Some Surprising Things You Didn’t Know about New York City

Photo by Christopher Payne

North Brother Island. Photo by Christopher Payne

By William Beavers

You may pride yourself on knowing a great deal about Gotham and its rich history, as I do, but here are some things that may surprise you.

Do you speak Garifuna? How about Mamaju? These are but two of the many rare languages spoken in New York. While there is no precise count, some experts believe New York is home to as many as 800 languages. That’s far more than the 176 spoken by students in the city’s public schools, or the 138 spoken by residents of Queens, the city’s most diverse borough. New York “is the capital of language density in the world,” says Daniel Kaufman, professor of linguistics at the Graduate Center, CUNY. “We’re sitting in an endangerment hot spot where we are surrounded by languages that are not going to be around even in 20 or 30 years.” Professor Kaufman’s Endangered Language Alliance is on a quest to document and describe these endangered languages by working with the relevant communities here in the city.

You’ve probably heard of Typhoid Mary, but did you know she was quarantined in the Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island? This island, located in the East River south of the Bronx, between Manhattan and Queens, was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the site of the hospital. It served hundreds of patients with highly contagious diseases like TB, smallpox, typhus, scarlet fever, etc. Now long abandoned, North Brother Island’s many decrepit buildings suggest a post-apocalyptic landscape. To see Christopher Payne’s wonderful enigmatic photos of the island today click here. North Brother Island is now decommissioned and off limits to visitors.

Someone actually did until 2007!

South Brother Island in Foreground. Photo credit: NYC Audubon

South Brother Island in Foreground. Photo credit: NYC Audubon

Private islands generally evoke for us the South Pacific (where the H.M.S. Bounty’s mutinous crew found shelter), mini Greek islets, or perhaps something along the coast of Maine. But did you know that until recently South Brother Island — seven acres of dense forest, brambles, and wild birds in the East River — was private property? Until the late 1930s South Brother Island was owned by brewery magnate and early New York Yankees-owner Jacob Ruppert — the man who brought Babe Ruth from the Red Sox. He had a summer house on the island that burned in 1909. In 1944 it was purchased by John Gerosa, president of a roofing supply company, who planned to construct a summer retreat for his workers; it was never built. In 1975, South Brother was sold to Hampton Scows, a Long Island investment company, for $10. That firm paid property taxes for years but never developed the island. Then in November 2007, South Brother Island was purchased in a complex $2 million deal brokered by the Trust for Public Land and financed with federal money. It is now operated by the Parks Department as a wildlife sanctuary and is a migratory stop and nesting spot for birds of all kinds. Egrets and many other species flock to it seasonally.

The city’s drinking water, famous the world over for its clarity and drinkability, is actually rife with tiny shrimp called copepods, crustaceans actually, which are known to eat mosquito larvae. “It’s one of those interesting facts you learn about local drinking water — but it’s in no way dangerous,” Farrell Sklerov, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), told Though there are those who say that the tiny animals give the water a metallic taste. If you’re like me that’s probably reason enough to spend money on a new water filter.

Now that the “historic” blizzard of 2015 has fizzled, we may wish to recall another more powerful storm and thank our lucky stars we were spared. With weather forecasting in its infancy, the Great Blizzard of 1888 came upon a city completely unawares. It began as a lashing rain late on March 12. By morning, as residents set out for work, it turned into a blizzard. By midday, the “Els” with their ice-slick rails had been abandoned. Carriage drivers ditched their rigs by the roadside and rode off on their horses, leaving passengers to fend for themselves. The fantastic network of wires for utilities such as the telegraph, telephone, electricity, etc. snapped under the countless tons of ice. This rendered the city incommunicado during a time of crisis, and the wires themselves became hazards. The Stock Exchange closed for two days. There was a distressing scarcity of food. Winds gusting to eighty-five miles per hour piled snow in 20-to-50 foot drifts. By the time it was over, 200 New Yorkers were dead — many caught in drifts — and almost 50 inches of snow blanketed the city. The storm exposed vulnerabilities in the municipal infrastructure. As a result, New York’s underground train system, as well as our subterranean electrical system, were created. The advent of both can be traced to “The Great White Hurricane,” as the storm came to be known.

