On Nov. 20 at UnionDocs, a film venue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Nathan Kensinger will host “Block by Block: New York Street Historians,” a panel discussion by some of the city’s biggest names in exploring and documenting the city’s less charted places. Read what Kensinger has to say about the past, present and future of those who see and discuss New York in strange new ways…
What is it that drives a person to walk every block in Manhattan, visit every abandoned building on the Brooklyn waterfront or climb every bridge in New York City? In the past decade, a new generation of curious New Yorkers has emerged to attempt these feats, self-publishing their experiences on websites and blogs. Their exploits have found an appreciative online audience of millions who follow their stories of discovery in a city that some might think has lost its ability to surprise.
Kevin Walsh is a preeminent example of these present-day New York City explorers. For the past decade, Walsh has relentlessly published essay after essay on the minutia of neighborhood history at his website Forgotten New York. Walsh is not a historian by profession or training, but operates more in the style of a street photographer — investigating the city on foot, his eyes open to any striking detail, recording his personal observations. His work is part of a tradition of “street historians” — individuals who are often untrained as historians, but who document the unofficial, informal, underground, and alternative histories of New York by tirelessly walking the streets of an ever-changing city.
Walsh’s peers in this pursuit include more recent street historians like Nick Carr, a film location scout whose work regularly grants him access to fascinating, hidden New York places. In 2008, Nick began publishing his observations and discoveries at his blog, Scouting NY, and quickly found a large audience. Many modern street historians are also Urban Explorers, who gain access to the city’s infrastructure without official permission, like Moses Gates. Gates’ website, All City New York, chronicles his quest to climb every bridge and visit every abandoned subway station in the city. Tour guides can also be street historians, like Cindy VandenBosch, who presents highly researched tours on creative subjects like the evolution of the Midtown food cart and the history of beer brewing in Bushwick through her company Urban Oyster.
Moses Gates, founder of All City New York, took this video from the top of the George Washington Bridge. Video courtesy of Moses Gates.
These contemporary New York street historians are part of a long tradition of amateur explorers of the city, which includes legendary figures like prolific walker John McNamara, dubbed “The Sage of the Bronx” by the New York Times, and audio archivist Tony Schwartz, who the Times called “King Of Sound.”
McNamara, a high-school dropout, taught himself Dutch and spent decades walking, biking and canoeing every single street in the Bronx in order to create his magnum opus, “A History In Asphalt” (1974), the definitive encyclopedia of Bronx street and place names. Schwartz, despite suffering from severe agoraphobia, recorded the sounds of the streets of New York, releasing a series of popular city-portrait albums like “The New York Taxi Driver” (1959) and “You’re Stepping on My Shadow: Sound Stories of NYC” (1962).
One of the greatest teams of street historians was assembled on the staff of The New Yorker magazine in the mid-1900’s, with a lineup that included writers like Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling, E.B. White and St. Clair McKelway. Their collective work investigated a variety of New York City subcultures that have since largely vanished, profiling shad bakes, street hustlers, poetic drunks, petty criminals, wandering bohemians and a variety of decidedly “unofficial” establishments.
Their work was indebted to one of the earliest New York street historians, George G. Foster, who explored New York City in the 1800’s, just after it had transformed from a town into a metropolis. Foster roamed the city streets, writing distinctly candid and unflinching portraits of “the festivities of prostitution, the orgies of pauperism, the haunts of theft and murder, the scenes of drunkenness and beastly debauch” for his best-selling books “New York by Gaslight” (1850) and “New York in Slices: By An Experienced Carver” (1854).
These street historians and their audiences were united in a desire to learn more about the hidden details of life in the modern metropolis. Today, with the ability to publish almost instantly online, audiences have been able to join contemporary street historians in the midst of their journeys, witnessing both the act of exploration and the discovery of parts of the city that otherwise might remain closed off and lost. The street historian, acting as a guide, scout, and explorer, shares in this sense of discovery, knowing that they alone have found something unique in a city of 8 million people.
Nathan Kensinger is a photographer and filmmaker whose work documents New York City’s abandoned and industrial edges.