PODCAST Part One of our two-part series on New York City in the years following the Revolutionary War.
The story of New York City’s role in the birth of American government is sometimes forgotten. Most of the buildings important to the first U.S. Congress, which met here from the spring of 1789 to the late summer of 1790, have long been demolished. There’s little to remind us that our modern form of government was, in part, invented here on these city streets.
Riding high on the victories of the Revolutionary War, the Founding Fathers organized a makeshift Congress under the Articles of Confederation. After an unfortunate crisis in Philadelphia, that early group of politicians from the 13 states eventually drifted up to New York (specifically to New York’s City Hall, to be called Federal Hall) to meet. But they were an organization without much power or respect.
The fate of the young nation lay on the shoulders of George Washington who arrived in New York in the spring of 1789 to be inaugurated as the first president of the United States. His swearing-in would finally unite Americans around their government and would imbue the port city of New York with a new urgency.
This is Part One of a two part celebration of these years, featuring cantankerous vice presidents, festive cannonades, and burning plumage! (Part Two arrives in two weeks.)
FEATURING Washington, Adams, Madison, Livingston and, of course, HAMILTON!
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Civic buildings are often beautiful architecture in plain sight. Their uniformity — many rendered in classical styles — often finds them less appreciated than other forms of urban architecture. In a city like New York, skyscrapers, hotels and brownstones are more likely to get the attention of camera-wielding tourists over courthouses. After all, doesn’t every town have a courthouse?
But in Robert Pigott‘s engrossing New York’s Legal Landmarks, an extraordinary world of New York’s civic architecture, past and present, comes alive. He focuses specifically on structures pertaining to legal work — courthouses, law schools, law firms, even jails — in a surprising array of architectural forms.
Not every courthouse has Roman columns or cavernous atriums. In New York City, you can find legal buildings in art deco, brutalist and post-modernist styles. In many cases, they fit so well into a city block that you’re hardly aware of their existence.
Here are five of my favorite details from the book which is currently available in bookstores.
Old City Hall
We know the building better today as Federal Hall, the place where the first Constitutional Congress first met in 1789. (The original building was demolished in the early 19th century replaced with this one in 1842.) But the structure was actually New York’s City Hall as well, serving a variety of purposes— it was a very crowded building — until the current City Hall was finally opened in 1812.
From Pigott’s book: “In 1800, four years before their fatal encounter, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr actually served as part of the same defense team in a sensational murder trial held in Old City Hall. When his fiancé was found dead at the bottom of a well, Levi Weeks, a young carpenter, was charge with the murder. After a three-day trial in which 55 witnesses were called, Hamilton, burr and a third lawyer, Brockholst Livingston, secured Week’s acquittal, having succeeded in casting suspicion on another resident of the boardinghouse where Weeks lived.”
U.S. Realty Building
Linked to the Trinity Building with a tiny sky bridge, the U.S. Realty Building is a pre-zoning law skyscraper that casts a dark shadow over little Thames Street. For most of the 20th century it was the home of the Lawyer’s Club, a social club for the city’s most successful attorneys.
“In 1918, Thomas Masaryk was speaking at the Lawyer’s Club when he received a cable informing him that he had been elected president of the newly-created sate of Czechoslovakia.”
New York County Courthouse
Probably the most recognizable of New York’s civic architecture, the courthouse was built to replace the extravagant Tweed Courthouse. It used to be known not only for its legal decisions, but for its cuisine!
“In its early years, the Justices lunched in a dining room on the seventh floor on meals prepared in a large on-site kitchen by chefs on the courthouse staff.”
The original Bronx Borough Courthouse
The Bronx has some truly dazzling civic architecture, but not all of it is employed in the services of the city today. This 1915 courthouse, now a New York City landmark, was abandoned in 1977.
“[B]y 1988 it had lain vacant for several years and was described by architectural historian Christopher Gray as a ‘large pigeon coop’. In 1998, the City of New York rejected a bit by comment group Nos Quedamos to acquire the building. Instead it was sold at public auction to a private developer, who continues to seek a suitable use for the structure.”
