From Botanical Garden to Rockefeller Center: The Evolution of a New York Christmas Tradition

Rockefeller Center and its famous decorated Christmas tree is a popular New York City tourist attraction during the holiday season. This yearly tradition began in 1931 when workers building Rockefeller Center erected a tree and decorated it with paper, cranberries and tin cans; appropriate decorations for the Depression years.

It is interesting to note that the land where Rockefeller Center was built was the site of the first botanical garden in the United States. In 1801 Elgin Botanical Garden was established on 19 3/4 acres of land purchased by Dr. David Hosack from the City of New York. It extended from present day 47th street on the south, 51st street on the north, and 5th avenue on the east and 6th avenue on the west. Dr. Hosack’s intention was to cultivate medicinal plants which he collected from all over the world.

Portrait of Dr. Hosack

From the Durst Old York Collection, Baruch College CUNY


This was an expensive venture and by 1810 he could no longer fund the garden and was forced to sell the land to the State of New York. In 1814 it passed to Columbia University with the intention that it would be used by the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Again financing became an issue and Columbia abandoned the garden.

Drawing of Elgin Gardens

From the Durst Old York Collection, Baruch College CUNY

As the city moved north, stately homes were built on the land, but New York neighborhoods change rapidly, and rooming houses and questionable business establishments took over the area.

1930's Christmas Tree

From the Durst Old York Collection, Baruch College CUNY

It was not until 1930 that the Elgin Garden site was to take on a new life with the building of Rockefeller Center. On the fifth avenue entrance to Rockefeller Center, Hosack’s Elgin Garden is honored with the planting of the Channel Gardens. One of the planters pays homage to the memory of Hosack “a citizen of the world.” From this location at Christmas time one can see the Christmas tree lighting up the site where Dr. David Hosack envisioned a garden with plants that would heal the citizenry of the City of New York. Dr. Hosack could not have foreseen that over 200 years later this site would be a symbol to the public of the joys of the holiday.

For more information about Dr. Hosack and the Elgin Gardens see:

Johnson, Victoria. American Eden: David Hosack botany, and medicine in the garden of the early republic. New York: Liveright Publishing Company, 2018.

Location, Location, Location

The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide was published from 1868 to 1922, and the Baruch College Archives, as part of our Durst Collection is fortunate to have the volumes from 1890 to 1909. These volumes include a weekly report on building activity in New York City and the surrounding areas. The expansion of the city is phenomenal and is chronicled on every page of the volumes. The incorporation of Greater New York in 1898 spurred increased building activity and expansion of the city into the outer boroughs. A sampling from the volumes provides a glimpse of the economic activity in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century.

Grand Concourse, Bronx, New York September 11, 1909

Supreme Court June 3, 1899

New Municipal Building. February 25, 1893


Transportation in Brooklyn. April 29, 1905

Museum of Natural History. February 11, 1893, Supplement

Remembering the End of World War I

This month we are recognizing the 100 year anniversary of the end of World War I. The war also known as the Great War, was a global war that spanned the period from July 28, 1914 to November 11, 1918. On November 11, 1918 Germany signed an armistice with the allied forces which ended the four year conflict that took the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians. The United States entered the war in 1917 which helped turn the tables against Germany and the eventual end to the war.

The periodical Current History was a monthly magazine published by the New York Times Company, and the Baruch College Archives has a sampling of the magazine as part of the Durst Collection. The issue for November, 1918 is particularly interesting since the theme was peace. Included among the articles are photographs illustrating people, places and events related to the war.

Current History, November 1918

From the Baruch College Archives

Fifth Avenue, N.Y. Dressed for Fourth Liberty Loan Campaign

From the Baruch College Archives

Current History, November 1918.

From the Baruch College Archives

French Airplanes

From the Baruch College Archives

Troops at Vladivostok

From the Baruch College Archives

Treasures in Our Midst: Highlights from the Durst Old York Collection

The contents of the Durst Old York Collection is as diverse as its subject–New York and its environs. The collections includes books from as late as the 1990s to as early as the 18th century. Durst collected  everything, and although the Baruch College Archives does not have all of his collection, what we do have illustrates the variety of his interests, and his keen collecting instincts.

Annals of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New-York, from 1785 to 1880. New York: Published by Order of the Society, 1882.

