Block by Block: New York Street Historians

In a city as vast as New York, there is always a story waiting to be told, a block waiting to be walked, a building with an unwritten history. Over the past decade, many New Yorkers have been creatively documenting the changing streets of the city on websites and blogs. Often, these modern day storytellers are not historians or authors by training. Their work is part of a tradition of “unofficial,” “informal,” “underground,” and “alternative” histories of New York City. However, after walking through the city block by block, a better title for their work could be “street history.”

The modern New York City street historian can be traced back to George G. Foster, a reporter who explored 1800’s New York as it grew from a town into a modern metropolis. His seminal work, “New York By Gas Light” (1850), is considered a groundbreaking example of urban non-fiction, and presented “the under-ground story – of life in New York,” with portraits of “the festivities of prostitution, the orgies of pauperism, the haunts of theft and murder, the scenes of drunkenness and beastly debauch.”

Foster’s candid explorations of New York’s streetscapes directly influenced the work of many writers in the 1900’s, including Joseph Mitchell – The New Yorker magazine’s “poet of the waterfront,” Herbert Asbury – a reporter who penned a series of “informal” New York histories including “The Gangs of New York,” and Meyer Berger – a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and “incurable New Yorker” whose colorful New York portraits were published in several collections.

In the same era, several New York street historians physically embraced the challenge of exploring modern New York. For his magnum opus, “History in Asphalt” (1978), amateur historian John McNamara walked, biked or canoed every street in the Bronx, creating an exhaustive encyclopedia of street and place names. His peers include Commander Thomas J. Keane, who completed his walk of every street on Manhattan Island in 1954. Unfortunately, Keane did not keep a diary, but in the next century, Robert Jay Kaufman did, writing “Blockology: An Offbeat Walking Guide to Lower Manhattan” (2005), after walking the 1,544 blocks below 14th Street, a distance of about 300 miles.

Today’s panel brings together four active New York City street historians – a guide, an author, an urban explorer, and a location scout – who are tirelessly exploring the 21st century city, block by block, on their own unique paths.

Nathan Kensinger, curator


Nathan Kensinger is a photographer and filmmaker whose work documents New York City’s abandoned and industrial edges. Since 2007, he has published more than 100 photo essays about the history of New York on his photoblog. These photo essays have been featured in the NY Times, NY Post, NY Daily News, NY Magazine, Time Out New York, and the Village Voice. His photographs have been exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, and are in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Library. Nathan is the Director of Programming for the Brooklyn Film Festival and is a programming advisor to UnionDocs. In April 2011, he curated a UnionDocs panel titled “Down the Road: Modern New York Street Photographers.

Kevin Walsh began publishing his website “Forgotten New York” in 1999, highlighting neighborhoods, objects and aspects of New York City that have gone ignored or unnoticed by other guidebooks, websites, and articles. Forgotten New York has since been profiled in all of NYC’s daily newspapers, including the New York Times and the New York Sun, and has twice been named to the Village Voice’s Best of NYC list, most recently in 2006. In 2006, HarperCollins published Kevin’s first book, “Forgotten New York: Views of a Lost Metropolis.”


Nick Carr works as a movie location scout in New York. His work has taken him from the highest rooftops (“Spider-Man 3″) to the deepest subway tunnels (“The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3″), and from forgotten alleys to luxury penthouse apartments. In 2008, he began blogging his favorite sights on his website, Scouting New York. He has since written more than 200 articles about New York City locations, and his work has been featured in the New York Times, Time Out New York, The New York Post, Popular Photography, and on National Public Radio.


Moses Gates is an Urban Explorer, urban planner, writer, part-time tour guide and full-time Gothamphile. He publishes the website All City New York where he is chronicling three ongoing projects in New York City: climbing every bridge, visiting every abandoned subway station, and walking through all 2,217 census tracts. He is 44%, 68%, and 82% done, respectively. His first book, a memoir of Urban Exploration around the world, will be published by Penguin in 2012.


Cindy VandenBosch is the co-founder of Urban Oyster, a company that creates multi-sensory tours based on in-depth research about people and places in the neighborhoods of New York City. Urban Oyster’s tours include explorations of the past and present of beer brewing in Brooklyn, the history of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the evolution of the Midtown food cart. Cindy is a researcher, educator, tour guide, entrepreneur, and also teaches blind elementary school children about the history and geography of the city. She has served as a consultant at the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Museum at Eldridge Street, and formerly managed and developed tours at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

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  1. […] […]

    Pingback by Block by Block: New York Street Historians at Union Docs | Art in New York City on November 7, 2011 at 4:34 am

  2. […] be appearing at a UnionDocs speaking event in Williamsburg this Sunday, for anyone who’d like to join. The subject is on street […]

    Pingback by Scouting NY At Union Docs This Sunday! « Scouting NY on November 18, 2011 at 1:48 am

  3. […] BLOCK BY BLOCK: NEW YORK STREET HISTORIANS: On Sunday, UnionDocs will present a conversation among some of New York’s “modern-day storytellers… [whose] work is part of a tradition of ‘unofficial,’ ‘informal,’ underground’ and ‘alternative’ histories” of the city. The panel, curated by Nathan Kensinger, will include author Kevin Walsh of Forgotten New York; location scout Nick Carr of Scouting NY; urban explorer Moses Gates of All-City New York and walking tour guide Cindy VandenBosch of UrbanOyster. Sunday, November 20, 7:30pm, at UnionDocs. […]

    Pingback by Urban Omnibus » The Omnibus Roundup – Prefab Yards, Megapolitan America, MTA Blitzes, Extending Grids and What to Do on November 18, 2011 at 3:52 pm

  4. I’d love to hear the panels collective take on 137 Oak Street in Greenpoint.

    From what I’ve gathered from various links the land was originally owned by Governor of New York and presidential candidate Samual Tilden. It was given to the ladies’ Benevolent Association of Greenpoint upon his death from which possibly with the assistance of the Guernsey family and various fundraising efforts became Greenpoint home for the aged,designed by Theobald Engeldhardt in 1887.

    More on the fundraising for the building:

    The neighborhood folklore suggest that it’s been a home for unwed mothers, a brothel and finally an SRO but it’s difficult to find an record when and how it transitioned. It was bought a few years ago for 500K but it’s hard to determine the owners plans or interests for the property. It would seem as it’s a historical landmark the current SRO tenants are not easily separated from their home the run down building is in limbo.

    Comment by catherine on November 21, 2011 at 11:45 pm

  5. I’d also like to see pictures of the interior

    Comment by catherine on November 21, 2011 at 11:46 pm

  6. […] November 20, Nathan Kensinger, in collaboration with UnionDocs, presented “Block by Block,” a panel discussion with four of New York’s most active street historians. Author Kevin […]

    Pingback by Urban Omnibus » Block by Block: New York’s Street Historians on December 2, 2011 at 4:06 pm

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