20 Secrets of New York City You Should Know

By: ROS Team November 25, 2021

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New York City is fun, and anybody who has ever visited the city can vouch for it. Even professionals who may spend the majority of their waking hours behind a desk can attest to the unique pockets of entertainment that the city offers.  One of the most remarkable things is that you will likely never run out of places to visit in NYC, and that includes secrets of New York City which are less known but equally impressive.

Here is a List of Some of the Top Underground NYC Spots.

1. The Doyers Street Tunnel

At the start of the 20th century, there were many alleyways in NYC’s Chinatown where smuggling and gambling were common. In 1905, Doyers Street, Pell, and Mott Streets were infamously known as the “Bloody Angle” because it was located in the heart of where these activities took place.

This was mainly because of the gangs that populated the area and that waited where these streets combined, which nearly created a 90-degree angle ideal for quick getaways. The On Leong Tong and the Hip Sing Tong gangs were fighting for control of the area; they used to camp out at one end of the tunnel and wait for their victims to appear on the other side, then attack.

Doyers Street Tunnel
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In NYC history, Doyers Street was known as one of the most violent streets during that period. The situation is not like that anymore; those who travel through Chatham Square can visit the tunnel, largely without incident. The well-known Chinatown landmark Nam Wah Tea Parlor lies at the southwestern corner of the area.

2. Midtown’s 25-Foot Waterfall

The pocket-park known as Greenacre Park lies between Second and Third Avenues. This is ideal, as New Yorkers appreciate any tiny piece of greenery they can find in what many think of as a concrete jungle. This privately-owned park is publicly accessible and spans over 6,360 square feet. The park also features a 25-foot waterfall.

Midtown's 25-Foot Waterfall
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The roaring water from the waterfall tones down the traffic noise in the surrounding area. The park was designed by Hideo Sasaki and constructed in 1971 by the Greenacre Foundation. Additional features of the park include a trellis with heat lamps, azaleas, honey locust trees, and pansies.

3. The Umbrella House

Squatters took over an abandoned city-owned building located at 21 Avenue C on the Lower East Side. The building was converted into an affordable housing co-op where residents lived beginning in 1980. The building’s roof leaked, so inhabitants used umbrellas to stop water from dripping on their heads. That is how the Umbrella House got its name.

The Umbrella House
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The City of New York granted rights to its residents so that they could make improvements and renovations to make the property inhabitable. Now the house is run by volunteers and has a 20-square-foot urban garden on its roof. To honor the building’s history, residents hang umbrellas out of the fire escape.

4. Dead Horse Bay

A 20th-century landfill known as Dead Horse Bay is located between Jamaica Bay and Marine Park in southern Brooklyn. The bay is detached from the rest of New York City and covered with shards of glass, broken bottles, and other materials.

Dead Horse Bay
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Dead Horse Bay got its name in the 1850s thanks to the plants that grew from the bodies of the dead horses that were used to manufacture fertilizer, glue, and other products.  When cars replaced horse-and-buggies, the site was turned into a landfill; it was filled with trash in the 1930s to cover up the area’s morbid history.

5. Freedom Tunnel

The Freedom Tunnel was first built in the 1930s by Robert Moses. It runs three miles under Riverside Park, from West 122nd Street to West 72nd Street. It was used for freight trains until 1980, but later, when the train traffic stopped, the tunnel became a haven for the area’s homeless residents. Chris “Freedom” Pape painted artwork throughout the tunnel.

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Amtrak reopened the tunnel in 1991, which drove the homeless to find a new place to seek shelter. However, Pape kept doing his work. His last work is known as “Buy American,” which pays tribute to those homeless New Yorkers who lived in the tunnel. It became a popular attraction for people who were curious about the city. Unfortunately, most of his work didn’t survive. However, you can still view Pape’s “Coca-Cola Mural” and “Venus de Milo” work at the tunnel.

6. The New York Earth Room

You might find it hard to believe that 280,000 pounds of soil are hidden in a random New York City room. This is precisely what you are going to find at 141 Wooster Street in a spacious Soho loft.

