Did you know that the Freemasons had a hand in bringing Cleopatra's Needle, the Egyptian obelisk sitting in the Metropolitan Museum's backyard, to New York City? Or that electric cars were poised to replace horse carriages as the Big Apple's main form of transportation before gas-powered taxis swooped in? Or that the shopping center Herald Square was once an entertainment and red-light district?
Those are some of the things you learn when Tom Meyers and Greg Young launch into episodes of their podcast, "The Bowery Boys."
Their first book, out in stores this week, captures the same intrepid spirit and charmingly old-fashioned voice in the form of a travel guide.
"Adventures in Old New York" promises to lead its readers through Manhattan's "historic neighborhoods, secret spots and colorful characters." Pick any neighborhood and you'll get an overview of its history, an extended account of one landmark previously profiled in a podcast and a rundown of at least 10 more "points of interest." Some are major tourist sites, others are destinations whose buildings have long since vanished.
The book arrives nine years after Meyers and Young first started recording their podcast in Meyers' apartment on the Bowery in 2007. (There was wine involved.) At the time, they had fewer than 1,000 listeners per episode. Today, they can claim as many as 100,000.
The friends — who both moved to New York City from the Midwest in the early '90s and met through Meyers' sister — named their podcast after a street gang that dominated the Bowery in the 19th century.
To this day, they still record in a guest room, but they've moved on to Young's apartment in Cobble Hill and upgraded their equipment. In 2013, NPR hailed them the "unofficial ambassadors of New York City history."
Meyers and Young continue to work day jobs as an editor of a travel site and a music licensing expert respectively. Their hope is to expand their podcast outfit — now supported by donations and advertising — into something more, with walking tours, or videos, or guides to the four other boroughs.
In the meantime, they spoke to DNAinfo about their new book, their ongoing show, and what makes a true New Yorker.
Out-of-towners love New York City so much that they constitute more than half of "The Bowery Boys" listenership, according to its advertiser surveys.
"We know that there are super fans from North Carolina or from Australia, and they just love all things New York," said Meyers, citing fan emails and in-person meet-ups. "They visit every time they get a chance. As I like to say, they have a framed picture of the Chrysler building above their bed."
It's these Big Apple aficionados who gave Meyers and Young the inspiration to transform their thematic podcast into an unusual travel guide.
Young's favorite bit of New York City trivia is the reason why 3rd Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn is twice as wide as its neighbors.
"Before Park Slope was developed... there was a beautiful mansion called the Litchfield Villa, and it's still there in the park," Young began.
Its owner, whose property extended all the way to Gowanus, built one grand lane for carriages to ride up to his house on the hill. When the grid of narrow streets was built around it, its width remained the same.
Meyers' favorite NYC fact is the explanation for Stuyvesant Street's orientation, which is at an angle to the Manhattan grid.
Stuyvesant Street is the only street in Manhattan that is oriented true north-south, according to Meyers. That's because the Stuyvesant family, the relatives of New Amsterdam's last director-general, built it as part of street grid oriented by the point of the compass. That grid would be replaced by the one we know today, instituted north of Houston Street by the Commissioner's Plan of 1811.
At what moment does a transplant become a true New Yorker? Young and Meyers disagree.
According to Young, “It’s the moment where you become comfortable doing things that are kind of torturous but are part of the New York City experience," like when carrying four bags of groceries up four flights of stairs no longer strikes you as weird.
In Meyer's opinion, you're a New Yorker the moment you move here.
"I think that's the way it’s always been," he said, "and it’s actually really important to remember that right now in this political season, as people are arguing about immigration and who’s American."
After nine years of recording, the Bowery Boys' font of ideas for their podcast is far from dry; it's actually only grown deeper.
"The more and more we learn about New York City, the more and more we want to know more about it," Young said.
And the more the podcast's listeners expect them to know.
"In a way it was easier in the first year, because we really didn’t know as much about New York, so we could whip out generalizations," such as characterizing urban planner Robert Moses — a controversial character with a strong hand in the development of New York City infrastructure — as a "villain and almost a joke," Meyers said.
These days, Young and Meyers strive not just to share their nostalgia for the city's olden days, but to uncover its true past, Young said.
"What we’re finding out is not just the stories told on the page," he said, "but all the people who are missing from those stories": the slaves who built much of the original colony and women like Madame Restell, America's leading 19th-century abortionist.
Future episodes in the works include one on the history of gay New York before the riots at Stonewall Inn, another on Alexander Hamilton's life as a New Yorker, and a third on the history of sanitation in the city.
“We’re going to start that [one] in 1625 with the founding of New Amsterdam up to today. So that’s like a lot of trash," Young said.
"We have to compact it," Meyers chimed in with one of his trademark pun. We stifled a groan.