Before the mid 19th century, the Upper East Side neighborhood was predominantly farmland and the garden market district of New York City. From Turtle Bay to the Gracie Mansion, the easternmost part of the neighborhood was strung with villas that overlooked the scenic East River. However, in the 20th century with the introduction of the grid system, the stretch of 5th Avenue apartment buildings quickly became the most desirable addresses in the neighborhood and in The City at large. Not only did these residences have the luxury of overlooking Central Park, but also serenity and isolation from the rest of Manhattan, as no public transportation went to the neighborhood. Quickly, the Upper East Side became an oasis for celebrities and the wealthiest New Yorkers. From Carnegie’s and Frick’s to later Kennedy’s and Whitney’s, the area was exclusive and secluded from the poverty and noise of the rest of Manhattan. With the high density of wealth, the neighborhood grew beautifully with European Architecture influencing the designs of the many museums, diplomatic missions, houses of worship, hotels and even the streets. Subsequently, the neighborhood also experienced a dramatic lack of diversity in race that still exists to this day, as 89% of the Upper East Side is white. Nevertheless, the feats of the great wealth offers plenty of history for us to feed our eyes on.
The Plaza Hotel was built in 1883, designed by famous architecture firm, McKim, Mead & White. The hotel officially opened in 1890, however lasted a short fifteen years before determining it was far too small. In 1905 The Plaza was demolished and rebuilt, opening again in 1907. A room at the beautiful landmark was less than $3 per night; the same rooms running over $1,000 per night today. The hotel is known for its features in media and pop-culture and has been a go-to spot for celebrities and the super wealthy for over a century. Noteworthy: The Beatles stayed at the Plaza on their first tour to the United States.
From 1831 to 1855, New York City’s population roughly quadrupled. Fearing that there would be no nature or green space in this growing model of Manhattan, Central Park was erected. In order to determine the best plan for the space, the Central Park Commission was formed. The board decided there would be a competition for the best design, and ultimately chose Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s ‘Greensward Plan.’ These two men conceived of an idea that incorporated natural spaces of different heights and depths that prevented park-goers from seeing or hearing the bustling city around the park. To this day, from many places, that idea remains true.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded in 1870 by businessmen, financiers and artists who were leading thinkers of the time. They wanted to start a museum that brought American citizens to the frontline of art and education. Today the museum is famous for it’s ranging exhibitions and, in pop-culture, The Met Gala.
Henry Clay Frick House and Frick Collection
Henry Clay Frick was a massive art collector of the 20th century from Pittsburgh. Once he moved to New York City, he had his home (pictured above) built between 1912 and 1914 by Thomas Hastings. Frick resided there until 1919 when he died, willing the home to a public museum after Adelaide’s death in 1931.
Tucked away in the northernmost area of Manhattan, Harlem is known for its rich culture and abundant history. While Harlem experienced a lack of underdevelopment (compared to the rest of Manhattan) until 1866, this did not mean the area was poor. In fact, the area was largely inhabited by generally well-off families owning small farms until around 1811 when the grid system was brought to the neighborhood. The neighborhood was known to be a safe sanctuary which led to two city mayors living there: Cornelius Van Wyck Lawrence and Daniel Tiemann.
However, this peace seized to exist once the American Civil War began to impact New Yorkers. Harlem’s development was influenced by the refuge of poor New Yorkers, mainly Italians and Jews, seeking cheap accomodations during the draft riots. This boom introduced the above ground railway, iconic row houses, Churches, Synagogues, and restaurants. By 1893, the demand for residential space grew so much that large apartment buildings were put up.
demand for residential space grew so much that large apartment buildings were put up.
Though, possibly one of the most crucial aspects of Harlem’s history is amongst is black population. In general, African Americans did not seek Harlem, but were forced to live there. Due to deep-rooted employment and rent discrimination, many blacks in New York City were forced to migrate North. While the Lexington Ave. subway line simplified the commute for those working downtown, many blacks chose to establish a neighborhood that fit their needs. Soon Churches and small businesses that fit the needs of the black population arose all throughout Harlem. By 1930, 70.3% of Central Harlem’s population was black.
However, the entire Harlem community was faced with hardship throughout the entire 20th century. From a lack of public parks and swimming pools under Robert Moses’ plan during the 1930s to five Harlem riots, the neighborhood was becoming increasingly poor, ignored and angry. Additionally, Harlem was giving substandard public housing and educational institutions, which eventually led to race riots. While there were some improvements made, the population rapidly decreased (today by nearly 57% from its peak in the 50s) and many people found the neighborhood to be unsafe and undesirable.
Home to the oldest, most historic streets in Manhattan, Greenwich Village is one of New York City’s coziest neighborhoods. While Greenwich Village spans a mere 185 acres, the land has a rich history dating back to the early Dutch settlers. In the 1600s, Governor Wouter van Twiller turned the area into a 200-acre tobacco farm that employed freed slaves. While this lasted under Dutch settlement, the area was not named ‘Greenwich’ until 1713 in the will of Yellis Mandeville of Greenwich under British rule. Slowly, Greenwich accumulated settlers and began to develop row houses towards the end of the eighteenth century. Though due to plague in the neighborhood in the early nineteenth century, many settlers were forced to abandon the area. However, famous Quaker prison reformer Thomas Eddy saw an opportunity to create a humanitarian prison on the land. While Eddy had a great idea, there was poor execution and quickly the prison was overrun with riots and killings. However, after the failed prison, the area was reclaimed by progressive New Yorkers who advocated for rights, education and art. This group of visionaries later gave The Village the reputation as urban bohemia due to their counterculture and progressive movements of all types and magnitudes. Greenwich Village is known to be a landmark for avant-garde and alternative culture, from Bohemians to Beats or from women’s rights protests to AIDs activism. Today, Greenwich Village is known for its historic architecture, diverse cuisine and attention to the arts.
Washington Square Park is a 9.75 acre park in the center of Greenwich Village and has become the ‘quad’ for New York University students. The park was built around the Washington Square Arch. Since the 20th century the park has been used for protests and group meetings in addition to the casual painters or pianists who work regularly on the square.
Gay Street is home to one of Greenwich Village’s iconic winding streets and historic townhouses. As per the name, Gay Street was named in respect to the gay population that largely inhabits Greenwich Village and the activism that has occurred within the streets.
Stonewall National Monument is a park dedicated to the Stonewall Uprising June 28th, 1969. This uprising advocated for LGBTQ+ rights that were previously obsolete. The riot paved the path for a more equal and just city for all people of all genders and sexual orientations. This uprising not only created waves of movement within The City, but across the country and eventually around the world.
Washington Mews used to be boarding stables during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, now home to NYU cultural housing and offices.
Originally a courthouse, The Jefferson Market Library is a New York City landmark, designed by architects Frederick Clark Withers and Calvert Vaux. The Library has served the neighborhood for over 40 years and is now a New York City landmark.