The General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen has a long history in New York City, tracing their founding to 1785. This Society from its earliest days, served the New York City citizenry through educational and cultural programs, a library, lecture series and a tuition-free Mechanics Institute which evolved from its beginnings in 1820 as one of the city’s first free schools.

1822 New York Public Library Digital Collections

New York Public Library Digital Collections

Baruch College Archives

Baruch College Archives


First Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Department of Public Parks for the year ending May 1, 1871. New York: William C. Bryant & Co., 1871.

In New York City parks have always provided a refuge from the bustle of city life. Bowling Green Park is considered the earliest park in the city, dating to 1733. Various parks opened during the 18th century, but it was not until 1850 that a parks movement gained momentum, and concerned citizens pressured the Common Council to create Central Park. The politically corrupt Tweed Ring replaced the Board of Commissioners of Central Park with a new city agency, the Department of Public Parks. This agency still oversees the management of the city parks which now include parks in all of the boroughs of New York City.


Baruch College Archives

Baruch College Archives


Baruch College Archives

Baruch College Archives


Charter, By-Laws, & of the Bowery Savings Bank, names of officers and trustees, from the origin of the institution. Annual Statements, &c. New-York: Embree & Jacobs, Stationers and Printers, 1860.

The Bowery Savings Bank opened in 1834 at 128-130 Bowery in Manhattan. Built by the architect Stanford White it was an architecturally significant building which lent confidence to the Lower East Side immigrant population who needed a convenient bank to keep their money.

Baruch College Archives


NYPL Digital Gallery

L. Maria Child. Letters from New York. New-York: C.S. Francis & Co., 252 Broadway, 1852 (11th edition).

Lydia Maria Child was a poet and novelist, known for her poem, “Over the River and Through the Woods,” but she was also an anti-slavery activist and a supporter of non-violence and equality. In addition, her ideas on women’s rights were quite radical for that time. She was born in Massachusetts, but moved to New York City in 1841 to become the editor of The National Anti-Slavery Standard, a very unusual position for a 19th century woman. After her tenure as editor she left and then published many of her editorials and articles in Letters of New-York.

Baruch College Archives

NYPL digital gallery


Official Book of the Silver Jubilee of Greater New York May Twenty-sixth to June Twenty-third Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-three. Under the Auspices of Mayor’s Committee on Celebration of the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Greater City of New York. New York: M.B. Brown Printing & Binding Company, 1923.

On January 1, 1898 the City of Greater New York was created by the consolidation of the East Bronx, Brooklyn, western Queens and Staten Island. The Mayor of New York in 1923, John Hylan, when it was time to celebrate the silver jubilee planned a month long exposition and used this opportunity to unveil a city radio broadcast facility that would relay information directly to the public. A parade celebrated the occasion and there were varying reports on the number of marchers. The Chicago Tribune had the headline, “Silver Jubilee in New York Brings Out 40,000 in Parade,” while the New York Times said there were 15,000 marchers.

Museum of the City of New York Collections

Museum of the City of new York Collections

Baruch College Archives

Interborough Rapid Transit. The New York Subway Its Construction and Equipment. New York: Interborough Rapid Transit Company, 1904.

Today the New York subway system is making headlines for overcrowded trains, delays, dirt and crime. If we turn back the clock to October 1904 when the first rapid transit subway opened, the IRT, the promise was to provide the city with a new, modern system of transportation. The New York Times of October 29, 1904 reported:

“All concerned in the designing, building, equipment, and operation of the Rapid Transit Subway are to be congratulated on the admirable success of the opening of that great work to public use and enjoyment. That the afternoon of the first day of operation a crowd of 25,00 people an hour could be handled safely and comfortably is more than could reasonably have been expected.”

The first line ran about 9 miles from City Hall to Grand Central Station, then west to Times Square and up the west side to 145th Street.

Museum of the City of New York Collection

Baruch College Archives






In Days Gone By: Summer in 19th Century New York City

Nineteenth-century New York was a city with many different faces. The population grew from 96,000 in 1810 to 3,437,202 by 1900 ( It was not only the population that grew, but the boundaries also expanded when in 1898 New York City was incorporated and Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island and Queens became part of Greater New York.

