Monday, August 5, 2019

Then and Now: Union Square at 17th Street, NYC

The North Side of Union Square, NYC

Union Square North, NYC,  in the 1970s
Union Square in the 1970s, at East 16th Street looking north.
Today we're going to dip our toes into the lake of history that the tourists never notice. Union Square in lower Manhattan doesn't often get a lot of attention these days. It's just another neighborhood park, along with Washington Square Park and Tompkins Square Park and, well, too many glorious parks to list. I love all these parks. These are all great parks and each of the Manhattan parks has its own rich story, but Union Square's history is particularly rich. Anyway, regardless of the relative richness of its history, Union Square is the one we're looking at today. When I came upon the above photo of Union Square snapped sometime in the 1970s, I wondered what that view looks like recently. So, I did a comparison of Union Square at 16th Street from the 1970s to 2017.

Union Square North, NYC, in 1934
A public protest (a "mass rally of the jobless," held on November 24, 1934) at East 17th St near Broadway, NYC. Parks Photo Archive / Alajos L. Schuszler, Neg#4476.
While this particular photo is from some unknown time in the 1970s, it could have been pretty much anytime in the past century and it would have looked roughly the same. All of the buildings on the north side of Union Square have been there for about that long, though some have been altered in minimal ways through the years. Union Square Park itself dates back to 1815 when the New York State Legislature became a public commons. This location was given that honor because the Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway) crossed through it in such a way that the land was felt to be fairly useless for other purposes. Broadway still continues to the north but is diverted to go around the park. So, Union Square is another of the many grand squares in New York City formed by Broadway such as Times Square and Herald Square and Columbus Square, but it just sort of hangs on in relative obscurity except to the locals who treasure it.

Union Square North, NYC,
Union Square in November 2017, from East 16th Street looking north (Google Street View).
You may be thinking to yourself, "Well, of course, they haven't changed, they're all protected by legislation." Well, you would be right in part, though the landmark designations did not happen until fairly recently. Let's dive into this just a bit to give you the historic flavor of this block.

Union Square North, NYC,
Union Square in November 2017, from East 16th Street looking north (Google Street View).
The large 16-story structure on the right is The Everett Building, 200 Park Avenue South (Park Avenue is the street that goes off to the north to its right). The Everett Building was built in 1925. It now is a commercial building and was designated a New York City landmark in 1988. The red building to its left is the Century Building at 33 East 17th Street. It was built in 1880-1881, designated a New York City landmark in 1993 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. Barnes & Noble has occupied it since 1994. The small building to its left is 31 East 17th Street. It was built in 1938 and is a retail building that now houses an AT&T store. To its left, on the corner with Broadway, is 860 Broadway. It was built in 1926 and renovated in 1979 and now houses a Petco store. So, the entire block was in place by 1938.

Union Square North, NYC,
View of East 17th Street between Broadway and Park Avenue (Google Street View August 2017).
Once you dive into the history a little bit, you realize that the photo from the 1970s just as easily could have been taken in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1980s, or 1990s and looked pretty much same. This is one of those Manhattan blocks that never deteriorated, never needed to be "gentrified" (though there is some of that going on, too), and just plugs along through the decades without being noticed.

Union Square North, NYC,
The entrance of 33 East 17th Street, NYC (Google Street View September 2017).
I do want to point out one change that even those most interested in this block may not be aware of. The entrance to 33 East 17th Street - the one that entered the National Register of Historic Places in 1997 - looks historic and original, but it's not. Compare it to the 1934 photo above, where it rises a majestic three stories. Then, look at the 1970s photo, and you will see that by then it was down to its current one story. Sometime between the mid-1930s and the 1970s they cut that entrance down by two entire stories. However, they did it so artfully that you might not even notice unless you make a comparison such as this. Most likely they made that change to create more leasable space within the building. I wonder if the National Park Service, which runs the National Register of Historic Places, knew that there had been such a recent change? It's easy to say, "Sure, they know everything!" and I'm not questioning their decision. But, if they did, they decided to preserve someone's mid-20th Century radical renovation of an otherwise historic building. To put it in starker terms, it would be like preserving the recreated Eiffel Tower on the Las Vegas Strip because "that what it looked like!" I suppose that's no big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it is interesting to ponder that these "preserved and historic" buildings aren't always completely preserved and historic at all.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Many parts of the Union Square neighborhood have been preserved, and, hopefully, we'll review some of them in the future. Thanks for stopping by and please visit some of our other pages in this series!


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