The book also features a few notable addresses including….
James Madison High School, Brooklyn
According to Pigott, “[f]rom the high school still located at this address, a future Supreme Court Justice graduated in 1950. Born Ruth Joan Bader in 1933, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was raised in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.”
New York’s Legal Landmarks
A Guide to Legal Edifices, Institutions, Lore, History and Curiosities on the City’s Streets
By Robert Pigott
Attorney Street Editions
Here’s some old fashioned New York City trivia for you — There’s never been a Speaker of the House from the city of New York, although there have been a couple from New York state — the otherwise unremarkable John W. Taylor, an upstate New Yorker from the Saratoga region, in 1820-21; and a central New York representative, Theodore Medad Pomeroy, who held the post for exactly one dayin 1869.
But never fear! America’s very first Speaker of the House, Frederick Muhlenberg, has a New York connection wholely unique and never to be repeated — he is the only Speaker to have served within that role in New York proper, in the months of 1789-1790 when the city was also the nation’s capital, and the center of government sat in Federal Hall on Wall Street.
Below: Federal Hall, home to the first House of Representatives 1789 [NYPL]
And that was not Muhlenberg’s only tie to the city. Although he served in the House as a representative from Pennsylvania, he had previously lived in New York for two years during a truly volatile moment — the years before the Revolutionary War.
His name will probably sound familiar if you’re a Lutheran. His father Henry Melchior Muhlenbergis considered “the patriarch of the Lutheran Church in North America,” coming to the British colonies from Germany in 1742 by request of several American ministers in need of spiritual direction. Henry spread Lutheranism throughout the colonies, principally to German and Dutch settlers, and for a time in 1751 even lived in New York, uniting the Lutheran congregations here.
He spawned a true religious dynasty as three of his sons entered the ministry. Frederick (pictured below), born in 1750 in Trappe, Pennsylvania, trained at several small churches in the state before moving with his family to New York in 1774. Lutherans were by no means plentiful in New York during this period, but they worshipped in various small congregations throughout the city, including some services at Trinity Church.
Young Muhlenberg, however, took up with a new church situated just east of the city commons, the newish stone Old Christ Church at the southeast corner of Frankfort and William streets, affectionately referred to as the Old Swamp Church.
When that house of worship was built in 1767, this area of the city, sparsely populated, was called the ‘swamp’, not so much for the topography perhaps as for the grim-smelling leather shops and tanneries that sat here.
Collect Pond, which attracted these sorts of businesses, was but a stone’s throw away, and the area retained its air of industry even as the tanneries moved out and the presses (that would soon comprise Park Row’s newspaper district) moved in.
The congregation didn’t seem to mind however, especially now that they had a venerable Muhlenberg as their leader. And they certainly needed him by this time. In fact, he might had come to New York during this period specifically to reassure a tense congregation amid the tensions that were stewing within the city.
The city of over 22,000 inhabitants was being ripped apart with rebellion, as New Yorkers, caught in an increasing spirit of independence, fought back against British tyranny. From the steps of Old Swamp Church, members would have seen the‘liberty poles’, hanging in the commons and festooned with banners, and heard (or participated in) regular rallies there.
Below: Civilians defending the liberty pole in 1776
The clandestine Sons of Liberty would conduct secret meetings in nearby taverns, and services would have been interrupted with sounds of the Sons’ many retaliations against British officials.
Congregants felt the inevitability of war; it would surely dominate their prayers by 1774. Having the guidance of Muhlenberg, son of the colonies’ most prominent Lutheran, would certainly be of great relief.
It seems, though, that Muhlenberg himself was at odds with his role. He was not bold or rebellious himself and he initially believed the conflicts were none of his business. Even as his brother Peter Muhlenberg, a Virginian who embraced the rebel conflict, would join the fledgling Continental Army in 1775, Frederick himself was not yet convinced. He wrote his brother: “You have become too involved in matters with which, as a preacher, you have nothing whatsoever to do and which do not belong to your office.” [source]
Revolution was invitable. But Frederick was a theologian, cautious and steady, and he worried not only for his congregation but for his own family. This passivity would soon fall away. When actual bombs began reigning down on the city, he sent his pregnant wife and children away to Philadelphia. He remained for a few months to officiate over a dwindling flock but soon fled himself in the first months of 1776, looking over his shoulder at a city soon to be paralyzed by war.