The influx of immigrants to New York City in the nineteenth-century led to overcrowding in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Five Points, a neighborhood in lower Manhattan is famously known as a disease and a crime ridden slum. The Lower East Side where new immigrant groups settled became the subject late in the nineteenth-century of Jacob Riis’s photography and later his book, How the Other Half Lives, depicting the living and working conditions of some of the poorest children in the city. Summer for these children and their families usually was confined to the streets where they lived and worked, but for the lucky ones who could afford the transportation, they might venture on a Sunday by the mid-century to one of the new parks.

“Central Park, in the midst of the great Metropolis, affords a refuge from the heated marts most refreshing and delightful, open alike to the inmates of crowded tenement houses as from the more luxurious houses.” ( L.H.P, “Summer Days In and About New York City.” Friends’ Intelligencer, Vol. 46, no. 29 (July 20, 1889): 457 )

By the end of the century Coney Island became a huge attraction, and different classes of New Yorkers took advantage of the beach and amusement areas.

Upper-class New Yorkers lived further uptown, away from the overcrowding and unhealthy living conditions of the poor. As the century progressed they kept moving further uptown where brownstones gave way to mansions. One of the pastimes during the summer months was a visit to one of the new pastoral cemeteries. The two most well-known are Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn and Woodlawn in the Bronx. Spending Sundays wandering the grounds of these beautiful cemeteries was a popular nineteenth-century pastime. Also popular for all New Yorkers was a visit to one of the new parks, where the rich and poor might be found. Prospect Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux in Brooklyn and Central Park, in Manhattan, also designed by these architects attracted a variety of visitors.

Looking back might be nostalgic, but it is certain that life in nineteenth-century New York was difficult for a good percentage of the city’s inhabitants and finding a few hours of rest and relaxation in the summer months was welcomed by all.


Entrance to Greenwood Cemetery, 1883 (NYPL)


Map of the Woodlawn Cemetery
1870 (NYPL)

Central Park

Central Park (summer)
c. 1860s


In Madison Square, In Front Of Dr. Parknurst’S Church.
1894-1895 (NYPL)


Swings in Central Park
1871 (NYPL) (NYPL)

hot night

A hot night on the East Side
1899 (NYPL)

ice cream

A Summer Scene in the Streets of N.Y.–The Ice-Cream Man
1885 (NYPL)


Sheet Music



Long Island

Rockaway–The Woodsburgh House
1870 (nypl)

amusement park

Luna Park


Image of Amusing the Millions by John Kasson (1978)
Durst Collection





Selective Bibliography

Asbury, Herbert, The Gangs of New York: An Informal history of the Underworld. Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Publishers, 1928.

Burrows, Edwin G. and Mike Wallace, A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Riis, Jacob, How the Other Half Lives, Studies Among the Tenements of New York. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970. Edited by Sam Warner.

The Dream Machine: A Landmark in the History of Higher Education

The beginnings of the municipal college system began after the American Revolution, as the spread of democracy led to the secularization of higher education and the extension of opportunities to the newest immigrants in urban communities. However, even those colleges that were supported largely by public funds weren’t free for all, sometimes offering a limited number of scholarships for study in specific disciplines.

The College of Charleston, South Carolina was chartered in 1785 as a private college with state support, and it became a municipal institution in 1837. Even though the municipality controlled it, it continued to charge tuition, and it was not until 1920 that free tuition to Charleston residents was instituted.

The Free Academy was founded in New York City in 1847 and for the first time in America’s short history, higher education was made available “for the poor man’s children.” Townsend Harris, president of the New York City Board of Education from 1846, strongly believed that the city should support public higher education. He argued that “If the wealthy part of the community seek instruction to enlarge the minds of their children, why should not the opportunity be given to the sons of toil to give the same advantages to their children?” On June 7, 1847 a groundbreaking law was passed establishing the Free Academy, and a site was soon chosen on the southeast corner of Lexington Avenue and Twenty-third Street, where classes began on January 15, 1849.

Horace Webster
Copy from an original in the City College Archives.

Cover of the Bill Authorizing the Board to Establish the Free Academy
This is a reproduction of the original pamphlet. The original is from the City College Archives.

Free Academy 1849 Manual of the Corporation of The City of New York for the year 1849. By D.T. Valentine (1849) Durst Collection.

