Category Archives: New York History

NYC’S FABULOUS WOMEN UNDER GROUND

Part of my fascination with New York City lies in what is not usually encountered and most often missing from our cityscape.  By this, I mean evidence of the contributions that New York’s fabulous women have made to the five boroughs.  Over the centuries, women have accounted for roughly half of New York City’s population.  But historical documents and histories of the city are invariably lacking in information about New York women.  For that information, you need to go underground.

Enter Amanda Sutphin, an urban archaeologist working for the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.  Sutphin might be called the city’s quintessential underground woman.  She spends her days in the city’s underground, climate-controlled archaeological repository.  Here, she works with with artifacts that often spent centuries underground before resurfacing in New York City during archaeological excavations.

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Urban archaeologist, Amanda Sutphin,in the Nan A. Rothschild Research Center of the New York City Archaeological Repository.  The underground facility houses over a million objects collected from excavations throughout the five boroughs.  Located in the Durst Organization Building on Corporate Row, the facility places artifacts associated with New York women of the past, once again, at the very heart of New York City.

When bulldozers dig the foundations of a new building, excavate a new subway tunnel or refurbish a ferry landing, they destroy the archaeological record of the city.  Construction projects that take place on city land are required to complete an archaeological survey before the earth–and important evidence of the past–is disturbed.  In this way, the destruction of the city’s past also turns up artifacts that once belonged to long gone of New Yorkers.  Once these objects resurface on city land, ownership then transfers to the current generation of New Yorkers.

Artifacts that enter the city’s archaeological repository are used by Sutphin and her colleagues to reconstruct the past for the benefit of contemporary New Yorkers.  “These object were found on public land,” explains Ms. Sutphin.  “The collection has been catalogued and studied with public money.  The public should benefit from these efforts, and we hope to help them do so.”

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Dr. Nan Rothschild, Adjunct professor of Anthropology, Columbia University, at the Stadt Huys excavation at the southern tip of Manhattan.  She holds the bowl of a pipe from Dutch New Amsterdam, recovered at the site.  Photo courtesy Stadt Huys Excavation Project.

Asked to provide the earliest example of objects associated with fabulous New York women of the past, Ms. Sutphin points to the city’s prehistory and Native American culture.  Archaeological sites from this early period are most associated with exploiting the land for seasonal food sources such as coastal spring fishing camps, fall open air hunting camps and shellfish collecting stations.  Native American women in sites such as the one now at College Point, Queens, worked at collecting and processing food.  Artifacts from this site include shells that were discarded after processing and a stone weight used to sink fishing nets.

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Whelk, scallop and oyster shells unearthed at the College Point, Queens, prehistoric site.  A stone net weight is at left.  This site indicates the rich coastal food resources available to the earliest New York women.  Photo courtesy New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

“The archaeological record of urban New York actually begins in 17th century New Amsterdam,” explains Ms. Sutphin.   The Stadt Huys or City Hall, a site in lower Manhattan located at today’s 85 Broad Street was the site of an archaeological excavation.  The Stadt Huys was built by William Kieft, a lesser-known director of the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam before Peter Stuyvesant and his peg leg arrived in town.

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Louis Oram, View of Stadthuys, watercolor.  Collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

The site originally served as a place where officials and guests of the Director were lodged and fed.  And drank.  A lot.

The archaeological record of The Stadt Huys is rich in bottles and pitchers that held the liquor seemingly necessary for official business of the Dutch city.  Locally-made pottery and imported glass bottles were found in abundance at the site.

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Found at the Stadt Huys site, a redware pitcher and a glass bottle that were likely hefted by New Amsterdam serving maids, the original New York City waitresses.  The locally-made pottery pitcher, modeled on Dutch prototypes, held locally-brewed ale or cider.  The glass decanter, an elite object imported from Europe, held imported wine.  It was likely used by New Amsterdam’s political elite when attending to official business.  Kitchen work and serving were two of the limited options of work for New Amsterdam women.

