Things to do in Tribeca | Self-Guided Walking Tour
Tribeca is a neighborhood often overlooked by visitors to New York City. Perhaps because it doesn’t offer the iconic images: you wont find the famous skyscrapers, there are no giant neon billboards and no hustle and bustle you find in other neighborhoods. That is the beauty of Tribeca — it gives you the chance to stroll casually along old cobblestone and Belgian-block streets. As you look up at splendid cast-iron buildings inscribed proudly with the year they were built, you can imagine the New York of a bygone era, an era when horses and buggies filled the streets, when slavery was still legal in the South, when commerce was what Tribeca was all about, and not condominiums, as it is today.
This tour will take you about an hour, not including any stops for a snack or checking out some of the shops in the area. You could easily spend a few hours in Tribeca, strolling, shopping and snacking. You may even want to consider Tribeca when choosing a hotel. There are some great hotels in this area and it is certainly calmer than staying in midtown and access to transportation is great. We’ve got some suggestions for you at the end of this post.
The first question you are probably wondering is: Why is this neighborhood called Tribeca? The explanation is pretty straight-forward: it’s an acronym for the Triangle Below Canal Street. Turns out however, that the neighborhood’s official boundaries don’t form a triangle, but rather a trapezium (a “quadrilateral no two sides of which are parallel”). This trapezium (outlined in red on the map below) is bounded on the north by Canal Street, south by Vesey Street, east by Broadway and west by the Hudson River. There is a small triangle in Tribeca, outlined in yellow on the map. This is the triangle from which the acronym Tribeca is derived. Scroll down to read more about the history of original triangle, how it related to the neighborhood at large, as well as details about the transition of what was once New York City’s largest wholesale market in the mid to late 19th Century to what is now one of the most expensive and charming neighborhoods to live in.
Click here for larger version of the map. You can also download the tour as a PDF file.
(A) Lispenard Street between Broadway and Church
Like many of the smaller streets that you will find only downtown in Lower Manhattan, this street got its unusual name from the original landowners. Back when New York was a British colony, most of the land in Tribeca was owned by Trinity Church (see our post on Trinity Church for more about this stunning church). After the Brits left, Trinity Church sold of parcels of its land. The Lispenard family was wealthy and purchased a large piece of land in northwest Tribeca. The family is gone but they left their name behind.
Lispenard Street is a perfect introduction to the industrial cityscape that dominates much of Tribeca. In the mid-1800s Tribeca changed from a residential area of small private houses to a commercial center selling dry goods and textiles. Merchants erected tall cast-iron buildings with store fronts, showrooms and storage for goods in huge lofts on the upper floors. These 4 and 5 floor former factories that dealt in millions of dollars of goods are now condominiums that cost millions of dollars to buy.
60-62 Lispenard This Renaissance Revival building constructed in 1895 is called The Wannamaker. Before the building went up, a house existed on this site where William R. Grace, one of New York’s former mayors, lived here after he retired from political life in the late 1880s. Rent isn’t TOO bad for the area. A two bedroom/one bathroom is just $7,600 a month. Need two more bedrooms? Hand over another $23,000 a month!
54 Lispenard Look up to the top arch of the building and you’ll see the year it was built. Many building owners would proudly inscribe the year of construction, and sometimes their name on the buildings. This cast-iron structure is one of several gems designed by famed architect Isaac Duckworth. His masterpieces, the King and Queen of Greene Street, are located in SoHo which is known for its density of cast-iron buildings. You can see the King and Queen on our tour of Soho, Little Italy and Chinatown tour) or our SoHo self-guided tour.
44 Lispenard Street Also designed by Duckworth, a year earlier as is announced by the inscription at the top, “Erected 1866.”
(Continue down Lispenard until you reach the corner of Church Street)
(B) David Ruggles House – 36 Lispenard Street
This location is not known for its current building with a restaurant on its street level floor. This site is known what occurred in the small building that stood here almost 200 years ago. In the 1830s, decades before the Civil War and when slavery was still legal in the Southern states, a free African-American abolitionist named David Ruggles lived here. Ruggles was one of America’s first black journalist and published a magazine The Mirror of Liberty that advocated for the abolition of slavery in all of America. More impressively, and at great risk of his own life and liberty, Ruggles secretly sheltered over 600 fugitive slaves through the years he lived at this location. This is one of the stops on the secret “Underground Railroad” that helped runaway slaves reach freedom in Canada. His most famous “guest” was Frederick Douglass. Douglass was a runaway slave in 1838 and after being sheltered in Ruggles’ house, Douglass went on to become a free man and one of the most significant leaders in the abolitionist movement and in American History. A plaque is mounted on the building noting its history.
