How to spot a tourist and more from Manhattan’s borough historian

Manhattan’s borough historian explains why the street grid is important and how to identify tourists.

Michael Miscione traces his passion for New York City history to 1997, when he got a gig working on a television documentary about the consolidation of the boroughs in the late 19th Century. A native New Yorker, Miscione was appointed borough historian in 2006. He often lectures and gives workshops on local history, and he’ll be giving a talk at the New York Transit Museum on April 10 on how one railfan hacked the subway system back in 1966. Here he answers questions on the borough’s rich history.

Q: What major historical event would you say shaped the borough, as we know it today?

A: I’ll treat the word “shaped” semi-literally, and talk about the Manhattan street grid. It was adopted way back in 1811 when the area above today’s Houston Street was largely farmland. Some people hate the grid because they think it’s monotonous and charmless, but I love it. Manhattan is complex enough and the grid helps to tame the craziness.

Q: What makes your borough unique?

A: Well, it’s a lot taller than the other boroughs, at least in certain places. A quick check with Wikipedia tells us that 55 Manhattan buildings – 55! – are taller than the tallest other-borough skyscraper.

Q: Which historically important figure from your borough should people know about, but don’t?

A: That would have to be Andrew H. Green. He wasn’t born here, but lived the greater part of his life here. Green was a 19th century planner, reformer and preservationist. He got Central Park built and steered the creation of the city’s greatest cultural institutions. Most importantly, he was the mastermind behind the Consolidation of 1898, the annexation of municipalities around New York Harbor that created today’s five-borough city. There would be no “borough” in “borough historian” without Mr. Green.

Q: What landmark or place would you tell a tourist to visit to learn about the borough?

A: With all the buildings and streets it’s impossible to appreciate the entire island’s size and landscape, so I’d tell them to go Queens. Yes, Queens. At Flushing Meadows-Corona Park you’ll find an amazing holdover from the 1964 World’s Fair, the Panorama of the City of New York. It’s a three-dimensional scale model of the five boroughs. Every building, street, bridge, and park is recreated in micro-miniature. The whole city is the size of two NBA basketball courts. Unless you can fly a helicopter there’s no better way to get a sense of the scale and geography of Manhattan – and the other boroughs as well. (And while you’re there, you can see that other amazing holdover, the Unisphere.)

Q: What’s the oddest thing about your borough?

A: We’ve got the greatest tap water in the world, and you can fill a bathtub with it for pennies, yet it seems that everyone in Manhattan must drink overpriced bottled water or die. I just don’t get it. That’s how I can tell the many transplants and tourists from the native New Yorkers. The non-natives only drink bottled water. And eat pepperoni pizza. To the rest of the country, pepperoni is to pizza what vanilla is to ice cream.

Q: If someone couldn’t visit the borough, but wanted to learn more about it, what book would you recommend?

I’m going to pass on this one. I was going to say “Gotham,” that masterwork by Mike Wallace and Ted Burrows that recounts the history of the city from the early white explorers to 1898. I’m in awe of its exhaustiveness and density but, really, it’s over 1200 pages long. Suggesting “Gotham” would be like telling someone who wanted a light snack to eat an entire roast pig.

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