When most people think of housing in New York, they think of gleaming apartment buildings or walk-up tenements populating some of the historic neighborhoods of Manhattan. One of the most famous and most popular styles of dwelling in New York is the brownstone. Functioning as one-family residences or apartment buildings, the brownstone is an instantly recognizable landmark of the city.
Brownstone refers to a type of sandstone that has a dark red to brownish hue. Quarried in New England or the Mid-Atlantic states, this stone was very popular in the late 1800s and very early 1900s. It is most associated with row houses built in Upper Manhattan and Brooklyn during this time period. The name of the stone soon became known as a type of row house that was clad in said material. In addition to their color, brownstones are often also famous for containing rooms intended to be libraries (as this was the main form of entertainment before radio and television), tall doors, and also raised stoops that allowed residents the ability to step off of the grime and dirt of the city streets.
Although supplanted today by newer apartment buildings and detached housing in some areas of the city, brownstones are still seen as desirable—with some costing into the millions of dollars. They are highly sought after by many New Yorkers as a place to live. Brownstones are visible on the Sights by Sam tours of Brooklyn and of Harlem (our “Borough of Brooklyn” and “Upper Manhattan” tours, respectively). This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour of New York.
In today’s society where many manufactured goods are made in the South and West of the U.S. or come into the country in containers on great ships, manufacturing in New York City seems to be a foreign concept. On the contrary, the city has a long and industrious (no pun intended) history.
Being at the epicenter of a major port and with an incoming labor from overseas and across the country, New York became a major industrial hub. Manufacturing was concentrated on the West Side of Manhattan and in Brooklyn, among other locations. The industrial heritage of the city is still evident in the many lofts that dot Lower Manhattan, Williamsburg, and the Brooklyn waterfront. Unlike many other cities, New York had many varied industries, which helped the city weather downturns in a particular industry. With that said, the industries tended not to be heavy such as steel manufacturing—with concentration on food processing, consumer goods and durable goods among others.
From a high point in the first half of the 1900s, manufacturing declined over time in the city due to a combination of companies moving to Right to Work states in the South and West, the rising price of real estate in the city/confined building sites, and more liberalized international trade. Statistics by the Wall Street Journal indicate that manufacturing employs a little under 80,000 in the city—far down from 190,000 thirty years ago. Statistics indicate that this sector is growing in the city and is focused on high end goods. This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.
New York is full of Christmas and holiday traditions. From holiday villages that pop up in all boroughs to the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, there are many traditions that make a winter in New York magical. One of the most breathtaking traditions is in a corner of the southern Brooklyn neighborhood of Dyker Heights and its amazing Christmas lights.
Served by the extreme end of the R Train in Brooklyn, Dyker Heights is known for being a traditionally Italian neighborhood that was first established in the late 1800s as a speculative real estate development. No one is sure of when the tradition of grandiose Christmas displays started, but it is believed that it first started in the 1980s. As newspapers covered the lights, more seemed to proliferate. It is not unknown for some of the residents of the neighborhood to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a display. While almost every house in the neighborhood has at least a string of lights or a wreath on the door, many houses have inflatable characters, multistory nutcrackers, and even sound-and-light displays. Even the firehouse in Dyker Heights is now a part of the tradition. While there is no formal award given for the displays, there is a very real informal competition between many of the households in the neighborhood.
The Christmas lights cover hundreds of homes in the neighborhood, but some of the most grandiose and famous ones are along an eight block area around 12th Avenue. The lights remain up from the week after Thanksgiving to the first weekend in January. The lights and accompanying displays are a delight to young and old and worth the trip to this corner of the city. This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.
The Civil War was the most destructive war in American History. The conflict was commemorated in somber battlefield memorials throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, as well as in several major cities throughout the country. Several large Civil War memorials exist in Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and in Washington, DC, among several other locales. New York contains memorials to the war between the states as well— one in Manhattan and the other in Brooklyn. Ironically enough, both memorials are in Grand Army Plazas—both named after the Union Army’s veteran organization, the Grand Army of the Republic.
The Civil War Memorial in Manhattan at Grand Army Plaza is at the southeastern corner of Central Park. The main statue in the square is a golden equestrian statue of General William T. Sherman, the Civil War general who led the famous March to the Sea in Georgia. The statue was sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who is known more for designing American coins. While the statue and the plaza are not well known landmarks for this generation of visitors, the Plaza Hotel, located across the street from Grand Army Plaza, is one of the more known landmarks in this part of the city.
The other main Civil War memorial in the city is in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. Near the entrance to Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Museum, and the main library in Brooklyn, Grand Army Plaza contains one of the largest arches in the city: the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch. This arch was built between 1889 and 1892 and designed by McKim, Mead, and White. It contains several scenes of the Civil War and the reconstruction of the Union after the Civil War.