Free Academy 1849
Manual of the Corporation of The City of New York, for the Year 1849. By D.T. Valentine. (1849) Durst Collection

Although this was a momentous occasion for New Yorkers, it also proved to be a landmark for higher education. What was to follow in New York as well as throughout the country was a democratic equalizer, the opportunity for higher education, for the children of immigrants. Women as well as men, were invited into the circle of those offered advanced education–the Normal College, later Hunter College was founded in the City of New York in 1870. Outside New York City municipal colleges were founded with great zeal–many of them are the foundations of our great state university systems.

The Morrill Act was passed in 1862 providing for grants of federally owned land to the states to be used to help fund state colleges. Many states including Wisconsin, California, Missouri and Georgia established state schools, and like the Free Academy they too responded to the needs of their new citizenry. Agricultural or mechanical training was important to these communities, and the educational paths of their students were often limited. The Free Academy provided for practical studies as well as classical education, a paradigm that other institutions would not follow for decades. An 1850 article praising the Free Academy said that it would fulfill the “Reasonable expectations of its founders,” and that the Free Academy was an institution where “the rich and the poor will be upon an equality,” justification to use the academy as a “model” for American education. (“Dr. Webster and the New-York Free Academy,” 1850-51, p. 445-7)

That first class of 149 young men who entered the original building at 17 Lexington Avenue in 1849 had no way to know that the Free Academy was the seed from which other municipal colleges were to spring. These early students, sons of ship-joiners, carpenters, laborers and porters were to share the educational opportunities previously available to only a select few in society. What followed in New York was a demand for higher education that outgrew the building on Lexington Avenue. Campuses were added to the system and it became the City University of New York. Outside New York City a great State University of New York grew, and a college education became the hallmark of upward mobility in America. (Roff, Cucchiara and Dunlap)

The new campus of City College c. 1925
De Luxe Edition. New York Illustrated (N.Y. 1927). Durst Collection

The vision of Townsend Harris and his supporters, has been realized and millions of citizens have received an education that would have been unattainable had it not been for our great municipal system. Baruch College remains on the site of the original Free Academy, and as the legions of students pass this building each day, the legacy of their forebears echoes in its hall, and should not be forgotten.


“Dr. Webster and the New-York Free Academy,” The International Magazine of Literature ,Art, and Science (Vol.2, 1850-1), 445-7.

Sandra Roff, Anthony Cucchiara and Barbara Dunlap. From the Free Academy to CUNY: Illustrating Public Higher Education in New York City, 1847-1997. New York: Fordham University Press, 2000.

We Stand United: Union Square and Madison Square as Venues for Change

When we look back at the history of Baruch College and the beginnings of CUNY, we find that our origins are here on 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue, where the Free Academy was built in 1847 as an experiment in higher education. What was our neighborhood like when the academy opened? The neighborhood around the Free Academy was more residential than it is today, since there was little development north of 23rd Street. However, while the formidable Free Academy was nearing completion, Madison Square Park was also being prepared for its inaugural opening. A bill was passed to establish the Free Academy on May 7, 1847 and Madison Square Park opened three days later, on May 10th.

Known as the Parade Ground, it was built on land which had been a potter’s field, originally established in 1797. In 1814 it was named Madison Square after President James Madison. In 1845, Madison Square extended from 23rd to 26th streets between Fifth and Madison Avenues. (Berman, 9-12) In 1857, the park took on an important function of squares–to serve as a public gathering place. Thousands watched as a military procession carried the coffin of Major General William Jenkins Worth, who served in the War of 1812 and was a Mexican War hero, from City Hall to Madison Square, where he was buried. (Berman, 15-16)

This was not the only coffin which passed Madison Square Park during these early years. On May 1, 1866, the name of our college was changed by the act of the Legislature from the New-York Free Academy to the College of the City of New York. To celebrate the event, students organized a funeral procession the night before, marching from Reservoir Park (now Bryant Park) to the college in order to ceremonially bury the old Free Academy. (New York Times, May 1, 1866, p.2)

Baruch College Archive (copy), 1866


Madison Square Park Parade Commemorating the Centennial of Washington’s Inauguration, 1889
Museum of the City of New York

