The key to writing a book such as I Never Knew That About New York is how to order things – where do I begin, how should I divide the chapters, should the narrative be historical or geographical? What route should I take so as not to miss anything?
With New York it was easy. I could arrive via the Upper Bay, just as the first European settlers did, and begin where New York began – at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. And history and geography march together in New York – northwards along Broadway. New York was founded as New Amsterdam in 1625, with a fort erected where the Customs House now stands. Broadway was already there, an Indian trail running the length of the island which naturally formed New Amsterdam’s main street or ‘Broad Way’. As the city grew and developed it could only expand northwards along Broadway, with new areas filling out to east and west. Each stretch of Broadway and each new neighborhood has its own story and its own atmosphere and its own chapter.
Although I started out thinking to write about all five boroughs of Greater New York, I soon realized this was unrealistic when I found I had written half a book before even reaching Bowling Green. And so I decided to concentrate on Manhattan Island only – no easy decision since there is so much of interest in the other boroughs – I must return and write their story one day soon.
And although it was fascinating and exciting to peer behind the facades of the iconic, film-set locations such as the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Great Lawn in Central Park, Bloomingdales, etc, there was a special pleasure for me in discovering the hidden, unknown aspects of New York – becoming more than just a tourist.
The world sees New York as relentlessly modern, a city of skyscrapers – it has more of them than any other city in the world except Hong Kong – many of them glorious, like the Flatiron, which gets lovelier each time I see it, the Chrysler Building, the Woolworth Building.
And yet, tucked away in the shadow of these soaring towers are some startling and lesser known beauties, thrilling glimpses of the past. Magnificent 18th-century buildings that survived the Great Fire of 1835, including the very first house you see (but probably don’t notice) when disembarking from the Staten Island Ferry, the James Watson House (1799), built for a rich merchant who wanted a waterfront home from where to keep an eye on his ships in the harbor, and Fraunces Tavern (1719), where George Washington said goodbye to his victorious officers in 1783.
Enjoying an evening meal amongst the converted 19th-century warehouses of Stone Street was an unexpected treat. And a little further up Broadway there is St Paul’s Chapel (1764), where George Washington and the future King William IV both worshipped – and which also served as the rescue headquarters for a very modern disaster, September 9, 2001.
Perhaps the most surprising 18th-century house I came across was Gracie Mansion (1799), since 1942 the official residence of the Mayor of New York, although some mayors have refused to live there as there are strict rules governing who stays overnight! It lies right at the far end of East 89th Street, a tiny oasis of gracious 18th-century living embowered in trees and sandwiched between the dark, looming 20th-century towers of the Upper East Side and the choppy East River as it flows towards Hell Gate.
Then there is the Federal style Hamilton Grange, built in 1802 as a country retreat for founding father Alexander Hamilton and now marooned on the side of a hill having been ignominiously moved around because it was in the way, and the magnificent, classical Morris-Jumel Mansion of 1765, set on its own hill, where in 1790 the first three US Presidents all sat down to dinner together.
And the modest Dyckman Farmhouse, filled with simple furniture and redolent of the time when the north of Manhattan Island was all farmland, acting as gatekeeper above Broadway just before the bridge to the mainland – I don’t think I ever really believed that Manhattan was actually an island until I gazed across the Harlem River to the cliffs of the Bronx from Inwood Park.
There are so many happy memories of the everyday New York that only New Yorkers know. The uncrowded lawns and hills of north Central Park so calm and spacious with the lovely Conservatory Gardens and serene Harlem Meer, the breezy heights of the West Side with sinuous Riverside Park, sweeping views across the majestic Hudson, the Little Red Lighthouse set by the water beneath the huge George Washington Bridge – busiest bridge in the world.
Sitting with an American beer in my favourite New York bar, the Ceile just off Bennett Park, Manhattan Island’s highest natural point, enjoying the buzz and the bargains of Harlem’s colourful markets, climbing up from the Polo Grounds on the John T. Brush staircase where once you could watch the New York Giants for free, eating a burger from Shake Shack in Madison Square Gardens, riding the Roosevelt Island Tramway, with its unique views of downtown, the Staten Island Ferry – greatest free ride in the world.
Enjoying a drink above the treetops of Central Park in the Met’s hidden rooftop Sculpture Garden, walking the High Line, taking the No 4 bus from the Cloisters to downtown – best bus ride in Manhattan – watching the red kites in Washington Square Park, renting a top floor apartment near Union Square up six flights of steps and no lift – just like Barefoot in the Park.
There really is nowhere quite like New York…