The cover of Secret New York shows the Blessing of the Bicycles at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It’s not a secret to me, I know all about it because I ride a bike. But the average tourist doesn’t know about it, because it’s not really a tourist attraction. You won’t see it in the guidebooks, except for this one!
New York, like Paris, London, and Rome, has a history. It’s one of the oldest cities in the USA, so unlike LA or Miami, it’s been built over and over again in the last two hundred years. Take the intersection of Leonard and Centre Streets; there’s a banal-looking cement park where the only people visiting are homeless (pigeons don’t count as people) and the average New Yorker barely notices. Before it was a park, it was a slum called the Five Points (the same one you saw in Gangs of New York.) Before it was a slum, guess what it was? A pond! It used to be the Collect Pond, which the local industries turned into an early version of Love Canal. So it was paved over, and became a big nuisance for the city ever since (note the frequent cave-ins that have to be filled.)
Secret New York is one of many wonderful books on the lesser-known parts of the city. Underground streams, hidden old cemeteries, the original bears from Winnie the Pooh, they’re all here in the city. We have relics from when neighborhoods were sailors’ hostels, tanneries, shipyards, and junkie havens. We even have painting in the New York Historical Society of an “unidentified woman.” Big deal, you might say, but look closely; the woman has a double chin and a five o’clock shadow. Why? Because it’s a man! Lord Cornbury, the governor of NY at the time, was a transvestite! Our very first (and only) transvestite governor.
Just one of many naughty secrets in this book. Unfortunately, the dirty shops from Taxi Driver are all gone now, but there are others to keep the armchair historian busy.