I have an embarrassing confession to make: I fucking love plaques.
I know, for many people, that would be the nerdiest statement they ever made. For me, it doesn’t even crack the Top 100.
But I can’t help it. If I’m walking through the city and spot a plaque, I have to stop and check it out.
For the casual trivia buff, there’s something inherently democratic about them. “You don’t need a Ph.D. in History to learn something new,” they say. “All you need to do is keep your eyes peeled.”
Take this innocuous stretch of 13th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues.
There are no monuments, museums, or memorials on this block, but it’s still bursting with history. Here’s a plaque on the corner of 3rd and 13th commemorating a pear tree planted by the last Director-General of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam.
After the British took the colony at the southern tip of Manhattan in 1664, Peter Stuyvesant retired to his farm, or bouwerij, and planted a pear tree at this corner which for over two centuries until a vehicular collision finally toppled it in 1867. You can find a cross-section of the tree at the New-York Historical Society.
Now how about this tawdry tenement at 208 East 13th Street?
Not much to look at, but at various points, a famed anarchist…
…and the First Lady of Mexico took up residence on this spot.
Walk a little further, and you’ll come across this 1890s brick charmer next to Momofuku Milk Bar.
Not only is there a plaque, but the names of the original residents – sculptors Karl Bitter and Giuseppe Moretti – are embossed on the lintel.
Just think – that’s one block. If you’re on the lookout for plaques, you’ll find history all around New York.
Some plaques are older.
Some are more modern.
Some celebrate generals and statesmen.
Others celebrate great writers and philosophers.
Still others celebrate…landscape gardeners?
And some celebrate local heroes who quietly work to improve our neighborhoods.
Of course, sometimes that picture is a little inaccurate.
If you’ve ready my Commerce Street Block Party, you’ll know that “Cherry Lane” is the result of a bad pun, not a preponderance of cherry trees.
And of course, some assholes have figured out…
…you can just buy plaques.