The New York Earth Room
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Walter De Maria created the New York Earth Room in 1977. The best thing about this attraction is that it’s remained unchanged since its inception. There is a 22-inch deep layer of dirt that spans over a 3,600-square-foot gallery. It was initially only supposed to exist for three months, but it remained for almost 35 years and counting.  Access to the room is free, but you’ll have to make a reservation.

7. Track 61 Under Grand Central Station

There is a secret train platform hidden in the depths of Grand Central Station. Presidents used it to escape the masses so they could access the Waldorf Astoria Hotel without anyone noticing.  The private railway,  which was known as Track 61, was first used by General John J. in 1938.

Track 61 under Grand Central Station
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President Franklin Delano Roosevelt also used the hidden railway in 1944 when he didn’t want to face the public.  In the 1960s and 1970s, the hidden track stopped being used and became home to homeless people.

8. The Berlin Wall in Midtown

Here is a piece from the treasure trove of history: back when the Berlin Wall was dismantled, fragments of it were sent around the world.  NYC got five of the wall fragments, which reflect artwork from artist Thierry Noir. He painted the west side of the Berlin Wall in the 1980s. The purpose behind that painting was to make it less threatening.

The Berlin Wall in Midtown
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You, too, can see these pieces at 520 Madison Avenue, which is a 20-foot section of the former wall. They were initially only visible from the street, but they have since been moved into a nearby public building for long-term preservation.

9. The Elevated Acre in FiDi

There is an elevated plaza between two office buildings in the Financial District at 55 Water Street. The plaza was completed in the 1970s. However, the latest development was completed in 2005 by MARVEL architects.

The Elevated Acre in FiDi
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Elevated high above the bustling streets of FiDi, there are lots of gardens and plants in the hidden meadow. The plaza includes a beer garden, a theatre, and views of the East River.  The plaza is also available to reserve for private events.

10. Radio City’s Secret Apartment

Radio City Music Hall is a New York City icon, and home to the world-famous Rockettes. It was designed by Edward Durrell Stone and opened in 1932. Millions of people have visited this NYC landmark since it opened. But what most people don’t know is that the building also has a private apartment.

Radio City's Secret Apartment
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The private quarters were built for Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, the owner of the first successful theatre in Times Square. Roxy also produced many famous shows on the radio. For his services,  the hall’s interior designers gave Roxy a present — an Art Deco-style apartment. Roxy used to host celebrities like Alfred Hitchcock and Olivia de Havilland there. No one has lived in the apartment since he died in 1936 and still has all of its original furnishings.

11. Brooklyn Heights’ Hidden Subway Ventilator

Most cannot help but admire the beautiful and historic brownstones located in Brooklyn Heights. For many New Yorkers, walking past them is part of a relaxing and fun afternoon. The next time you visit the streets of Brooklyn, stop by 58 Joralemon Street. The building will look very similar to the other houses, but the only difference is that no one lives there.

Brooklyn Heights' Hidden Subway Ventilator
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It was used to hide a subway ventilator and served as an emergency exit. Although it was used as a private residence in 1847, it was later converted into an emergency and ventilation building during the subway’s extension project. To this day, the NYPD manages tight security near the home.

12. Mysterious Toynbee Tiles

There are many secrets of New York City, and Toynbee Tiles is one of them. It is hidden in plain sight, which makes it a popular underground NYC site. There are many cities in the United States where Toynbee Tiles are found, and most of them have no clear origin. The rectangular tiles, which are roughly the size of a license plate, have the following description:

  • 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER
  • TOYNBEE IDEA IN MOViE
Mysterious Toynbee Tiles
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No one knows exactly how they originated in the first place. It is believed that a Philadelphia carpenter named James Morasco created the tiles. You can see them for yourself at 6th Avenue and 24th Street.

13. The Blockhouse

Lovers of NYC secrets should also visit the northern section of Central Park. There you will find the park’s second oldest structure, the Blockhouse.  It was built in 1812 for defense purposes. It sits on the edge of a high precipice above the lower part of Morningside Heights and Harlem. Nearly 2,000 New York militiamen have stayed there.

