You can read guidebooks but they’ll all tell you about the same popular attractions. Here are 5 things in each of the 5 boroughs that have all played significant roles in the history of New York City, but chances are you won’t hear much about them or find them in any guidebook. Regardless of popularity (or lack thereof), they’re all worth going out of your way for. Read on to find a bit more about each site and why you’ll want to see them all in person.
Four Freedoms Park
Four Freedoms Park is a tribute to Franklin D. Roosevelt 40 years in the making. While it was initially planned in 1972, construction didn’t begin until 2010 and didn’t open until 2012. This was the final project of architect Louis Kahn, who was actually carrying around plans for the park when he died in 1974. His death put the park on hiatus until interest was revived in the early 2000s. The park, essentially an outdoor room, is unlike any other park in the city. You’ll also get stellar views of Manhattan, nearby Renwick smallpox hospital, and the classic Pepsi sign in Gantry Plaza State Park across the river in Queens. Open 8 am – 7pm and closed on Tuesdays.
Piers 62 – 66
Hudson River Park is the second largest park in New York, stretching from Battery Park all the way up to 59th Street. If you’re really really ambitious, walk the whole length of the park, but if you want to stick to the basics, focus on piers 62 through 66 (from W 22nd Street to around W 29th Street). Pier 63 was once a transfer location for freight railroad cars for the Baltimore & Ohio railroad when the railroad terminus in New Jersey. You can see what that would have looked like at Pier 66, where you’ll find a Lackawanna railroad barge docked (along with a caboose!). Railroad cars were driven onto this barge in New Jersey and floated across the river to Manhattan. Use the excuse to check out the new Hudson Yards subway station that just opened in 2015.
High Bridge was constructed from 1837 to 1848 as a means to bring fresh water from Westchester County into New York City. The High Bridge acted within the Croton Aqueduct project which brought water across the Hudson River and into Manhattan where it was collected in reservoirs throughout the island. As you walk over the bridge, you’re actually walking on top of the large water pipes that once brought water into the city. In 1864 the walkway over the bridge was opened to the public, and quickly became a popular attraction. The original design of the bridge had a series of stone arches over the river. In 1928, five of the arches were replaced by a single steel arch to allow larger ships to sail through. The bridge functioned as a water delivery system until 1948 when it then served only as a pedestrian bridge until it was closed around 1970. High Bridge was recently re-opened to the public in 2015.
Audubon Terrace is the most interesting museum complex you’ve never heard of. Built on the former estate of John James Audubon in the early 20th century in what was then a very rural area of the city. The complex was conceived and financed by Archer Milton Huntington, heir to the founder of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Huntington was a scholar of Spanish art and culture and founded the Hispanic Society of America as the anchor institution at Audubon Terrace under the assumption that Audubon Terrace would soon be a new hub for cultural institutions in Manhattan. Ultimately the plan failed to take off and Huntington ended up financing most of the institutions that ended up in residence. There are eight buildings surrounding a central courtyard built in the Beaux Arts style, all of which are home to museums, research center, and a satellite college campus. The main attraction is the Hispanic Society of America (free admission!), which functions as a research library and museum where you can view originals by El Greco, de Goya, and Diego Velázquez.
When the very popular president died in 1885, the City of New York wanted to built a grand monument that would honor him accordingly. $600,000 was donated by the public, making it the most successful fundraising campaign at that time. It was and is the largest mausoleum in all of North America. NEarly a million people flocked to the dedication ceremony when the monument was completed in 1887. This monument probably should have been built in Washington DC along with the other memorials of its kind like the Lincoln and Washington memorials. Instead, Grant’s wife insisted that his remains be kept in NYC so that she could easily visit them as she planned to live nearby for the rest of her own life. When she died in 1905, her remains were also entombed within the monument alongside her husband.
