Category Archives: Landmarks

A Tour of New York City Through 55 Years of Spider-Man Comic Book Covers

The newest summer blockbuster Spider-Man: Homecoming may be the greatest New York City superhero movie ever. It doesn’t treat New York like a series of famous backdrops (although there certainly are a couple); it has a familiar landscape and there’s a particular care given to depicting Queens, the home of Peter Parker. There’s even a couple scenes with a mangy deli cat; you can almost smell it! (We will over look one major flaw that anybody riding the Staten Island Ferry will immediately notice.)

The film reinforces the notion of Spidey as the premier urban heroic figure. Indeed, in when faced maneuvering through a suburban neighborhood, he’s virtually useless, ripping through trees, tumbling into backyards.

In tribute I thought I would update my tribute to Spider-Man, New York City’s ultimate hero.

A shorter version of this article originally ran five years ago at the start of that other reboot of the Spider-Man movie franchise. The following article was also inspired by a box of old comics books which have followed me around to various apartments for the past two decades. Last week I moved to yet another new apartment and the boxes are still with me. 

From Amazing Spider-man #176

THE KING OF QUEENS

Spider-Man might be considered the superhero version of the New York Mets. Ever in the shadow of stronger, older, perhaps stodgier renditions from a different league (Superman, the Yankees), both Spider-Man and the Mets have origin stories which begin in Queens in the 1960s and are often considered New York underdogs. Their fans call them Amazing.

No modern fictional character inhabits a city quite like Spider-Man does with New York City.  Like other creations from the stable of Stan Lee, Spider-Man was meant to reflect a normal human being in a familiar setting, unlike the characters of DC Comics, who were space aliens, amazons or billionaires.

Yet it’s only Peter Parker’s humble beginnings as a teen from Forest Hills, Queens, that seem ordinary; as Spider-Man, he nimbly darts over the city, never in need of public transportation, elevators or a taxicab.

 

BITTEN BY THE BUG

Writer Steve Ditko** fleshed out Lee’s vision of an awkward teenager-turned-acrobat who could virtually sail through the streets outside their window.  The locations of Marvel’s offices and studios — formerly in the Empire State Building, but at 635 Madison Avenue by 1962 — certainly played a role in developing Marvel’s early characters as urbanites.

Most all his adventures take place in New York, and the city plays backdrop to these melodramatic, often cataclysmic events.  Upon the covers of hundreds of comics books that Spider-Man has appeared since his debut in August 1962, the webslinger has perilously dangled over the grid, either swinging down the avenues or bouncing super villains against an endless number of brick walls. (Like more than a few fashionistas, he sometimes even wears all black to work.)

If superheroes existed, New York City’s maintenance and security costs would well exceed its annual budget, and nobody would dare build a new skyscraper. Why, the budget to clean buildings of Spidey’s used webbing would reach into the thousands each year! (Ed. note: I’ve since been informed that the hero’s webbing is basically biodegradable. Great for the environment!)

Most structures depicted in his greatest adventures are mere abstractions, simple ledges for perching and windows for smashing. We rarely see pedestrians fleeing the falling debris or the contractors assessing the damage for disgruntled landlords.

YOUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD TOUR GUIDE

Spider-Man doesn’t fly. The superhero and the city have a symbiotic relationship; he needs the city’s height to swing around, and the city needs him to protect it. And so New York landmarks have frequently popped up on Spider-Man comic book covers, perhaps more than any other superhero creation. He gathers his strength from the famous skyline itself.

You can actually take a tour of the city through Spider-Man covers, from the 1960s to today. Below are several examples of New York’s guest appearances.

Swing along with him as he takes you past 1) the East Village, 2) Federal Hall, 3) the subway, 4-5) the Roosevelt Island tram, 6-7) the Statue of Liberty, 8) Cleopatra’s Needle, 9) the George Washington Bridge, 10) the American Museum of Natural History 11) the New York Marathon, 12-13) the Empire State Building, 14) the New York Public Library, 15) a vehicle from the New York Police Department, 16) a yellow cab, 17) the Brooklyn Bridge, 18) Rockefeller Center, 19) Times Square, 20) the Chrysler Building, 21) the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 22) Grand Central Terminal, 23) One Times Square. (Not pictured: the Flatiron Building, where the Daily Bugle is located in the earlier films.)