In 1664, Dutch New Amsterdam became English New York.  Artifacts from colonial era New York were discovered during an excavation over an 18th century “ice-box” room on the grounds of what is now the Tweed Courthouse at 52 Chambers Street in lower Manhattan.  The 18th century English custom of tea drinking was adopted by colonial New York ladies and was a feature of New York loyalist families (which was most of them.)  The evidence of tea drinking squarely places the colony in the middle of the political crisis that loomed when that commodity was taxed by the British.  And we all know what happened next….(though New York City remained staunchly loyal to the Crown.)

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A green glazed teapot spout from the 18th century might have broken during a tea party hosted by loyalist New York women.  The beloved and oft-told (but likely apocryphal) tale of Mrs. Murray and her daughters describes such a party.  After the American defeat at the Battle of Brooklyn, the Murray ladies, secret patriots, hosted a tea party for British officers.  Their aim was to distract them while American troops escaped pursuing red coats.  New York legend says that a maid kept watch at an upstairs window and signaled her mistress once the troops had made their way to safety.  The unsuspecting Mr. Murray, a loyalist, provided the tea for the entertainment which took place in today’s Murray Hill section of Manhattan.

Tea was an expensive commodity, usually kept in a box that was kept locked by the lady of the house.  And the accoutrements for serving tea were imported elite items including teapots, teaspoons, teacups and saucers.

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Jean-Étienne Liotard (Swiss, 1702 – 1789), Still Life: Tea Set, about 1781 – 1783, Oil on canvas mounted on board. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Speaking about New York women of the 19th century, Ms. Sutphin pointed to three different bottles designed to hold manufactured goods.  These artifacts signaled that  like today, New York women of the past were responsible for the majority of purchases in the city’s households–thus a driving economic force in the city.  A variety of 19th century bottles were excavated from root cellars in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx when it morphed from a private home to a public park.

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L. Miller’s Hair Invigorator was part of the manufacturing boom in 19th century New York.  The product was marketed as a product for mother’s who wished to see their babies grow a lush head of hair (and their balding husbands.)

 

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Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Mother Combing Her Child’s Hair, Pastel on Gray Paper, Behest of Mary T. Cockcroft, Courtesy The Brooklyn Museum.

At the southern tip of Manhattan, the renovation of the Battery Park subway tunnel yielded a mid-20th century toy belonging to a New York child.  A play teacup made of Depression era glass was likely lost by a little girl playing in what was then a park.

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The child’s replica of her mother’s tea set was manufactured in Akron, Ohio during the Depression.  Ms. Sutphin points to modern New York City girls of the 20th century being given a set of expectations that seem to differ little from those of little ladies in colonial era New York.

“Assigning gender to artifacts is often difficult,” warns Ms. Sutphin.  “But it is also true that the increasing presence of female archaeologists in New York City has meant that attention is often given to objects that can offer clues to the lives of past New York women.”

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Play-Time Glass Dish Set in its original box.  Akro Company produced a wonderful collection of dishes for little girls.  Perhaps best known for their marbles, Akro Agate Company was founded in Akron, Ohio, in 1911 and moved to Clarksburg, West Virginia, in 1914.

And the influence of New York women who work as archaeologists is overwhelmingly evident in the formation of the city’s archaeological archives.  The Nan A. Rothschild Research Center of the New York City Archaeological Repository is named for the Barnard College archaeologist who trained Ms. Sutphin as an undergraduate student. Professor Rothschild persuaded her cousin, Helena Durst, to donate space in the basement of the Durst Organization building, located on Corporate Row on West 47th Street, to house the collection.  Three fabulous New York women at work in the city!

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Professor Rothschild has conducted extensive research into the lower Manhattan neighborhoods that comprised New Amsterdam and New York.  Photo courtesy of amazon.com.

The ghosts of New York women past are among us.  They may be underground instead of featured in history books and archives, but they account for half of the actors in our city’s great history.  And today’s New York women archaeologists are working to preserve their past, record their lives and tell the stories of their contributions to the city we know:  the good, the bad, the fabulous.

