Map Quest

Ruminating over a street map of Manhattan carried by my wife’s paternal grandfather

I’d often wondered about the map of Manhattan my wife’s maternal grandfather had carried with him on a visit to the city as a young man.

Because I had so admired the old pocket map, and because we had once lived in the city ourselves — I had gone there to study acting through New York University and, a few years later, when my desire to make a career in acting had waned, we had married there, in Central Park, within sight of The Plaza Hotel — Jyll had it carefully mounted and framed as a gift to me one birthday. This was many years prior to my getting serious, one rainy Saturday morning, about figuring out when it might have been created.

Petersen’s House Number and Transit Guide of New York City carried no year of publication I could find and refused to be tracked by Google, which, as it turned out, was its second blessing, after keeping the young Mexican man who would become my wife’s grandfather on course while he was there — whenever precisely that might have been.

Subways demarked with heavy red lines, elevated trains with heavy black ones; trolleys, seemingly everywhere, shown in thin red; piers bristling like stubble from the lower island; ferry routes, dashed curves, to Jersey, to Brooklyn and Queens — I had been lazily content to know the map to be, roundabouts, from the early twentieth century. But, then again, her grandfather’s visit there as a young man told me as much.

Besides the dizzying presence of those elevated lines and the trolley and ferry routes, one obvious starting point was the presence of what was termed the Old Reservoir in Central Park, next to the New Retaining Reservoir, which is recognizable as the one people know and run around today. (Jyll and I had enjoyed running around it with a friend on a visit, a couple of years ago, back to the city.) A few checks online showed that the receiving reservoir was drained in 1930 and filled in the next year with debris taken partly from the construction of Rockefeller Center, creating an early version of the Great Lawn and Turtle Pond.

Central Manhattan on Petersen’s Street Indexed Map.

I jotted 1931 down as the latest possible date for the map.

Another clue to investigate was imprint of The Ohman Map Company, located at 258 Broadway. I found some information on a website selling historic maps about August R. Ohman, a graphic designer who worked for well-known map makers until striking out on his own in 1901. One can find various maps he made, including one from that year, the robustly titled “The Albermarle Hotel map of Manhattan, New York City: with index of streets and strangers’ directory to business houses, public buildings, principal churches, places of amusement, etc. etc.” (Is it just me, or is there something winkingly implied by those et ceteras? We have it all, high to low, churches, places of amusement, and, well, you know.) Ohman is said to have worked in New York until about 1925, and so that year became my new boundary line.

Hospitals, a prison ( Penitentiary on the map, a word, it seemed to me, enfolding a much different meaning than prison — a more potentially redemptive one), and The Alms House were precisely noted on Blackwell’s Island, which I learned had, in 1921, been renamed Welfare Island, which it was for about a decade before being rechristened Roosevelt’s. (And who knew that this island, part of Manhattan, is 2 miles in length and only 800 feet at its widest point? I doubt I will ever forget that fact and those dimensions.)

On Ohman’s map, three tunnels run from Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn: the Joralemon, the Montague, and the Clark Street, but only the latter, from April ’19, was named ( Clark Ste. Tunnel), which indicated it may have been recently constructed.

Southern Manhattan and a portion of Brooklyn. Trolley lines noted in thin red.

Thus, fairly quickly I could reasonably date the map to a time between April 1919 (the opening of the Clark Street Tunnel) and sometime in 1921 (the renaming of Blackwell’s Island).

It wasn’t that straightforward — I frequently got off track along the way, happily looking up things I knew came later. I had already read up on Blackwell’s Island when I checked on the George Washington Bridge, the only present-day bridge not on the map (which shows a ferry running to and from Ft. Lee), which did not open until 1930; the Aquarium remained in Battery Park until 1941, when none other than Robert Moses is said to have undermined it; and the drive from Fifth Avenue through the memorial arch in Washington Square, fingering out to the three streets on the south side of the park (Sullivan, Thompson, and West Broadway), wasn’t closed until 1964.

Washington Square detail.

I had created a spreadsheet of features on the map and dates before Jyll reminded me that her mother was not born until 1925. I had not even considered that obvious starting point, or other key dates in family history, as you’ll see below.

Looking at the map and the dates online, I began to feel a bit as I did in the August 1981 when I first arrived to live in the city and excitedly explored the slanting streets of Greenwich Village-promptly losing my bearings. I’m not sure I’ve every really regained them.

Speaking of the Village, whatever happened to Marginal St. West and Thirteent Ave. [sic]? They clearly existed along the Hudson side of the island, but somewhere along the line disappeared from the maps of New York City. Why is the current Chelsea Park called Alexander Hamilton Park on the map? (I cannot find an explanation online.)

When, exactly, did Fourth Avenue get renamed Park Avenue South below 34th Street? (It was still Fourth Avenue when Ohman put ink to paper and would remain so until May 1959.)

There is no end to the histories one could track down in a century-old map of any city, much less of New York.

I’m old enough to remember a time when I would have had to take the map itself or notes about some of its key features to a city library to do this research instead of walking twenty-some feet back and forth between the framed map on our wall and my laptop. Even that relatively recent time now seems distant, quaint, like another era — which, come to think, it was.

