Think you know New York City? Think again.
Behind those famous landmarks and cheesy tourist traps lurk secrets that even the city’s lifelong residents don’t know. There’s a hidden New York – full of mysterious, concealed, forgotten, abandoned, and just plain overlooked facts and features – that would surprise even the most grizzled NYC veteran.
As a New Yorker you like to think you know everything about your beloved Big Apple – from the fastest way to get crosstown to the cart serving the best street meat – but we and a handful of our favorite local bloggers are about to prove you wrong.
1. The famous zodiac mural on the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal’s Main Concourse is a 22,000 square foot mistake, because it’s painted backwards.
Grand Central Terminal is home to an even bigger mistake than that post-breakup haircut you thought was a good idea: the Main Concourse’s elaborately decorated astronomical ceiling is reversed, north to south, with the exception of the Orion constellation. When the gaffe was pointed out by an astute passenger, the New York Central Railroad (along with the uber-powerful Vanderbilt family) claimed it was meant to be the view from the heavens. Total cop-out.
2. And speaking of the Grand Central ceiling, that tiny black patch hidden in the northwest corner is not a design flaw – it’s a disgusting strip of decades-old sludge.
Next time you’re near the Cancer constellation (that’s the crab, folks), look out for a small, black rectangle. No, the cleaners didn’t just miss a spot – it’s old nicotine and tobacco residue leftover from the city’s public smoking days. When the ceiling of the concourse was restored in the 1990s, the patch was left untouched to show just how filthy it once was. So next time you catch yourself thinking “Man, New York is such a dirty city!” remember that you’re actually living in the clean version.
3. Washington Square Park has a very dark past…as a burial ground and the scene of public executions.
Image: Jean-Christophe BENOIST
Before Washington Square Park was home to New York University graduation ceremonies, it was a site used for public executions (let’s be honest: with the current cost of NYU tuition, it’s basically the same thing). The infamous Hangman’s Elm tree still stands in the northwest corner of the park. Oh, and just in case that isn’t creepy enough, the park is also built on top of 100,000 yellow fever victims.
4. New York City is full of awesome abandoned observation decks, just waiting to be explored.
Moses Gates, author of Hidden Cities, lists them amongst his favorite NYC secrets: “New York City has over a dozen abandoned observation decks scattered throughout Manhattan (mostly in downtown Manhattan) with a few more in Brooklyn and Queens. Many, such as two of my favorites, the Woolworth Building in Downtown Manhattan and the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower in Brooklyn, are currently being sold as condos. But some are now private decks for offices, and others are simply sitting empty. Next time you’re in an NYC Skyscraper, hit the top floor in the elevator and see what happens.”
5. Dream of becoming a subway musician? You’ll have to audition with the MTA first.
Image: Arturo Donate
Subway musicians must audition for the honor of playing in New York City’s public transportation systems. Since 1985, the MTA has held competitive auditions for musicians through the MUNY (Musicians Under New York) program. Who needs Carnegie Hall when you can play Union Square-14th St on the 4/5/6?
6. There’s an underground bowling alley located beneath the Frick Collection.
Hidden underneath the Upper East Side mansion, formerly owned by 19th-century industrialist Henry Clay Frick, is an antique bowling alley with mahogany-paneled walls, immaculate pine-and-maple lanes, and a set of custom balls that are still in working order. The Frick Collection restored the alley to its former glory in 1997 but, like all the coolest stuff in NYC, it isn’t open to the public.
7. There’s an abandoned subway station in Lower Manhattan that’s considered one of the most gorgeous gems in the world of mass transit.
City Hall station, also known as City Hall Loop, was the original southern terminal station of the first line of the New York City subway. Designed by Rafael Guastavino, the station is unusually elegant (think Romanesque Revival architecture, skylights, colored glass tilework and brass chandeliers). Passenger service was discontinued in 1945 and the station hasn’t been open to the public since, but if you ride the 6 train and don’t get off at the Brooklyn Bridge stop, you’ll pass through City Hall as the train loops back uptown.
8. There used to be a speakeasy with a very unexpected proprietor near Bryant Park.
Once upon a time, 14 East 44th Street was a speakeasy called the Bridge Whist Club – and it was run by the U.S. government. During Prohibition, the government bugged the tables and used the space to gather intel on other speakeasies. It was eventually shut down thanks to then-congressman (and future NYC mayor) Fiorello La Guardia. No wonder they named an airport after him.
9. NYC’s mail used to be delivered 4 to 6 feet below the the ground via a network of tubes that covered a 27-mile route and connected 23 post offices.
Image by Allison Meier
“My favorite obscure fact about New York is that the mail used to be delivered by pneumatic tubes,” says Michelle Young, Founder of Untapped Cities. “A single canister could hold 500 letters and traveled at 30 miles per hour! The third tube to ever go through the system carried a black cat ‘for reasons unknown.’” Most of the tube system is long gone now, but a few remnants can be seen at the Old Chelsea Station post office and the main branch of the New York Public Library.