Below: An illustration from ‘D.T. Valentine’s Manual, 1859’, looking up from William Street from Frankfort. The building immediately to the left was the old Swamp Church, no longer in service and heavily redone by the mid-19th century.
He returned to New York in 1789 as one of the most powerful men in the new government of the United States. Muhlenberg spent the war in Pennsylvania and soon found his footing there as a political leader, becoming a member of the Continental Congress and later elected as speaker to Pennsylvania’s own state House of Representatives in 1780.
Frederick wasn’t merely heeding a patriotic call. He had grown a little exhausted of the pulpit and wanted to develop his new course, one of his very own.
Muhlenberg’s austere character and unblemished reputation served him well in politics. He led Pennsylvania’s ratification of the Constitution in 1787. When the first national Congress was formed, Muhlenberg represented his state at their first meeting in the new temporary capital and his old home — New York.
His election as Speaker made perfect sense; he had a well-known last name that had helped define American spirituality, and he came from a state neatly between that of President George Washington (from Virginia) and Vice President John Adams (from Massachusetts).
The first House of Representatives met on April 1, 1789, at Federal Hall at the junction of Wall and Broad streets, just south of Old Swamp Church (which now thrived under new leadership). Muhlenberg would help shape the first traditions of the House and define the rules as dictated by the Constitution, its ink still dry and untested. Most notably, his was the first signature to grace the Bill of Rights:
He grew into a tolerant and jovial leader, best known for inviting fellow Congressmen over to his home for fairly elaborate ‘oyster suppers’. Muhlenberg would remain Speaker of the House for the entirety of the first Congress, even as they moved out of New York at the end of 1790. He stayed in the House through 1797, become Speaker again for the Third Congress in 1793.
Muhlenberg’s name has been attached to some rather scandalous events. He was one of three men brought into the confidence of Alexander Hamilton during a blackmail scandal involving his mistress Maria Reynolds. Muhlenberg was sympathetic to Hamilton’s predicament; one of the other three men, political enemy and future president James Monroe, was less so.
Three brothers Major General Peter Muhlenberg, The Hon. Frederick Muhlenberg and Dr. Henry Muhlenberg from the 1913 book Lutheran landmarks and pioneers in America
In 1796, during congressional battles over funding forthe Jay Treaty, Muhlenberg broke a tie vote authorizing the highly controversial treaty to go forward. As a thank-you, his anti-treaty brother-in-law stabbed him in retaliation. He recovered, but family dinners must have been very awkward after that.
Muhlenberg retired shortly thereafter and died in his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1801.
As for the Swamp Church, its members slowly drifted away, and the property was purchased by tobacco mogul George Lorillard. The Lorillards also have very deep scars due to the Revolutionary War, butthat is another story.
Even if you don’t care about the Academy Awards — or the general self-congratulatory nature of Hollywood during this of year — the short list is an amazing thing for non-fiction film lovers, always filled with small treasures that fly under the radar in comparison to mainstream fiction awards fare like La La Land and Manchester By The Sea.
Better yet, thanks to streaming, most of these films are available for you to watch now. Here’s a survey of a few films on the list that I’ve seen….
The best New York City history film from last year was The Witness, a spellbinding documentary about the murder of Kitty Genovese, a Queens woman whose violent death served as a starting point for criticisms of impersonal urban life. When she was stabbed to death on March 13, 1964, newspapers reported the apparent indifference of neighbors who heard her screams and did nothing. The 1964 New York Times article 37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police has set the tone for how many viewed New Yorkers — as an indistinguishable group of self-involved and even cruel bystanders.
James Solomon’s film works to dismantle this theory with a startling detective at its core — Kitty’s brother Bill Genovese who lost both his legs in Vietnam a few years after his sister’s murder. Bill doggedly tracks down the so-called ‘witnesses’ to the crime and pieces together a much different story to the one which was trumpeting in the press in 1964.
