The Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group (BNHG) was established by a group of Upper West Siders who share an interest in the history of the area they loosely define as stretching from West 96th Street to West 110th Street, the Hudson River to Central Park.
Two members of the BNHG, Rob Garber and Jim Mackin, recently researched the history of their respective buildings on the occasion of their centennial. Garber has written a summary, explaining how he and Mackin went about their research so that their sources and methods could be shared with other West Siders.
By Robert Garber
One of the last sizeable pieces of property to be developed near the Bloomingdale-Morningside Heights border on the Upper West Side was the block bordered by 109th and 110th Streets, Riverside Drive and Broadway. Even as the rest of the neighborhood made the transition from semi-rural to fully developed after the arrival of the subway in 1904, this block had only a succession of one- and two-story wood-frame structures on it, apart from a row of buildings that faced Broadway. When most of the block finally passed into the hands of real estate developers in 1921, four apartment buildings promptly went up (370 and 375 Riverside Drive, 610 West 110th, and 309 West 109th), giving it the appearance that it retains to this day.
It has now been a century since those buildings opened their doors to tenants, and two of them recently celebrated their centennials with parties and neighborhood history walks. Jim Mackin and I live in adjacent buildings on this block, and as Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group members, we were happy to use the once-a-century opportunity as the ideal time to investigate the history of our respective homes. Jim presented his findings in a video, and I prepared a series of panels for display in my building which are also available at the BNHG website).
Fire insurance maps from 1912 and 1925 show the strikingly empty block at 109th/110th/Riverside Drive/Broadway that lasted until the non-Broadway-facing lots were sold and quickly developed in 1921-1922. (New York Public Library)
Your building doesn’t have to be celebrating a milestone anniversary to justify studying its past. Jim and I both feel strongly that anyone can pursue an interest in local history using the rich set of historical materials available to New Yorkers—most of which are free, and many of which are online. There are a number of guides that introduce you to the pleasures of studying a building. One of them is How to Research the History of Buildings in Manhattan, written by BNHG’s own Gil Tauber. The New York Public Library is not only the repository and online source of millions of documents and photographs about New York City history—it also has a guide to help library users navigate the library’s collections as they investigate buildings in the city. Another well-written introduction is by the late Christopher Gray, who wrote the Streetscapes column on building and neighborhood history for The New York Times. His column on building research is available at the New York Society Library’s website.
As you begin to explore your building’s history, don’t neglect two other important units of life in our big city: the block and the neighborhood. Some of the most rewarding aspects of researching the story of a single building can emerge from putting it into the context of the street it’s on and the surrounding community. For example, Jim and I were surprised to learn that their block once featured a long-forgotten outdoor theater that seated 2,000 people, where guests could watch a silent movie or even follow the games of the 1914 World Series on a giant electromechanical baseball diamond.
And who doesn’t love to look at then-and-now comparisons for the block you walk on every day? The city of New York obligingly photographed nearly every building in all five boroughs in 1939-1940, and again in the early 1980s, making it easy to create your own then-and-now pairs.
Get started today! There’s a wide range of choices for documenting what you find, from video presentations or panel displays like Jim and I created, to blog posts or dedicated websites. Share your discoveries with your neighbors and with us at the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group.