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10 things you probably didn’t know about Manhattan

Written by
Will Sabel Courtney

As a New Yorker, you probably think you know everything about this great city we all call home. Well, wrong-o, bucko. We rounded up a list of 10 facts—starting with Manhattan—that we bet will be news to you. 

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to Manhattan, NY

1. It wasn't wild when Peter Minuit showed up

Before Peter Minuit popped by in 1609 and bought Manhattan for $24 worth of beads (it was actually around $1,050 in modern-day money, but that's still a steal), the city was a verdant wonderland where Native Americans lived in harmony with deer and beaver, right? Not quite. Manhattan, like much of the area, was fairly heavily colonized by the Lenape Indians, who were using slash-and-burn agricultural techniques, harvesting large amounts of seafood from the waters, and pounding down thick foot trails—one of which would become Broadway. 

2. Grand Central Terminal is at 42nd Street for a specific reason

Back in the mid-1800s, Manhattan—then as now—was largely dependent on trains. But back then, locomotives were loud, steam- and soot-belching monsters—which was fine for use in the countryside, but a nuisance in the crowded, noisy streets of lower Manhattan. So in 1854, the city banned locomotives south of 42nd Street (which was pretty far north in those days). But the Hudson, New Haven, and Harlem Railroads still wanted to expand, so they joined forces to build a new joint train station right at the southern end of the line—and Grand Central Terminal was born.

3. You can catch a run of green lights if you drive at the right speed

Ever been driving up First Avenue and feel like you're catching the most incredible streak of green lights? You're not just lucky—the city programs the lights like that. On certain Manhattan avenues, the traffic lights are synced up to match drivers going around 28 miles an hour—which is, not coincidentally, pretty close to the speed limit. 

4. There's a 6½ Avenue

Nestled halfway between Sixth and Seventh Avenues lies a semi-hidden pedestrian walkway called, you guessed it, 6½ Avenue. It's not a city street—rather, it's a series of privately-owned public spaces that stretches from 51st Street to 57th Street—but you can still find little "6½ Ave" signs at every intersection, along with crosswalks and stop signs to encourage pedestrian flow. 

5. Wall Street was bombed in 1920, and no one knows who did it

At 12:01pm on September 16th, 1920, a horse-drawn carriage parked in front of the J.P. Morgan Building exploded with all the fury you'd expect from a wagon packed with 100 pounds of dynamite surrounded by 500 pounds of iron shrapnel. 30 people died instantly, while eight more later succumbed to their wounds. The culprits were never found (though investigators suspected Italian anarchists, no one was ever indicted). You can still see evidence of the blast today—the old J.P. Morgan building at 23 Wall Street still bears scars in its marble walls from the flying metal.

6. The city's first subway was built in secrecy next to City Hall

Alfred Ely Beach knew his idea for a pneumatic underground railroad would never be built under the corrupt administration of Tammany Hall, but he was too stubborn to take no for an answer. So, in 1869, he secretly built a full-size prototype literally under City Hall's noses—stretching below Broadway from Warren Street to Murray Street—then unveiled it to the city's surprise. People loved it—more than 400,000 rides were taken in the three years the demonstrator was operational—but by the time he'd gotten permission for his planned full-length line to Central Park in 1873, public and political interest had waned, and the idea died on the vine. Sadly, the entire thing (including its elegant Victorian terminals) was destroyed to build the City Hall stop on the BMT. 

7. We almost had a bridge instead of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel

New York City's "master builder" Robert Moses loved parks, highways—and bridges. So when the city came to his Triborough Bridge Authority in the late 1930s to seek help building a tunnel connecting the tip of Manhattan with Red Hook, Moses agreed—but only if he could build a bridge instead. The public and city officials fought it—the plan would wipe out Battery Park and the beloved New York Aquarium located there, and cut off much of Wall Street's light and fresh air—but Moses was so powerful, even Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia couldn't stop him. It took President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to put the kibosh on the bridge...but Moses, in an act of supreme dickery, destroyed the Aquarium out of spite. 

8. well as a six-lane superhighway through Midtown

Blame (or credit) Robert Moses again for this one. In the 1940s and '50s, Moses championed a plan to connect the Lincoln Tunnel and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel with a six-lane superhighway rising 100 feet above the streets from Eighth Avenue to First Avenue along 30th Street (and wiping out most of the block to the south in the process). The plan was popular at first, but by the 1960s, the city had turned against Moses and his plans to smash down vasts swaths of Manhattan to make it easier for people from Long Island to drive to New Jersey.

9. We used to have a lot more trains

Imagine having subways running up and down not just Second Avenue, but Third Avenue and Ninth/Columbus Avenue, too? Well, all three avenues were once served by trains–not under the ground, but elevated high above the streets. Elevated local railways stretched throughout the city well into the 20th Century, but as the underground trains proliferated, they were torn down (below-ground railroads were far less disruptive to surface life). Still, for a brief period in the late 1930s, you had a choice of no fewer than eight different train lines running north/south through Manhattan.

10. We do have a Main Street

Believe it or not, like most places in the United States, we actually have a Main Street. It's just not on the island of Manhattan. Hop the Roosevelt Island tram across the East River and walk a couple hundred feet north, however, and there you'll see it—Main Street. And since Roosevelt Island is legally part of Manhattan, boom: Main Street, New York, NY.

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