The excavations or digs from which objects enter the collection of the New York City Landmarks and Preservation Commission are situated throughout the 5 boroughs.  New York City is the first city in the nation to allow access to its archaeological records through a website.  The website lets you browse current and past digs in several ways:  using a map, through a list of excavations, or via thematic collections. The themed collections include:  Food and Drink in Colonial New York,  Historic Toys and Animals Among Us.  This final collection includes some of the oldest objects in the archives, and helps us reconstruct the natural environment of New York and its abundant natural resources.

In an effort to bring education about archaeology into New York classrooms, lesson plans for teachers and fun quizzes for kids are also available.  If you catch the bug for unearthing Gotham (or other places) and want to study archaeology, the web site offers a list of institutions in the city with formal programs as well as field schools–a way to literally get your hands dirty while learning about digging up the past.

Eliza Jumel & Anne Northup: New York’s Richest Woman & Saratoga’s Most Unfortunate Woman Join Forces

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Portraits of Eliza Jumel and Aaron Burr from the front parlor at the Morris-Jumel mansion.  The couple were married in this room in 1833.

The rags-to-riches story of Eliza Jumel, the wife of wealthy merchant Stephen Jumel, and the second wife of Aaron Burr, made substantial grist for the gossip mills of the New Republic.  The beautiful house Eliza purchased with her first husband (and where she later married Burr) was the largest Manhattan estate at the time, and survives as Manhattan’s oldest house.  Here, Eliza entertained the crème de la crème of New York society in her mad scramble up the social ladder.  Briefly assisting her in that arduous social climb was Anne Northup.

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The elegant mansion in northern Manhattan is now a museum, decorated after careful research on Madame Jumel’s furnishings.

Anne Hampton Northup was an American citizen of mixed European, African and Native American heritage.  She became the wife of Solomon Northup, a free man of African descent, whose harrowing tale is told in the 1853 book and 2013 movie, Twelve Years A Slave.

Anne and Solomon had wed on Christmas Day in 1829.  Their union had resulted in three children:  Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo. Solomon Northup had moved his family to Saratoga Springs in 1834 for its employment opportunities.  The town was known as Spa City, and attracted the elite of the New Republic.  Solomon played his violin during seasonal dances.  He is known to have played at the United States Hotel, one of the grandest hotels in the resort town.  He also worked, off season, laboring to build the railroad that served Saratoga.  Anne was a noted cook, working at the town’s many upscale hotels to earn extra money to round out Solomon’s seasonal employment.

Anne Northup likely met Eliza Jumel at the United States Hotel in Saratoga Springs.  Here, Eliza escaped the heat of Manhattan summers at the fashionable watering hole in upstate New York.  It is likely that Anne was hired by Eliza Jumel to cater private dinners. Eliza Jumel enjoyed the role of fashionable hostess at  private parties held during the summer months.

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Saratoga Springs Marker.     Photo by Ron Cogswell via Flickr.

In 1841, at age 32, Solomon Northup met two men who offered him a job as a fiddler for several New York City performances.   Expecting the trip to be brief, Solomon did not notify Anne, who was working  an extra job as cook  at Sherrill’s Coffee House in Sandy Hill (now Hudson Falls) to supplement their income.  His disappearance left Anne without the knowledge of his whereabouts and without income to support their three children.

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Anne Northup cooked meals to be served in Eliza Jumel’s elegant dining room in northern Manhattan. The emphasis was on products from the estate and wine from its wine cellar.

At the end of the summer of 1841, it appears that Anne accompanied Eliza to work as a cook in her elegant Manhattan home.  There is no documentation of any contract, wages, duties or the reasons behind Eliza’s offer and Anne’s acceptance.  Though Anne had likely cooked for Eliza in the past, and often took on private catering jobs, she usually stayed close to her home in Saratoga Springs.

Anne might have felt that in New York City, she could more easily pick up information about Solomon’s whereabouts.  It seems Anne knew her husband’s initial musical performances took place in the city.  Anne might also have hoped that access to powerful New York figures might offer some clue as to her husband’s fate.

