This Interactive Map Compares the New York City of 1836 to Today

Manhattan had a very different topography than the concrete jungle we know today

The following map comes from the David Rumsey Map Collection. We recently asked David Rumsey, a map expert who has been collecting maps since the 1980s, to describe the nature of the map to us. His personal map collection currently contains more than 150,000 maps and is one of the largest private collections in the United States. (Interactive courtesy of Esri; Text by Natasha Geiling.)

Zooming out to view this 1836 map of New York in full, the map’s artistic merit immediately becomes apparent – the scrolled border and detailed views speak to a gentle use for this map. Unlike other, smaller maps, this map was less functional and more aesthetic: it was a wall map, used to adorn the walls of people’s private homes and offices. Rumsey remains struck by its beauty, explaining that it’s one of his favorite maps. “There’s a historian named Stokes who wrote six volumes on the history of Manhattan, and he called this map perhaps one of the most beautiful maps of Manhattan in the 19th century. It’s artistically quite amazing.”

The map was drawn by Joseph Colton, who  one of the most prominent map publishers in New York City, with a career spanning three decades from the 1830s to the 1850s. Colton’s production was prodigious: in addition to publishing maps of New York City, he published atlases, wall maps and pocket maps. Rumsey looks to the map’s delicate shading to tell much of its story, noting that the heavily shaded areas represent the most densely populated portions of the city at the time of the ma’s drawing. “Pretty much everything past 14th St. is country,” he explains, adding that much of what is considered Manhattan today wasn’t yet settled. In addition to the population shading, the hills of Manhattan are shown by hachures, an antiquated method of showing relief on drawn maps. “A lot of the history of Manhattan is the destruction of its hills,” Rumsey says. “Basically that topography was obliterated, except for Central Park.”

The park wasn’t in the original plan for the city; in 1853, the state of New York empowered the city to acquire more than 700 acres of land under eminent domain to create the expanse. “There’s no Central Park yet, and you can see, they’re not planning on the park because the grid is drawn in in very light lines,” Rumsey explains, hinting at the city’s imminent desire for expansion. “Even though the streets haven’t been built yet, they were planning.”

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