Nooks and Corners of Old New York (1899)

Charles Hemstreet’s 120-year-old guidebook to lower Manhattan is, surprisingly, not at all obsolete. Probably this is because its interest lies in the past. While some of the landmarks Hemstreet mentions in order to orientate the reader (a patch of grass here, a building there) are by now long gone, anyone who has a passing familiarity with “old New York” can enjoy the book’s blend of local knowledge and historical trivia.

One learns, for example, that Bowling Green, the minuscule park at the southern tip of Broadway (once much larger)

was originally the centre of sports for colonists, and has been the scene of many stirring events. The iron railing which now surrounds it was set up in 1771, having been imported from England to enclose a lead equestrian statue of King George III. On the posts of the fence were representations of heads of members of the Royal family. In 1776, during the Revolution, the statue was dragged down and molded into bullets, and where the iron heads were knocked from the posts the fracture can still be seen.

Hemstreet delights in these sorts of details. He especially likes to describe the pile-on of events in some of Manhattan’s oldest places, such as Castle Garden — a small artificial island built in 1808–1811 and later, in the 1860s, incorporated into the mainland. “It was the first real home of opera in America,” Hemstreet tell us, before launching into a litany of names and dates:

General Lafayette was received there in 1824, and there Samuel F. B. Morse first demonstrated the possibility of controlling an electric current in 1835. Jenny Lind, under the management of P. T. Barnum, appeared there in 1850. In 1855 it became a depot for the reception of immigrants; in 1890 the officers were removed to Ellis Island, and in 1896, after many postponements, Castle Garden was opened as a public aquarium.

In the 1890s, New York had already changed many times beyond recognition. Still, at that time much more of the past remained intact. Obviously, Hemstreet — like E. C. Peixetto, whose pen-and-ink drawings nicely illustrate Nooks & Corners — was attuned to these visible traces. “Chatham Square,” he writes, “has been the open space it is now ever since the time when a few houses clustered about Fort Amsterdam”; “Thames Street is as narrow now as it was one hundred and fifty years ago, when it was a carriageway that led to the stables of Etienne De Lancey”.

Writing about Greenwich Village, Hemstreet tells us that it was built on the site of a Native American settlement, in a fertile region whose

natural drainage afforded it sanitary advantages which even to this day make it a desirable place of residence. There was abundance of wild fowl and the waters were alive with half a hundred varieties of fish. There were sand hills, sometimes rising to a height of a hundred feet, while to the south was a marsh tenanted by wild fowl and crossed by a brook flowing from the north. It was this Manetta brook which was to mark the boundary of Greenwich Village when Governor Kieft set aside the land as a bouwerie for the Dutch West India Company.

Bouwerie is Dutch for “farm”. (This, as you might guess, accounts for how the Bowery — which used to be the road to Peter Stuyvesant’s farm — got its name.)

Hemstreet, who was also the author of The Story of Manhattan and When Old New York Was Young (as well as a practical guide to newspaper reporting and at least one novel), is almost entirely forgotten today. Yet his books on knickerbocker history are well worth looking into. Readers of Luc Sante’s Low Life — or anyone enamored with the city’s lore — will find something fascinating on every page.