Gramercy Park

At the foot of Lexington Avenue is Gramercy Park, formerly the site of a marsh (Gramercy is the anglicized version of a Dutch word meaning “Crooked Swamp”). Gramercy and the adjoining park has been the center of a high-end residential area since its creation in 1833. The park is notable because it is the only private park in Manhattan and one of only two in the entire city.

Gramercy Park is the result of a push by property developer Samuel Ruggles. Instrumental in the creation of Union Square and Madison Avenue, Ruggles donated a stretch of land that was his property. While the park was constructed in 1833, it would be years before neighboring houses would be completed. As the park is private, keys are limited to surrounding property owners and a few neighboring hotels and institutions. Keys cost hundreds of dollars for the dues-paying property owners and the locks to the park are changed annually to keep the park for the benefit of paying members.

As the area has been fashionable for nearly 200 years, it has attracted many famous people during its history. Famous architect Stanford White and actress Julia Roberts have called Gramercy Park home. Even today, the area is very serene compared to the bustle of the surrounding districts. This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.

Union Square

One of the most important intersections in the city, Union Square—located at the confluence of Chelsea, the East Village, and the Flatiron District—is a witness to the history of the city. Although mistakenly assumed to be named for the Union Army or for trade union activism, Union Square is so named because it sits where 4th Avenue, 5th Avenue, 14th Street, and Broadway all meet.

The square was the result of the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811, which formed the street grid of Manhattan. It first was an upscale residential district when it was finally laid out by the 1830s. Samuel Ruggles, the developer of Gramercy Park and Madison Avenue, was instrumental in making this a desirable area. As the population of the island began to move north, Union Square would become more commercial after the Civil War and also be the location of Manhattan’s theater district. Then as theaters began to move up to Times Square at the turn of the 20th Century, Union Square became part of a vast vice district known as the Tenderloin (which also encompassed some adjoining neighborhoods). The square cleaned up its act in the later part of the 1900s and is now surrounded by commercial areas and hotels.

Today, Union Square is known among New Yorkers for its farmer’s market, which occurs every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, as it has since the 1970s. If there is a protest of national importance, it is likely to take place in New York at Union Square. The square also sits atop a massive subway station where the Lexington Avenue IRT, Canarsie BMT, and Broadway BMT lines all converge in a massive junction—the third busiest in the NYC subway. Union Square is decorated with several statues including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and the Marquis de Lafayette. This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.

Bryant Park

Tucked into Midtown between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, book-ended to the east by the NY Public Library is Bryant Park. This 9.6 acre park was built next to the former Croton Reservoir in 1847. In 1853, an industrial exposition was held at the site, where an observation tower was built and the first safety elevator was demonstrated. The area returned to use as a park after the exposition. It would eventually be named after Willian Cullen Bryant, longtime editor of the New York Post and ardent abolitionist. After a period of neglect between World War II and the 1980s, the park was restored and is now popular once again.

Bryant Park is also famous for the surrounding buildings. The most famous is the New York Public Library’s main location at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Other famous buildings include the American Standard Building, which is now the site of a hotel. This building is clad in black and gold, supposedly looking like a radiator at night. The Bank of America Tower/One Bryant Park towers 1200’ over the park from a caddy-corner location. This structure is one of the tallest and largest green buildings in the city. While not in the park, the Empire State Building is visible from almost half a mile away, its famous and familiar edifice towering over the park.

Today, Bryant Park is famous as a popular lunch spot among Midtown office workers and for its annual holiday market in winter. This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.

New York Botanical Garden

In the Bronx covering 250 acres is the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). This living museum contains one million living plants. Although not on the immediate itinerary of most visitors, its holiday train show and beauty in spring and fall should be seen by visitors to the city.

The NYBG was founded in 1891. It sits on land once part of the vast Lorillard Estate, which was set aside on the freshwater Bronx River (the only freshwater river in the city limits). Wealthy New Yorkers felt that the NYBG would help to improve the city and preserve a pristine area of the city in the face of rapid expansion of the city. The collection of plants encompasses several habitats from all over the world in addition to one of the only old-growth forest groves left in the city. Many specimens are located in the large Enid Haupt Conservatory, which was completed in 1902 and gained its current name in 1978 after Mrs. Haupt gave money to save it from demolition.

The NYBG is not only for displaying plants, but also contains large botanical research facilities as well as the largest library in the U.S. specifically concerning plants and related matter. There is also a large facility on the grounds that has frozen DNA samples for research purposes. This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.

The High Line

Since 2009, the High Line in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan has delighted visitors and natives alike, helped to revitalize a formerly derelict area of the borough, and become one of the most innovative parks in the city. This linear park has a colorful history.

Before the arrival of the High Line, the Meatpacking District was similar to the Chicago Stockyards or the “Porkopolis” nickname of Cincinnati in that it was a major center of butchering and food processing. Major rail lines ran trains down tracks on 10th Avenue, leading to many people getting crushed by the trains (despite the presence of “Chelsea Cowboys” warning people of the trains). By the 1930s, the city decided that the tracks needed to be removed, leading to the construction of the High Line, which originally went from Spring Street to 34th Street. The track, which was so successful, caused major food processors such as Nabisco to build buildings around the tracks so they could offload freight. With the advent of more reliable trucking after World War II, the High Line declined in importance until the last train ran in 1980. While some sections were demolished, the present section was deemed too expensive for the city to remove. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, neighborhood activists successfully fought and won to have the viaduct converted into a linear park—similar to one in Paris, France. The park opened in stages in 2009, 2011, 2014, and 2015.

Open every day, the park has caused rapid development in the area with the opening of many new hotels and a spike in neighboring property values. The park has proven so successful that other cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia are eyeing similar proposals to build a High Line-style park. In 2017, Sights by Sam hopes to add a tour that includes the High Line and the Meatpacking District. This area is a must-do for any visitor to the city to see along with the Whitney Museum or while going to nearby shops.