As the widow of a Frenchman who had imported wine from Bordeaux to New York and who had visited France extensively, Eliza Jumel fancied herself a judge of good wine and the good food to go with it.  Likely, Anne Northup’s repertoire of dishes included rich sauces, made flavorful by the addition of wine from the estate wine cellar. As the ex-wife of Aaron Burr (following a scandalous divorce in 1836), Eliza was also anxious to re-establish herself in good society.  Dinners catered by Anne Northup might offer another rung up on the social ladder back into the graces of New York society.

The kitchen where Anne Northup cooked for Eliza Jumel featured a dairy, pantry, laundry and wine cellar.

The kitchen where Anne Northup cooked for Eliza Jumel featured a dairy, pantry, laundry and wine cellar.       Photo by Tom Stoelker, Morris-Jumel Museum.  

For a time, New York’s richest woman and Saratoga’s most unfortunate woman, Eliza and Anne, certainly saw one another each day to confer on menus and discuss the availability of  fresh products on the estate.  At Eliza Jumel’s country estate in northern Manhattan, diners were treated to oysters harvested from the Harlem River.  Grapes from Eliza’s carefully-tended vineyard and choice fruit from her orchards of peach and apricot trees were featured at her table.

Today, visitors can see the restored basement kitchen at the mansion.  It is now furnished with cooking implements and an open hearth that pre-dates Anne’s arrival.  Anne would cooked on a stovetop.  The kitchen also included a dairy, a pantry for storage, the wine cellar and the laundry.

A staircase runs from the kitchen up to a serving alcove on the ground floor dining room.  The treads likely rang with the steps of Anne Northup as she carried dishes up to the sideboard for Eliza Jumel’s formal dinners in the dining room.

Both Eliza Jumel and Anne Northup were unsuccessful in their joint efforts.  Kidnapping was a lucrative business, and Anne was unable to use New York City as a site to help locate her missing husband.  All the elegant dinners in the world could not salvage Eliza’s dubious position in good society.  But for a time, New York’s richest woman and Saratoga’s most unfortunate woman, joined forces. Today, you can visit the site where these fabulous New York women of the past collaborated in order to achieve their individual ends.

As Manhattan’s oldest residence, the Morris-Jumel Mansion Museum presents American life from the colonial era to the present by preserving, collecting, and interpreting history, culture, and the arts to engage and inspire diverse audiences.  Morris-Jumel Mansion is located at 65 Jumel Terrace, a short block which extends from West 160th & West 162nd Streets.  For more information on Eliza Jumel, refer to Margaret Oppenheimer’s book, The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel.

 

 

 

Women Wearing Hats: Celebrating Margaret Corbin

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Margaret Corbin “womaning” the cannon at the Battle of Fort Washington, November 16, 1776. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A heroine of the American Revolution, Margaret Corbin was the first woman to take a soldier’s part in the fight for independence.  She saw action during the Battle of Fort Washington, and was captured in the crushing American defeat on November 16, 1776.

Margaret Corbin lies in eternal rest at West Point.  Here, Margaret Corbin Day is celebrated each year by the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).

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Final resting place and monument of Margaret Cochran Corbin, West Point cemetery.

This year’s gathering celebrated the growing understanding and appreciation for the role of American women in the history of our country. At the Old Cadet Chapel, Brigadier General Maritza Sáenz Ryan US Army, Retired, and a 1982 graduate of West Point, US Military Academy, spoke of the many hats worn by Margaret Corbin and other women Patriots.

Through blazing summers and cruel winters alike, these dedicated women endured the privations of war right alongside the soldiers. -Brigadier General Maritza S. Ryan US Army, Retired

It was women like Margaret, explained General Ryan, who provided key and essential field services for the Continental Army.  Women worked as laundresses, seamtresses and nurses.  As water carriers, they assumed a role that was crucial for providing drinking water for soldiers as well as cooling down artillery pieces after firing.

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Old Cadet Chapel and cemetery, West Point.

