Walking Through Time in Historic Neighborhoods

URI professors Kristine Bovy, Rod Mather and Catherine DeCesare use their different areas of expertise—archaeology, history and museum archival work—to approach the course. That multi-pronged approach gives students a fuller picture of the past.

A historic neighborhood doesn’t necessarily have to be large. For example, a small fictional town’s entire historic district might consist of just a handful of bungalows.

1. Brooklyn Heights

Brooklyn Heights is a renowned neighborhood that breathes history. From the piers and waterfront that transformed this once-rural area into a center of commerce and trade to the moment General George Washington retreated here during the Revolutionary War, this storied enclave has played a significant role in shaping America’s past.

Street after street of classic brownstones and row houses showcase a stunning architectural symphony of styles. From Federal to Queen Anne to Neo-Gothic Revival, these houses of worship and residences tell the story of Brooklyn Heights’ illustrious past. With several guided tours available to peel back the layers of the past, you’re sure to discover a new facet to this charming district that has served as home to writers and intellectuals such as Capote, W.E.B Du Bois, Norman Mailer, and Arthur Miller over the years.

With a sweeping promenade and peerless views of Manhattan, Brooklyn Heights is a place where you can get lost among the historic charm. Stroll past the mansions that once occupied the land, including one built by shipping tycoon Abiel Abbot Low, and take in the architectural grandeur of 24 Middagh Street (named for an Irishwoman named Middagh who was dissatisfied with the names of other “fruit streets” like Cranberry and Orange) as well as the more modest dwellings on the bluffs of Pierrepont Place.

You’ll also find that the streets of this historic enclave are lined with revered cultural institutions, from the renowned Brooklyn Historical Society to the world-class jazz venue Brooklyn Academy of Music and many more. The community also boasts a number of parks, scenic piers, and Jane’s Carousel that serve as perfect backdrops to an array of recreational opportunities. In addition, the Brooklyn Bridge Park is quickly gaining momentum and the neighborhood offers many food and fitness options from running the Brooklyn Promenade to a stop at the much-loved Ample Hills Creamery.

2. Lower East Side

When Dutch settlers first gazed upon what is now the Lower East Side in the 1600’s, they admired a pretty five-acre lake they called Collect Pond. It was a place for families to ice skate and play, but as breweries and slaughterhouses began popping up, the water quickly became polluted with spent grain, rotting pig carcasses, and human waste. Soon, disease ran rampant – yellow fever and malaria were common.

The population boom in the late 1800’s caused a rapid rise of tenements – low-rise buildings that housed multiple people. A typical apartment would be three rooms and it was not uncommon for a family of 10 to live in one of these small spaces. The Lower East Side became a hub for Jewish culture as well and the Eldridge Street Synagogue is an architectural gem that captures the neighborhood’s Jewish heritage.

The Lower East Side also saw the beginning of organized crime – both Italian and Jewish mafias were prominent in this area. Many of the streets are lined with mafia history and some of the most famous mob hits took place in this neighborhood. You can learn about this history and more at the Lower East Side Museum or visit the sites of social clubs and murders that are now part of the Museum of American Crime and Justice. Whether you are eating lunch at the famed Katz’s Deli, touring the Tenement Museum or just wandering around watching Chinese, Jewish and other cultures collide, this area of Manhattan has a lot of fascinating history to share.

3. Greenwich Village

With its winding streets, shady trees and quaint townhouses, Greenwich Village is synonymous with bohemian culture. It’s a place where you might catch sight of Julia Roberts cruising by on her way to brunch or Leonardo DiCaprio strolling through the shops. But the Village has a rich history that goes beyond celebrity sightings to encompass many of the most important and influential New Yorkers of the last hundred years.

Before it became known as the center of American bohemia, the Village had been a place of radical politics and artistic experimentation. Many of the artists, musicians and activists who gathered here in the years after 1910 grew up in provincial American towns as children of respectable families with limited incomes. They were discontented with a society that valued the material possessions of money over the more lasting and spiritual riches of knowledge.

These cultural rebels, both men and women, found a home in Greenwich Village where they could indulge in their own hedonistic pursuits while also taking advantage of the intellectual, educational and entertainment resources the neighborhood had to offer. Art clubs, picture galleries and learned societies sprouted in the area, as did theaters and literary salons.

The Village had a long legacy of civic agitation and advocacy, dating back to the 1800s when sweatshop unrest and violent ethnic clashes occurred throughout Manhattan. As late as 1911, when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed nearly 200 immigrant workers, riots erupted in the District.

In the 1960s, a gay community developed around Christopher Street, and in 1969 a confrontation between police and patrons at Stonewall Inn led to the birth of the modern gay rights movement. The cultural revolutions that spawned in the Village continued to reverberate throughout the country and around the world.

4. Upper West Side

The Upper West Side is a neighborhood that has a unique and enduring culture. Its architecture and streets reflect the eras of its development. The neighborhood offers many beautiful historic buildings, including old churches and apartments. In addition, the neighborhood has a great number of famous restaurants.

The neighborhood is bounded by Central Park to the east, the Hudson River to the west, and 110th Street to the north. It includes well-known neighborhoods like Carnegie Hill and Yorkville, as well as lesser known ones.

When out-of-towners think of Manhattan, they’re likely to picture the quaint Upper West Side with its prewar apartment buildings and lively streets. The Upper West Side is also home to many of New York City’s most popular cultural institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, farms dominated the landscape of the Upper West Side. Even into the late 1800s, WASPs largely controlled the area. By 1910, however, Irish immigrants had crowded into the tenements along Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues and Tammany politics and dark mahogany bars dominated the scene.

In the 1920s and 1930s, as apartment buildings shot up across the Upper West Side, it developed a distinct character. Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues drew in business, West End Avenue offered quiet residences, Riverside Drive was alternately elegant and seedy, and the area between had a mixture of both.

After World War II, a major urban renewal effort was launched by a man named Robert Moses. Its purpose was to transform the area around Central Park into a center of culture and entertainment. During this time, the Upper West Side became increasingly diverse and it continues to be so to this day.

5. Battery Park

In the second half of the 20th century, Battery Park City developed from a set of dilapidated piers on the southern tip of Manhattan into a vibrant neighborhood and cultural center. In this conversation, BJ Jones, President & CEO of the Battery Park City Authority, and Mitchell Moss, Henry Hart Rice Professor of Urban Policy & Planning at New York University and Director of the Rudin Center for Transportation, explore the history of Battery Park and its influence on Lower Manhattan.

For more than 200 years, The Battery has been a place where New Yorkers gather to remember the past, and visitors from around the world come to see its iconic sights. The park was the world’s first immigrant depot, where people boarded ships bound for the United States before Ellis Island opened and before the Statue of Liberty was built. Today, tourists and locals flock to the area to visit its museums, restaurants, the South Ferry Terminal and other cultural sites.

The park’s promenade is home to a variety of art installations, including a statue commemorating immigrants who died trying to reach the US. There are also a number of memorials, including the John Ericsson Statue and the Netherlands Flagpole.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Battery Park was rebuilt and expanded. A master plan was developed by Philip Winslow, and a new Battery Park Conservancy was formed to manage the park. In addition to the renovated promenade, a new museum building was constructed, and the AIDS Memorial Garden was moved from World Trade Center Ground Zero to Battery Park. The park is a favorite among New Yorkers seeking a quiet escape or a scenic spot to enjoy the views of the water and skyline.

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