There's No Place Like NoMad

October 16, 2018

Six Fun Things You Might Not Know About NoMad

For centuries, people have been living and working in the New York neighborhood now known as NoMad.  As a result, this neighborhood has a rich and textured past, with all sorts of historical events, “firsts,” and facts both well-known and obscure. NoMad is more than just the storied neighborhood of the Gilded Age, Madison Square Garden and Tin Pan Alley. Here are six fun, but little known, things about the neighborhood.

1. The Great White Way began in NoMad, not Times Square.

Since the early 20th Century, people have come to refer the Broadway theater district around Times Square as “the Great White Way.” In reality, the term was first used further south along Broadway, here in NoMad. The area from 23rd Street northward was the first section of New York City to have streetlights beginning in the 1890s.  These lights were arc lights that produced a glaring white light (many thought them harsh and unflattering they were so stark).  Combined with the lights from the theaters and restaurants, the streetlights created a bright white glow—hence the term, “Great White Way.”

2. The world’s most famous circus started here.

The Barnum & Bailey Circus, which began in the 1870s, soon found stiff competition from the Ringling Brothers Circus, which began in 1884. The Ringlings bought out Barnum & Bailey in 1907, running the circuses separately until 1919, when they merged for the first time as the Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus.  The debut performance of the combined company was in Madison Square Garden (then at 26th and Madison Avenue), and it soon became the most famous circus in the world.  Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus maintained its headquarters here until moving to Florida in 1927. Sadly, this national circus gem had its final performance last year.

3. Baseball, as we know it, was first played in NoMad.

Despite the dubious claims that baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday, some of the first known games of baseball were played in a vacant lot on Madison Avenue about 27th and 28th Street, just north of Madison Square Park in the 1840s.  It was here that the New York Knickerbockers practiced and played using for the first time the rules that would become the official rules of the modern game as it is played today.  Alexander “Alick” Joy Cartwright Jr. was a founding member of the New York Knickerbockers Base Ball Club, and he’s sometimes referred to as a “father of baseball” because of his role in formulating the game around these rules.

4. A famous general is buried next to Madison Square Park.

Just west of the park, you might have noticed an obelisk standing on an island called Worth Square where Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and 25th Street intersect. It is not just a memorial but the actual burial site of General William Jenkins Worth, who served in the Mexican War and the Seminole Wars. (You might know his name better from the city named after him—Fort Worth, Texas.) Known as a brilliant strategist, his theories are still taught at West Point.  Millions of people walk by that obelisk today without giving it much thought or realizing it’s the second oldest monument in NYC and one of only three memorial monuments in the city which rise above the honoree’s actual grave.  As to how his grave found itself in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in New York…that’s a history lesson all its own.

5. The first-ever movie house opened in NoMad.

On April 6, 1894 or April 14, 1894, a small storefront at 1153/1155 Broadway became the first place in the country where you could see a movie, projected in Thomas Edison’s new hand-cranked invention — the Kinetoscope. A public Kinetoscope parlor was opened by the Holland Bros. in New York City on the corner of 27th Street—the first commercial motion picture house. The venue had ten machines, set up in parallel rows of five, each showing a different movie. For 25 cents a viewer could see all the films in either row; half a dollar gave access to the entire bill. (And you thought Hollywood was the birthplace of the movie industry.)

6. NoMad wasn’t always as tame as it is now.

Despite its reputation as a destination for the world’s elite during the Gilded Age, the NoMad neighborhood also had a steamier side. West of Broadway the area was more like the infamous Tenderloin to the north. Between Broadway and Seventh from 24th to 30th were dance halls with upstairs rooms for quick sexual encounters, bars where hard drinking and shootings were common, gambling houses where society gathered illegally, and 49 houses of prostitution concentrated within a few blocks — 22 on 27th Street alone. After the turn of the century, the area lost its edge as an entertainment center. As theaters and hotels moved northward toward Times Square the bars, brothels, and casinos followed.