Eight blocks south of Madison Square was Union Square Park. Where Madison Square Park was a respite from city life, Union Square Park was from its early creation an outlet for protests, demonstrations, and celebrations. The function of the park as a venue for demonstrations has deep roots in the 19th century. After the fall of Fort Sumter, at the start of the Civil War, a mass meeting in support of the Union took place in Union Square on April 20, 1861. The New York Times published an article the next day with the headline: “-THE UNION FOREVER. Immense Demonstration in this city. THE ENTIRE POPULATION IN THE STREETS. Over One Hundred Thousand People at Union-square.” (April 21, 1861). The entire New York population was under a million at the time, meaning that this gathering marked a spectacular outpouring of civic fervor. Patriotic celebrations continued during the war years. After the war, the rights of workers became an ongoing theme of Union Square demonstrations. The parade at the Labor Day celebration on September 5, 1883, went by the reviewing stand at Union Square. Women’s suffrage was another cause for demonstrations and protest meetings. Once again, Union Square was the rallying place.

Union Square South from the Plaza c.1888
Illustrated New York (1888), p.59. Durst Collection, Baruch College Archives



American Memory–New York Historical Society repository, July 10, 1862

The Funeral of President Lincoln passing Union Square, April 25, 1865
Museum of the City of New York

By the 20th century, students  at the College of the City of New York were able to express their views by joining protests, and demonstrations in the vicinity of the college. Union Square was the venue for rallies against closing night schools, May Day protests, suffrage protests and anti-war demonstrations. Fifty years ago, in 1967, The Ticker looked back at the history of Union Square. “In the heyday of the International Workers of the World, anarchists and communists, the square was the Common Man’s Hyde Park. Its inhabitants then were the street-corner socialists, who embraced the radical doctrines of social security and minimum wage that are now the foundations of American labor law.” (Unger, Ticker, Dec. 12, 1967, p.3) In the 1930s, strong opposition to international involvement in armed conflicts was cause for student mobilization, and Madison Square Park became the site of a mass rally, in November 1935. “Three hundred determined students who wanted to further demonstrate their peace consciousness, massed in Madison Square Park after the assembly mobilization…Seven months ago, on April 12, on the same meeting ground, fourteen hundred School of Business students bolstered in numbers by eight hundred from Hunter, Washington Irving, and Townsend Harris repeated this same pledge. [Oxford Oath]” (Ticker, November 12, 1935, p.1)

Union Square, May 1, 1908
Museum of the City of New York

Women’s Suffrage Parade, Madison Square Park, 1917
Museum of the City of New York

Communists in Union Square, June 9, 1941
Museum of the City of New York

These two parks have a rich history and remain an integral part of the Baruch College community. It is noteworthy that citizens were able to mobilize large crowds even in the days before social media, to protest, support or celebrate special events or people. At a time when there is political and economic discontent these two parks may once again become destinations where the public comes together to peacefully protest.


Berman, Miriam. Madison Square: the Park and Its Celebrated Landmarks. Salt Lake City: Gibbs-Smith Publisher, 2001.

“Burial of the New-York Free Academy,” New York Times (May 1, 1866):2.

“In and about the city: labor unions in line, over six-thousand workman parade with significant banners,” New York Times (September 6, 1883): 8.

Making Connections: Bridges of New York City

The majestic spectacle of the great bridges of New York City connecting a city has made them the inspiration for artists, poets, authors and musicians for centuries. They are a defining symbol of an expanding city uniting, but yet separated by its diversity and uniqueness.

The most famous of the bridges, and the one that is most recognizable world-wide is the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883 to great fanfare, and changed New York City forever. Brooklyn before the bridge, was considered the first suburb of New York, relying on ferries to transport its citizenry to Manhattan. Walt Whitman, a Brooklyn resident and poet in his famous poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1855) describes the ferry trip across the East River. From the time the bridge was proposed (1860s), until it finally opened, the population of both Brooklyn and Manhattan had grown considerably and were thriving economically. The great engineering feat of completing the bridge inspired a romantic vision of a city.

Opening Ceremonies of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge, 1883. Durst Collection.

Opening Ceremonies of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge, 1883. Durst Collection.

cover page

Opening Ceremonies of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge, 1883. Durst Collection.

