Want to Know How Your Neighborhood Looked 150 Years Ago?

Ever wonder what your neighborhood looked like 150 years ago? That Duane Reade across the street just might have been a slaughterhouse and your corner Starbucks, well, that was likely a grain storehouse, or maybe the local malt house…

The New York Public Library is nearly finished digitizing its collection of more than 10,000 historical maps, which illuminate the shifting character of the city over time. Some maps highlight the long defunct shops and factories that once dotted the landscape, while others show how the street patterns of entire neighborhoods were reconfigured. The coolest part? These maps can be loaded into Google Earth, allowing you to view the old map atop a modern view of the same area.

MetroFocus looked at three historic New York City maps alongside their modern counterparts. Have a look, then learn how to make your own maps.

Lincoln Tunnel Entrance: Today and 1857

At left, an image of modern day Hell’s Kitchen; at right, the area as it existed in 1857. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

These two maps show the section of Hell’s Kitchen bordered by West 40th and West 39th streets, and 10th and 11th avenues. The map on the left shows what’s there today: winding lanes coming out of the nearby bus depot, a sparsely populated construction site and the on-ramp to the Lincoln Tunnel passing over a bustling 10th Avenue.

The map on the right paints a very different, boozier portrait of the same geographical area. In 1857, the construction site was home to a consortium of beer making businesses, including two breweries, a granary (a storehouse for grain), stable, malt house and kiln. The rest of the block has a tightly packed collection of small buildings marked as slaughterhouses. While the entrance ramp to the Lincoln Tunnel isn’t exactly known today for its pleasant odors, the map shows that the Hell’s Kitchen of 1857 was likely a far stinkier place.

Lower Manhattan: Today and 1854

At left, an image of modern day Lower Manhattan; at right, the area as it existed in 1854. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

In these maps, we see the changes to Lower Manhattan over 158 years, with Battery Park in the lower left-hand corner of the map, and Fulton Street butting into South Street in the top right-hand corner. While Water Street has been widened since 1854, and the far West Side of Lower Manhattan now includes West Street, the makeup of Lower Manhattan is largely unchanged.

However, in 1854, Washington Street was Manhattan’s westernmost border. In 1966, Gov. Nelson D. Rockefeller announced plans to use landfill material from the construction of the World Trade Center to create Battery Park City. If a modern resident of this planned community were to be suddenly transported back to 1854, they would find themselves swimming in the Hudson River.

Peter Cooper Village: Today and 1916

At left, an image of Manhattan’s East Side today; at right, the area as it existed in 1857. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Here we see a slice of Manhattan’s East Side, bordered by First Avenue to the west, the East River to the east, 21st Street to the south, and 24th Street to the north. In 1916, the area was known as the Gas House District, evidenced on the map on the right by the sprawling Consolidated Gas facility and various cylindrical gas tanks. Although the map shows tightly cornered residential buildings adjacent to the industrial facilities, as well as a large public bath house, the area was considered an undesirable place to live. This was due in part to the abundance of noxious leaking gas fumes, as well as roving street toughs like the Gas House Gang, which later joined forces with the notorious Five Points Gang.

On the left hand map we see that this area is now the northern section of Peter Cooper Village-Stuyvesant Town. In 1942, due to a growing lack of residential housing, the city — motivated by Robert Moses — razed 600 buildings and displaced 3,100 families to make room for the massive redevelopment project. The first families moved into Stuyvesant Town in 1947.

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