The history of New York City often lays unnoticed in the names of the streets and avenues that comprise it. From its origins as a colonial trade outpost to its current status as the cultural capital of the world, the oft-traveled thoroughfares of the five boroughs are a living history of the area’s influences and interests. These are just a few of the fascinating street name origins that have probably gone under your radar.
A one-of-a-kind street in Manhattan, the Bowery’s name has meant plenty of different things to different eras of New Yorkers. From the punk rockers of the 1970s and 1980s to the chic types who populate its hip bars and restaurants today, no street’s denizens better exemplify the rapid speed of change in NYC. Perhaps that makes it strangely ironic that the name comes from the first and oldest use of this avenue, which was full of quiet, pastoral farmland. In fact, the name comes from the Dutch word for farm: bouwerij. The spelling was anglicized after the Dutch left town and has remained that way ever since.
Manhattan’s most famous thoroughfare, like the similarly named Bowery, comes from the language of the city’s Dutch founders. Brede weg, simply meaning “wide road,” was an appropriate enough name, and remains so to this day. While it’s best known for being the home of the Theater District, the street doesn’t end on the island. While there are separate Broadways in Queens and Brooklyn, only the Bronx can say their version is truly part of the prominent one in Manhattan. In fact, the street runs even further north than that, extending 18 miles into Westchester County, finally ending in the town of Sleepy Hollow.
Modern visitors to this Chinatown thoroughfare are awash in traffic and aggressive handbag sales but had they visited about 200 years ago they’d more likely be traversing this block in a canoe. Yes, similar to Wall Street to the south, Canal Street got its name from an actual canal, built to handle runoff from the swamps and marshes that occupied this area before urbanization. By 1820, the swamps were gone, and the canal had been paved over to become the island-spanning street we know today.
One of Queens’ oldest and longest roads, Kissena Boulevard connects Flushing and Jamaica while running directly down the center of the borough. The name comes from the Chippewa word meaning “it is cold,” derived by the lake of the same name found in Kissena Park. The street is not only an important landmark for New York City travelers but Rock and Roll historians as well. According to legend, Queens-born KISS guitarist Paul Stanley got the idea for his band’s name by shortening that of the street he traveled on as a child.
Eager for more etymological entertainment? Read our How NYC Neighborhoods Got Their Names or The Most Popular Dog Names in NYC.
In the midst of the country’s foremost urban jungle, an oasis of plants and wildlife collected from around the world has thrived for over 100 years and counting. The Bronx Zoo is one of the city’s crown jewels, attracting over 2 million visitors to the northernmost borough every year. In a city best known for gridlock and nonstop action, the zoo has been a haven of intrigue and discovery for several generations of New Yorkers.
The Bronx Zoo’s story began in 1895 as the brainchild of the newly formed New York Zoological Society (now known as the Wildlife Conservation Society). The society came together with the explicit aim of building a top-quality zoo to complement the city’s celebrated museums and parks. Work soon began on identifying an appropriate site with enough space but not too far for city residents to visit.
By 1898, the newly consolidated City of New York allotted a plot of land in the Bronx to become a wildlife preserve and the following year the New York Zoological Park opened at the Fordham Road site. It was an immediate sensation, attracting thousands of curious guests to see the 843 animals on display. Today, that number has grown to over 4,000 representatives of more than 650 different species, still capturing imaginations of visitors young and old.
The zoo was among the first to consider exhibiting animals outside of restrictive cages, opening their African Plains showcase in 1941, a new kind of exhibit where animals freely intermingled and explored a recreation of the serengeti. This groundbreaking exposition not only offered a thrilling naturalistic display but imparted visitors with an understanding of the importance of preserving animals’ native habitats. The zoo’s Wild Asia did the same thing in an Eastern setting starting in 1977, with 77 acres of roaming space viewable by elevated monorail.