Brooklyn Bridge anniversary article

1983 New York Times Book Review of ‘The Great East River Bridge’ found in ‘Opening Ceremonies’ Book, marking the 100 year anniversary of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. Durst Collection.

Brooklyn Bridge 1880

Chromolithograph print of Brooklyn Bridge by Chas. (Charles) Hart, c.1880. MCNY Digital Collections:

Brooklyn Bridge 1903

“The Brooklyn Bridge Promenade taken facing Manhattan. A dozen or so pedestrians walk across the bridge. The Manhattan skyline is visible in the background,” 1903 MCNY Digital Collections:

Brooklyn Bridge March by H. King, 1883. Library of Congress Digital Collections:

Brooklyn Bridge March by H. King, 1883. Library of Congress Digital Collections:

broklyn sheet

Brooklyn Bridge March by H. King, 1883. Library of Congress Digital Collections:

Although the Brooklyn Bridge would be hard to surpass, other bridges have been built in New York City which are worthy of praise. The Washington Bridge opened in 1889, a few years after the Brooklyn Bridge. It spanned the Harlem River in New York City between Manhattan and the Bronx. As yet not a part of Greater New York until 1898, the Bronx at the time was part of Westchester County and was still sparsely populated with farms and estates dotting the landscape. By the early 20th century with the expansion of the subway into the Bronx, the population moved into the borough.

Washington Bridge Harlem River New York City, 1889. Durst Collection.

Washington Bridge Harlem River New York City, 1889. Durst Collection.

DURST Collection bookplate

Seymour Durst’s Bookplate.

Previously part of John Hopskins Library. Durst Collection.

Previously part of John Hopskins Library. Durst Collection.

Washington Bridge, 1901. NYPL Digital Collections:

Washington Bridge, 1901. NYPL Digital Collections:

Washington Bridge 1905

Washington Bridge, 1905. MCNY Digital Collections.[Washington Bridge.]-2F3XC5I54PW1.html

In our wonderful Durst collection we have an account of the Williamsburg Bridge opening ceremonies in 1903. The book is signed by the Alderman of the 56th District, Noah Tebbetts. This signature gives the book additional historical importance and connects it to a contemporary who actually witnessed the event.


Williamsburg Bridge, 1903. Durst Collection.


Signed by Noah Tebbetts. Durst Collection.


Williamsburg Bridge Necrology. A list of people that died during the construction of the bridge. Durst Collection

The Williamsburg Bridge is a suspension Bridge which at the time of construction (1896-1903) was the longest suspension bridge in the world. It connected the Lower East Side of Manhattan at Delancy Street with the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. At the time, the Lower East Side was a bustling area crowded with newly arrived immigrants and the new bridge provided an incentive for some immigrants to move to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Again a bridge fostered population movement to the outer boroughs.

Mayor Seth Low and officials crossing Williamsburg Bridge 1903. MCNY Digital Collections:[Mayor%20Seth%20Low%20and%20officials%20crossing%20Williamsburg%20Bridge]-2F3XC5QZ0PR.html

Mayor Seth Low and officials crossing Williamsburg Bridge 1903. MCNY Digital Collections:[Mayor%20Seth%20Low%20and%20officials%20crossing%20Williamsburg%20Bridge]-2F3XC5QZ0PR.html

Williamsburg Bridge Postcard, 1915. MCNY Digital Collections: Bridge, New York.-2F3HRGMENUXC.html

Williamsburg Bridge Postcard, 1915. MCNY Digital Collections: Bridge, New York.-2F3HRGMENUXC.html

There are other bridges that span the waters surrounding New York City and each has a story to tell. The Durst collection is an excellent window into some of these stories which await archive researchers.

The Beautiful Bronx

Manhattan and Brooklyn are the “hot” boroughs of New York City, having shed their previous image of being crime ridden, dirty and dangerous. Gentrification has been ongoing for several years, and newly created destinations such as the High Line in Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn, have contributed to the boroughs popularity.


The Borough of the Bronx by Harry T. Cook, 1913


Several books within the Durst Collection also contain signatures from the author.

With the recent reopening of the High Bridge, New York City’s oldest standing bridge, connecting the neighborhoods of Washington Heights in Manhattan with Highbridge in the Bronx, the Bronx now also has a destination worthy of visitors.


