Weekly historic walks bring Flatiron District’s past to life

Miriam Berman on a recent tour (Photo courtesy of 23rd Street/Flatiron Partnership/BID)

By Sabina Mollot

During the summertime, residents of Flatiron have come to expect an array of things to do in the neighborhood that are all free, from tech lectures on the pedestrian plaza to morning kids’ concerts in the park to outdoor fitness classes. But there’s one event that takes place every Sunday all year long and that would be the free guided historic tour of the district.

The walk, sponsored by the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership/BID has three guides who work on rotation. One of them is Miriam Berman, who gives tours about twice a month and in 2001, wrote a book about the community, Madison Square: The Park and Its Celebrated Landmarks. Other guides are Mike Kaback and Fred Cookinham.

Recently, Berman spoke with Town & Village about the BID’s long-running event, some surprising facts about the Flatiron neighborhood and her own interest in the area, which she refers to as Madison Square.

“I came to Madison Square in the mid-70s,” said Berman, who at the time opened a graphic design studio in a penthouse in a neighborhood building, sharing office space with an architect and interior designer. “We stayed together for 10 years on Fifth Avenue,” she said.

Her own interest in the community deepened through her work.

“As a graphic designer I became a visual historian,” she said, but it was after going to a postcard show with a friend that she learned that the Flatiron Building was the most reproduced postcard image. She wound up getting hooked on images of Flatiron, collecting postcards and ephemera, and that led to her writing the book. After doing some talks in promotion of it, Berman was approached by the Flatiron Partnership about doing tours.

The tours have since been attended regularly by foreigners as well as locals, who, while familiar with the neighborhood, tend to know more about the history of the Shake Shack than the Flatiron Building.

“I start by telling them that (a lot of people) think that Madison Square is a historic district, but it borders two historic districts, which is the Ladies Mile and the Madison Square Historic District North and it has individual landmarks,” Berman said.

Another thing that tends to come as a surprise to tour goers is that the clock in front of 200 Fifth Avenue is an individual landmark within the Ladies Mile Historic District while the address is not a landmark.

The crowds for each walk vary based on the weather of course and walks still happen on holidays with Mother’s Day being a popular time. The largest group Berman’s seen is around 40 people, with media mentions or a class trip making the group grow bigger. Her average though is 7-10 participants and she’s also done the tour for just one person. But even during blizzards, she noted, people do show up.

“Let me tell you, I’d do it in snowstorms and rainstorms, because people who come from abroad, if they have it on their to-do list they want to do it,” said Berman. “Weather is not a factor. They show up, we give it.”

The walks run from 90 minutes to two hours, depending on whether some people have to leave for other appointments. “If not I’ll continue,” said Berman, “and for the most part they seem to hang on every word.”

Popular stops include Eataly, Tiffany & Co. and the former Toy Building, although, Berman said, “A lot of people really like that the Madison Square area was home to the first two Madison Square Gardens.” The current location, on Seventh Avenue in the mid-30s, is actually the fourth one.

Groups also generally enjoy hearing about the history of 200 Fifth Avenue, which was once the site of a farmhouse that had been transported there after the city’s street grid was drawn. The farmhouse was then converted to a stagecoach inn called Madison Cottage. Later it was demolished and Fran Coni’s Hippodrome was built, where circuses and cattle and horse shows were held.

“It was a precursor but had nothing to do with Madison Square Garden, this grand entertainment center,” said Berman.

The tours take place every Sunday starting at 11 a.m., and meet at the southwest corner of Madison Square Park (in front of the William Seward statue) at 23rd Street and Broadway. No advance registration is required.

Berman’s next scheduled tour is on August 20. She’ll also be leading a special Labor Day-themed walk on Sunday, September 3. The walk will give visitors insight into the history of labor conditions and workers’ rights in the Flatiron District in the late 1800s and early 1900s.


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