(Cross Church Street and walk one block on Lispenard and turn left on Avenue of the Americas)
(C) AT&T Long Distance Building – 32 Avenue of the Americas
While not particularly tall, this 27 floor attractive Art Deco building still ranks among New York’s tallest buildings. It comes in at #369. (To learn about its competition, see our post The 10 Most Iconic New York Skyscrapers.) The building reaches a height of 549 feet up to its twin spires, and was completed in 1932. It is now an office building and while attractive on the outside, it is the lobby that is its victory. The lobby contains a wall covered with a mosaic, tiled map of the world. The ceiling is also a mosaic of allegorical tales. One organization who rents space in this building is the Tribeca Film Institute who holds the annual and highly esteemed Tribeca Film Festival. TFI was founded in the wake of 9/11 by film actor Robert DeNiro, film producer Jane Rosenthal and real estate investor and philanthropist Craig Hatkoff.
(Cross Avenue of the Americas, passing through the small park. You will then be on West Broadway)
(D) American Thread Building– 260 West Broadway
This handsome 11 story Renaissance Revival style building was erected by the Wool Warehouse Company in 1896 to house the NY Wool Exchange. Several textile businessmen wanted to create a space dedicated solely to the wool trades and to form an Exchange (a trading organization, like the New York Stock Exchange). Their plan did not materialize and the Wool Warehouse Company went under just two years later. In 1901, one of the building’s tenants, the American Thread Company bought the building for $700,000. In 1981, the building was renovated and converted into live/work lofts. The American Thread Building was one of the very first commercial to luxury condo conversions in Tribeca, starting a trend that was to become the norm. Today a 3 bed/2 bath condo costs over 4 times what the American Thread Company paid for the entire building 115 years ago!
An interesting discovery was made in 2007 while workers were converting a large 1st floor entrance space into a triplex for a private owner. During renovations, a large wall mural was uncovered. Its style was immediately recognizable. It was created by famed 1980s graffiti/street artist, Keith Haring. (He passed away from AIDS in 1990). Prior to the building’s conversion to condos, the large first floor space held exhibitions by students at the School of Visual Arts where Haring was studying. The black and white mural demonstrates the early formation of his iconic style known worldwide. The mural painted in a small alcove had never come to anyone’s attention until 2007 when the workers uncovered it. It remains as a feature of this one-of-a-kind apartment.
(Walk back through the park and walk south one block until White Street.)
(E) 2 White Street – J. Crew “Liquor Store”
The little white 2-story house on the corner of West Broadway and White Street is a stand-out in a neighborhood dominated by cast-iron buildings twice as tall and twice as wide. But this house has a special claim to fame – it is one of the oldest surviving houses in Manhattan. Built in 1809 by successful merchant and politician Gideon Tucker, it is atypical of houses from that era. Instead of building a Federal Style house, Tucker built a modest Dutch-style home built of brick and wood with an inverted V-shaped roof typical of Dutch homes. The house has served many functions over the past two centuries. Long after Tucker had passed away, some say that around the Civil War years a dance hall called “Shadow City” was located in the basement. For decades during the 20th Century, a liquor store occupied the house. In the 1980s a bar took over the space and was simply known to locals as “Liquor Store” for the sign that remained above the store. The Liquor Store bar thrived for a decade but then in 1990, a mosque opened at 245 West Broadway. Since state law prohibits establishments from selling alcohol within 200 feet of a house of worship, the city revoked the bar’s liquor license. The bar closed and J. Crew moved in. It is a J. Crew like no other; they kept the bar’s faded neon sign. The original wood bar is still intact and old photographs are on display. Stop in to take see the historic features and the latest in menswear!
