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.
The concept of ride-sharing, exemplified by popular services Uber, Lyft and their corresponding apps, is still a fairly fresh transportation trend. Unlike regular planes, trains, and automobiles, ride-sharing apps constitute startup business models that have the potential to disrupt entire transport ecosystems—especially in regards to the already robust taxi fleets in major cities like New York.
Will taxi fleets be a thing of the past, lost by the wayside like horse-drawn carriages? New research out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that, if passengers get on board with the car-pooling elements of ride-sharing services, New York City’s transportation network could be supported with just a quarter of its current 14,000 yellow cabs. As few as 3,000 vehicles, researchers say, could service the entire metropolis.
Because the remaining vehicles could be Ubers, Lyfts, Junos, Vias, Getts, or other black car with an app attached, New York City could in theory pull a whopping 85% of its yellow cabs and still service 98% of commuter demand. This would come with huge consequences, both good and bad. As an obvious negative, thousands upon thousands of drivers would lose their jobs. As a positive, congestion could clear up significantly along with pollution.
Of course, these predictions are still largely speculative. They operate on the assumption, first of all, that commuters would be willing to use ride-sharing apps and, importantly, share their cars with other people. Since many people choose cabs to avoid sharing space with strangers, this assumption may be a stretch.
Researchers also factored the rise of autonomous vehicles into the equation. Their algorithms suit autonomous vehicles best, as this technology would in practice plan routes most efficiently. The whole point is that less traffic, smarter vehicles, and ride-sharing would make cab-hailing (and even driving) unnecessary. Without autonomous vehicles, you still get traffic and accidents, meaning more drag-time on the road.
It’s true nonetheless that autonomous technology is progressing rapidly, with investments in the field growing too. But the fact remains that most Americans are simply not interested in autonomous vehicles, and cite a lack of trust as a big reason.
But assume that autonomous cars do catch on in a big way. PBS speculates that this would simply lead to more congestion and emissions, as people would choose go about their professional or personal activities enroute. If people are willing to work, eat, and sleep on the road, this is certainly a possibility. So the question becomes, are New Yorkers more likely to get comfortable in a driverless car for a grueling but hands-free commute, or rub up against strangers for a fast one?
Whatever the case, New York City’s taxi drivers appear to be bracing themselves for change, whatever magnitude it may be and however soon. Though researchers claim that limiting fleet number would be an improvement—the same amount of money for shorter shifts—not everyone is convinced.
The shift is well underway, and taxi drivers are feeling it. According to the New York Times, taxi medallions are going for half of the $1.3 million recorded just three years ago, and the average number of daily taxi trips has been reduced by 100,000 in comparison to six years ago. As more people grow comfortable using apps to catch rides, the decline of yellow cabs isn’t just inevitable. It’s already happening.
In a way, the vanishing of taxis, if and when the time comes, will be the end of an era. Yellow cabs have become synonymous with New York life: a quintessential flash of color in a sometimes gloomy cityscape. It’s hard to imagine the city without them. But nostalgia can’t erase the fact that ride-sharing is cheaper, easier, and more efficient than sticking your hand into the street and hoping to catch a car at random.
If taxis become obsolete, is transport system run by ride-sharing startups ideal? Judging by the recent backlash against the Uber, perhaps not. Ride-sharing companies, still only about decade old, have a lot of kinks to work out in order to prove that they are in the drivers’, employees’ and customers’ best interest. Given the fierce competition, we’ll likely see adjustments in the market to meet the demands and preferences of the public. If the result is black instead of yellow, so be it.
A lesser-known holiday tradition for New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is to put vintage subway cars–usually on display at the New York Transit Museum–back in service, but for a limited time only. The “Shoppers Special” operates annually on Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas, departing several times a day from the 2nd Ave. station and making local stops along the 6th Ave F/M line to Queens Plaza.
This special 8-car train consists of R1/9 “City Cars” that ferried passengers throughout the city from 1930 to 1970, along unrecognizable lines like the AA, BB, CC, EE, and H. As the MTA puts it, “The jazz composer Billy Strayhorn would have taken a City Car to Sugar Hill when Duke Ellington told him to ‘Take the A Train.’”
This special subway ride will transport you in more ways than one: the train cars are decorated with era-appropriate ads, as documented here by Business Insider. And the cars themselves are a nostalgia trip, with “rattan seats, ceiling fans, incandescent bulb lighting, drop-sash style windows, and roll signs” (MTA). Swinging metal hanging “straps” help brace standing riders: the swinging lets you sway more with the motion of the train than the parallel grab bars in their modern counterparts. The light bulbs overhead consistently flicker off–for one thrilling moment–between stations. The antiquated emergency brakes, relatively low ceiling fans, and insistently closing doors all mark a charming but less foolproof era.
To ensure subway riders don’t play a game of chicken with the subway doors–as current cars allow and present-day commuters routinely test–MTA operators are stationed in every car of the Shoppers Special. The ceiling fans and air vents provide excellent ventilation and a whoosh feeling of truly traveling that is missing from the current enclosed subway cars. That may be in part because the doors between cars are left open on the Shoppers Special, to encourage riders to cross over and continue their journey between eras.
While most of the train cars are from the 1930s and 1940s, one car looks noticeably different: because it was designed to look noticeably different. Car No. 1575 looks more contemporary because it was a prototype, meant to replace the older cars that compose the rest of the throwback train. It’s still a noticeable departure from the current subway car, however.
Commissioned for the Independent Subway System (IND) and operating for over 40 years, the R1/9 cars that comprise ⅞ of the Shoppers Special are the basis for the current subway car R160 model, and even the upcoming R211 cars. The durability of the R1/9 model cars is evident in their long run, and in the smooth ride enjoyed by modern straphangers: a mixed bag comprised of surprised New Yorkers, New Yorkers in the know (some even dressed for the occasion in period wear), tourists, and many delighted children.
The popularity of this yearly tradition demonstrates the public’s avid interest in an older New York, documented by projects like the Tenement Museum. The New York Transit Museum gives a good glimpse of what commuting might have looked like in the early or mid-20th century. This photo tour by Business Insider serves as a quick introduction. Articles by Smithsonian and Untapped Cities describe additional hidden wonders and subway secrets:
- abandoned subway stations/platforms/levels
- the underwater graves of subway cars
- a long-running subway beauty pageant
- a pneumatic subway car that stretched one city block
- armored Money Trains that carried subway fare money to a secret room in Brooklyn for counting
- a fake Brooklyn townhouse that functions as a ventilation shaft and emergency subway exit
- the Signal Learning Center at 14th Street station
- a small, subway-accessible NYPL branch
- the entrance to the historic Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square station
- the Masstransiscope art installation at the abandoned Myrtle Ave subway station
- a bedecked private subway car–every commuter’s fever dream
Interest in such an integral New York institution will never abate. So the next time you’re riding the subway, consider that your car may host a nostalgia ride 50 years from now…