Hey everyone -
I’ll be appearing at a UnionDocs speaking event in Williamsburg this Sunday, for anyone who’d like to join. The subject is on street historians, and also appearing will be Kevin Walsh of the unparalleled Forgotten-NY.com, Moses Gates of All City New York, and Cindy VandenBosch of UrbanOyster. More info here!
In a city as vast as New York, there is always a story waiting to be told, a block waiting to be walked, a building with an unwritten history. Over the past decade, many New Yorkers have been creatively documenting the changing streets of the city on websites and blogs. Often, these modern day storytellers are not historians or authors by training. Their work is part of a tradition of “unofficial,” “informal,” “underground,” and “alternative” histories of New York City. However, after walking through the city block by block, a better title for their work could be “street history.”
The modern New York City street historian can be traced back to George G. Foster, a reporter who explored 1800′s New York as it grew from a town into a modern metropolis. His seminal work, “New York By Gas Light” (1850), is considered a groundbreaking example of urban non-fiction, and presented “the under-ground story – of life in New York,” with portraits of “the festivities of prostitution, the orgies of pauperism, the haunts of theft and murder, the scenes of drunkenness and beastly debauch.”
Foster’s candid explorations of New York’s streetscapes directly influenced the work of many writers in the 1900′s, including Joseph Mitchell – The New Yorker magazine’s “poet of the waterfront,” Herbert Asbury – a reporter who penned a series of “informal” New York histories including “The Gangs of New York,” and Meyer Berger – a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and “incurable New Yorker” whose colorful New York portraits were published in several collections.
In the same era, several New York street historians physically embraced the challenge of exploring modern New York. For his magnum opus, “History in Asphalt” (1978), amateur historian John McNamara walked, biked or canoed every street in the Bronx, creating an exhaustive encyclopedia of street and place names. His peers include Commander Thomas J. Keane, who completed his walk of every street on Manhattan Island in 1954. Unfortunately, Keane did not keep a diary, but in the next century, Robert Jay Kaufman did, writing “Blockology: An Offbeat Walking Guide to Lower Manhattan” (2005), after walking the 1,544 blocks below 14th Street, a distance of about 300 miles.
Today’s panel brings together four active New York City street historians – a guide, an author, an urban explorer, and a location scout – who are tirelessly exploring the 21st century city, block by block, on their own unique paths.