Other Civil War memorials exist in the city, such as the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in the Upper West Side. With that said, the two Grand Army Plazas and their memorials are awe-inspiring and give testament to the lives lost in preserving our great country. Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan can be seen on a Sights by Sam tour. The plaza in Brooklyn will be a stop on a future Sights by Sam tour.
Connecting the boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge spans 13,700 total feet (with a main span of 4260 feet) and is one of the longest suspension bridges in the United States and in the world. The bridge is instrumental in connecting the two boroughs, forming a major transportation corridor between the mainland U.S. and Long Island, as well as leading to the development of Staten Island.
The bridge was completed in 1964 after five years of construction. It was designed by Othmar Ammann, who also designed the George Washington Bridge and the Bayonne Bridge, among others. The bridge gained its hyphenated name due to lobbying by Italian-American citizens to name the structure after famous explorer Giovanni da Verrazano, who discovered New York Harbor in 1524 and crossed through the Narrows with his ship. It sees nearly 200,000 vehicles crossing it per day and remains popular with truckers—who do not pay the toll that people traveling west on the bridge do as they leave the city via one of the Manhattan crossings into New Jersey.
The Verazzano-Narrows Bridge is indeed an engineering marvel. The towers of the bridge are not exactly parallel to each other as they had to account for the curvature of the Earth as the bridge was so long. Its construction helped lead to a population boom on Staten Island, from slightly over 220,000 in 1960 to nearly 475,000 today. This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.
One of the most famous neighborhoods in the city in recent years is the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. Connected to the Lower East Side of Manhattan by the Williamsburg Bridge and by several subway lines to the rest of the city such as the G, J, L, and Z, the neighborhood has become one of New York’s hip areas.
The neighborhood started out as part of the independent village of Bushwick (now the neighborhood immediately adjacent to Williamsburg). The neighborhood gained its name from American military engineer Jonathan Williams, who surveyed the area in the early 1800s. The village (and later city) was folded into the City of Brooklyn and later became a hub of industry. Long a German and Irish neighborhood, Williamsburg changed into an area that was mainly populated by Latinos and Jews who had either left the Lower East Side or fled from Europe in the aftermath of the Holocaust by the 1940s and 1950s. As industries moved to less crowded parts of the country and areas with more inexpensive labor, the area went into decline. Starting in the 2000s, the area saw an influx of new arrivals as people came to Williamsburg because of its proximity to Manhattan and (then) cheaper rents. Development took off in 2005 when the city (in a bid to get the 2012 Olympics), rezoned many Northern Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Greenpoint and Williamsburg—leading to taller buildings being constructed and more development in the area.
Today, Williamsburg is known the world over for its unique shops and restaurants, excellent weekend flea market, setting of the classic novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and as the spiritual homeland of so-called hipsters. The area is also home to a large Latino and Hassidic Jewish community today as well—although gentrification in this area is still a major issue in the city. You may ask for a special request tour of Williamsburg at sightsbysam.com.
With the beginning of November, the focus of many becomes the holiday season. Christmas lights go up, ads with fashion models in holiday colors appear on billboards and on public transportation, and store windows along Fifth Avenue go to war with each other over which is the most over-the-top display of Season’s Greetings. As New York is the country’s largest city, it lays claim over several important Christmas traditions.
In the press and writing, New York can lay claim to one of the first modern interpretations of Santa Claus through NYC native Clement Clark Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” which describes the lovable Santa Claus most people recognize delivering gifts from house to house on his sleigh pulled by reindeer. Santa’s existence and reputation was solidified in an 1897 editorial from the New York Sun, entitled “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.” This editorial, reprinted on Christmas Day by most New York papers, is believed to be the most reprinted editorial in history. Many neighborhoods ring in holiday cheer with residents of some Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Dyker Heights and Bensonhurst putting up large Christmas and holiday light displays in front of their homes.
Perhaps the quintessential symbol of the holiday season in New York is the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center. The first tree was a small, 20 foot tree raised by construction workers at Rockefeller Center in 1931 by workers building the complex. First raised officially in 1933, the tree is usually a Norway Spruce between 70 and 100 feet tall. In recent years, it has been harvested from New York State or a neighboring state, but it has come from further afield in the past. The tree, which is crowned by a massive star made of Swarovski crystal, is up for display in the middle of November and lit the day after Thanksgiving. The tree is in the court in the middle of Rockefeller Center and is near the famous ice rink, a must-see for any visitor to the city during this time.
Many visitors come to New York this time of the year to see the city at what many would say is at its best. In addition to shopping and seeing the city in its spectacular holidays decorations, it is also a great idea to take a Sights by Sam walking tour of the city—especially a nightly holiday tour that will run from December 1st to December 31st. You are able to book this tour at sightsbysam.com.