10. Deep under Grand Central Terminal, hidden in a secret location, there is a train station from the 1930s built to serve a single passenger.
To keep his debilitating polio a secret, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a private platform built in Grand Central, called Track 61, that connected directly to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. So that he never had to come into contact with the public while traveling in NYC, FDR drove directly to Track 61, boarded his private train, and stored his limousine in a special carriage designed to transport it. Not only are the platform and the elevator used to reach it still there (although off-limits to the public), but so is the former president’s abandoned, armor-clad train.
11. Some of the most beautiful gardens in New York City are hidden hundreds of feet off the ground.
Image by David Shankbone
Communing with nature in NYC doesn’t have to mean sunbathing on the Great Lawn while ducking frat bros playing frisbee. Rockefeller Center maintains five spectacular rooftop gardens originally designed by English landscaper Ralph Hancock between 1933 and 1936. The gardens have been closed since 1938, but three can be spied from the Top of the Rock observation deck.
12. There’s a three-story townhouse in Brooklyn that’s not what it seems. In a former life it was a private residence, but in 1908 it was converted into “the world’s only Greek Revival subway ventilator.”
The brownstone at 58 Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights is a red house with suspiciously blacked out windows – and a front for a bunch of utility boxes and ventilation shafts for the subway system. It’s also rumored to serve as a secret passageway to the 4/5 trains running below. The property is owned by the MTA and, as of 2010, was valued at $2.8 million.
13. The Berlin Wall is in Manhattan. Well…parts of it, anyway.
Image by michaeltk
Five sections of the Berlin Wall have been on display in Paley Park, a tiny pocket park located in Midtown, since 1990. The western side of the sections has been covered in art by Thierry Noir and Kiddy Citny, but the eastern side remains a blank slab of concrete – a poignant reminder of the oppressive political regime in the former East Germany. Other segments of the wall can be found at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, in the World Financial Center, and in the gardens of the United Nations Headquarters.
14. “One of our favorite secrets is about the Steinway Piano Factory in Queens,” say Meg, Mackenzi, and Judith of We Heart Astoria. “Some of the finest pianos in the world are built right here in Astoria, bearing the Steinway name.”
Steinway is the sole American piano maker left (and one of the last major manufacturers in New York City). Curious visitors can take a tour of the factory or visit the buildings that remain of the old Steinway Village that once surrounded the factory. The original workers’ rowhouses can be seen on 20th Avenue, between 41st and 42nd Streets, and the Steinway Mansion can be found on the corner of 42nd Street and 19th Avenue.
15. There’s a Cold War bomb shelter hidden in the Brooklyn Bridge.
Image by Postdlf
In 2006, city inspectors stumbled upon a secret chamber inside the Brooklyn Bridge, located just beneath its Lower Manhattan entrance ramp. Inside they found decades-old military provisions for surviving a nuclear attack, including blankets, medicine, water containers, and around 352,000 crackers. For security reasons, the exact location of the chamber was kept secret. No word on what happened to all those crackers.
16. There’s an underground branch of the New York Public Library.
Officially called the Terence Cardinal Cooke-Cathedral Branch, the subterranean chapter of the New York Public Library is in the subway system. Look for it tucked away outside the turnstiles at the 51st Street 6 stop. Now if someone steals your Kindle on the train, you know where to score some reading material for your commute.
17. The American Museum of Natural History once had an Eskimo exhibit – with actual live Eskimos.
Image by J.M. Luijt
In 1897, explorer Robert Peary delivered six Greenland Eskimos – more properly called Inuits – to the museum. Four died of illness, a fifth supposedly returned home, and one child was adopted by a museum official. The dead men’s bones were then kept at the museum and went on display in 1992. That’s some seriously twisted stuff.
18. There used to be a whole lotta beer in Brooklyn, and it wasn’t all PBR.
Katarina Hybenova, Editor at BushwickDaily.com, has this interesting tidbit to share: “Did you know that, with almost 50 breweries, North Brooklyn had more breweries than any other place in America at the turn of the century? The area of Scholes and Meserole Streets and extended from Bushwick Place to Lorimer Street used to be called Brewers’ Row because you could find 12 breweries on 12 blocks.” You can watch the documentary “Brewed in Brooklyn” (ideally with a beer in hand) for free on Hulu to find out more.
19. The top of the Empire State Building was supposed to be a mooring station for airships.
Photograph from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
No, not the “We come in peace” kind – the Hindenburg kind. The 200-foot mast at the top of the ESB was meant to be a dock for dirigibles, but the idea was so ill-conceived that it was only used once, in September 1931, for a grand total of 3 minutes. As cool as the idea sounds, the strong winds at 1,250 feet – not to mention the logistics of a landing crew – made it impossible.