Over the years, the zoo has been home to some truly rare specimens. It’s only one of two zoos in the United States to have exhibited the thylacine, a now-extinct doglike marsupial from Tasmania. Their last thylacine died in 1919, and the species’ last known individual died in captivity in 1936.
Perhaps the zoo’s best known species have been their snow leopards, first exhibited in 1903. Over 70 of the endangered white cats have been bred at the Bronx Zoo, making it their foremost sanctuary in the United States. They’re far from the only rare species to call the zoo home, however, with Chinese Alligators, Kihansi Spray Toads, and Yellow-Headed Box Turtles all calling the Bronx their birthplace over the years.
The successful 20th century effort to revive the American Bison has much to owe to the zoo as well. The zoo’s original director William T. Hornaday cofounded the American Bison Society in 1905, and set about breeding the animal in the Bronx Zoo’s confines. Two years later, the zoo was able to send 15 bison to a preserve in Oklahoma, where a thriving colony exists to this day.
The zoo boasts some remarkable non-animalian features as well. The famed Rockefeller Fountain on the park’s north side, brought to the United States from Como, Italy by oil baron William Rockefeller, is a designated New York City Landmark, as are the bronze Rainey Memorial Gates decorating the zoo’s north entrance. Architectural enthusiasts will also appreciate the historic beaux-arts buildings of Astor Court, including the Elephant house and the zoo’s main administrative building.
In a city that boasts soaring buildings and cutting edge works of art, there’s no experience quite like the thrill and wonder housed in the 250 acres of the Bronx Zoo. Whether a leisurely visit or a lifetime residency, no time spent in New York City is complete without visiting the city’s wildest residents.
Manhattan, Staten, Riker’s, Governor’s. New York is a city of islands, with only The Bronx connected to the U.S. mainland. The rest of us are in good company, however, as there are dozens of little-known or visited islands around NYC, each (well, most of them) with rich stories of their own. Here are just a few:
City Island is somewhat of an anachronism in NYC and residents are happy to keep it that way. Located northeast of the Bronx and accessible by a small private bridge, this island is home to a New England-like oceanfront community of around 4,000 (fewer than some blocks in the rest of the city). City Islanders, or “clamdiggers,” consider the place an oasis apart from the rest of the city and can be somewhat insular. If you hope to visit the City Island Nautical Museum or try some of their famous seafood, your best bet to past the security gates is the Bx29 bus.
A stone’s throw from City Island, Hart Island has attained some notoriety in recent years for its burial grounds of unclaimed people and prisoners. Formerly home to a boy’s prison and Civil War POW camps, more than 1 million people have been laid to rest here since it was converted to a municipal cemetery in 1869. Not a hotspot for vacationers, Hart Island visitation is strictly limited to twice per month ferry trips for relatives of the dead and morbidly curious tourists who have requested spots ahead of time.
Hoffman and Swinburne Islands
It might seem farfetched now, but as nearby Fort Wadsworth serves to remind us, New York has historically been a vitally important port during wartime. Hoffman and Swinburne Island, originally created as quarantine stations for immigrants arriving at nearby Ellis Island, also served as training grounds for Merchant Marines during WWII, and more integrally, were designated anchor points for anti-submarine nets to keep the city’s harbors safe. Thankfully, they were never called into duty for this use, and are currently protected lands as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area managed by the U.S. Park Service.
U Thant/Belmont Island
For a spot of land measuring just 100 by 200 feet, this tiny island on the East River has had a colorful history. Made up of materials from the digging of the 7 train tunnels connecting Manhattan and Queens, Belmont Island (named for the tunnels’ financier) became U Thant Island when the land was leased by devout followers of the Indian meditation guru Sri Chinmoy and designated a Buddhist shrine. The island sat quietly until 2004, when in protest of the then-ongoing Republican National Convention, artist and island-hopper Duke Reilly rowed out to the island and declared it a sovereign nation, hanging a homemade flag from the island’s navigation tower. He was taken home by the Coast Guard, and U Thant Island continues to sit peacefully.