Brooklyn Bridge Park

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.

The High Bridge

As I mentioned in my post about the Brooklyn Bridge, many cities are defined by their bridges.  Structures such as the Tsing Ma Bridge in Hong Kong, the Roebling Bridge in Cincinnati, and the Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia, are instantly recognizable symbols of the city.  Like San Francisco or Pittsburgh, New York is a city of bridges—with many stately structures connecting the city together.  While there are many bridges worthy of blog articles on this website, one of the most important bridges to the city is the High Bridge.

Connecting Manhattan to the Bronx across the Harlem River, the High Bridge was completed in 1848.  The bridge is 2000 feet long and was the first permanent bridge connecting Manhattan with the mainland.  It was partially designed by James Renwick, Jr, who is known for designing the Cathedral of St. Patrick in Midtown.  The bridge had a dual purpose—to allow transportation between the two boroughs and to transport water into the city.  The water was held in the stately water tower and reservoir where High Bridge Park in Manhattan is now.  According to some accounts, the tower was needed to increase water pressure so that increasingly common modern toilets could flush.  When initially constructed, the area became a destination for amusement and pleasure seekers as it was near the river, leading to many restaurants and hotels being built.

As industry grew along the river in the 1900s, this area lost its cache as a tourism destination and declined.  This led to part of the High Bridge being demolished and replaced with a metal span to allow larger ships to pass up the Harlem River.  As the Harlem River Drive and the Major Deegan Expressway were completed in the 1950s and 1960s, the neighborhood was cut off from the waterfront.  Faced with increasing crime in the area and vandalization of the bridge, the High Bridge was closed in the 1970s.  It was closed until 2015 after a massive restoration project fixed the bridge and rehabilitated it for pedestrian use.

While not a sweeping suspension bridge like so many of the more photographed bridges, the High Bridge is a historically important bridge that is a true symbol of the city.  If in this part of Manhattan, the High Bridge is worth your time for a walk.  The views from the bridge of Manhattan and the Bronx as well as the high bluffs on both the Manhattan and Bronx sides make this a great place to take photos—especially on a sunny day.  This is the type of information that you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.

The Unisphere

The Census Bureau has reported that Queens County is the most linguistically and ethnically diverse county in the U.S., with over 130 languages spoken and nearly half of the population born outside of the U.S. or born to parents from abroad.  Queens has replaced the Lower East Side of Manhattan as the place where America begins for many recent arrivals to New York.

A fitting symbol of the sway that Queens has on the world (or vice versa depending on your perspective), is the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.  Located slightly over half a mile away from the Mets-Willets Point Station on the 7 Line, the stainless steel globe, clocking in at 350 tons, 140 feet high, and 120 feet wide, was part of a display by U.S. Steel for the 1964 World’s Fair.  During the fair, the Unisphere had lit areas showing the world’s capital cities at night (this feature has been since discontinued).  The three orbits show the paths of the three satellites in Earth’s orbit that existed during the fair.  The Unisphere sits in front of the Queens Museum and on the former site of the Perisphere and Trylon, the main structures of the 1939 World’s Fair, held at the same location.

After decades of neglect, the Unisphere was restored and declared a city landmark in 1995.  The fountain lining the giant globe was also restored in the early 2010s as well.  According to a 2011 New York Times article, the island nation of Sri Lanka was blown off the massive globe during a freak tornado.  The NYC Parks Department immediately restored the island to its proper place off the coast of India.  The repair was appreciated immensely by New Yorkers hailing from the island nation.

Aside from the Unisphere, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is one of the largest parks in the city and contains other attractions.  The New York Hall of Science, the New York State Pavilion (currently being restored), and the Queens Museum all reside in this park that was once the infamous “ash heap” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about in The Great Gatsby.  The Mets’ home at Citi Field and the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King Tennis Center are nearby at the fringe of the park.  After appreciating the Unisphere and the other attractions, the 7 Line is nearby to whisk you away to Flushing Chinatown for some great dumplings or the multitude of other ethnic foods that can be found along the so-called “International Express.”  See Queens in a new light by booking a custom tour with Sights by Sam.

Bowling Green: First in New York

New York has hundreds of public parks ranging from the massive Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx to small “parklets” that are scarcely larger than a parking space. At the foot of Manhattan sits Bowling Green, the oldest public park in the city—established in 1733.

The area where Bowling Green is located was used as a “commons” where residents of New Amsterdam and later New York fed their animals. In 1733, the council of the city designated the area as a park for the enjoyment of all its residents.

In 1770, the British government erected a two-ton lead equestrian statue of King George III in the park. Due to poor relations between the mother country and the colony in the lead up to the American Revolution, the city passed one of its first anti-graffiti laws to counter the growing wave of vandalism toward the statue. On July 9, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read out loud in the city. The Sons of Liberty, immediately after the reading, ran to the statue and toppled it, melting the lead into musket balls. Some alleged pieces of the statue and the original fence reside at the New-York Historical Society today.

In a more contemporary era, the statue Charging Bull by Arturo di Modica was placed here after it had been removed from in front of the New York Stock Exchange. The statue was placed in front of the exchange in 1989 as a symbol of the perseverance of the American spirit after the stock market crash of 1987. It was moved to its present place on Bowling Green after the public clamored for it to be publicly displayed. The bull weighs a little over three tons.

Bowling Green is one of the main parks in the area of Wall Street, close to other attractions such as the New York Stock Exchange, the Alexander Hamilton Custom House, and Trinity Church, to name but a few. Bowling Green can be viewed on a Sights by Sam tour of Lower Manhattan.