Dead Horse Bay
It’s sort of a hilarious joke that this landfill is part of a national park and therefore must be made available to the public even though it’s filled with broken glass, trash, and what looks a lot like oil spills. Dead Horse Bay isn’t exactly a secret, but it’s out of the way and difficult to get to so it’s probably not high on your list of things to do. Don’t let that stop you. Even if you have no desire to collect old glass bottles, it’s an unusual site to see and everybody will like the pictures you take of your visit. Take the Q35 to the end of Flatbush Avenue and get off at the station near the traffic lights right before the toll booths at the Marine Parkway – Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge. Run acrors the street and find an unmarked path that will lead you to through the trees and to the ocean.
The best way to see an old subway station that is no longer in use is to visit the Transit Museum which is located in the old Court Street station, which hasn’t been used for regular service since 1946. The station was intended to be the terminus of the Fulton Street subway line, but since it was so close to the express station at Hoyt-Schermerhorn where riders could catch a train directly into Manhattan, it was never very popular. Since service to Court Street was dropped, there was no longer any need for the outer tracks at the nearby Hoyt-Schermerhorn station, which have also been virtually abandoned since 1946. The museum itself has been in existence since 1976 when it was opened for what was intended to be a temporary exhibit in honor of the Bicentennial celebration. It was so popular that it became a permanent museum and has become the largest museum in the country dedicated to urban public transportation history. While many of the exhibits on the top floor are worth checking out, the real draw is the platform below where you’ll find a whole station full of vintage MTA subway cars.
Floyd Bennett Field
Floyd Bennett Field opened as the first municipal airport in New York City in 1930 (known as the time as Barren Island Airport). The airfield was considered especially modern since it was designed to include a seaplane base as well as concrete runways and lighting at a time in an age when most airports had only dirt runways. American Airlines initiated a pilot program to see if it would be feasible to relocate its NYC headquarters from Newark Airport to Floyd Bennett, but travelers complained that it took too long to get to the airport from Manhattan and the idea was quickly abandoned in spite of Mayor LaGuardia offering police escorts to airport limousines to reduce the commute. The New York Municipal Airport (aka LGA) was built in 1939 and became the new air hub for the NYC metro area. Floyd Bennett Field was sold to the US Navy in 1941, decommissioned in 1971, and was incorporated into the Gateway National Recreational Area. Since it’s technically a park, you can freely walk around much of the original airfield, see the old hangars, and go inside the original administration building.
Sheepshead Bay Piers
Sheepshead Bay is more than just a neighborhood on the B/Q line, it’s also a bay along the shoreline of the neighborhood. The bay was named for the sheepshead fish, once popular in the waters around this part of Brooklyn. The Ocean Avenue Footbridge across the bay connects the piers on the Sheepshead Bay to Brighton Beach side (and is my favorite pedestrian bridges in New York City). The bay alone is worth seeing, but you should also explore Emmons Avenue to try out some Eastern European restaurants and stop by Roll N’ Roaster for one of the best milkshakes in NYC.
Before there were city parks, there was Green-Wood Cemetery, which was once the one of the most visited tourist destination in the country, second only to Niagara Falls. Established in 1838 in what was then a very rural area, this quickly became the premier place to be buried for any wealthy New Yorker. Stretching nearly 480 acres atop the highest point in Brooklyn, you could once see all the way into Manhattan or New Jersey from within the grounds. Walking around the mausoleums you’ll recognize the names for many well-known New Yorkers. The original 200 acres were designed by David Bates Douglass, the same architect that built High Bridge and the chapel was built by the same firm that designed Grand Central Terminal.