The Witness doesn’t merely dismantle an urban legend; it personalizes Kitty in a way I’ve never seen or read before.
HOW TO WATCH IT: It’s streaming on Netflix and makes it PBS debut on Independent Lens on January 23, 10 pm. More information here.
If The Witness unravels its central crime, Tower seeks only to relive the 1966 incident, but in a truly unusual way — abstracting it by its reenactment into animation. The effect is at first jarring, but eventually magnetic. The unique animation style allows the stories of survivors to be told in expressive ways, visualizing their thoughts and fears. Central to the story is the tale of Claire James, a pregnant woman whose boyfriend and unborn baby were killed in the attack.
HOW TO WATCH IT: Available to stream on iTunes or Amazon.
COMMAND AND CONTROL
The inspection of historical American tragedies continues with this nail-biter about the 1980 Damascus Titan missile explosion in Arkansas. If The Witness and Tower depict scenarios that could be ripped from today’s headlines, Command and Control is hopefully one that feels somewhat unusual — a dangerous mistake that potentially could have vaporized a sizable section of the United States.
While a far more conventional documentary than the other two, this brilliantly directed film by Robert Kenner is a true edge-of-your-seat drama thanks to its eyewitness interviews and original footage.
HOW TO WATCH IT: It was featured on PBS’ American Experience last week. You can watch it here.
O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
This epic-length film is more than a documentary around the OJ Simpson trial. It’s about America in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, about the rise of Simpson as a sports hero who seems at first to stand apart from the strides and set-backs of the civil rights era. Many have already proclaimed this one of the greatest non-fiction historical films about the latter half of the 20th century. I add my own accolades to this list as well. If you love modern history, this is a must-see — all nine hours of it.
In Ava DuVernay’s Oscar nominated Selma, the director managed to tell the story of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches in a way that felt intimately linked to our modern situation. In this brilliant documentary, she reverses that process, taking an immediate crisis (American mass incarceration) and digs into its bedrock, finding the historical roots to our current problem.
At the core of this film lies the reason that I love studying history in the first place; knowing what came before and how we got to such a dysfunctional place today brings to light our possible salvation. The clues are in our past if we listen to them.
Here are the other ten films that are shortlisted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the Best Documentary Feature. This list will be winnowed down to five nominees on Tuesday, January 24.
Cameraperson — Streaming on iTunes, released as a Criterion Collection DVD on February 7, 2017
The Eagle Huntress — currently in limited release, available for streaming on Amazon on February 7, 2017
THE FIRST PODCAST Once upon a time there was a country doctor with a love of birds, a milkmaid with translucent skin, an eight-year-old boy with no idea what he’s in for and a wonderful cow that holds the secret to human immunity.
This is the story of the first vaccine, perhaps one of the greatest inventions in modern human history. Come listen to this remarkable story of risk and bravery which led to the eradication of one of the deadliest diseases in human history.
And hear the words of Dr. Edward Jenner himself, written in the first weeks of his experiments!
On the afternoon on January 11, 1917, workers in downtown Manhattan skyscrapers were jolted from their desks by a startling sight in New Jersey — an exploding munitions plant in Kingsland, a small community about nine miles south of New York City.
“For four hours Northern New Jersey, New York City, Westchester and the western end of Long Island listened to a bombardment that approximated the squad of a great battle — a bombardment in which probably half a million three-inch high explosive shells were discharged.” (New York Times)
A map from the New York Tribune:
A Canadian company Canadian Car and Foundry had been producing weaponry for Russia and Great Britain in Kingsland. All of it went up in a dramatic and deathly burst. Two square miles of town completely flattened.
Given the dangerous work of manufacturing exploding devices, unfortunate accidents occurred all the time. But was this something more? Was this an act of sabotage?
A slightly less interesting map from the New York Sun:
The region had been on edge for a few years. Although the United States had still not yet entered the European conflict, fireworks and munitions plants had been producing weapons for Allied forces — France, the United Kingdom and Russia. By 1917, America was clearly considered an enemy agent by the warring Germans.
