• James NoMad x Bowery Boys Interview 1

    James NoMad x Bowery Boys Interview

We sat down with Schielke in the lobby of the James NoMad Hotel for a conversation about being a tourist in your own city, the NoMad district, the history of the James NoMad Hotel, why you should be walking the High Line, and more.

Aaron Schielke is a licensed New York City tour guide who loves exploring cities. He has worked on designing and producing a series of city guidebooks, including the Not For Tourists Guide to Brooklyn. Currently, Schielke is leading the “Landmarks & Secrets” walking tour in partnership with The James NoMad and Bowery Boys, as well as the Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses walking tour. We sat down with Schielke in the lobby of the James NoMad Hotel for a conversation about being a tourist in your own city, the NoMad district, the history of the James NoMad Hotel, why you should be walking the High Line, and more.

James NoMad x Bowery Boys Interview

Tell us a bit about yourself — Are you a native New Yorker or a ‘transplant’? 

AS: I was not born in the city like many people, and I’ve spent some time in and out of the city, especially since moving here. I’ve traveled a lot in the last 9-10 years, but I keep finding my way back to New York. One of my first jobs in the city was working on a series of city guidebooks. Those guidebooks were heavily focused on maps. I had a background in architecture and graphic design and was eventually helping manage the production of the books. At that job, I met Craig Nelson, the tour manager for the Bowery Boys, and eventually became a good friend. So we’ve both been involved in many creative projects with cities in general and the guide area. A couple of years ago, after working with the Bowery Boys, he asked me if I was interested in doing some walking tours. There was one tour that Tom Meyers, one of the other hosts of the Bowery Boys Podcast, had been interested in doing. I got involved in helping create that tour, and we launched it a year ago. That became my first tour with the Bowery Boys. 

What was that first tour like? 

AS: It’s great! I’m still doing that as well. Right now, my main two tours are the one with the partnership with the James. The other is Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses Tour, so a bit more specific and niche. Jane Jacobs was a writer and urban theorist, and Robert Moses was an urban planner and master builder of New York City. They crossed paths, especially in the middle of the 20th century, over two projects Moses’ had planned for the areas that the tour focuses on — Central Village around Washington Square Park and down into SoHo. That’s a long walk compared to the James NoMad one. The James NoMad walk is around 1 hour, we do a smaller area between the hotel and Madison Square Park, and it’s more focused on a specific time of New York History. 

Where did the name ‘Bowery Boys’ come from? 

AS: I’ll try to keep it brief. A few different groups — or, in this case, pairs — have been called the Bowery Boys in New York City history. The most contemporary Bowery Boys are Tom Myers and Greg Young — the hosts of the Bowery Boys podcast. They’re also known as the Bowery Boys.  That name comes from the fact that, when they first started the podcast — and were early podcasters, they launched this podcast in 2007—  their first recording space was right around the Bowery on Canal Street, Lower East Side. So they decided to take that name. 

The very first Bowery Boys were not happy as a group. They were a nativist gang of New Yorkers that roamed the streets in the middle of the 1800S. They were very anti-Catholic, and anti-Irish because Irish immigration was very big at that time. And then, in between those two, you have another fun group. There was another Bowery Boys, a group of actors and friends who did plays and had some slapstick films around the 1940s and 1950s. So there are a few very different iterations of the Bowery Boys. 

To give more context, how does that tie into the walking tours? 

AS: Well, in 2018, the Bowery Boys wanted to expand their podcast, which I should mention is focused all on New York City history, and they wanted to bring even more history to the people. So they decided that for people traveling or living in New York, they would start some walks around New York City’s history. And so that’s how the walks happen. The Bowery Boys is primarily still the podcast, but a big part of their company now is also walking tours.

James NoMad x Bowery Boys Interview 2
(photo: @lemonfervsnaps)

If you had to pick a favorite neighborhood in NYC, what would it be?

AS: This question is always hard, but it has become particularly tricky in the past three years. I’ve spent more time in the NoMad, Flatiron, and Chelsea areas than in any other neighborhood in the city because I don’t live too far from here. So, this was a great opportunity for me to take what I’ve already been learning about the area and then have a reason to refine it into something that could be shared with others. There are things in that area that locals might think are something that only tourists do — some of the big-name parks like the High Line and Madison Square Park. As a local, I really do use those. I’m in Madison Square Park every week at least, and I’m on the High Line. Part of my morning routine habit is to try to go on a walk on the High Line first thing. So even though tourists love those things, they’re great for locals to experience too.

James NoMad x Bowery Boys Interview 3

We’re currently having this conversation in the lobby of The James NoMad. In your opinion, what sets The James NoMad apart from other hotels in the area?

AS: The fact that this building is a beautiful Beaux-arts building sets it apart from others in the area. Plus, it’s also a landmark building, both a New York City landmark and a national landmark.  Also, something, maybe many buildings in the area can’t say, that it has been a hotel throughout its entire history is pretty remarkable. The first hotel that operated here was the Hotel Seville, which opened in 1904, and then after that, I think, it was the Carlton Hotel.

I think it’s great that the hotel has that note in its history and as part of its legacy. Going back to when the building was built, both in its architectural style and use, it’s also a great example of what was happening at that time. I mentioned Beaux-arts, which was very popular around the turn of the century. The neighborhood was transitioning then, and I can only imagine if you stayed here around that time, the heyday of the NoMad. This area used to be very residential then, and there’s almost no evidence of that anymore. The architecture around here used to be a lot of low-rise townhouses and churches and things like that. It was a place where the wealthy lived. And then, it transitioned to a major commercial area, an entertainment area.

During the tour, I try to prompt people to use their imaginations about what people staying here would’ve been able to do in this area.

