Given that a real estate transaction is at the heart of the tale about the purchase of Manhattan, it goes to reason that Sam Roberts’s latest book, “A History of New York in 101 Objects”, (via Simon & Schuster, $30) includes some real estate-related items.
Inspired by the British Museum and BBC’s famed “History of the World in 100 Objects,” Roberts, a New York Times urban affairs correspondent and Gotham history buff, set out to highlight the same for New York City. Initially, Roberts wrote a story for the Times about the top 50 objects that displayed New York’s rich history. But due to the outpouring of suggestions, Roberts decided that 50 items weren’t enough. He compiled 50 more images to create this book, which includes some iconic New York items like the checker taxicab and now-extinct subway token.
In an email sent to The Real Deal, Roberts wrote: “In retrospect, I was surprised — I guess I should not have been — with how many objects in the book are related to real estate in a city obsessed with the subject, from the city’s birth certificate, to a canny speculator’s 1670 prospectus to the grid plan which presciently paved the way for Manhattan’s development.”
Here, then, are some of the more interesting real estate-related items in Robert’s book:
1) New York’s first birth certificate, known as the “Schaghenbrief”, is a letter from Peter Schaghen, a Dutch parliamentary representative of the West India Company, to his “High and Mighty Lords” in the Haarlemmerstraat in Amsterdam. Dated 1626, he chronicles the settlers have incidentally “purchased the Island Manhattes from the Indians for the value of 60 guilders.”
2) A 1670 guidebook to NYC by Daniel Denton, called ” A Brief Description of New-York: Formerly Called New Netherland” extolled the virtues of free land and expansion in New York. But in his pitch, Denton failed to disclose that he was a real estate speculator.
3) The only surviving bolt from John Randel Jr.’s original 1811 surveyor’s plan, which presciently mapped Manhattan all the way up to 155th Street. North of Houston Street, the island was mostly wilderness back then.
4) While Elisha Otis didn’t invent the elevator, he did create the Otis Elevator Safety Brake to make it safe to use. The invention ultimately allowed for the construction of NYC skyscrapers. The company began manufacturing passenger elevators in 1857, and the first public steam-powered hydraulic model was installed that year in the five-story E.V. Haughwout & Co. department store on Broome Street and Broadway.
5) The stoop and its origin: The stoop (meaning “small platform” or “staircase” ) was introduced by the Dutch, inspired by their own buildings which were elevated to evade North Sea floods. The structures were flush with the street to compensate for space consumed by canals. New York City stoops became popular in pop culture in many television shows, including “Sesame Street,” and are now an enduring image of Brownstone Brooklyn.
6) The spire of the Chrysler Building, which was surreptitiously raised through the roof to make it the world’s tallest structure in 1930, didn’t hold that claim to fame for long.
7) First Houses, the United States’ first public housing, was a low-income housing project on the Lower East Side. The brainchild of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, it opened in 1935. The development consisted of 122 apartments in nine brick walkup buildings, each four and five stories comprised of three-room units. It took only nine months to complete and the rent came in at roughly $6.05 a room — about two-thirds lower than the average rental rate at the time.
8) Staten Island got edited out in 1944. That’s when Woody Guthrie revised his original lyrics to his song “This Land is Your Land,” striking the borough’s name and replacing it with the more all-inclusive “New York Island.”
9) A sign of the times: After producing as much as three million pounds of sugar a day, the Domino Sugar Refinery, which opened in 1856 on Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, was shuttered in 2004. The only remaining reminder is the 40-foot neon sign. For years it was an iconic symbol of the manufacturing industry in New York. Now it’s an ironic one for real estate. Roberts notes that the sign “is supposedly being preserved once the site metamorphoses into offices and apartments.”
10) Charlotte Street House, which was called the “worst slum in America” by Jimmy Carter, has since evolved. Homes in this Bronx area, which originally cost about $110,000 to build and sold for about half that, are now selling for upwards of $300,000. A report by preservationists notes: “…From a historic perspective the development’s pivotal influence in reversing the borough’s [past] decline renders Charlotte Gardens an important historic district candidate.”