Just a few months earlier, on July 30, 1916, the area shook with the horrific explosion at Black Tom Island in Jersey City, NJ, an act of sabotage that blew out thousands of windows and even damaged the Statue of Liberty. (We recount the entire story in our podcast from 2016 about the Black Tom Explosion.)
Seven people died in that explosion the previous year. But in Kingsland that day, with a deadly blast even greater than that which had occurred at Black Tom, nobody died.
This is attributed to the heroism that day of a single woman — Lyndhurst resident Theresa Louise “Tessie” McNamara.
Tessie was a switchboard operator at the plant that fateful day. The explosions began in a building used for cleaning artillery shells. Once they began, the company’s buildings were a scene of confusion and chaos.
McNamara was immediately informed of the blaze, but kept to her station, broadcasting messages to every building in the complex, even as most others fled the site fearing for their lives.
From the New York Tribune: “McNamara, operator of the Kingsland Central, stayed in her revolving chair, with the receivers clamped to her ears, keeping the terrified town in touch with the outer world until the wires were blasted away. Then she fainted, with her job well done, and was carried away to safety by Fred Walters, of East Rutherford.”
From the New York Sun: “It was emphasized from a dozen sources that one girl’s bravery stood between many hundreds of men and shocking death.”
From an interview of Miss McNamara: “Shells were dropping all around and I thought every minute would be my last. About a dozen buildings were now on fire and I had completed 36 calls. No more were coming in and I started for the door without coat or hat. Just then three of the boys who had missed me appeared in the office doorway. One of them shouted, ‘Come on now, Tess,’ but I couldn’t walk. My courage left me and I needed their assistance to get out” [source]
The explosion stranded tens of thousands of passengers along train lines in New Jersey. The explosion’s curious timing — at the end of the day, near closing time — meant that trains were filled with commuters on their way home from work. Nobody was injured, but nobody got home in time for dinner that evening.
This begs the question — was the Kingsland Explosion purposefully set? Nobody was ever arrested, although many reported the mysterious behavior of an employee named Fiodore Wozniak who lived in New York.
From a statement by Wozniak’s foreman: “I noticed that this man Wozniak has quite a large collection of rags and that the blaze started in these rags. I also noticed the he had spilled his pan of alcohol all over the table, just preceding that time. I also noticed that someone threw a pail of liquid on the rags or the table almost immediately in the confusion ….. Whatever the liquid was, it caused the fire to spread very rapidly and the flames dropped down on the floor and in a few minutes, the entire place was in a blaze.
It was my firm conviction from what I saw, and I stated, that the place was set on fire purposely, and that has always been and is my firm belief.”
Wozniak later disappeared and never questioned.
In the 1970s, Germany did pay tens of millions of dollars in reparation for various acts of sabotage within the United States, but did specifically accept the blame for the Kingsland disaster.
Today you can visit a unique site associated with the explosion — a smokestack that somehow survived the disaster, near a plaque dedicated in Miss McNamara’s honor. [More details here]
The First returns with a brand new episode this Friday, January 13. Catch up on the first five episodes by finding it on iTunes here, listening to it on Stitcher or other podcast aggregators, or downloading episodes directly from here.
And the Bowery Boys return with a brand new episode on Friday, January 20. Subscribe to both and get a new podcast episode to listen to every week!
Here’s the last episode of The First (on the Pledge of Allegiance) and of The Bowery Boys (on the Newsboys Strike of 1899).
Decades in the making, the Second Avenue Subway finally opened to the public this week, its glimmering new stations at 72nd, 86th, and 96th Streets heralded with the pomp and circumstance of a movie premiere.
Of course, the subway doesn’t immediately come to mind as a photogenic movie star, but in fact, the various tunnels and stations of the New York City Subway have appeared as the backdrop for hundreds of movies.
Its route diversity — from deep under midtown to elevations above the outer boroughs — and its longevity have allowed filmmakers to turn the subway into a rolling sound stage.
