From the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, to Chinatown, Little Italy, and the bridges that connect Manhattan with Brooklyn and Queens, there’s hundreds of obvious sights, landmarks, and neighborhoods that tell the fascinating history of New York City. But there are also many other places and people that have influenced the evolution of the Big Apple. Let’s take a look at three intriguing pieces of history that have either been forgotten over time or simply ignored.
The Mysterious Origins of Washington Square Park
In the heart of bohemian Greenwich Village is Washington Square Park, a place popular among artists, chess players and families. It’s known for a grandiose arch dedicated to George Washington, an ornamental fountain, lush gardens and playgrounds for kids and canines. Buskers entertain the crowds, artists display their works and Stanley Kubrick once made a living as a chess hustler. However, it wasn’t always fun and recreation here.
Back in 1797, the grounds of the park was a designated potters field and a location for public executions. The sick, indigent, unknown and anyone deemed undesirable were buried at church cemeteries until they overflowed with bodies. Many of the buried were from the African Zion Methodist Church, formed after black parishioners suffered from discrimination at New York churches. In 1826 the park became a military parade ground but the uneven ground created by coffins and bodies wasn’t suitable for marching and artillery. The bodies were thus exhumed, pathways were laid and gardens were planted to inaugurate a public park in 1827. Hangman’s Elm, an ancient elm tree supposedly used for hangings, is all that remains.
The Legends of the Columbia University Tunnels
Beneath the campus of Columbia University is a vast network of tunnels that connect many of the faculty buildings but are in fact off-limits to the general public. The majority of the tunnels date back to the beginning of the 20th century when the campus was Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, of which the university’s Buell Hall is the last remnant. Today the tunnels serve as electricity, steam, and telecommunication passageways. There’s several curious tales related to them also. During World War II, tunnels connected to the first floor of the Pupin Hall, where research and development meetings of the Manhattan Project took place. If you aren’t familiar with the project, it was the one responsible for the first atomic bomb. Then during the student strikes and protests of 1968, staff of the university’s radio station utilized the tunnels to tap the telephone system and access halls taken by strikers.
Most commuters and tourists that make their daily journeys across New York City will take for granted the magnificent engineering work that has gone into creating the city’s tunnels. Whether it is a car, sewer, steam, subway or water tunnel, most of them can be attributed to the Sandhogs. This group of tireless construction workers, many of Irish and West Indian origin, have been shaping NYC since they dug the foundations for the Brooklyn Bridge in 1872. Today there’s about 2,000 of them that continue to carry out perilous and often under-appreciated construction work. They’ll travel underground through dimly lit holes via steel cages in order to carve tunnels using boring machines and dynamite. Some of their most impressive constructions include Holland Tunnel and the Lincoln Tunnel. A movie called The Greatest Tunnel Ever Built celebrates the work of the Sandhogs.