The Blockhouse
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However, there was never a fight at this site, so it was eventually abandoned.  If your curiosity has you wanting to take a look you’re out of luck–the Blockhouse is closed to the public.

14. The Abandoned City Hall Subway Station

New York City’s City Hall subway station used to be a splendid building when it opened in 1904. It was often used as a backdrop for momentous occasions. In the beginning, the subways were operated by private companies, as there was no mass transit authority. The station is unique in that it has a Spanish architectural touch, including brass chandeliers, tiled ceilings, and cut amethyst glass skylights.

The Abandoned City Hall Subway Station

Today, tours are occasionally offered of this abandoned station by the New York City Transit Museum. You can also catch a glimpse of it if you stay on the downtown six train when it leaves the Brooklyn Bridge station.

15. El Sabroso

Although it is getting increasingly popular, most people will likely overlook this underground NYC. El Sabroso is located at the entrance of 265 West 37th Street. There, you will get to see a tiny counter offering Latin American food. It may look very simple, but it is one of the best in Midtown and New York.

El Sabroso

There is an uncanny way of taking cash and offering food from the legitimate hole-in-the-wall establishment, which is located between a smoke shop and a coffee shop. It’s also noteworthy that most of the menu offerings are less than $10.

16. The Houdini Museum

You can find more than 1,500 rare belongings of Harry Houdini around the corner from Penn Station. The Houdini Museum opened in 2012 in the Fantasma Magic Shop.  Objects showcased include unthinkable handcuffs, rare publicity posters, Houdini’s secret escape tools, considerable escape restraints, and memorabilia.

Note: The museum is closed due to COVID

17. The New York Federal Reserve’s Gold Vault

The largest concentration of gold in human history lies in the New York Federal Reserve Bank in the Financial District. The federal government operates the vault, which is built in bedrock. There are 122 separate mini vaults inside a two-story rotating cylindrical space. It houses roughly 5% of all of the gold ever mined, which makes a total volume of about 7,000 tons of gold bars.

The New York Federal Reserve's Gold Vault
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Before COVID, anyone could tour the vault with the Federal Reserve Bank. However, visitors had to register 30 days before the day of the tour to secure clearance.

18. The Brooklyn Superhero Supply Store

It shouldn’t be a surprise that finding a superhero supply store means heading to Brooklyn. The Park Slope store carries all of your favorite superhero memorabilia, including costumes.  There is also a learning center for students ages 6 to 18 behind a secret door where students can receive help with homework and creative writing. The nonprofit, called 826NYC, runs such stores to further educate students.

The Brooklyn Superhero Supply Store
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The store embodies the secrets of New York City; it even has a secret door that cloaks their secret learning lab. It’s no question why it’s on the list of NYC secrets.

19. 77 Water Street

On the top of the 26-story tower located at 77, Water Street sits a World War I fighter plane, and there is a penny candy store in its lobby. The office was built in 1970 by the William Kaufman Organization. They wanted to make it look unique, so they came up with the idea of installing a World War I fighter plane on top.  The penny candy store is open to the public.

77 Water Street
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20. Roosevelt Island’s Smallpox Hospital & Cat Sanctuary

Roosevelt Island lies between Queens and Manhattan in the middle of the East River. There is a famous tram which takes passengers between Manhattan and the Island. The land also has a bit of spooky history, as it was formerly known as Blackwell’s Island.

Roosevelt Island's Smallpox Hospital & Cat Sanctuary
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A hospital was built on the island in 1856 to quarantine and treat people who had smallpox. The hospital was designed by James Renwick Jr., who also designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Roughly 7,000 patients received treatment annually. Later on, in 1875, the building was turned into a nurses’ dormitory. The hospital was then moved to North Brothers Island where the Landmarks Preservation Commission declared the building a city landmark in 1975 and restored it.

Conclusion

Our list might have ended here, but that does not mean that’s where NYC’s secrets end. Once you visit these incredible places, you may discover even more.


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