So, in a tribute to the Second Avenue Subway, I recently revisited a post I wrote back in 2010, binging on a variety of subway films from several eras and noticing a definite pattern in their development. I suspect the gleaming new stations will find themselves irresistible as filming locations for future filmmakers in the years to come…..
The First Subway Movie: I posted this just a couple weeks ago, but the subway makes its first appearance at the inception of the very first IRT line, with a 1905 short (they were all short back then) called ‘Interior New York Subway‘. filmed by the Edison company, which was simply a camera following behind the first subway from Union Square to Grand Central. The film’s cinematographer, Billy Bitzer, went on to innovate standard filming techniques, like the soft focus and the fade out, and made his reputation working with D.W. Griffith on The Birth Of A Nation and Intolerance.
A bit later, in City Hall to Harlem In 15 Seconds, a slight plot would be added to the subway atmosphere.
The Musical Subway: Fiction films wouldn’t be shot on-locaton in the subway until the 1940s, but that didn’t stop Hollywood from transforming it (via a backlot) into a romantic set piece.
The most unusual of these is certainly the 1934 hokey gangbuster Dames, featuring an exotic dance number by Busby Berkeley as psychedelic as any 60s counter-culture movie. Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler put on a wacky show — they’re always puttin’ on a show back then — featuring a crowded ride on an uptown train. Powell falls asleep and his dreams burst into hundreds of chorus girls.
BONUS: Earlier in the film, the pair woo each other on the Staten Island ferry with the song “I Only Have Eyes For You” (making its debut).
ALSO: Although it’s an elevated train — not a subway — I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention thatKing Kong (1933) didn’t much enjoy them rumbling down Sixth Avenue on an elevated train either.
Below: ‘Dames’ on a Train: Keeler and Powell dream of the innocent days
The Romantic Subway: On The Town(1949) is a candy-colored, on-location race through New York nostalgia, with our three dancing sailors skimming through the city’s greatest landmarks. A subway ride provides the impetus for the central romance, as Gene Kelly falls for a poster of Miss Turnstiles (a play on the mid-century’s quaint beauty pageant contest Miss Subways). Daydreaming similar to Dames produces an equally dance-filled response:
The Dark Subway: I’m not sure why more film noirs weren’t set on the subway — that would be remedied in the 1970s — especially when they’re as juicy as the 1953 Pickup on South Street.
The opening scene is one of its most famous, as an eerie Richard Widmark hovers over ditzy Jean Peters in a crowded subway car, gingerly relieving her purse of what proves to be a very troublesome item. From there, the action shifts to the piers of South Street — nearly unrecognizable, not an elevated highway in sight — before submerging back into the subway tunnels for a spectacular finish. Here’s a clip of the opening scene:
ALSO: With intrigue rumbling below, even the breeze from a passing subway train could elicit a sexual response as a defenseless young woman in a white dress stands above a grating in the 1955 comedy The Seven Year Itch. Unfortunately, the actual footage of Marilyn Monroe standing above the subway grate was replaced with a studio-filmed version. Here’s a clip of the film, and a still from the original Manhattan photoshoot.
The Hostage Train: That glowing sheen of the Berkeley musicals — even the somewhat clean shadows of ’50s crime dramas — would slowly fade by the 1960s, along with the conditions of the subway itself.
Presaging a rich future as a moving hellcar of violence and death, the 1967 film The Incident presents a group of unwitting passengers terrorized by two young, stereotypical ’60s sadists. Surreptitiously filmed and very low budget, The Incident would introduce the subway car-as-trap motif that would fuel the 1974 thriller The Taking Of Pelham 1-2-3 and open its possibilities for urban horror.
A clip from The Incident:
Vengeance Underground: The movies hardly sugar-coated New York City’s hard times in the 1970s and rendered the subway into a place where anybody, at any time, could be shot, stabbed and assaulted. In Death Wish (1974), the subway is one of several locales of seething, bald-faced criminal activity, but it’s so dangerous that Charles Bronson goes down there twice to pick off bad guys. In the universe of this unsubtle action flick, you could be mugged and raped five, six, seven times a day, so best to be proactive and pick them off before they get you. Ten years later, Bernhard Goetz would reinvent this hyper, fictional fantasy by actually doing it.
