This beautiful book, Manhattan in Maps: 1527 – 1995 by Robert Augustyn and Paul Cohen, is sadly out of print, a sorry fate for such a beautiful book. Used copies are available at ridiculously cheap prices. I bought mine on Amazon for about $10, probably a mere fraction of what it would have cost new.
The authors are rare book and map dealers, and they clearly know their business. The book is a superb history of Manhattan island and New York City. It’s very vivid–one can almost imagine living in Nieuw Amsterdam in the 1630s, or accompanying John Randel in 1808 as he platted out New York’s modern street grid against a landscape of swamps, hills, and rivers. “An elderly woman who sold vegetables discovered them at work in her kitchen one day and forced them out under a barrage of cabbages and artichokes.”
Manhattan, after all, is the Indian word for place of mountains, topography that Randel scrupulously ignored. To build his city every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. He put 1,549 markers at each future intersection–twelve avenues and 155 streets.
I admire Egbert Ludovicus Viele who did a comprehensive survey of Manhattan’s topography before the great leveling. And a good thing, too. ” ‘I know that it is generally supposed that when the city is entirely built upon all that water will disappear,’ Viele lamented, ‘but such is not the case.’ ” His 1864 map of Manhattan’s rivers, still there but now forced underground, is still used today to ensure secure foundations and dry basements. “It is said that Paul Starrett, the builder of the Empire State Building and Stuyvesant Town, never prepared an estimate before consulting the Viele map.”
Viele drew the detailed topographical maps of what would become Central Park, along with its initial design.
There’s a lot more in this book. I shall make much use of it as I draft my own book, A Geography of New York State.