No trip to Queens is complete without a visit to the Queens Museum to check out the amazing 3D model of the entire city of New York. Built for the 1964 World’s Fair, the panorama is an incredibly accurate portrayal of the city. With a scale of 1 inch equal to 100 feet, this model brings the 300+square miles of New York City into a single room. Even cooler is that the model gets occasional updates since it was originally constructed and now includes all of the buildings that were erected before 1992 as well as every street, bridge and park. My favorite is watching the airplanes take off from the miniature LaGuardia airport. On your way out of the museum, be sure to check out the other World’s Fair remnants in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
New York Hall of Science
Technically it’s a museum for kids but why should that stop you? It’s sort of like stepping into a time machine to any field trip you took as a kid to any museum. Most of the exhibits look like they were castaways from another museum that upgraded back in 1997. Don’t consider this a turnoff though, because it’s actually a ton of fun to walk around and play with everything. Plus, where else in NYC can you play space themed mini golf?
This road was open for just 30 years from 1908 until 1938 but is considered the very first superhighway. This road was the first road in the world that was built specifically for automobile. The parkway was essentially a giant racetrack where rich people in expensive cars could race one another without having to slow down for anything as they sped through residential streets. Walking around on the trail you’ll see a lot of things that we are used to now, but were never seen before 1908 such as guardrails, paved concrete, and overpasses. Today some portions of the roadway survive as the Motor Parkway Trail, part of the Brooklyn-Queens Greenway.
Marine Air Terminal
It’s no secret that getting to LaGuardia airport is an awful experience, but it’s a little less terrible if you’re going there just for fun instead of frantically trying to make it in time to catch you flight. Terminal A at LGA is now used only for Delta shuttle flights so chances are you’ve never ended up there by accident, but it’s worth a trip just to walk around this historic WPA landmark that was built specifically for Clipper planes that were designed to take off and land on the water. The building itself is a perfect example of Art Deco architecture and contains the original murals that were uncovered during a renovation in 1980. It’s sort of wild to stand in the center of this airport and think of what it would have been like to travel by air in 1940.
Fort Tilden is now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area and so is more or less open to the public. It started off as a military base during World War I and was tasked with protecting the New York coast, eventually becoming home to Nike and Ajax missile sites before being decommissioned in the 1970s. You can skip the beach and instead explore the remains of the Battery Harris encasements and abandoned buildings still left in the park. While many of the buildings are obviously closed to the public, many are wide open and you can easily explore them without hopping over, under, or through fences.
It just so happens that I grew up in a New England seaside town and so can vouch for the fact that City Island feels like a small New England town in spite of being part of New York City. With just under 5,000 residents, it is indeed a small community. Plot lines were established in 1761 with the intention of establishing a new port that would rival the ports in New York. The arrival of the American Revolution put a halt to that plan and eventually developed into a town focused on fishing, clamming, and shipbuilding. City Island was the last area in NYC to replace phone operators with dial tone service in 1960.
Bronx Community College
This campus was originally home of New York University when it decided to expand from it’s original (and present) home in Greenwich Village in 1894 to the new location in University Heights. The grand design of the campus reflects the university’s plan to move the bulk of its operations to the new campus, bringing the undergraduate programs and administration to the Bronx, leaving only the graduate schools in Manhattan. Many of the older Beaux-Arts buildings on campus were designed by Stanford White, which are a stark contrast against some more modern Brutalist structures. Citing financial hardship, NYU sold the campus in 1973 to the City University of New York and it’s been the Bronx Community College ever since. 1973 was also the last year that any updates were made to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.
Conceived and built by Metropolitan Life from 1938-1942, this was once the largest housing complex in the country. For a brief moment in time, New York state adjusted insurance codes in a way that made it advantageous for life insurance companies such as MetLife to invest in rental housing projects, which brought about several developments following Parkchester such as Peter Cooper Village, and Stuyvesant Town. MetLife purchased this site from the Catholic Protectory and started renting out units to veterans returning from WWII. Admission into the complex had race restrictions until 1968 when it was finally integrated. This self-contained community was intended to be a city within a city and therefore has over 100 stores and offices, including the second Macy’s store ever and the first Starbucks in the Bronx.
