Not long ago, some genealogical research turned up my immigrant grandfather’s first address in America. His destination, declared at Ellis Island when he arrived from an island in the north Aegean, was the Lower East Side apartment of a relative, on Roosevelt Street. My father and I wanted to go have a look at the place, on the chance that the building was still up, and found that … there is no Roosevelt Street.
But there was in 1913, when he landed. It took a little more research to find it, but a late-nineteenth-century map of the city showed Roosevelt Street by the foot of the (then new) Brooklyn Bridge. It was erased from the grid by a housing project a few decades after my grandfather’s arrival. Family history aside, though, I have always been drawn to images of New York as it once was. The constant change that keeps this city rolling makes images of its former self compelling, whether you’re looking for a specific place or just armchair-time-traveling through your neighborhood. Several print dealers in New York specialize in maps of the city, and their stock ranges from inexpensive, comparatively recent material (meaning from the beginning of the twentieth century) to extremely rare stuff that Henry Hudson might recognize. Old maps and prints showing your neighborhood – sometimes your very building – can be found without years of hunting.
Depending on your definition of “old,” of course. “Anything before the nineteenth century gets hard to find and expensive,” says Laura Teneycke, of the Argosy Book Store (116 East 59th Street; 212-753-4455). But material from the mid-1800s and later is far easier to come by, she adds. D.T. Valentine’s Manual, a booklet full of lithographed city views the size of large postcards, was produced annually in the late nineteenth century, and its individual pages sell for as little as $25. A larger print, of Central Park, for example, will be about $300, more if it’s in color. More expensive are what are called “bird’s-eye views” – lithographs that showed the city from above before the age of the helicopter. A very large, colorful nineteenth-century bird’s-eye view of Manhattan is priced at $18,000, but less spectacular examples can come in under $1,000. (The store sells a number of handsome reproductions of the real rarities.) The Argosy has them all sorted by category and location: Go to the second floor and browse through the folders dedicated to Wall Street, Harlem, Central Park, whatever you’re looking for.
Argosy carries a little of everything, but for less expensive items, you might comparison-shop at Pageant Books & Prints. This shop was a fixture on East 9th Street till rising rents drove it farther downtown a few years ago; now owner Shirley Solomon is shifting the business to the Web (www.pageantbooks.com; 212-674-5296; hours by appointment). At Pageant, you can find incredibly detailed zoning maps of the city from the late nineteenth century, for just about every neighborhood. Every building is represented by a little colored square with its lot number. (These maps make thoughtful presents for new homeowners.) Some are overlaid with dotted lines delineating the farms that occupied the land, marked with the names of the farmers who owned them. Commercial buildings are intriguingly labeled: icehouses, stables, gasworks, coal suppliers. (Argosy has many of these zoning maps, too.)
Incidentally, if the color on a nineteenth-century map looks crisp and fresh, you’ll want to ask the dealer about it. Many black-and-white engravings are colored in by a modern hand, so they display better. There’s no sin in this process, except perhaps with a fantastically rare item, but you still ought to know what you’re buying.
Harry Newman, co-proprietor of The Old Print Shop (150 Lexington Avenue, near 30th Street; 212-683-3950; www.oldprintshop.com) doesn’t usually deal in those zoning-atlas pages, but he has many other Manhattan maps and street scenes. At the shop – a piece of history itself; the business is 102 years old, and it’s been in the same store since 1923 – you’ll find little prints, like those Valentine’s pages, for $25 and up. Larger views start around $100. Big bird’s-eye views, like Currier and Ives prints, appear regularly – and sell quickly, for high prices. The shop also has a small but growing business in vintage photographs. “If you want early material, you won’t find much uptown – general scenes, not so much of buildings,” Newman says. That’s because in 1870, you wouldn’t find brownstones in the West Eighties. You’d find goats.
“I had one particularly rare map a year ago – an eighteenth-century American-produced large-scale map, published in New York,” Newman says. “There are six or eight known examples, and I’ve had two in the past fifteen years.” He won’t say the price. “Over 50 and under 100. Thousand, that is.”
There aren’t many maps at Ursus Books (981 Madison Avenue, near 76th Street; 212-772-8787), but the print department does regularly get New York views – the journalistic slice-of-life images of their day. You may luck out and find, among the etchings and prints of street scenes, your own neighborhood, a familiar building, a friend’s house. Prices are in the $800-to-$2,000 range.
At the most rarefied end of the market, one other dealer’s name always pops up: Richard B. Arkway (59 East 54th Street, sixth floor; 212-751-8135). The manager, Paul Cohen, co-wrote Manhattan in Maps, a gorgeous volume published in 1997 by Rizzoli, and many of the documents that have passed through his gallery illustrated the book. Most of the inventory is priced in the thousands, but there are less expensive items: A pocket-size volume (The Great Metropolis or New-York Almanac for 1850), with an elegant foldout map of lower Manhattan, is $450. A Brooklyn guidebook, including a color map that unfurls to almost two feet square, is $550.
Arkway’s rarest items, however, are fantasy buys for most collectors. At one point during my visit, Cohen stopped in mid-stride and said, “You wanna see something good?” It turned out to be a Dutch sea chart adapted from one of the first maps of New York (or niew neder land). You won’t find your relatives’ houses on this one, unless you’re descended from Peter Stuyvesant himself: It’s from 1663, about 50 years after the first Europeans touched shore, and the cartographer managed to leave out Manhattan Island. Corrected in later printings, the map is extremely rare in this first state. Price: $28,000.