(Walk a few hundreds yards and cross West Broadway til North Moore Street)
(F) Hook and Ladder 8 Brigade (Ghostbusters firehouse) – 14 North Moore Street
This is probably the most recognizable firehouse in all of America, thanks to the 1984 movie Ghostbusters. The H&L 8 dates back to the mid-1800s, a time when New York City didn’t have a centralized fire department. Instead they had neighborhood fire brigades that operated independently of each other. In 1865, the City of New York (which was just Manhattan back then) formed the Metropolitan Fire Department. The H&L 8 brigade moved into the brand new, Baroque-style firehouse on North Moore Street built in 1903. This little firehouse is big on heroes. Nearly a century before the heroes of Ghostbusters arrived, the firemen of the H&L 8 were well known for their bravery. To read more about H&L 8 and also other local sites that appeared in Ghostbusters read our post on Top Ten Ghostbusters Locations.
(Continue west on North Moore on block and make a left on Hudson Street. Walk one street south)
(G)Powell Building – 105 Hudson Street
This beautiful building, whose base looks almost like a white frosting iced layer cake, did actually have a very sweet past. It was the New York headquarters for the Baker’s Chocolate Company, established in Massachusetts in 1780. You can still see Baker’s Chocolate products in stores all over America. The building was designed in 1892 by the famed Carrere & Hastings, the architects of New York Public Library on 42nd Street. For the Powell Building, they looked to the ornate Renaissance Revival style of the late 1800s and used terra cotta and brick. In 1903, Baker’s Chocolate sold the building to another candymaker, Alexander Powell, hence the name on the building. It was enlarged with four additional floors in 1905 and has since been converted to condominiums with commercial space at street level. Today, shop windows that used to display confections, candy and chocolate, instead give you a peek into one of the finest — and most expensive — sushi restaurants in the city, Nobu. Here’s an insider tip: if Nobu is out of your budget, and you happen to be in NYC in mid-January or late-July, you can take advantage of Restaurant Week and dine on their delicacies for just $30 per person. Now THAT is a sweet deal!
(Continue south two blocks along Hudson Street until you reach Harrison Street. Make a right turn and walk down Harrison for a few hundred feet.)
(H) New York Mercantile Exchange Building – 6 Harrison Street
Built in 1886, this Queen Anne style brick building cost of $400,000 (a hefty sum back then). Today condos in this building sell for $3.75 million. The building was named for the commodities exchange that grew out of the older Butter, Cheese and Egg Exchange. In 1882 this exchange expanded to include additional commodities such as dried fruits, poultry and canned goods. The exchange renamed itself to reflect the diversity of goods traded within its group and became the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX). NYMEX operated out of this building until 1994, more than a century after it was built. Eventually they left this dignified brick building for more modern offices in the World Financial Center (now called Brookfield Place) in Battery Park City. The building is now…you guessed it…luxury condominiums.
(Turn 360 degrees around, cross the cobblestone street and you will be at Staple Street).
(I)Staple Street Skybridge
This alley is unlike any other alley in New York. This is Staple Street, one of New York’s smallest streets running just two blocks. There is some dispute among New York City historians as to how the street got its name. It seems likely that the “NYC Landmarks Designation Report for Tribeca West” offers the most plausible explanation. The report states that most street names in the area refer to prominent residents and property owners of the past. In this case, records show that John J. Staples owned nearby property around the year 1800.
One lovely feature of Staple Street is that it retains its original Belgian-block street. The other curious feature is the cast-iron skybridge, three stories above the sidewalk and connecting two buildings. These buildings belonged to New York Hospital (now New York-Presbyterian Hospital located uptown). The building that runs along the east side of Staple Street is 60 Hudson Street, built in 1893. It served as the Hospital’s “house of relief” (now called an emergency room). Running along the west side of Staple Street is the rear of 9 Jay Street, built in 1907. The third floor of this building was the hospital’s laundry and the skybridge was built to connect the third floors of both buildings. Today, the third floors of both buildings are a connected work/residential 6,000 square foot loft. As of summer 2016, the loft is vacant of occupants. Could that be because the selling price is a staggering $50 million!?! Granted, it is a five bedroom, five bathroom home with high ceilings, plenty of windows, and a roof deck. And…it comes with this nifty skybridge!
(Continue west along Harrison Street one block)
(J) Harrison Street Row Houses – Nos. 23, 25, 27, 29, 31, 33, 37, 39 and 41
Throughout the city you will find enclaves – or more like sanctuaries – of old houses from the early 1800s that have managed to escape destruction in favor of new modern buildings. The Harrison Street Houses are one such group of survivors. (Others can be seen on our Greenwich Village Tour along Grove Street). These houses were built in the Federal style and range in age from 1796-1828. Some Federal style features are a raised foundation with stairs leading to a simple but stately door frame, shuttered windows on the two floors and half-windows (dormers) on the slanted roof. Of the houses on Harrison St only No. 25 and 27 have a known architect. They were designed by John McComb, Jr., one of the architects of City Hall, a magnificent building visited on our pay-what-you-like Lower Manhattan tour.