Every year in November, one of the most important athletic events on the calendar in New York is the New York City Marathon. With around 50,000 runners per year, the New York City Marathon is the largest in the world, with professionals and amateurs alike competing.
Because of the popularity of the race, spots are given out on a lottery basis, with some runners allowed in automatically if they have run in previous New York City Marathons or in certain qualifying marathons elsewhere. Runners looking to enter may also join the New York Road Runners Club (which organizes the annual race) and follow certain rules to earn a place in the marathon. Like all marathons, the race is 26.2 miles. It winds its way through all five boroughs of the city— beginning in Staten Island and going across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and then into Brooklyn and shortly into Queens before the course crosses into Manhattan. The race takes a brief jaunt into the Bronx and then back into Manhattan before ending near Tavern on the Green. The first New York City Marathon took place in 1970, exclusively within Central Park. It is hardly believable that only 55 finished the race, being watched by only around one hundred at the finish line. Today, runners are spaced out in staggered waves (they are tracked and timed via transponders embedded in their racing bibs).
At the finish line, runners are traditionally greeted by a statue of Fred Lebow, which is moved from its spot in Central Park near East 90th Street. Lebow was the founder of the New York Road Runners Club after taking an amateur interest in running in the 1960s. A former Romanian refugee who fled his homeland after World War II, Lebow worked tirelessly for years to raise the stature of the marathon and created several other races in the Metro New York area—notably the Empire State Building Run-Up, which is one of the more colorful races in town where participants run up 1,576 steps to the top. He died in 1994, weeks before that year’s marathon.
The only time the marathon was cancelled since its inception was in 2012 due to Hurricane Sandy occurring right before the marathon. Supplies such as water and generators needed to help volunteers at the marathon were diverted to help people hurt by the hurricane in areas such as Brooklyn and Staten Island. In terms of superlatives, the fastest woman to run the marathon was Margaret Okayo of Kenya, who ran the race in 2:22 in 2003. The fastest man was Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya in 2:05 in 2011. The race attracts thousands of spectators and volunteers every year to see both amateurs and professionals run. This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.
As mentioned in an earlier blog entry, the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the sights that many visitors to New York have on their list. The bridge, with its famous architecture, incredible history, and beautiful vistas make it one of the best photo opportunities anywhere in town. On the Brooklyn side of the bridge is an incredible park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, which I think is worth seeing during your visit.
For centuries, the area where Brooklyn Bridge Park now is was industrial waterfront—the Port of Brooklyn, piers, and ferry terminals dotted the landscape. With the construction of East River bridges and the gradual move of harbor traffic to the Hudson River in the early 20th Century, the Brooklyn waterfront went into decline. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ended cargo operations on the East River frontage of the Brooklyn waterfront in 1984. Over the next three decades, nonprofit groups and concerned citizens worked to turn the abandoned port facilities into a new park. Brooklyn Bridge Park opened for the public in 2010, and also incorporated the former Empire-Fulton State Park site into its footprint.
Today, the park has numerous facilities for recreation, retail, and even an antique carousel that was brought to the city from Youngstown, OH. In addition to providing fantastic views of the structure giving the park its name, Brooklyn Bridge Park is also an incredible spot to watch a sunset and see the skyscrapers of Manhattan turn on their lights at night. This area can be seen on a special request tour booked through Sights by Sam.
One of the three “BMW” bridges, the Williamsburg Bridge connects Delancey Street in Manhattan with Grand Street in Williamsburg. The bridge over the east river forms a sort of anchor between two historically important and up-and-coming neighborhoods in the city.
The Williamsburg Bridge was completed in 1903. It was designed by Henry Hombostel and constructed by Leffert Buck. At over 7300 feet long, the bridge was at one point the longest suspension bridge in the world. The bridge has eight lanes of roadways and two subway tracks. It initially had two trolley tracks on it that formed an important commuter link between Brooklyn and Manhattan. A direct result of the bridge’s construction was the rapid expansion of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as thousands of people left the crowded Lower East Side and journeyed to new homes across the East River.
Throughout its history, the bridge has seen its fortunes ebb and flow with the surrounding neighborhoods. In the years after World War II, rising crime and depopulation of neighborhoods on both ends of the Williamsburg bridge occurred. The bridge also bore the scars of this era with increasing wear and tear in addition to becoming vandalized. After decades of deferred and substandard maintenance, the bridge was closed in the 1980s to make structural repairs and renovated from the 1990s to the 2000s. As the bridge was being rebuilt, the areas it connected became popular destinations for shopping and nightlife. Today, the bridge forms an important link between these two neighborhoods. This is one of the things you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.