Hurricane Sandy made landfall ninety miles south of the city in Brigantine, New Jersey, in 2012. The horrendous suffering it caused still affects countless thousands of area residents today. Sandy, however, we must keep in mind was not unique. You probably recall that at the time it was called one of the “once in a century” storms. Almost 200 years ago there was another one—the legendary super storm of September 3,1821. Hurricanes weren’t named in those days, nor was there a national weather service. The storm of 1821, unlike Sandy, made landfall directly over the city, which did not run far north of Canal Street then. In less than an hour its thirteen-foot storm surge inundated everything. The Battery was particularly hard hit. Somewhere in Chinatown it was said that the East River likely met the Hudson. The city was still a maritime economy in those days and so the docks and ships the storm destroyed all but paralyzed the municipality. Experts predict the frequency of such storms will increase due to climate change while the city still lacks levees and storm gates and a workable evacuation plan.

For those who know Central Park, the area off East 72nd Street around Rumsey Playground evokes pleasant memories of hours spent relaxing. But did you know that this was once the site of the infamous Central Park Casino? This symbol of Gilded Age decadence and corruption started innocuously enough as a diner for unaccompanied women to the park designed by Calvert Vaux in 1864. But when hotelier Sidney Solomon introduced dapper mayor Jimmy Walker to his tailor, Walker asked if he could return the favor. Solomon asked to take over the old Casino and open a restaurant. In February 1929 city lawyers evicted the Casino’s legitimately licensed operator and signed Solomon, who hardly changed Vaux’s exterior. Solomon hired the Metropolitan Opera’s theatrical designer Joseph Urban to modernize the interior. Of the estimated $500,000 renovation cost some came from gangster Arnold Rothstein, known for fixing the 1919 “Black Sox” series. In the fall mayoral campaign Fiorello LaGuardia lambasted Walker for leasing a “whoopee joint” in the park to his friends for a song. That fall the stock market crashed and U.S. prohibition agents raided the place. It was not until 1935 that newly appointed Parks Commissioner Robert Moses ordered the Casino razed and developed into the children’s playground we know so well today.

New York like other cities abounds in secret places that one can pass every day and yet whose significance remains unknown. The whispering gallery” outside of Grand Central’s Oyster Bar is just such a secret place. A whispering gallery is a circular wall or rotunda which allows whispered communication from any part on the internal side of the circumference to any other point along the wall. Stand with your ear against the tile work in the dome outside the Oyster Bar and you will be able to hear a whisperer from the opposite corner. It’s an unnerving, eerie phenomenon, without doubt, but it can be chalked up to a simple acoustical anomaly. Other famous whispering galleries around the world including St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the Basilica of Esztergom in Hungary, and Statuary Hall in Washington D.C.’s Capitol rotunda.

Did you know that most of Broadway’s lower portion was carved from the original untamed wilderness by the Lenape Indians, Manhattan’s original inhabitants? It was known to them as Wickquasgeck, which means birch-bark country. The Dutch explorer David de Vries gave first written mention of it in his 1642 journal. This trail snaked from what is now Battery Park as far north as today’s Boston. In Nieuw Amsterdam the Dutch chose to call it Heerestraat, and under the British it became Great George Street, ending at the town commons north of Wall Street. From there it continued up today’s West Side as Bloomingdale Road. Western Bloomingdale Road was widened and paved during the 19th century and named “Western Boulevard” or “The Boulevard,” north of the Grand Circle, which is today’s Columbus Circle. In 1899, the name “Broadway” was extended to the entire length and breadth of the Broadway-Bloomingdale-Boulevard road. Today it runs the entire length of Manhattan, through the Bronx, and proceeds an additional 18 miles to just beyond Sleepy Hollow, New York.

William Beavers is a New York writer and author of the “New York City Culture Catalog” (Abrams/Alliance for the Arts). Contact email:

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