In researching an upcoming project on the Big Apple, I stumbled upon editor and writer Jim Naureckas‘s New York City Songlines, a website packed with factual curiosities about Manhattan’s streets and sites. Naureckas has grafted his passion for NYC history onto the Australian Aboriginal concept of Songlines, songs used by Aborigines to navigate their homeland by identifying and describing landmarks in the harsh landscape and explaining their origin during Dreamtime.
I checked in with Jim to learn more about his fascinating labor of love.
To start things off, what is New York Songlines?
It’s a block-by-block guide to Manhattan’s history and legends. Each page of the website is a different street, with notes on what’s located at that address and information on what happened there. Each intersection is a link to the cross street’s page so you can wander through the site like you’re wandering through the city. I started compiling info in the summer of 2001; The first page (23rd Street) went up in October 2001, but it was September 11th that made this project an obsession, emphasizing the idea that New York is impermanent and needs to be memorialized.
How did you come up with the idea of pairing the notion of Aboriginal Songlines with the history of Manhattan?
I read Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines not long before I began the project, and I was struck by the way that the Australians’ song cycles, which they use as navigation tools, are also a way to sing meaning into their landscape. That fit with what I was trying to do with my website–make the Manhattan streetscape more meaningful to people by telling the stories behind the buildings.
How do you develop your content?
I get information on the addresses wherever I can find it. Guidebooks are probably the main source–there’s a handful that I particularly rely on. Newspapers and magazines often have interesting location-based facts. People send me tips, which are often fascinating particularly when people are talking about the New York of their youth.
The Songlines only go up to 59th Street, is that right? Any plans to expand? Cover all of Manhattan? Expand to other boroughs?
It’s pretty much finished from Houston Street to 59th Street, and there’s quite a bit filled in below Houston; I do eventually want to do the entire island. I don’t think the format would work as well in the outer boroughs, which lack Manhattan’s unifying grid pattern. Plus, while every borough has fascinating history, my sense is that it’s a good deal more diffuse outside Manhattan; you wouldn’t be able to find interesting things that happened on every block, as you can with a lot of Manhattan streets.
Have you considered opening the site up to user-generated content or maybe even developing an app out of NY Songlines?
The site is based on very simple HTML code, which allows me to do it all myself–I don’t have the coding skills to make it interactive. But as I said, I do get a lot of input from readers and an increasing amount of the site is based on that. I have talked with some app publishers about making a version of the Songlines for the iPhone. It would be great to have a format that made it easier to carry the site around with you when you wander the actual streets.
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In the site’s intro text you write, “by relying on maps, signs and Manhattan’s perpendicular geography, New Yorkers have given up something important: a sense of place.” We’re always seeking and writing about sense of place in our magazine and on our blog. What is sense of place to you and why is it important?
I connect having a ‘sense of place’ to seeing place as part of a story. The buildings that make up Manhattan didn’t just spring up; they were made for various purposes, and they have been reshaped by the people who use them just as the people are reshaped in turn by the buildings. So knowing the stories helps you understand that you’re part of a story that’s still unfolding.
Photo: Jan Dospel/My Shot