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Sunday, July 03, 2011

Urban Gadabout: Inside the Revolutionary Apple with a co-author of "Inside the Apple"

James explained that the fence around Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan is not only one of the city's oldest surviving artifacts but a participant in some key historical events.

by Ken

Is there any traveler who hasn't become wholly dependent on the Internet? Whether it's for scouting destinations, gathering information, finding timetables, making reservations -- even for a humble urban gadabout, it's hard to imagine doing it these days without the staggering range of resources online.

Online is how I do essentially all of my planning with my "regular" tour providers, New York's Municipal Art Society, New York Transit Museum, and Urban Park Rangers. I'm so booked up for the summer that I have hardly a weekend "day off," and on a lot of those days I'm doubling up. Still, I'm aware that this only scratches the surface of what's available out there, so Friday, with a thinned-out schedule thinning for the 4h of July Weekend, I did some online searching, and stumbled onto,, the blog of Michelle and James Nevius, wife-and-husband authors of a combination history of New York and guidebook called Inside the Apple, and learned that on July 3rd James would be doing a "Revolutionary War Walking Tour" in Lower Manhattan, for which, as of a post from a couple of days previous, they still had places.

So I followed the instructions for e-mailing a reservation request and soon got back a confirmation, which left only the consideration of weather, which today started out dreadful, with intermittent heavy rain and overcast, and a not especially sunny forecast. Nevertheless, James sent out an e-mail to the reservation list expressing the hope that the storms would pass through by our scheduled assembly time, 4pm said, "Thus, I am going to be at the meeting place at 4PM to lead the tour and I do hope you will be too! Bring an umbrella, of course, and good humor, and I'm sure will have a great time."

So as soon as I finished puttering around with Bruno Walter and the Siegfried Idyll, I set out for Peter Minuit Plaza, in front of the Staten Island Ferry, and incredbily, just about the whole group of 25 walkers turned up. (As James pointed out, you're apt to get a bunch of no-shows even in perfect weather.)

And through intermittent, sometimes heavy rain, our hardy band trooped through a host of locales where way back in Revolutionary New York events of significance happened, though as is true of almost all of our two centuries of colonial history, first Dutch and then English, hardly anything except streets (and many street names) survives from that time. (A particular bĂȘte noire of James, we discovered, is the relative lack of attention that's been given to our four-century-old city's English century. Everybody loves the Dutch century, he points out, and of course the two centuries-plus since the Revolution are wildly popular. But the English century may be too closely connected with English rule, the city itself having been not just the site of the English military command but a center of Loyalist sympathy and activity.

James himself is wildly charming and personable, and an easygoing fount of information, so the tour was a resounding success. We wound up walking up Broad Street to the corner of Broad and Wall, and the Federal Hall that's not the Federal Hall where George Washington was inaugurated as our first president but occupies the same site (in much the way that what now passes for Fraunces Tavern, a famously favorite hangout of George Washington, is a re-creation of the building from Washington's time. Walkng up Broad Street we passed my office building, 20 Broad, and by then I had learned that there wasn't any great canal-like purpose to the canal that originally ran up the middle of Broad Street, as is described in the history of the street that's engraved in the new curbside that was created when the street was repaved with stones -- and security outposts -- from Beaver to Wall Streets a couple of years ago.

I was happy to buy a copy of Inside the Apple from James (I like the idea of a larger chunk of the purchase price going into the authors' pockets), and am just starting to get to know it. In an introductory note, Michelle and James explain:
The goal of Inside the Apple is to give you a different pathway into the city's long and rich history. While there are many books that focus on New York's notable events and famous people, ours is instead organized around the places where those events took place. By grounding the narrative in sites that you can see and visit, we provide concrete, tangible, connections between the city of today and its intriguing past.

People have long tried to answer the question: What makes New York unique? We feel the answer is deceptively simple: more than any other American city, it is primarily experienced on foot. . . .

As this suggests, the history-based narrative is grounded in places, with lots of cross-referencing to related chapters, and there are 14 full-fledged walking tours at the end. I'm looking forward to getting to know the book better.

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