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A Long Walk in Old New York

Accessing the long-ago past, from the Village to Battery Park


NEW YORK — Con Edison, the utility company, used to post signs at its construction sites that said "Dig We Must." The slogan was meant to excuse inconvenience, but it also captured the frenetic spirit of the Big Apple. The city's always being blasted, jackhammered and rebuilt. It's hard to believe there's anything left of the past.

But as writer Kevin Baker discovered, a remarkable amount of old New York is still with us.

Baker, 40, is the author of "Dreamland" (HarperCollins), an entertaining new historical novel set in New York circa 1910. The story features real-life gangsters, Tammany bosses, labor organizers and Coney Island freaks, and it's a vivid, sights-and-smells portrait of the period.

As he researched the book, Baker was amazed to find so many significant buildings, public spaces and other icons of the past still standing in lower Manhattan. He began exploring these sites on foot, then started taking friends along. Now his periodic walking tours have received enough word-of-mouth publicity to be something of an event among writers, history buffs and others who savor the fun of knocking around Gotham City. I joined him on a recent drizzly morning.

Note: We did a lot of walking, but the trip is easily broken up with stops for food or drink.

We started at Union Square, Broadway and 17th Street. A park since 1811, it has seen countless political and labor rallies over the years. Baker directed my eye to the northeast corner of the square, where sits the New York Film Academy and Union Square Theater. This building was the fourth and last Tammany Hall, dedicated in 1929. Tammany, today synonymous with big-city bossism and political corruption, faded in mid-century. But the power this Democratic machine once wielded was such that it was able to hold the 1868 Democratic National Convention in its building, then nearby on East 14th Street. Its presidential candidate, one Horatio Seymour, was crushed by Ulysses S. Grant, but Tammany still called the shots.

We walked a few blocks west to Fourth Avenue, then south to Cooper Union, still a fine (and free) engineering school, built in 1859 by one of the country's truly remarkable entrepreneurs and philanthropists, Peter Cooper.

We walked west to Astor Place and across to Eighth Street, and continued to University Place. There, on the right side of the street, we walked through a gate into Washington Mews, a marvelously preserved early 19th century cobblestone lane lined with two- and three-story houses.

The end of the street brought us to Fifth Avenue. We took a left and walked through Washington Square Park, in the heart of Greenwich Village. It really was a village in the 1830s, to which people escaped from the squalor and cholera of the city, then much farther downtown.

We walked to the west side of the park and south a couple of blocks on MacDougal Street, one of the great Village thoroughfares, and stopped at Cafe Figaro, a classic coffeehouse.

We ambled back to Washington Square, taking a right along the park and a left on Greene Street. At the corner of Greene and Washington Place stands the building where the Triangle Shirtwaist fire claimed 146 lives in 15 minutes on the Saturday afternoon of March 25, 1911. The company was on the eighth, ninth and 10th floors. The city's fire ladders only reached the sixth floor, and the owners kept the stairway doors locked. The disaster led to the passage of 56 reform bills, and the building is the site of an annual labor rally.

We walked over to Broadway and crossed onto Great Jones Street--that's Baker's favorite New York street name--to reach the Bowery.

Three blocks south on the Bowery we turned right on Prince Street for two blocks to Mott Street and Old St. Patrick's Cathedral. Built in 1809, it was the seat of the Archdiocese of New York before the new St. Patrick's on Fifth Avenue was finished in 1879.

Perhaps the most colorful leader of the old church was Archbishop John J. "Dagger John" Hughes, one tough prelate. When Catholic churches were being burned by anti-immigrant rioters in Philadelphia, Boston and other cities in 1844, Hughes organized his flock to guard their churches. He told the city fathers that if one Catholic church burned in New York, the city would be "another Moscow"--a reference to that city's fiery welcome for Napoleon. Not a single church was harmed.

We walked south on Mott to Broome Street, took a left and walked about eight blocks to Orchard Street and one of the most unusual of New York's museums. The Tenement Museum has a visitors center at 90 Orchard St. and an actual three-story, 1863 tenement building at 97 Orchard St.

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