New York — By Jessica Colley on January 28, 2011 at 2:24 pm
Filed under: architecture, Attractions, landmarks, top-feature

New Opportunities for Discovering the Old: History in NYC

New York is a city full of possibilities for learning about the past. There’s the dinosaur skeletons at the Natural History Museum or the latest exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. There’s a trip to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. But what if you want your trip – while including some history – to also include exploring a new neighborhood, or relaxing in a historic place instead of rushing from one site to the next? In New York there are pubs that welcomed American Presidents through their doors ¬†and bookstores where now-famous artists worked behind the counter. Once you know a few tidbits about the history of these landmarks, you might look at them in a different light.

McSorley’s – The East Village

McSorley’s Old Ale House is a pub on East 7th Street that has gone largely unchanged since it opened in 1854. The floors are still covered in saw dust, only two types of beer are available (light ale and dark ale), and the walls are covered with over 150 years of historical memorabilia. Despite being a watering hole that has welcomed everyone from Abe Lincoln to John Lennon, McSorley’s is still a local joint. On a recent visit, I met a New Yorker who lived up the street, and stopped at McSorley’s every day on his way home for his regular table, his regular order, and some time to read the newspapers.

While little has changed since McSorley’s first opened its doors – one major thing has. For most of the pub’s existence, women were not allowed to walk through the doors. This only changed in 1970, when two civil rights attorneys took the case to the Supreme Court for the right to drink at McSorley’s Old Ale House. These days, women are welcomed, and there’s even a separate bathroom for them. What began as a saloon for the Irish working class has developed over the years to be a place of real historical significance.

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Beyond the history, it’s fun too. When you order one beer (light or dark) they bring you two. If you order two, they bring you four. The glasses are small, so the beer is always the perfect temperature and before you know it, the talented barman is carrying another 14 glasses at a time to the table, dropping them on the worn wood with a good smack, and dragging the empty ones away. It is a place for good company, and has been for over 150 years.

The Strand Bookstore – Union Square Area

Any book lover will feel as if they’ve stepped into the bookstore of their imagination when crossing the threshold of The Strand. There are 18 miles of new, used, rare, out of print, and art books. This is the type of bookstore you’ll want to hit after a big breakfast or lunch – there are too many shelves to explore to make it a quick visit. The Strand first opened in 1927 on Fourth Avenue, but moved to its present location on Broadway and 12th Street in 1956. Today, the total size of the bookstore is a staggering 55,000 square feet.

Part of the appeal of the Strand is that while it is massive, it is also a family business. You also never know what you are going to find on the shelves. There is incredible value in the used books section (which always seem barely used) and more than once I have flipped open a cover to find that a book is signed (recent finds include Anthony Bourdain and Kelly Slater). Over the years The Strand has employed several artists as well, including Patti Smith. The Strand also puts on readings and book signings, so be sure to check their schedule of events when you’re coming into town.

The New York City Fire Museum – Soho

Far from your typical museum, the New York City Fire Museum allows kids big and small to learn about the lives of firefighters. A collection of firefighting equipment and artifacts is on display in this museum in West Soho, including details on the history of firefighting from the 18th century through to today. From the first horse-drawn firefighting vehicles to more modern fire engines, this museum will put you in the shoes of firefighters from the last several centuries.

A fire museum not located in a firehouse wouldn’t come close to reaching its full potential – luckily the New York City Fire Museum is located in a renovated firehouse (dating from 1904) on Spring Street in Soho. The museum is closed on Mondays, and tours are available during the rest of the week 10:00 am – 4:00 pm and cost $5 for adults and $3 for kids. There’s a great gift shop here as well.

Venturing Off the Beaten Path

There are many classic New York City museums that can (and should) be visited again and again, but these places reveal not only a lesser-known side of the history of the city, but will also bring you to a neighborhood you might not have seen otherwise. By pulling up a stool in these off the beaten path spots, you will gain a well-rounded perspective on the rich history of this city.

Beers at McSorleys

The Basics:

Photo Credit: McSorley’s by IMLSDCC on Flickr, Fire Museum by modomatic on Flickr, beers at McSorleys from the personal collection of Jessica Colley.

Tags: architecture, Attractions, landmarks, top-feature

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