North Brother Island
North Brother Island sits southeast of the Bronx and has been the site of some of the more harrowing stories of New York City history. It sat uninhabited until 1885 when the city designated it the site of Riverside Hospital, a place where highly contagious patients could be treated safely away from the rest of the city. It was the home to perhaps the most famous such patient, Typhoid Mary, who notoriously spread the disease around the city as a cook for several wealthy families. Less famously (but more destructively), the island was also the beaching point of the doomed passenger ship the General Slocum, which ran aground on North Brother Island after catching fire in the East River. A memorial to those who lost their lives currently stands in Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan.
An uninformed observer would never guess that this unassuming bird habitat, nestled between Staten Island and New Jersey, was once the dominion of spies fighting the American Revolution. Originally a hunting preserve (hence the name), quiet and isolated Shooter’s Island was designated by George Washington as a drop-off point for top-secret missives used to help topple the British. In post-war years, the island belonged to industry as the home of refineries and shipyards, and was the site of the 1902 launch of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany’s private yacht, attended by President Theodore Roosevelt and filmed for posterity by Thomas Edison. Returning to its calm and isolated roots, Shooter’s Island is currently a bird sanctuary.
Want to combine your sophisticated affinity for natural history with your childish love of sleepovers and Ben Stiller flics? New York City’s American Museum of Natural History has a solution for adults hankering to bunk beneath the blue whale: a Night at the Museum sleepover series, which has officially returned this spring.
2017 won’t be the first year the AMoNH lets grown-ups stay overnight in the historic museum for a night to remember. This year will be the fourth to celebrate this swanky tradition, but could be the spookiest yet considering the museum’s current Mummies exhibit. Scared of sarcophagi at night? Rest assured that if the museum’s contents were to come to life, the dinosaurs would probably get you first anyway.
As always, the grown-up iteration is classy affair for 21+ adults only. Imagine this: the night begins with a champagne reception and music by the acclaimed 12th Night Jazz Trio in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall. Guests are free to roam the floor to view dinosaurs, exotic mammals, and more by night and without the usual pack of kids pressing their noses to the glass. Though with champagne in the mix, we can’t guarantee adults won’t do the same.
A delicious buffet dinner along with wine and beer will also be enjoyed by nocturnal explorers, along with a fossil factfinder tour by flashlight and, bringing literal life to the museum, a live-animal special exhibition. After a nighttime snack, cots are provided for a gentle slumber beneath the 94-foot blue whale in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. In the morning, you’ll get a light breakfast snack and memories to last a lifetime.
If this sounds too good to be true, you won’t be surprised that the experience comes with a somewhat-hefty price tag. Members pay $300 for admission, non-members pay $350. For some, this may be a big ask—but if you think about all that’s included (food, drinks, museum activities, boarding), plus the fact that proceeds help support the museum, for those who can afford it the benefits are clear.
The first sleepover took place on May 5, and the next will go down on June 30th. For adventurers with disposable incomes who don’t fear the dark, purchase tickets here.
The history of tattoos – particularly in a city as creative and cosmopolitan as New York – is as colorful as the epidermal artwork itself. As The New York Times notes, denizens of New York are surrounded by advertising, so how could they resist using their own skin as a form of expression?
But tattoos have been inked for centuries – even millennia – all over the world. There is evidence of Native Americans bearing marks upon their skin: “’Indigenous people of North America pricked or scratched the skin with sharpened bones, branches, or needles, then rubbed soot or crushed minerals into the wound as pigment.’” According to Time, “in the mid-18th century, Native American women tattooed themselves to alleviate toothaches and arthritis, similar to acupuncture.” A set of mezzotint portraits titled “The Four Indian Kings” depicts tattooed Mohawk and Mohican leaders circa 1710.
During that century, the word “tattoo” was derived from Captain James Cook’s voyage in the South Pacific, where he encountered Polynesian tribes bearing marks upon their skin. According to the Village Voice, the famous explorer “first introduced the Tahitian word tautau to England.” Cook’s crew also picked up souvenirs from their travels, which they carried back West.
