Step Into a Midcentury Map of New York, Packed With Weird Local Lore


There’s an previous sport in which somebody throws a dart at a map, after which desires of touring wherever it lands. If you occurred to search out your self in Manhattan within the early 1950s with a wide-open afternoon, you possibly can have tried the identical factor with this dense, boisterously illustrated map, after which ventured out to see the on a regular basis wonders that awaited you there.

On the chart he titled “The Wonders of New York,” New Jersey–born cartographer Nils Hansell sketched out greater than 300 diversions, from Manhattan’s southern tip as much as 96th Street. The illustration now additionally graces the quilt of the e book Picturing America: The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps, by University of Maine geographer Stephen Hornsby. Inside, Hornsby makes the case that maps like this one—colourful, flamboyant, and never particularly helpful for navigation—had been the offspring of the promoting tradition that boomed within the mid-20th century.

Nils Hansell mapped the city's wackiest facts and half-truths.
Nils Hansell mapped the town’s wackiest details and half-truths. Courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection

In that vein, Hansell’s map is actually promoting the concept of Manhattan because the place to be. It captured the borough’s buzz, Hornsby writes, within the type of the “gleaming modernist skyscrapers and the new United Nations building, trans-Atlantic liners, and newly introduced jet passenger planes.” On a block-by-block degree, although, these emblems take a again seat to the smaller sights which have at all times made the town deliciously, deliriously unusual.

The map’s annotations learn like an insider’s information to Manhattan’s most rakish characters, showiest points of interest, and least-plausible lore. Here be dragons (in Chinatown), and likewise prancing fleas, ships inside inexperienced glass bottles, and a nearly-nude opera singer hoisting a severed head on a platter. The flea marks the previous website of Hubert’s Museum, a former Catholic college on West 42nd Street the place, for almost 40 years, guests might watch Roy Heckler’s educated fleas pull off unusual and surprisingly enchanting feats. (When prodded by Heckler’s tweezers, the fleas Petey and Peaches shimmied and waltzed, and a trio named Napoleon, Marcus, and Caesar hauled miniature cannons and chariots. “Not as exciting as a horse race,” Heckler as soon as conceded, “but they get there just the same.”) Hansell additionally marked a constructing the place all of the elevators had been operated by redheads—or so he claimed—and close to City Hall, a mermaid indicators the place the place P. T. Barnum as soon as drew crowds with one of the legendary creatures’ “skeletons.”

Hansell marked the place where P.T. Barnum once displayed a "mermaid skeleton."
Hansell marked the place the place P.T. Barnum as soon as displayed a “mermaid skeleton.” Courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection

Some of the spots had been solely accessible to males with fats pockets; others additionally prolonged an invite to their glittering wives. Not everybody had the earnings or inclination, for instance, to slurp the “famous Sunday chicken soup” on the Plaza, not to mention strut across the Waldorf-Astoria’s Peacock Alley promenade, which was, The New York Times put it, “open to anyone who looked rich and powerful and wanted to display appropriate plumage.”

Other points of interest had been extra democratic, and the map’s outer edges are littered little ideas to assist individuals take advantage of of their time. Anyone ambling round Central Park ought to notice that a lap across the Reservoir takes 20 minutes, he wrote. He additionally declared that the park’s ice rink had “the best skating in town,” and that a stroll throughout the Brooklyn Bridge would make for the “best Sunday walk.”

There's a lot going on in Central Park.
There’s a lot happening in Central Park. Courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection

At first learn, a couple different notes on the dense margins appear to narrate some fairly tall tales. Surprisingly, nonetheless, some of these head-scratchers have a grain of fact in them. For occasion, a 1696 royal constitution actually did grant Lower Manhattan’s Trinity Church the precise to useless whales that land alongside Manhattan’s shoreline. The doc allowed church wardens and different officers to “seize upon and secure” the whales, after which “tow ashore and … cutt up the said Whales and try into Oyle and secure the Whalebone,” and funnel any earnings again into the church. (“Trinity has never claimed a drift whale,” says the church’s archivist, Joseph Lapinski. “But I suppose the right to do so has never formally been rescinded.”) Other notes, just like the one marking the spot the place the pirate Captain Kidd was mentioned to have squirreled away his loot, are a complete lot tougher to fact-check with out some shovels and a swashbuckler’s disregard for the legislation.

For decades, there was a flea circus right in Midtown.
For a long time, there was a flea circus proper in Midtown. Courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection

Several of the spots have disappeared over time, so the map now appears like a relic. The 14th Street Armory, which additionally housed the annual Poultry Show, got here down a long time in the past. The historic music row referred to as Tin Pan Alley has all however vanished. Gone are most of the typewriter restore outlets, too, and whereas fishermen do nonetheless solid from piers across the metropolis, bait-and-tackle outlets are few and much between. You received’t discover many pushcarts on Orchard Street anymore, however you’ll find a museum that chronicles the individuals who stocked them.

Still, even the busiest corners of New York City stay full of wonders, for those who look intently sufficient—and, fortunately, some of them have gotten extra accessible within the years since Hansell drew his grid. If you’re craving a quaff, McSorley’s Old Ale House now serves girls. The artist positioned the Explorers Club close to Columbus Circle, but it surely has since trekked to the east facet of Central Park and now additionally opens its rolls to adventurers with no regard to gender. The avenue grid might keep the identical, however the world on high of it’s continuously shifting. Whether New York has misplaced its elementary weirdness, although, remains to be up for debate.



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