New York City historian, writer, and tour guide Tess Stahl answered questions about the city's history on a Reddit AMA this week, providing insights into the history of the East Village, Grand Central and local baseball teams. Here are some of the most fascinating takeaways:
1. New York City’s historic neighborhoods could have been irreversibly disfigured by Robert Moses’ highway expansion plans.
Robert Moses — one of the most polarizing figures of New York City history — was responsible for building extensive highway networks at the expense of public transit. His inclination ended up “dividing entire neighborhoods, many of which are still struggling to recover 50 or 60 years later,” Stahl wrote. One of his plans — which was blocked by Jane Jacobs and other preservationists — was the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX), which would have demolished “14 blocks in historic SoHo and Little Italy.” His plan to build a bridge from Battery Park to Brooklyn, blocked by President FDR, would have razed Castle Clinton. The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was constructed instead.
A portrait of famous urban planner Robert Moses who lived from 1888 to 1981. (Credit: NYPL Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs)
2. The mural at the Grand Central main concourse doesn’t just show the heavens, but secret clues into its history.
The breathtaking mural above the Grand Central main concourse — which was accidentally painted backwards — has a small square on the northwestern side showing how grimy the terminal used to be before indoor smoking was banned. Onlookers can also decipher a small hole by the Pisces constellation that was cut into the ceiling to stabilize a Redstone missile exhibited in Grand Central in 1957 to display American strength during the Cold War. Additionally, an old wine store along the Graybar passage was once the entrance to a little theater that “showed newsreels for commuters waiting for their trains," Stahl wrote.
The main concourse at Grand Central in the late 19th or early 20th century. (Credit: NYPL Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs)
3. The East Village's transition from a fashionable, wealthy district to an immigrant enclave was sparked by a deadly riot over two Shakespearean actors.
According to Stahl, a riot broke out at Astor Opera House in 1849 over a rivalry between two popular Shakespearean actors, William Charles Macready and Edwin Forrest Booth, about which of the two was the better tragedian. The rivalry polarized the New York populace along socioeconomic lines: Macreedy was favored by the wealthy, and Booth by the immigrants. During Macready’s "Macbeth" performance, hundreds of Booth supporters formed a mob outside, throwing bricks into the windows and trying to rush the doors. The militia, after giving a warning, fired into the chaotic crowd, resulting in 18 dead and 150 injured. Stahl recounted that after the incident, the upper class “steadily moved up to Union Square and Gramercy areas."
A portrayal of the 1849 Astor Opera House riot. (Credit: NYPL Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs)
4. While in Penn Station, spot the last vestiges of its former architectural glory.
The old Penn Station, which stood from 1910 to 1963 and was hailed as a masterpiece in the Beaux-Arts style, is virtually unrecognizable as the underground labyrinth it is today. However, you can still spot some of the remains of the original station, according to Stahl, such as the cast-iron entranceway to the LIRR waiting room, two eagles flanking the 7th Avenue and 32nd Street entrance, and the corridor from the IRT Broadway line into the station.
The interior of the old Penn Station in 1935. (Credit: NYPL Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs)
5. Before Dutch settlement, Astor Place was known to local American Indian tribes as Kintecoying, “the crossroads of three nations."
Centuries before the 17th-century settlement of lower Manhattan, the three American Indian tribes that inhabited Manhattan — the Munsee, Sapokanikan and Carnarsee — would gather together at Kintecoying under a large elm tree. It was a central meeting spot with paths extending throughout Manhattan, running uptown along the east side, down to the Lower East Side, and west to what is now the West Village.
6. You can still see and taste the immigrant European heritage of the East Village.
So many German immigrants settled the East Village that it was nicknamed Kleindeutschland (“Little Germany”) in the late 19th century. Although Stahl wrote that the 1904 General Slocum disaster devastated the community, German roots remain, such as the Deutches Dispensary, the Freie Bibliothek and Lesehalle, which are now the Stuyvesant Polyclinic and Ottendorfer NYPL branch, respectively. After the Germans left, other eastern Europeans swept in. Yiddish theaters popped up, especially along Second Avenue, which was nicknamed the “Yiddish Rialto.” Stahl suggested visiting Veselka, a Ukrainian restaurant, and Surma Book and Music, to glimpse into the neighborhood’s immigrant past.