I’m not finished with the map; if I look long enough, I think I can likely get it down to the year and, perhaps, even the month. There is one clue there that will tell. But there is more to it now than just the game of it. The more I ponder with my flashlight (Did I mention the hallway is somewhat dark?) and magnifying glass, the more I find myself walking through the streets of that New York. For moments as I gaze, it feels more recent and alive to me than my own years in the city, half a lifetime ago.

And some of this is personal. Just up the hill in Central Park where Jyll and I married in July 1985 is the Menagerie (I needed the magnifying glass to make out the word), at East 64th Street. This forerunner to the zoo was somewhat spontaneously established in 1859 (reportedly with a bevy of swans and a bear cub) and shuttered in 1934 for the move to the current site of the zoo.

South half of Central Park, c. 1919–20.

I imagine my mother-in-law’s father, Enrique Diaz Juarez, an undocumented Mexican who walked across the border to escape the fighting in the Mexican Revolution and wanted to find a job as an automobile mechanic, walking the streets of the big city, unfolding the map on street corners, peering at it, and carefully refolding it and putting it in a pocket before setting off for the next “must-see” locale, walking and walking until his legs would ache-and continuing on.

A discussion with Jyll’s mother, Anita, ensued. She told us that Enrique had been given a job to test drive a Moon Motor Car from St. Louis to New York. When he successfully reached the city, he had some time to explore the metropolis. He had purchased the map on the street. The Moon automobile was then driven back to St. Louis.

In 1922, Enrique married Blanche Hicks, whom he had met in Steelville, Mo., before his New York adventure. Returning briefly to Mexico, they had a daughter, Rosita, and then settled in St. Louis (where the Moon Motor Car Company manufactured quality touring cars from 1905 to 1930; knowing those dates, I can imagine he had been test driving the 1921 6–40 Moon Touring) and had a second daughter, Anita. He didn’t end up working for Moon, but he did fulfill his ambition to be an auto mechanic. Their story, however, was to be tragically truncated: Blanche died at 26, of a ruptured appendix, and Enrique died at 40, of a heart attack, leaving their daughters orphaned.

The Juarez family around 1929 (clockwise from top: Enrique, Blanche’s sister Dolly, Blanche, Anita, and Rosita).
Anita Juarez as a young woman.

ll we have of Blanche and Enrique are a couple of photographs and his map — well, those small material things, not to mention a fair-sized group of grandchildren and great grandchildren still trying to work the American Dream. (Speaking of which, it is still possible for immigrants to do very well in this country-and for the country to do very, very well by their work. For example, since 2000, about 40% of U.S. Nobel Prize winners in chemistry, medicine, and physics have been immigrants.)

If I could trace his route, where would I wander? Undoubtedly, we walked many of the same Manhattan avenues and streets. Did he stroll into Central Park near where one of his granddaughters would marry more than a half century later? Did he actually walk up that little hill to take in the view?

Mapmaking seems a dicey endeavor: it is an attempt to stop history, to make it tangible, capture it on paper — a street one can walk down, a monument in a park one can touch and admire, the route of a public conveyance one can take to a destination. But the tangible world is forever in flux; many things may stay the same over long periods, but much also changes. Mapmakers sometimes hedge their bets and depict things that are planned (a Petersen’s map of Brooklyn from 1916 I found online shows a planned subway line crossing the East River at 14th Street; the route is a done deal on our wall), and by the time a map is published no doubt some things depicted are in their last days or are well on their way to becoming memories.

Considering this, sometimes in my mind’s eye I try to imagine the map morphing — forward to the present day, or backward, winnowing down to the less populous island where Twain returned from his world speaking tour in 1900, his debts paid, to reside at 14 West Tenth Street; or earlier, when Whitman was riding his beloved ferries and penning what would become Leaves of Grass; to, still earlier, when Poe, in 1845, sauntered out from his lodgings on Amity Street (later Third Street) a famous man at last, having been recognized as the author of “The Raven”; and, even further back, to when Greenwich Village was just that — a village, northwest of the town center; and all the way back to the New Amsterdam that Russell Shorto writes of in his fascinating The Island at the Center of the World, the Dutch bringing their trading expertise and a remarkable general level of tolerance (for the seventeenth century) to this perfectly situated outpost in the New World — a tolerance quite in contrast to the English Puritans of New England and one that left its mark on the city.

I’m sure something like that exists in a history museum, but it is more fun to just imagine it, or reimagine it as it once was, as Shorto, in his preface, asks his readers to do. The excellent and exhaustive Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, by Eric W. Sanderson, takes one all the way back, to the pristine, hilly island peopled by the Lenape.

Looking at the map, I also find myself considering the daunting complexity of human affairs.

What the map depicts is the people of a great city coming together (against all odds) to make something greater, to provide infrastructure for the future — a future which was often already upon them. How on earth did they have the will and wherewithal (to use a contemporaneous term) to get these tremendous projects even underway, much less completed? If you read the stories you see that almost invariably a few individuals made the difference.

A map like this, anticipating the completion of projects underway, produced quickly, and rushed to the streets, reveals progressive thinking — that history never is history, but a crucial contemporary resource, a newspaper of sorts, that needs to be unfolded and referred to from time to time, so we as a people can gain our momentary bearings and then move forward.

Originally published at



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Kirk Swearingen

Half a lifetime ago, Kirk Swearingen graduated from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. His work has most recently appeared in Salon.