ALSO: The greatest movie ever made using the subway,The French Connection (1971), actually has its most notorious moment that runs underneath an elevated line in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a breathless chase scene filmed famously without the city’s permission.
The Fantasy Detour: The reputation of the New York subway system was so poor in the 1970s that depictions went from the ultra-realistic to the absurd without missing a stop. In The Warriors(1979), the train becomes a virtual yellow-brick-row for a costumed Coney Island gang escaping a host of absurd villains. The Union Square subway station holds one of their deadliest challenges: suspendered, roller-skating pretty boy toughs with feathered hair.
It’s only a tiny step into pure fantasy and an actual yellow brick road in The Wiz (1978) with a creepy collection of gangly puppets, a pair of Scarecrow-eating trash cans, and living subway posts most certainly not designed by Heins & Lafarge.
Local Lines: While the mainstream movie depictions would get even more outrageous, the growth of independent filmmaking and thoughtful, locally filmed productions in the 1980s depicted the subway in more realistic tones — as a confusing place to lose a child in Gloria (1980), as an underground wild west for graffiti artists and hip hop dancers in Wild Style(1983) and Beat Street (1984, in the clip below), and as a restless throwback to film noir in King of New York(1990).
The Sequel Subway: With the advent of the Hollywood blockbuster came a restoration of the subway’s reputation — sorta. The subway in the cinematic 1980s and 1990s was still dangerous, but in wild, sensational and very unrealistic ways. The tunnels underneath Manhattan harbored rivers of ectoplasmic ooze (Ghostbusters 2, 1989), a train booby-trapped with explosives (Die Hard With A Vengeance, 1995), a supernatural danger zone of runaway trains and alien warriors (Superman 2AND Superman 4), and even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (who hole up in that abandoned City Hall subway station).
Midnight Horrors: As the subways became safer to ride, the usual tropes of knife-wielding thugs and rapists no longer made sense as objects of menace. Soon the subways were filled with supernatural beings, starting with the relatively sedate Jason from Friday The 13th Part 8: Jason Takes Manhattan and slowly elevating into humanoid insects (Mimic, 1997), monsters from the sea laying large lizard eggs (the Godzilla remake, 1998), and humanoid insect monsters from the sea (Cloverfield, 2008)
ALSO: For a more intriguing take on subway horror, I recommend Jacob’s Ladder (1990) which uses the Brooklyn Bergen Street Station to surreal effect.
The Worst Subway Depiction Ever: Of course, films are allowed to manipulate train lines, distort direction, even put trains next to landmarks that are, in reality, miles away. It’s fantasy.
But somewhere out there in the vast universe of fiction there is a vague, undefined point where a film steps over the line, and the movie which does this most shamelessly is the otherwise great Spider-Man 2, which inserts a vast, fantasy elevated R line through the heart of Manhattan, rebuilding what the city so painstakingly tore down in the 1940s and 50s. If they wanted a picturesque elevated through a dense downtown landscape, why not just put Spider-Man in Chicago?
21st Century Redux: In the last forty years, Hollywood has had a nasty habit of replicating itself, and that goes for subway movies, with rehashed old themes like vigilantism (in 2007’s The Brave One) and even remakes the older films, like the sorry remake to The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3. (Incidentally, that remake’s two stars have two important subway films on their resumes — John Travolta in one of the greatest New York films of all time, Saturday Night Fever, and Denzel Washington, in an uncredited, unceremonious moment in Death Wish.)
But the most enchanting recent use of the subway in a motion picture happens in Inside Llewyn Davis, where a misbegotten cat experiences the rush of mass transit for the first time:
A version of this article first ran on this blog in 2010.
The Guides Association of New York City (or GANYC), founded in 1974, brings together the finest independent, professional tour guides in the city. And since 2015 they have presented awards to the community, “honoring individuals and organizations that encourage and promote New York City tourism, culture and preservation while supporting the work and contributions of professional New York City tour guides.”
