot of booze trading during the Prohibition era. "It was such a wild west [in New York City at the time] that despite the fact that they were a block or two away from an actual police station, it was an open market for bootleggers" who could chat and trade booze, Young explains.

While the market wasn’t totally out there—"It wasn’t like a lemonade stand," Young says—it wasn’t discrete either. "I would say you could almost describe it as how it was like to buy pot in Washington Square Park in the ‘90s...There was no sign, but everyone approached you from the street," Young jokes. The market was only squashed as tension between traders escalated, resulting in several murders.

The Prison of Boss Tweed

The Ludlow Street Jail opened in 1862 at the southeast corner of Ludlow and Broome Streets (the site of today's Seward Park High School). Originally a debtors' prison, it contained 87 cells, including some VIP units for convicts who could afford to pay for special treatment. One of these VIPs was William "Boss" Tweed, the notoriously corrupt leader of Tammany Hall, who died inside a cell here in 1878 (but not before having escaped from it three years prior!)

New York’s own King of Corruption and head honcho of venal political machine Tammany Hall, William "Boss" Tweed, was born on Cherry Street in the Lower East Side in 1823. "He lived and died in the Lower East Side, which is haunting and weird. But he was rather beloved, even until the end of his life." Young says.

The Mosaic Triangle on the Southwest Corner of Seventh Avenue and Christopher Street

Look down at the sidewalk in front of the Village Cigars shop along Seventh Avenue at the mosaic triangle plaque that reads "Property of the Hess estate which has never been dedicated for public purposes." What is this? When the city decided to plow Seventh Avenue through the West Village in the 1910s, they used eminent domain to acquire land. Property owner David Hess, irked by the imposition, discovered that a smidgen of his property had been missed by the surveyor—and refused to give it back. Snap!

"The triangle on the ground is basically [Hess] giving a middle finger to the city, which is pretty funny," Young says. "it’s lost complete context, but it in its own way tells the story of Seventh Avenue’s extension and some of the rough methods that the city sometimes used in the name of progress." (Hess Triangle is also the smallest piece of private property in the city.)

The Crystal Palace

In 1853, the New York Crystal Palace was a magical world's fair exhibit housed in an immense glass-and-steel steampunk castle that brought together dazzling inventions (including the passenger elevator) and a superb art collection. It stood where Bryant Park is today. It was a magnificent celebration of technology and progress—until it burned to the ground spectacularly on October 5, 1858.

"There are two completely amazing things about Bryant Park," Young says. "The first one of course is below you there are millions of books in the extension that the New York Public Library built under the park a few decades ago. The second kind of amazing thing to me is that this spot was the location of this extraordinary building made of glass and iron called the Crystal Palace." The building was modeled after a similar building in London, although London’s Crystal Palace still stands burned down in 1936 (and is the namesake for the surrounding neighborhood.) Crystal Palace Park, anyone?

The Bowery Boys: Adventures In Old New York is available on Amazon, and in most local bookstores. Catch a chat with the Bowery Boys on Curbed NY's Facebook page on Monday, July 18 at 3 p.m.