Sailors began to request tattoos signifying important events, like ship names, birth dates, or milestones, “to mark the first time they crossed the equator or rounded Cape Horn or the Arctic Circle. […]The common anchor tattoo was meant to signify stability and to safeguard them from drowning […].” Apparently, the red star logo of Macy’s department store was inspired by the founder’s tattoo, from his days working on a whaling ship.
Tattoo shops catering to maritimers shared space with barbershops, initially in the Financial District, then in the Bowery. Barbers have a history of practicing surgery as well as cutting hair, hence the traditional striped barber pole. According to Untapped Cities, “these storefront ornaments reflected the common belief that hair cutters were “doctors” of the days (blue – veins, red – blood, white – bandages).”
Sailors are in great part responsible for the spread of tattoos, which eventually attained social cachet. The New York elite inked their skin once the practice was made fashionable by British royalty: “Britain’s Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) had gotten body art during an 1862 trip to Jerusalem, while his sons Prince Albert and Prince George (future King George V) got dragons inked in Japan by Hori Chyo, an artist known as ‘the Shakespeare of tattooing.’”
Tattoos were also a practical necessity. During the Civil War, they took the place of dog tags. In the mid-19th century, professional tattoo artist Martin Hildebrandt inscribed thousands of soldiers – both Union and Confederate – with their names, so that if they fell, their bodies could be correctly identified. Hildebrandt made his shop permanent in the Lower East Side, where tattoos continued to be relevant. In New York, “the first electric rotary tattoo machine was invented in 1891, inspired by Thomas Edison’s electric pen,” by Samuel O’Reilly, and was later improved by Charles Wagner. The practicality of tattoos was again demonstrated in the 1930s, when Social Security numbers were first administered, and people needed help retaining their numbers.
One of Martin Hildebrandt’s best clients was a woman: Nora Hildebrandt showed off over 300 tattoos in the Barnum & Bailey Circus during the late 19th century. Other women eventually owned their own tattoo shops. Mildred “Millie” Hull was the first, opening the Tattoo Emporium in the Bowery in the 1930s. Millie started as a burlesque dancer, and made her appearance all the more exotic by acquiring a number of tattoos, earning the nickname the “‘tattooed lady.’”
Betty Broadbent was almost crowned queen of a beauty pageant at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, giving female tattoos a broader platform. While Betty was one of the most photographed tattooed women at the time, she was not nearly in the minority. “The New York World, reports the Historical Society, placed the percentage of fashionable NYC ladies who were inked at the turn of the century around three-quarters.” Tattoo artists made house calls to accommodate the popularity of tattoos among women. Winston Churchill’s mother reportedly had a wrist tattoo, easily concealed by bracelets.
Despite its popularity with both women and men, the tattoo industry suffered a setback when in 1961, the New York City Health Department instituted a ban on the practice. Tattoos were blamed for “an alleged series of blood-borne Hepatitis-B cases linked to Coney Island tattoo parlors in the late 1950s.” However, according to Gothamist, other reasons may have weighed on the decision: “members of the public recall other motivations for the ban, including the mayor’s desire to clean up the city in preparation for the 1964 World’s Fair, a city health inspector’s personal vendetta against one of the Bowery tattooers, and even a scare regarding contaminated shell fish.”
The ban simply drove the tattoo business underground. Artists opened up shop in apartments and arranged signals in case of a raid, as with Prohibition. Tattoo parlors operated illegally in the 70s, like Mike Bakaty’s famous Fineline, considered the oldest tattoo shop in New York. Mayor Giuliani ended the ban in 1997, but tattoos had never really left New York, and the art had only become more international.
To learn more about the history of tattoos and the special role New York played in their popularity, check out the exhibit “Tattooed New York” at the New York Historical Society. Or visit the South Street Seaport Museum to learn about “the most tattooed man in America”: “The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo.”