The 3rd Annual GANYC Apple Award nominations were announced last month, and we are honored to be included on this list this year for our book The Bowery Boys’ Adventures In Old New York.
The complete list of nominations are below. Tickets are available to the general public so come out and see the show! The awards ceremony this year is held on March 6 at the SVA Theatre in Chelsea, with cabaret performer Mark Nadler as your host. Tickets are $50 and you can grab them here. And you can find more information on the event here.
Outstanding Achievement in Support of New York City Culture
(Past winners include Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao with his winning image High Bridge for the New York Times)
Author and tour leader Anthony W. Robins will be presented with the 2017 Guiding Spirit honor. And the 2017 GANYC Apple Award Lifetime Achievement Winner will be given to cabaret icon Steve Ross! Here’s a bit of Ross tackling some Cole Porter…..
The image at top is F. V Carpenters’ paper artwork Manhattan Skyline, courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Over one hundred years ago, the New York City area (its five boroughs, along with areas in New Jersey and Westchester County) was the undisputed center of the American film industry.
The invention of the movie camera and celluloid film processing — revolutionized by Thomas Edison and many others — seamlessly collided with the city’s thriving vaudeville and burlesque circuits. By 1910 audiences were enjoying short films at nickelodeons, vaudeville theaters and film parlors, most of them filmed in studios scattered throughout the area.
There are a few vestiges of this old industry that still remain in New York City, most notably Kaufman Astoria Studios in Astoria, Queens.
But many of these old spaces have vanished for more terrifying reasons — fire. Film companies were always burning down a century ago due to the flammability of film stock and chemicals then.
One such fire occurred one hundred years ago today, endangering dozens of people including one of the leading film actresses of the era.
Popular Plays and Players Film Company was a production arm of Metro Pictures, formed in February 1915, filming both in New York and Hollywood. Among its employees was Louis B. Meyer, a film icon to be who would later head a revamped version of the company under the name Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (or MGM).
Popular Plays had a film production studio in New York at 226-230 West 35th Street set up in a former brick church, just a block north of Pennsylvania Station. “It is one of the most complete laboratories in a New York studio,” claimed a movie magazine the prior year.
On the third floor, actors were busily at work making a movie called A Waiting Soul, including its star Olga Petrova, an English actress who had made a handful of films positioning her a true cinematic femme fatale, including The Vampire and, prophetically, Playing With Fire.
Immediately at risk were two young women who were working in the room as film editors. The newspapers later praised the two women, who were slightly burned in the blaze, for their quick thinking in closing the fireproof doors on their way out of the burning room.
The actors on the third floor heard the explosions and screams of the young film editors, now in the stairway. The film’s director ordered the cast and crew to follow them down the stairs.
Petrova, instead, raced to her dressing room to rescue “a leopard skin coat valued at $15,000 and a string of pigeon blood rubies worth $12,000.”
As absurd as this quick detour sounds, Petrova later claimed that she lost $25,000 in costumes and jewelry to the fire including a variety of fur coats. Fortunately her maid rescued Petrova’s canary Richard.
“[Petrova] reached the street hatless,” remarked the New York Tribune under the headline ‘ACTRESS STARS IN STUDIO BLAZE‘, “in a Palm Beach suit and a leopard skin coat.”
Below: Petrova from January 1922 Photoplay magazine wearing her signature outer wear.
The firemen had a dramatic battle in store for them. According to the World, “A big galvanized iron ventilator on the peak of the roof was dislodged from its fastenings by a stream of water and rolled down among the firemen. But [they] saw the ventilator coming. Those in the way grabbed hold of the hose line and hung on like acrobats, dangling over the fiery pit.”
Producers later claimed that over a quarter of a million dollars worth of equipment and work went up in the blaze, including several completed film.
Sadly all of Petrova’s film work would be lost to these sorts of tragedies. None of her movies are known to survive. But perhaps those pigeon blood rubies are sitting around somewhere…..
Picture at top: Olga Petrova in The Light Within, made a couple years later after the fire.