James NoMad x Bowery Boys Interview 4

The original hotel, which now houses The James NoMad, was called The Seville. What are some interesting historical facts about The Seville

AS: I only touch on this a little on the walk, and there’s a lot of storied history. It was surprising at that time how many people seemed to be getting killed in hotels, and there was always a lot more crime. So there are a couple of true crime stories happening at the time. Supposedly Harpo Marx worked as a bellhop at The Seville.

The tour you currently do in the neighborhood is called Landmarks and Secrets. So without spilling all the secrets, what’s your favorite little-known fact about the area?

AS: I really like the lesser-known fact that part of the Statue of Liberty sat in Madison Square Park for six years. It was the right arm and the torch, so one of the most prominent parts of the statue. It was on display in the park to get people excited for the statue eventually coming to New York and raise funds because they needed to build a pedestal for it, and to do that, they needed to raise funds to cover the cost. That was from about 1876 to 1882. They brought it over for the country’s centennial in Philadelphia. Then it was up here in New York for six years, but it got shipped back to France and came over with the rest of the statue. A few years later, I think it was in 1885, it all got shipped over in crates and had to be assembled here finally when they had a place to put it up.

James NoMad x Bowery Boys Interview 5

Can you tell us about how the neighborhood name NoMad came to be?

AS: NoMad follows in a long New York real estate and neighborhood booster or developer tradition of coming up with these monikers that incorporate some geography. We’ve got SoHo, NoHo (South and North of Houston St, respectively), and Nolita (North of Little Italy.) Everybody loves these, although some have yet to catch on. NoMad has, however, and I think it’s because it is really a distinct little area. We’re not in the Flatiron area. We’re not in what was also known as Ladies Mile. NoMad is south of 23rd Street, mainly between Union Square way to Madison Square Park. But then we’re not quite in Midtown yet, either. So there’s this kind of pocket in between, and that’s NoMad, and I think it is a very distinct neighborhood. And my understanding is that the name took off about 20 years ago, north of Madison Square Park. That was when Madison Square Park North was designated a landmark district. 

Is it true that the original Shake Shack location was in Madison Square Park?

AS: Yes, it is true. That was right before I moved here. I checked the date on this, and it was in 2004 that the first Shake Shack opened. It started as a simple cart in Madison Square Park, your typical hot dog cart in the park. And that was when a lot of park revitalization was happening in the early 2000s. At that time, Danny Meyer was still the owner of 11 Madison Park. My understanding was that most of the food was prepared in that kitchen and brought to the cart, and it was such a hit that they eventually worked on an agreement to have a permanent structure in the park. So that’s how it all started, and then the Madison Square Park location became quite famous, and it launched an entire brand.

Everyone knows about the iconic Flatiron, are there any other landmark buildings in the neighborhood for people to watch out for?

AS: Apart from the James, yes. I think the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company complex on the east side of the park has to be the next one. The MetLife Tower is particularly wonderful. It’s taller than the Flatiron building and has a clock tower with clock faces on all four sides of the building. I think that’s a magnificent building, and interestingly from 1909 to 1913, for a mere four years, it was the tallest building in the world.  My understanding is that it got overtaken by the Woolworth building. Another fun landmark is the complex to the north where 11 Madison’s Park is. The ground floor was initially developed in the late 1920s and was supposed to be a 100-story skyscraper. And then something happened in 1929, the stock market crash, which halted the development.

So they never completed the full height, but I like to think of it as almost when the MetLife tower lost its crown as the tallest building, they were going to try to get it back. Of course, that never happened, but when you look at it now, it seems really obvious.

Do you have any advice for people visiting the city for the first time?

AS: Don’t try to do it all. New York is this iconic place. If you’re a first-timer, there are just all these things. You probably have a lot of people who have been here saying, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do this! Oh, you have to go here and there!’ So it gets overwhelming. There’s never enough time, but that’s why you come back. My advice is to set aside a little time to just walk around, whether that means a walking tour or not. Whatever you choose to do, do a little less and try to go a little bit deeper. There’s so much history to take in there.

I want to bring it back to The Bowery Boys podcast that’s related to this. They have around 408 podcast episodes, so they know how to focus on one thing and go deeper. That’s what visitors to NYC should do — go deep on whatever interests you, and then come back next time and explore a different area.

James NoMad x Bowery Boys Interview 6
(Photo: @mingomatic)

Do you have a favorite season in New York?

AS: Oh, wow. That’s tricky too. Like a lot of people, I do love the fall. It’s that in-between time where, especially if it’s late September, it’s still really warm. You can still spend time sitting in the sun in the park enjoying your day. I also like the middle, especially in some neighborhoods, the absolute middle of the summer in July and August when the people that leave the city are gone, and you can wander around the Upper East Side and have it to yourself on the streets. Some neighborhoods in New York City show a real juxtaposition between absolutely rocking in the summer with people that maybe aren’t able to get out of the city. Their neighborhoods are filled with that energy, and they come alive. And then you have other areas that are pretty quiet, so it’s the perfect time to wander around and get a feel of the different versions of the city. 

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us today, Aaron. 

AS: Thank you for having me!

Staying at The James NoMad is an excellent opportunity to be part of the New York City modern scene while exploring its fascinating history. We’re conveniently located a short walk away from many of the major attractions Aaron mentioned, like Madison Square Park, the High Line, and many more.

We want to thank Aaron again for taking the time to chat with us. Make sure to secure your spot in one of the upcoming  James NoMad “Landmarks & Secrets” Walking Tours with The Bowery Boys. There’s always something exciting happening at The James NoMad. If you need more inspiration, head over to our Hotel Happennings page to find out what unique events we’re hosting or which wonderful musician you can expect during our lobby Happy Hour. After that, visit our deals page and get packing, the Big Apple is waiting for you!

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