Prepared to serve in these functions at Fort Washington, Margaret Cochran arrived in New York with her red hair tucked into a ruffled mob cap.  She had accompanied her husband, John, a private in the Pennsylvania Artillery to the field of battle at the northern tip of Manhattan island.  Here, at the height of the battle, Margaret Corbin switched hats, changing abruptly from field service to artillery service.  Still wearing the mob cap of a colonial American woman, Margaret Corbin sprang into active military duty, taking the place of a wounded soldier who was part of the artillery crew.

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BG Maritza S. Ryan, US Army, Retired, who delivered remarks on Margaret Corbin’s military actions at the Battle of Fort Washington, November 16, 1776.

After her husband fell, mortally wounded, Margaret Corbin continued to man (or more precisely, offered General Ryan, “to woman”) the cannon single-handedly.  It is said that Margaret fought overwhelming British and Hessian forces, swabbing, loading, aiming and firing a 6-pound cannon that was usually handled by four artillerists. Hers was the last American gun at Fort Washington to fall silent as enemy forces overran the American fortifications.

Margaret Corbin was taken prisoner by the British after the American defeat at Fort Washington.  But the Patriot actions during the battle, including the military role of Margaret Corbin, had allowed George Washington to escape capture.  He fled by boat across the Hudson River to Fort Constitution (now Fort Lee) on the New Jersey side of the river.

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DAR Officers assemble on the steps of the Old Cadet chapel before the wreath laying ceremony at the grave site of Margaret Corbin.

Margaret Corbin, now a POW, was sent by horse-drawn cart to the Patriot stronghold in Philadelphia for medical care.  It was a journey of three days before Margaret’s wounds were properly cared for.  Her jaw was shattered.  Grape shot from enemy fire that had likely killed her husband, had injured her neck and rendered her left arm completely useless.

Washington would ultimately return victorious to the battlefield at Yorktown in 1781, gaining independence for our country.  Margaret Corbin was awarded an Army pension.  Changing hats once again, she was assigned to the Corps of Invalids at West Point, assuming the status of wounded veteran.  Here, she spent her happiest hours  as “Captain Corbin” amongst her fellow soldiers.  General Ryan noted:  “She expected, and received, salutes and professional courtesies whenever she came on post.”   The Adjutant at West Point personally saw to Margaret’s welfare as a wounded veteran.

Resolved:  That Margaret Corbin, who was wounded and disabled in the attack on Fort Washington, whilst she heroically filled the post of her husband who was killed by her side serving a piece of artillery, do receive during her natural life, or the continuance of said disability, the one-half of the monthly pay drawn by a soldier in the service of these states. — Journal of the Continental Congress of July 6, 1779

In 1800, at the age of 49, Margaret Corbin was buried without fanfare in the woods near West Point.  Jennifer Voigtschild Minus, current DAR Chairwoman of Margaret Corbin Day, and a 1993 graduate of West Point, US Army (Retired), delivered the narrative of Corbin’s return and burial in the West Point cemetery.  Through the efforts of the DAR, Captain Molly’s remains were located and disinterred, 151 years after her heroic actions on the battlefield at Fort Washington.  She was identified by means of the war wounds she had suffered:  Three grape shot were still embedded in the bones of her shoulder; her shattered jaw bone indicated pain and suffering that were the price of her heroic military actions.  The remains of Margaret Cochran Corbin were re-interred at the West Point cemetery with full military honors on March 16, 1926.

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A plaque in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan honor Margaret Corbin’s heroic actions during the Battle of Fort Washington, November 16, 1776.

Each spring , the DAR has celebrated Margaret Cochran Corbin Day; an occasion designed to honor her actions, her bravery and her contributions to American history.  At this year’s services, General Ryan remarked:  “We remember with deepest gratitude, a woman whose heroism transcends the limitations of her time and place to inspire all of us, men and women alike, to walk, if we dare, in her brave footsteps. ”

This year marked the 90th Margaret Corbin Day.  A church service at the Old Cadet Chapel, remarks and wreath laying and 21-gun salute are usually followed by a luncheon with female cadets at West Point, the United States Military Academy.

