Foreword: Looking Back

Manhattan is an island. Its southern freshwater flatlands, central random hills, and westernmost rocky cliffs looming over the Hudson River lend variety and character to its many desirable locations. Naturally, every island has geographic limits, but Manhattan, with a Manifest Destiny all its own, was fertile ground for what has become the world’s most active real-estate marketplace. With its long-standing multiple-family-dwelling tradition, this market has flourished for nearly 400 years.

Among native New Yorkers, there is a tacit understanding that one’s place of residence—within Manhattan, as opposed to the city’s four other boroughs (and surely anywhere else)—dictates distinction; that Manhattanites are, more or less, “cut from a different cloth.” Though clearly enmeshed in snobbery, this principle has held true since the dawn of the island’s real-estate market, when Peter Minuet (the “buyer’s broker”), on behalf of the Dutch West India Company (the first buyer), successfully negotiated with the Native American Canarsie tribe (the first sellers) a price of 60 guilders’ ($19 then, $1,100 in 21st-century terms) worth of beads in exchange for vacating the southern part of their island.

One-Hundred-Fifteen years later, the New York City commissioners’ 1811 Grid Plan was set in motion. It was created in an effort to subdivide Manhattan tracts, between river to river and from Lower Manhattan to Washington Heights, into a system of standard-size development lots, crisscrossed by east-to-west streets and wider north-to-south Avenues. This practical but rigid “grid” divided the rugged terrain into uniform rectangular blocks, which allowed for the initial surveys. It also resulted in the northward expansion, whereby the island’s hills and valleys (“country seats,” for a few) became populated to the northernmost allowable point—Spuyten Duyvil Creek.

 


Mulligan Place, Greenwich Village; River House courtyard, Midtown East; Sniffen Court, Murray Hill

 

What’s more, this grid made the 25 by 105 feet standardized lots easy to grade. They could then be sold en masse and, subsequently, re-divided. The grid also invited the “assembling” of two or more confluent lots for the building of a “row” of houses that were each narrower than 25 feet. (Today, one single-family home on a standard lot, the “25-footer,” is a penultimate wish of a many buyers; a home situated on a lot wider than 25 feet is, truly, the height of desire: the town house.) Along with this accommodation for grander row houses and town houses came a surge in demand for luxury, multiple-family housing, with fireproofing and all the modern conveniences they could offer. So landowners, such as Stuyvesant, Bayard, Delancey, Rhinelander, Schermerhorn, Goelet, Beekman, and (the baron of robbers) John Jacob Astor and his descendants, accumulated large tracts for future, prime, residential building lots throughout Manhattan.

A notable result of the 1811 grid plan, then, was the virtual abolition of the odd, curving residential streets and quieter lanes so prominent in Lower Manhattan. Today, nearly all of the best-known mini-residential-streets are just below West 14th Street, in Greenwich Village, where they create quaint enclaves. Some, including Washington Square’s MacDougal Alley, west of Fifth Avenue, and Washington Square Mews, to the avenue’s east, were originally livery mews. They consisted of carriage houses and stables built to accommodate “the Row,” on Washington Square. In Midtown, only a few cul-de-sacs remain, along the East River:

  • River Terrace accessed on East 58th Street, at Sutton Square—an enclave within Sutton Place.
  • East 52nd Street running between First Avenue and the East River.
  • East 51st to 50th Streets’ East River–bound blocks, accessed via the Beekman Place enclave.

Interestingly, each is flanked by a prestigious 1920s apartment house: One Beekman Place, One Sutton Place South, and the River House, at 435 East 52nd Street, respectively.

The half-dozen additional surviving cul-de-sacs are:

In Midtown East

  • Sniffen Court, a gated alleyway. It was originally a livery-mews, which was converted for residential usage, and is situated on East 36th Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues.
  • Amster Yard, a Boston Post Road stage-coach stop, on East 49th Street, east of Third Avenue.

On the Upper East Side

  • Cherokee Place, which runs one-block along John Jay Park, between the East River and York Avenue, and between East 77th and 78th Street.
  • Henderson Place, a standalone historic district, at East 86th Street and East End Avenue, facing Carl Schurz Park.

On the Upper West Side

  • West Seventy-First Street, a cul-de-sac on the Hudson River block, accessed on West End Avenue.
  • Pomander Walk—a gated enclave, not a street—lies between Broadway and West End Avenue, from West 94th to 95th Streets, and is, oddly, not within any Upper West Side historic district…as yet

 


Tenement, East Village; Flats building, Greenwich Village: Loft building, SoHo Cast-iron Historic District

 

Manhattan’s Manifest Destiny was pre-ordained as early as Dutch colonial ambitions and British policies, and then continued to take shape through 1889, when the island was settled boundary to boundary. Its themes include:

  1. Natural water borders, a harbor, river, creek, and estuary to reach out to; a solid rock foundation on which to build; and, initially, plentiful freshwater streams, farm land, and timber forests to construct shelters.
  2. The unrelenting implementation of an urban design conceptualized by the New York City commissioners’ 1811 Grid Plan.
  3. Broadway, an increased Native American trail, connecting an amalgamated Broad Way to the Bloomingdale and Kingsbridge Roads—providing a continuous route north from the island’s southernmost hub.
  4. Fifth Avenue’s ideal placement, which accommodated the pronouncement—I’ve arrived.
  5. Continuous upwardly mobile immigrants who were motivated to improve their immediate housing.
  6. Mass transportation, for citizens and goods alike—which kept up with the continuous expansion, and allowed all the parts of town to be accessible.
  7. Sweeping open spaces, especially Central Park, the cornerstone of residential real estate, as well as generous, civic-minded, land grants or city council purchases—which created park lands throughout the island.
  8. Innovative, multiple-family housing, built-out by real-estate developers willing to take risks. Moreover, because these rugged individuals and risk-takers recognized Manhattan was unstoppable, and with that inevitability their success was assured.

Educating Yourself, Book Two, is the sure-fire method to break benightedness and to enter enlightenment, Manhattan real estate-wise, that is. This is the ultimate resource for buying and selling properties in a full-service co-operative, condominium, condop, loft building or single-family house. So, up to now if a move has been an inkling; if possible alternatives have been addressed; if a tentative path has been explored—then this Web site is everything a seller, investor or (in particular, a first-time) buyer needs know to get-up-and-go confidently. For those uncomfortable merely rolling with the punches, the place to start is Book Two, Part One.

Navigating Manhattan, Book One, details how each Manhattan neighborhood’s development played out. Less a history; more comprising the notables and its two good points wrap up the intent: Useful when thinking about where to live, handy when looking to move. This, at the very least, is Manhattan a la carte.