When Manhattan Was Mostly Hills and Shrubbery

In the 1830s, there was plenty of green space to go around in New York (and snakes).

Trying to fit new green space into Manhattan today can require extreme craftiness – say, by plopping grass and bushes on top of an elevated railroad spur. But it didn't used to be the case; during the early 1800s, much the island was still relatively undeveloped, a rugged warren of hills, grassland, and hissing snakes.

Manhattan's past as an arcadian wonderland is on view at the Smithsonian's website, which has borrowed an 1836 map from David Rumsey's collection and added a moveable oculus so viewers can compare the old geography with current satellite imagery. For people who want to see the document in one complete piece, though, I've pasted it below after a few zoomed-in historical highlights.

The Smithsonian asked Rumsey to talk a bit about this fantastic slice of cartography, which he calls one of his favorite maps (no small praise, given his collection has more than 43,000 pieces). Here's part of what he had to say about it:

Rumsey looks to the map’s delicate shading to tell much of its story, noting that the heavily shaded areas represent the most densely populated portions of the city at the time of the map’s drawing. "Pretty much everything past 14th St. is country," he explains, adding that much of what is considered Manhattan today wasn’t yet settled. In addition to the population shading, the hills of Manhattan are shown by hachures, an antiquated method of showing relief on drawn maps. "A lot of the history of Manhattan is the destruction of its hills," Rumsey says. "Basically that topography was obliterated, except for Central Park."

Indeed, Manhattan likely derived its name from a Native American term for ''island of many hills," at least according to The New York Times. Here's a cut from what is now Midtown and northward showing the difference in development between the lower 40s and today's Central Park-abutting neighborhoods:

What Times Square used to be (the north side of that "distribution reservoir" lines 42nd Street):

The wildly wooded Upper East Side. Imagine how happy modern-day dogs would be with this proliferation of timber:

Here's Mount Morris, nowadays more commonly called Marcus Garvey Park. According to James Riker's historical tome Harlem (City of New York): Its Origin and Early Annals, the Dutch knew it as Slang Berg, or Snake Hill, because of the "reptile tribes that infested its cleft rocks and underbrush":

The Bloomingdale Insane Asylum with its nice paths and orchards in today's Morningside Heights (near 117th Street at Amsterdam Avenue). The land it sat on until its demolishing in the late 1800s is now occupied by Columbia University:

And because it's never all about Manhattan, this is the relatively undeveloped Red Hook:

The full map from David Rumsey's collection:

Map courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection

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