Derived from The Beautiful Bronx 1920-1950 by Lloyd Ultan

The Bronx wasn’t always part of New York City. In 1898 the borough of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island (Richmond), Queens  and Manhattan were consolidated as Greater New York City. Before consolidation what is now the Bronx included the town of Westchester and the towns of Yonkers, Eastchester and Pelham. In the 19th century this was a rural area with farms dotting the landscape. However, by the turn of the 20th century, the pull of urban development reached the new borough and new neighborhoods developed and commercial life flourished. In 1904 the first subway connecting the Bronx to Manhattan opened and the population grew rapidly.


Derived from ‘The Story of the Bronx’ by Stephen Jenkins, 1912.

We still find many reminders of an earlier time if we travel through the borough. An amazing one-quarter of the Bronx is open space, and includes such iconic landmarks as the Woodlawn Cemetery (1863), Van Cortlandt Park (1888), Pelham Bay Park (1888), the New York Botanical Garden (1891) and the Bronx Zoo (1899). It is also home to several colleges and universities which trace their roots to the 19th century. Fordham University was originally St. Johns University and was founded in 1841, New York University (now the campus of Bronx Community College) opened its campus in 1894, the College of Mount St. Vincent began classes in 1847 and Manhattan College traces its beginnings to 1853.


Derived from ‘The Story of the Bronx’ by Stephen Jenkins, 1912.

The Bronx has evolved over the years to accommodate the influx of different ethnic groups and diverse cultures. It has undergone some difficult years with poverty reaching new highs and crime a constant problem. Hopefully the Bronx is coming back and once again it will be the borough of choice for New Yorkers to live and tourists to visit.


The Country in the City–Central Park

Summer is almost here and thoughts turn to vacations and some respite from city life. However, in the 19th century for families that were not wealthy and could afford a summer retreat outside the city, the city was hot, dirty and disease ridden. For years concerned citizens argued for a central park to offer the population a reprieve from city life, but it was a hard sell and the “park question” was debated by the press into the 1850s.

Public Parks vs Public Health, New York Times 1853.

The appeal of the pastoral for city folk drew New Yorkers to the cemeteries which were built with public visitors in mind. Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn was opened in 1840 with 478 landscaped acres and 20 miles of pedestrian paths. Although Brooklyn was not yet part of greater New York, it attracted middle-class visitors who strolled on Sunday through a “pleasure ground.” Although the new cemeteries certainly brought a bit of the country to the city, they did not have the advantage of being within traveling distance for the average working New Yorker.

Entrance to Greenwood Cemetery, 1954.  NYPL Digital Collections:

Entrance to Greenwood Cemetery, 1854. NYPL Digital Collections:

Crowd at Greenwood Cemetery on Decoration Day, 1899.  Image from MoCNY Digital Collections:

Crowd at Greenwood Cemetery on Decoration Day, 1899. Image from MCNY Digital Collections:

After much controversy, in 1853 the New York State Legislature enacted into law provisions to set aside over 750 acres of land in Manhattan to create what would be America’s first major landscaped park–Central Park. Frederick Law Olmstead was selected as the architect, and he believed that the park would improve public health and contribute to the formation of a civil society.

First Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Department of Public Parks, 1871.

First Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Department of Public Parks, 1871.

Unfortunately, even in the 19th century, gentrification had its downside. Creating Central Park caused the displacement of many of the city’s poor, including Irish pig farmers and German gardeners. What was known as Seneca Village, founded by freed blacks was also part of the parcel, and it existed from 1825 to 1857 and was located on about 5 acres of land between 82nd and 89th streets.

The park was officially completed in 1873 but not long after the upkeep of the park started to decline, due in part to the political machine of Tammany Hall. In the 20th century this changed and now the park is a major destination for New Yorkers as well as tourists, all of whom seek a bit of the country in the city.

Laws Respecting the Central Park and Other Works Under the Control of the Department of Public Parks, 1870.

Laws Respecting the Central Park and Other Works Under the Control of the Department of Public Parks, 1870.

"Central Park Museum" from First Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Department of Public Parks, 1871.

“Central Park Museum” from First Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Department of Public Parks, 1871.

The Mall from Terrace. Image of Central Park from The Metropolis Explained, 1871.

The Mall from Terrace. Image of Central Park from The Metropolis Explained, 1871.