In 1976, the year the first women cadets arrived at West Point, the Margaret Corbin Forum, a  cadet club, was founded.  Exactly 200 years after Margaret Corbin’s heroic actions at the Battle of Fort Washington, the Forum provides a voice in support of the commitment to the integration of women in the Corps and in the military.  It is a fitting legacy for Margaret Corbin, the first American woman to take a soldier’s part in the war for liberty.

During Margaret Corbin Day in 1978, for the first time, a woman cadet helped place the wreath at Margaret Corbin’s Grave and monument, to this day, the only monument depicting a woman that has been dedicated here at West Point.–Jennifer Voigtschild Minus, USMA 1993 and current DAR Chairwoman of Margaret Corbin Day

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Photo by West Point – The U.S. Military Academy via Flickr

Margaret Corbin wore many hats:  She was an Army spouse, a widow, a soldier, a wounded POW and a disabled veteran. Today, as women expand their role in the military, the hats keep changing.  During Margaret Corbin Day at West Point, DAR ladies in formal hats mingle with women wearing US Army officer caps and female Cadets wearing the white hats of the US Military Academy.  All come together to honor and celebrate the legacy of Margaret Cochran Corbin and her fight for independence.

Jane’s Walk: Let’s Get Walking

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Jane Jacobs in 1961. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), writer and activist, published her critique of post-World War II urban planning policy in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.    Jacobs begins her book with a pointed challenge: “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.”  For New Yorkers, these urban policies are personified by Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs’ nemesis.  Jacobs held Moses responsible for the decline of many neighborhoods in New York City.  But enough about him….

Next week, the Municipal Arts Society (MAS),and other organizations in cities across the globe, are sponsoring Jane’s Walk, a series of citizen-led walks throughout the five boroughs.  The initiative is designed to get folks to tell stories about their own neighborhood, explore their community and connect with neighbors.  It’s a community-based effort in urban literacy.  Let’s just call it a celebration of the local; in plain sight, but often overlooked and unappreciated.

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The 1961 publication, The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.  Photo by pdxcityscape via Flickr.

Jane Jacobs’ work was inspired by her years as a fabulous New York woman living in Greenwich Village, a mix of townhouses and tenements on twisting and narrow streets that did not conform to the city’s grid.  She contrasted life in the Village, a cohesive community, with the grandiose plans of Robert Moses.  His “towers in the park” concept, anathema to Jacobs, was then changing the face of New York City.   But really, enough about him….

The Jane’s Walks tours are listed by location and topic on the MAS web site.  The theme of each walk is up to the volunteer organizer, and all walks are free and open to the public.

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Flatlands Dutch Reformed Church, Kings Highway.  Photo by Wally Gobetz via Flickr.

In Brooklyn, the Go Dutch in Flatlands! Jane’s Walk led by fabulous New York woman Ellen Halliday, is actually a bicycle tour meeting at the Flatlands Dutch Reformed Church, on Kings Highway.  Her tour description reads:  “Let’s dish some history and gossip while we bike around with a side of vinyl replacement windows!”

Fabulous New York woman Anna Araiza will lead Old Croton Aqueduct Walk.   Beginning in the Bronx, the tour will cross the Hudson River via New York City’s oldest bridge and end up in Manhattan at the Highbridge Water Tower and reservoir (now the Highbridge pool).

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An illustration of the High Bridge from Harper’s Weekly magazine, 1860.  Picture via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Says Araiza:  “The summer of 2015 brought the inaugural re-opening of the Highbridge, the only pedestrian bridge connecting the Bronx and Manhattan. With the restoration project now complete, I invite you to explore the Old Croton Aqueduct…”

This year, which would have been Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday, the MAS lists from than 200 Jane’s Walk offerings.  There is no advance registration.  Just turn up at the designated meeting site.  What a fabulous 100th birthday present for a fabulous woman.  Let’s Get Walking!

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Photo courtesy Municipal Arts Society.