New York City is a city with many reputations, not all of which fit neatly in a box. The restless metropolis is both a financial and artistic capital, known as much for Time Square’s neon ad-space as it is a canvas for renowned creators from poet EE Cummings to muralist Banksy.
Walk down a street and you’ll see a flashy Apple billboard on one side and street art on the other. Jump on the Q train, and you’ll see a Seamless campaign on the wall alongside a poem by Walt Whitman. New York has managed to allow ads and art to share space, even when the former is not as financially viable. How can this be, and can there be harmony between the two—and just as importantly, those behind them?
It’s important to begin by prefacing that ads and art have a lot in common. Overlap exists in the skills used to create them, and in their impact: catching the eye, heart, or mind’s attention, or eliciting a certain emotion. The difference is all in the intent: art isn’t selling anything, except itself or an idea from time to time.
New York City’s history as an artistic hub is well-known. To this day artists flock to New York City for its vibrant art scene, though the barrier to entry—not to mention the rent—has gone up since the days of beat poets and starving artists. Home to some of the world’s best art museums, like the MoMA and the MET, New York City is an artistic mecca in all fields: music, theater, writing, painting, you name it. And why not? With a rich history, diverse populace, and colorful culture, the streets are steeped in inspiration from the Bronx to Brooklyn.
Still, as much as artists are drawn to its lights like moths to a flame, New York has always been about the money first: think Wall Street, Upper West Side mansions and TriBeca penthouses. A beacon of hope in theory, the city of opportunity is also incredibly cut-throat. These days, “making it” means making money. And one way to do that? Go commercial.
Advertising is far from the only field that has commercialized art, but it’s certainly notable from an aesthetics perspective. The site of the hit AMC show Mad Men and the real life ad scene that inspired it, New York has also been an international hub for advertising for over a century. Among others, New York is home to the Omnicom Group, the second largest ad agency in the world with an annual revenue of over $15 billion.
Times Square is the most obvious, visual representation of NYC’s ad status. As early as WWII, the area has been a major intersection and prime vision of ad-space since the late 1800s. The first electrified advertisements appeared in 1904 and grew significantly in the 1920s. Though it declined and rose with the city over the years, especially following the Great Depression, WWII, it’s one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world to this day. This is stunning when you consider that people are traveling across the world to essentially see advertisements in bulk.
It’s worth noting that Times Square isn’t a godless vacuum of cheap Elmos, naked Cowboys, and Coca-Cola ads: it’s also the heart of New York City’s theater district. Broadway has been a safe haven and love of artists for decades, but it’s also a multi-billion dollar industry, much like other forms of entertainment: music, movies, etc.
Is it surprising, then, that you can walk down the street in New York and still consume art for free? As Jordan Seiler, founder of the Public Ad Campaign,” told the New York Times, “Advertising frames the public environment as being for sale but public space is not inherently commercial.” New York has always valued art and will always have people in the public and private sector pushing to showcase it.
Seiler’s project, Public Ad Campaign, advocates for artists taking over public ad space. It also promotes an app called “No Ad” that uses augmented reality to transform ads into a “curated digital art experience” — among other partnerships, tools and exhibitions. The idea is for artists and art-lovers alike to resist ads in favor of artistic messages.
This renegade approach may not be wholly necessary, because it appears that New York is already on board with not-for-profit ads; the two coexist and not compete. People who work or study advertising, for their part, often create their own art on the side (there’s a reason the industry attracts writers and illustrators). More importantly, public projects commissioning local artists to decorate subways and “beautify” neighborhoods are proliferating. Heck, the MTA’s “Poetry in Motion” was even brought back by popular demand.
This just goes to show that people like art for art’s sake, and the city knows that. It’s in their best interest to keep this in mind in order to attract residents and keeping commuters happy. For this reason, we can expect to continue seeing artists given a seat at the table, even if they’re sharing elbow space with Don Draper.