(Walk back along Harrison Street and cross Hudson Street. Walk north on Hudson half a block and you will come to Leonard Street. Make a right turn and walk two blocks east on Leonard)
(K) The ‘Jenga’ Building – 56 Leonard Street
If ever there were an eye-catching building, this is it. This slender tower is 830 ft. tall with 57-stories of luxury condominiums. The building is called the ‘Jenga’ building because its ‘stacked houses in the sky’ look like the classic block-stacking game Jenga. This unusual cantilevered design is from the Swiss architectural firm of Herzog & de Meuron. Once complete, the Jenga will have 145 apartments. Prices range from $3.5 million on the lower end of the spectrum to $50 million for the penthouses high in the sky.
(Cross Church Street and continue a few hundred feet to 66 Leonard Street)
(L) Textile Building – 66 Leonard Street
This corner building was designed in 1901 by Henry J. Hardenburg, who also designed the Dakota Building, where John Lennon and Yoko Ono lived. For decades the building housed textile showrooms and offices, hence its name. Since 1999, it has been a residential building. Among the residents is Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, author of The Bluest Eye and Beloved. It is one of the more attractive buildings in Tribeca and could not be any more different than the Jenga building next door.
(Walk back along Leonard to Church Street and make a left, heading south on Church).
(M) AT&T Long Lines Building - Church Street between Worth and Thomas Street
This somewhat mysterious, windowless fortress rising 550 feet high is not residential condos (like so many of its neighbors!) Built in 1974, it served for 25 years as the telephone switchboard for AT&T Long Lines, the company’s long distance service. AT&T’s long distance service handled 175 million calls per day. The building was designed by architect John Carl Warnecke in the Brutalist style so popular in the 1970s. It is one of the most secure buildings in New York, if not the entire United State – as it was built to withstand the fallout from a nuclear blast for up to two weeks.
In 1999, AT&T moved its facilities next door, though their name still remains on the building. Today still hold telephone switching equipment today, with some portions of the building designated as a secure data center. Some architecture and design critics have called it one of the ugliest buildings in New York, while others praise the building for fitting into the neighborhood’s motif more so than other skyscrapers nearby. Whatever you may think of it, it is no doubt one of the oddest buildings in the city.
(Continue walking south on Church Street two blocks. Our next stop is on the West side of Church Street)
(N) Mother A.M.E. Zion Church – 158 Church Street
Walk over to the “Fast Broadway Shoe Repair” store. This location has a pretty important place in the history of the United States. It was here that the first black church in New York State was founded in 1796 by free African-Americans. Like other locations in Tribeca, the church was a stop along the Underground Railroad. The church’s full name was Mother African Methodist Episcopal Church but affectionately known as the Freedom Church. In the pre-Civil War days it was a hub of black social activism and the abolitionist movement. Its first Bishop was James Varick, for whom Varick Street in North Tribeca is named Among the church’s attendees were famed African- American abolitionists. Among them was journalist Fredrick Douglass, a former slave who was assisted by the Mother Zion church in his escape to freedom and Harriet Tubman, who will be the new face of the $20 bill. In 1925, the church congregation relocated to Harlem in 1925 to its current location at 140 W. 137th Street.
(Continue south on Church Street half a block to Chambers Street. From the corner of Church and Chambers , look east and you will have a wonderful view of the Municipal Building, one of the Beaux-Arts style gems in all of New York City.)
(O) The Cary Building – 105/107 Chambers Street
It’s easy to overlook just how attractive the Cary Building is because of all the unattractive street level shops. Not only is the Cary Building a nice sight, it is considered to be one of the most important mid-19th century buildings. It was commissioned in 1856 by William H. Cary of the Cary, Howard, and Sanger dry goods firm. (Look up at the top and you’ll see the name of the building inscribed into the building’s upper arch.) In the mid-1800s New York saw the massive development of commercial industries and the construction of large commercial buildings. Cary hired the firm of King & Kellum who created one of the earliest examples of a building that had a façade made entirely of cast-iron. It was also a novelty in that was one of the first buildings designed in the Italianate style. Many other buildings wold follow this trend in the decades to come. Another first for the Cary building is that rolling metal security shudders of the kind we see all the time on store front, were invented and patented for the design of the Cary Building. Shopkeepers all over America owe their thanks to the Cary Building.
