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Taking the High Ground

NYC History

So I says to the bartender, I says “Hey, can I get a Sandy?”

And the bartender says “A Sandy? What’s that?”

And I tell him: “It’s a watered-down Manhattan!”


Too soon?

But seriously folks… Flooding of our beloved city during the worst storm in over 100 years is no joke, especially when it cost the city nearly $60 billion. Fortunately, we Levys were all safe and sound during Superstorm Sandy in the neighborhoods of Ditmas Park (Mark) Park Slope (Gideon) Bed-Stuy (Matt) and Crown Heights (Jonah). And what do all of these neighborhoods have in common? Two very important factors in our globally warmed environment: distance from the sea and HIGH TOPOGRAPHY!

Topography (or vertical distance from sea level for those who don’t remember sophomore year Earth Science) has always played an important role in New York’s history. Our city was founded by sailors and shipping merchants who needed easy access to the ocean. Considering that the city was also founded by the Dutch, prevention of flooding was a key element to our architectural heritage (as the Dutch like to say, “God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands!” IE, they prevented this low-lying country from constantly flooding.)

Anyone visiting brownstone Brooklyn or the Upper West Side knows all about the layout of our beloved townhouses. They usually stand 3-4 stories tall with the “parlor” apartment on the second floor acting as the main floor, and the “garden” apartment, accessed through a lower doorway acting as a lesser apartment. Historically, the parlor apartment held all of the expensive, handcrafted furniture and the lower level was for more modest quarters for a guest. This way, if a flood occurs, at least the finer furnishings would be spared from ruin… And we just hope you didn’t have any guests there at the time…

And anyone who’s seen a Spike Lee movie (His good, older films. Not the lousy new ones…) knows that when kids hang out on the steps leading up to the parlor apartment on a hot summer day, they say they’re “hanging on the stoop.” Little do these Brooklyn kids know that stoop is just the Dutch word for “step”

Another fascinating bit of New York etymology: The word Manhattan in the Native-American Lenape language means “Island of Hills.” In lower Manhattan, those hills are long gone: flattened to have a good surface to build a couple of skyscrapers. The further north you go, the hillier it gets, until you reach the high bluffs of Washington Heights, Hamilton Heights and Morningside Heights (notice a theme here?)

When the Episcopal Church wanted to build a Cathedral to rival the magnificent Roman Catholic St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, they planned to build it on the highest point in the area so that it could be seen from afar – ergo on a high bluff in Morningside Heights. Take that, Pope! The unfortunate downside to this plan is that for a cathedral of this size to not sink into the earth, it needed to rest on the hard Manhattan bedrock. Which, at that particular outcropping of hilly of land, happened to be seventy feet below the surface, meaning great time and expense just to get back up to floor level. (important note: 120 years later, the church is not yet finished…)

But it wasn’t until Sandy hit that the idea of apartments above the ground level and higher-ground real estate really hit home (literally) for many New Yorkers, especially those in the Rockaways, Coney Island, the Financial District and the East Village. If the climatologists have it right, higher sea levels are coming, and there’s nothing we can really do to stop them. Just remember, if you’re looking to buy real estate in NYC, always look for the high ground!

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