E 180th St Station
Built in 1917, this building was at one point the headquarters of the New York, Westchester and Boston Railway. The NYW&B was under the control of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad until it went out of business in 1937. Before it went bankrupt, the NYW&B spent nearly $26 million on its tracks and rolling stocks, even though it was only about 20 miles long. Reed & Stem, of Grand Central Terminal fame, was tapped to design the administration building. At the time, it was believed that the center of Manhattan would drift northward and eventually this would wind up in the new center of the city instead of far outside of it. The building has been on the National Register of Historic Places list since 1980 was was completely renovated by the MTA in 2013. It is the only MTA station that is also a free-standing National Register building.
There are abandoned stations and platforms all over New York, but most of them can’t be easily accessed without taking major risks. Luckily there are four stations in the Bronx, all designed by Cass Gilbert, that you can see without much effort at all. These stations were built in 1908 for the Harlem River Branch of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad and were all designed by Cass Gilbert. The line wasn’t as popular as had hoped, and when the subway system expanded to the area in 1920, there was less incentive to take the railroad when a subway ride cost only $0.05, leading to the stations being shuttered in 1937. Aside from Bartow Station, the other three stations are still very much intact and near subway lines:
- Westchester Avenue – Definitely the coolest of the 4 Gilbert stations, this is also the easiest to get to since it’s right near the Whitlock Avenue station on the 6 train.
- Bartow Station – If you’re up for a bit of exploring, you can actually go inside this abandoned station in the woods near City Island which has been abandoned since the 1930s.
- Hunts Point Avenue – Now repurposed as a sort of strip mall
- Morris Park – Once repurposed as a gun club, it seems to be bricked up and abandoned now
More officially known as the Donjon Iron and Metal Scrap Processing Facility, the marine scrapyard on the Arthur Kill is where you’ll find old boats waiting to be scraped. Technically this is private property, so I don’t suggest venturing far out. Luckily you can still get some good views from the shore.
Close to the boat graveyard you’ll find an actual paved street called Chemical Lane. Much of this area is the de-mapped streets of an oil tanker field where 40 people were killed in an explosion in 1973. You’ll find two very large tanks that were intended to hold liquefied natural gas (LNG) but were never put into use since the project was essentially shut down after the explosion. You can still walk out to the old dock where the LNG was loaded in and off of ships and there’s an old building with a lot of great graffiti that’s worth checking out.
North Shore Branch
Staten Island currently has only a single rapid transit line from the ferry building at St. George to the other end of the island at Tottenville. However, there used to be two additional lines along the north and south shores of the island. The North Shore Branch began service in 1886 on tracks owned by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and offered passenger service until 1953. The tracks were kept in use for freight until 1989. The trains ran from the St. George Terminal along the Kill Van Kull. You can still find evidence of the line including tracks and portions of stations. The easiest way to enter the trail is at Sailors’ Snug Harbor where you can find the retaining wall and staircases that led down to the station. From there, follow the tracks to find more evidence of old stations.
The field itself was actually a runway (and was in fact the last grass runway in New York City) and ramps for seaplanes was once found at the shoreline. When built in 1919, it was the only Air Coast Defense Station on the eastern coast of the United States. It’s been a national park since 1974. Today can get pretty close to the hangers that were built in 1920 which appear to be used as storage today.
The farm colony was a home for the aged poor in New York City. The first buildings were constructed on the site in 1829 as part of the Richmond County Poor Farm, which was intended specifically for “able-bodied paupers” that would be able to pay their own way through farm labor. The vegetables grown on the farm fed not only those living on the farm, but also other “unfortunates.” The poor farm was later renamed the New York City Farm Colony when Staten Island was incorporated into New York City in 1898. It later became part of the nearby Seaview Hospital (which is still operational). The dormitories that are still standing are in pretty bad shape, but you can still walk right through the open front doors for most of them. While exploring the dormitories you might make note of the massive steel doors and locks throughout the building, which seems to imply that the residents were not exactly welcome to leave whenever they wanted.