(Cross Chambers Street and head west half a block on Chambers Street)
(P) Swift, Seaman & Co. Bldg. – 122 Chambers Street
This pre Civil-War Italianate-style building from 1857 was occupied mostly by the company for which it is named. Swift, Seaman & Co. specialized in saddlery hardware and harness brasses. It is hard to imagine the time when horses and carriages were the mode of transportation in the city. This caramel-colored building is a pretty little building worth stopping in front of to take a look up at the carved stone decorations on top of the windows. On the ground floor is a cool store if you like old posters, the Postermuseum.
(Continue west on Chambers Street to the corner of West Broadway)
(Q) The Cosmopolitan Hotel – corner of Chambers Street and West Broadway
Constructed in 1838 in a Gothic Revival style, this hotel is believed to be the New York City’s oldest hotel structure. When the building was first constructed, it was a 4-story hotel known as the Girard House. The Hudson River Railroad ran tracks right by the Girard House and many of its guests were passengers arriving by train. In the late 1860s, the Girard expanded and added two more stories and renamed itself the Cosmopolitan. When the railroad moved its depot uptown, the Cosmopolitan’s typical guest were now merchants and businessmen. Two things make the Cosmopolitan Hotel worth noting. First, it is among the best budget deals for travelers. (See our post 25 Best Cheap Hotels in New York City).
Second, its anecdotal history is interesting. During the Gold Rush, many of the hotel’s guests were miners. At other times, city politicians stayed at the hotel. It is rumored that even Abraham Lincoln stayed at the hotel during his candidacy for President. This was around the time he gave his now famous “might makes right” speech at Cooper Union. It was also one of the first hotels to have telephones in guest rooms and elevators.Ads in the New York Times around 1936 showed that the hotel offered rooms for $4 more than half of what other hotels charged – a bargain then and a bargain now.
The tour ends here but there are plenty of more things to see and do around Tribeca.
Before the area came to be known as Tribeca, it was referred to as the Lower West Side or Washington Market. The latter name was a carryover from the mid-19th Century when the side streets around Washington Street were home to New York City’s largest wholesale goods and food market. It was also an area with many textile companies due to the proximity to the Hudson River and the many docks where ships arrived bringing in imported materials.
Over time, businesses left the area and the large commercial buildings that sprung up in the mid-1800s became vacant. Over the years the area was just another neighborhood with nothing especially desirable to New York residents. But in the 1960s, artists were drawn these buildings because of their high ceilings and large windows which let in natural light. They were also dirt cheap to live in. The same trend was happening over in SoHo where artists formed the SoHo Artists Association. The Association lobbied for a change in New York City zoning laws that would allow artists to both live and work in these “commercial use only” lofts.
Inspired by the SoHo Association’s victory, a group of artists living on Lispenard Street between Church Street and Broadway established their own association. As you can see on the map, Church and Broadway do not run exactly parallel. The newly formed artists association looked at a map and saw that their block’s location was a bit triangular. Accordingly, they named their association the “Triangle Below Canal Association” – abbreviated to TriBeCa. A New York Times reporter covering rezoning issues saw the name and thought it referred to the entire neighborhood, not just Lispenard Street. In his news articles, he used frequently referred to the entire area as Tribeca. The name stuck and the neighborhood had its new name.
Since the 1980s, the neighborhood has become a very expensive residential area. Beautiful apartments in historic buildings in a location blocks away from the Hudson River waterfront were in demand. Between 2010 and 2015, the average price of a Tribeca apartment rose by more than 53 percent from around $2.45 million to around $3.77 million. Either way you look at it, it’s a big chunk of money. Rents in the area range from $2,200 for a studio to $60,000 for a six-bedroom, five-bath apartment. A lot of residential development has been taking place in the past decade, the latest example being the wacky Jenga building. Fortunately many of the streets and old buildings are land-marked and cannot be destroyed nor can buildings above a certain height be erected. This means that Tribeca will always have that sense of history it exudes, the charming cobblestone streets and a view of the sky. It is truly worth a visit when you are in New York.