Learn about Gotham's lesser-known past
Visit five obscure spots for a lesson in city history.
Wed Mar 28 2012
Photograph: Marielle Solan
Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims
Founded in 1847, this Brooklyn Heights church was once an abolitionist hothouse. Led by pastor Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe), the house of worship became known as the “Grand Central Depot” of the Underground Railroad, and its congregation helped channel countless escaped slaves northward. Beecher was known for his fiery sermons, which made national headlines and drew visitors like Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain, and even staged mock auctions to buy slaves’ liberty. During complimentary tours of the space, visitors can see the ring Beecher put on slave girl Pinky in 1860, “wedding” her to freedom. 75 Hicks St between Cranberry and Orange Sts, Brooklyn Heights (718-624-4743, plymouthchurch.org). Tours by appointment Mon–Fri 10am–4pm, Sun after morning worship; free.
Sylvan Terrace and Morris-Jumel Mansion
Tucked away on a Washington Heights side street, narrow Sylvan Terrace looks more like a rural boulevard than a New York City block. The tidy clapboard homes, with green shutters and steep staircases, were built in 1882 as private residences (and yes, they’re still occupied to this day). The cobbled street, meanwhile, leads up a small hill to the shady lawn of the Morris-Jumel Mansion, which was briefly used as George Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War. Visitors can see items that belonged to eccentric former owner Eliza Jumel—including a pair of decorative gold wings above the foyer doors, which she claimed were a gift from Napoleon. 65 Jumel Terr between 160th and 162nd Sts (212-923-8008, morrisjumel.org). Wed–Sun 10am–4pm; $5, seniors and students $4.
Weeksville Heritage Center
Four modest buildings, called the Hunterfly Road Houses, are all that remains of this former African-American village. New York abolished slavery in 1827, and 11 years later, James Weeks, a freed black man, purchased the land that would become the settlement. Weeksville grew to include schools, churches and an orphanage; it also provided refuge for those injured during the Civil War Draft Riots of 1863. Though it thrived throughout the 19th century, it was gradually absorbed into Brooklyn as the borough grew, and today the Hunterfly houses function as a museum and learning center. 1698 Bergen St between Buffalo and Rochester Aves, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn (718-756-5250, weeksvillesociety.org). Tours Tue–Fri 3pm; $5, seniors and students $4.
Quaker Meeting House
Flushing, Queens, is a famously diverse neighborhood, which includes one of the city’s largest Chinese enclaves. But vestiges of its past—English settlers founded it in the 17th century—remain, including the 1694 Quaker Meeting House, a simple wooden hall that sits near a busy street. The state’s oldest religious building holds a silent meeting for worship on Sundays at 11am. It’s hard to believe that the predecessors of today’s peaceful, soft-spoken Quakers provoked the ire of Governor Peter Stuyvesant. His persecution of faiths outside the Reformed Dutch Church led citizens to sign the landmark 1657 Flushing Remonstrance, advocating religious tolerance. 137-16 Northern Blvd between Linden Pl and Main St, Flushing, Queens (718-358-9636, nyym.org/flushing). Tours Sun noon; free.
When you exit the 6 train at Westchester Sq–East Tremont Ave station in the Bronx, the immediate surrounding area feels like a small town. There’s a tiny triangular green that goes back to 1654, when the Dutch settled the village of Oostorp, and moldy tombstones stand beside St. Peter’s EpiscopalChurch, whose parish dates to 1693. Make an appointment to see the beautiful 19th-century Huntington Free Library (call for hours; 718-829-7770), a private non-profit library with a special collection of Bronx history. E Tremont and Westchester Aves, Bronx