Some neighborhoods in New York City are named after their geographic location (Upper East Side, for instance), others for historic reasons (Greenwich Village was once Groenwijck, or green district, in the time of New Amsterdam and was in fact a village), but today’s dérive (an unplanned walk through an urban environment) is in a district named instead for an iconic building – the Flatiron. Because of the diagonal swath that Broadway cuts across the grid system in Manhattan, occasionally interesting intersections occur. Times Square is the result of the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, and the iconic Flatiron Building occupies the triangle formed when Broadway and Fifth Avenues cross between 22nd and 23rd Streets.
Surprisingly, the location of the Flatiron Building was an early sort of prototype for Times Square. The Cumberland, a seven-story apartment building on the site in the 19th Century, leased out the top four floors to advertisers, including the New York Times, who created a sign made up of electric lights. The owners of the lot eventually put up a canvas and projected an array of advertising photographs on the side of the building. In 1901, construction on a new skyscraper (22 stories!) was started, and the building was finished a year later. This part of Manhattan is in the section where the bedrock, or schist, is much deeper from the surface than in lower Manhattan or midtown, so when the Flatiron Building (technically named the Fuller Building, but the inevitable nickname stuck) was being built locals took bets on how far the debris would fall when the building collapsed. However, the steel skeleton used for the building, and the elegant Chicago-school Greek column construction, has ensured that it has sturdily anchored the area over well over a century.
So what is the Flatiron District? As a informal name to a neighborhood, there are no set boundaries, and in fact the term only gained popularity in the 1980’s. Originally an industrial area with an abundance of photography studios due to the low rents, and sometimes called the “Toy District” because of several toy manufacturers, the neighborhood has evolved into one of New York’s top residential areas downtown. As the area gentrified and became more residential, real estate agents needed a term to describe the neighborhood, roughly from 20th to 25th Street and from Sixth or Seventh Avenue to Lexington, and naming it after the landmarked Flatiron Building made the location clear.
Starting a walk through the neighborhood by standing in front of its namesake (where else?), it’s hard to decide which way to go, with Eataly (Mario Batali’s emporium to Italian food and drink, with various restaurants – or purchase products for home use) beckoning at Fifth and 23rd, and the original Shake Shack nestled in Madison Square Park at about Madison and 24th Street. Walking through the park, one is reminded that this is the source of the name for Madison Square Garden, originally just north of the park but now in its fourth location above Penn Station. The MetLife Tower at Madison and Fifth was once the tallest building in the world (700 feet tall) until being unseated by the Woolworth Building in 1913. The enormous clock on the top is visible from far away (I recently saw one of the new penthouses in the Puck Building in SoHo with a direct view of this clock from the bedroom) and a symbol of the neighborhood. Of course, many of the new apartments at One Madison would have a terrific view of the clock.
The Flatiron district combines residential use with shops, restaurants, and businesses. Many of the tech companies in the district and surrounding areas have led to a description of this as New York’s “Silicon Alley,” and there are also many advertising and financial firms in the area.