NYC: Being a Guide Book as Well as a City

Like novels set in NYC, guide books offer a fascinating experience; they are a means to vicariously visit the city and, in essence, see the city through another set of eyes.

A guide it itself a literary creation; a rendition of the city at a certain time and through a certain point of view.

Like novels, they tell stories of the city.

Travel back to pre-bellum New York with Phelps’ New York City Guide, Being a Pocket Directory for Strangers and Citizens to the Prominent Objects of Interest in the Great Commercial Metropolis, and Conductor to Its Environs with Engravings of Public Buildings. This guide, published in 1853, takes visitors through the city with a special emphasis on public works and buildings, including a variety of charitable and educational institutions. The city is rendered in the images as a bustling metropolis, a place of culture and commercialism, where even the poorest citizen is cared for and business proceeds at a quick pace. In such a city, the guide reminds readers, it is easy to be overwhelmed.

“Multitudes who visit New York,” the guide observes, “are imposed upon by extravagant demands for small services, rendered in the way of hack and cab hire, porterage, & c. An immense amount of time is wasted; and the stranger is often discouraged in not being able, in the mazes of this great Metropolis, to settle the question of what is most worthy of notice, and on returning to his home finds that he has failed to see the very things that would have most interested him.”

Selecting the most important facets of the city to observe, the guide offers an experience of the city that is shaped by the book itself. Certainly, the visitor can wander the streets by him or herself, but the guide itself is an experience and a valuable commodity: time will not be wasted and what is most worthy of notice, will be noticed, with the guidebook in hand.

In fact, I am sure that many readers “visited” NYC via Phelps’ guidebook alone. And thus they wandered past City Hall and the Merchants Exchange (pictured above). And perhaps there they stopped to take a look (in their minds’ eye) at Washington Square, which was only roughly two decades old at the time the guide book was published.

The square, the book notes,

Formerly the Potter’s Field, is one of the largest of the older public grounds of the city. It lies in front of the New York University, and is bounded by Waverly place, M’Dougal, Fourth, and Wooster streets. It contains 9 3/4 acres, handsomely laid out, and shaded by thrifty trees. It is surrounded by a Wealthy population, and in summer is much resorted to as a place for promenading (47).

Just as the vicarious traveler might have seen Washington Square via the guidebook, they might also have turned to the novel, for another kind of journey through the city.

A quarter of a century after Phelps’ guide was published one of the square’s former inhabitants, Henry James, published his work, Washington Square in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.

Thus 1880s readers were able to visit James’ rendition of New York City. Set in the 1840s, the novella rendered a Washington Square of an earlier era; James himself was not living in the U.S. when he wrote his narrative. He was relying on his memory and craft as a writer to render the streets, houses, and spaces of the city. He was guiding readers through a part of the city that no longer existed as it once had.

In fact, it had only been a decade prior to the publication of Washington Square, that the square itself was declared declasse.

By 1871, a popular guidebook was referring to Washington Square’s past glory:

“It has long been a popular breathing-place, for the section of the city in which it is situated. It is surrounded by houses which were once considered elegant, and were occupied by the wealthy and fashionable people of the city; now they are rapidly coming into use for boarding-houses; wealth and fashion having traveled farther north.” (Traveler’s Guide to the City of New York. NY: J.S. Redfield, 1871, 53)

Wealth and fashion had moved on; the city had changed, indeed. And further changes would come.

In 1904, when James returned to the U.S., he was crestfallen to see that his childhood home on Washington Square had been torn down.

He had not been particularly nostalgic about his childhood. But somehow the tearing down of the house made James feel that part of his own history had been destroyed.

But guidebooks, from all eras and written for a variety of purposes, remain a means by which we can return to the older versions of the city and stroll down the streets, peering a buildings that no longer exist, and wasting no time at all.

~Jenny Thompson


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s