For more information on Spider-Man and other super connections to New York City, check our 2015 on New York and the History of Comic Books with an interview with comic-book legend Peter Sanderson:

**Note: There is some controversy over whether legendary artist Jack Kirby might also have been involved in the creation of Spider-Man. I have re-edited the story above, however I send you to i09’s 2009 article Who Created Spider-Man? which discusses artist’s possible involvement. (7/9/12)

 

 

 

 

And finally, Marvel and the creators of Spider-Man did pay tribute to the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Appropriately, for a comic book that often wantonly celebrates the crumbling of random structures in high-flying battles with super villains, the creators chose to use no image:

 

Top image courtesy IGN. A couple of these are from Sam Ruby, a couple of them are my own scan! You can see the complete collection of Spider-Man covers over at Cover Browser where I borrowed a couple of these as well.

All art, images and characters on this page are courtesy Marvel Comics.

Revisiting the Stonewall Riots: The Evolving Legacy of a Violent Night

PODCAST The legacy of the Stonewall Riots and their aftermath, in a podcast history told over nine years apart (May 2008, June 2017).

In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, undercover police officers attempting to raid the Stonewall Inn, a mob-controlled gay bar with darkened windows on Christopher Street, were met with something unexpected — resistance.

That ‘altercation’ was a messy affair indeed — chaotic, violent, dangerous for all. Homeless youth fought against riot police along the twisting, crooked streets of the West Village. And yet, by the end, thousands from all walks of life met on those very same streets in the days and weeks to come in a new sense of empowerment.

In May of 2008, we recorded a podcast on the Stonewall Riots, an event that galvanized the LGBTQ community, giving birth to political organizations and a sense of unity and pride.

So much has changed within the LGBTQ community — and so much was left out of our original show — that’s we’ve decided to do something unique. In the first half, we present to you our original 2008 history on the Stonewall Riots, warts and all. In the second half, we present newly recorded material, exploring the effects of Stonewall on the crises that faced the gay community in the 1980s and 90s.

Now an official U.S. National Monument maintained by the National Park Service, the Stonewall National Monument preserves New York City’s role in the birth of the international LGBT movement.

And please forgive us in advance for being extra personal in this show near the end.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Google MusicStitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #231: THE STONEWALL RIOTS REVISITED

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An early advertisement put out by the Mattachine Society, urging people to look at homosexuals different.

NYPL

An example of the types of flyers circulating in the West Village following the Stonewall incident.

NYPL

 

 

The Stonewall Inn was closed shortly after the battle with police, not to be reopened again until 1990.

Photographer Diana Davies, courtesy NYPL
Photographer Diana Davies, courtesy NYPL
Photographer Diana Davies, courtesy NYPL

From the first parade (in 1970) to Central Park, the first of what would later be called the Pride Parade.

Diana Davies/NYPL

The parade ended with a gigantic rally in Sheep Meadow in Central Park.

Diana Davies/NYPL

From the parade the following year:

NYPL

NYPL

From a 1971 demonstration in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

NYPL

….and another near Radio City Music Hall.

NYPL

Gay rights demonstrations from 1971 at the state capitol in Albany, NY, from an incredible collection of pictures by Diane Davies, courtesy the New York Public Library.

NYPL

The entrance to Christopher Park in 1975, photo by Edmund Vincent Gillon

MCNY

Gay Liberation, how the statues looked when they were first installed in 1992.

Edmund Gillon/MCNY

An early AIDS march from 1983 which began near Stonewall in Sheridan Square.

During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s, many turned to the example of Stonewall as a way to unite the community and fight back against homophobia.

Photographer Gran Fury, Courtesy NYPL

An ACT UP sign for the Stonewall 25 parade and rally “How many of us will be alive for Stonewall 35?” On the opposite side: “AIDS. Where is your rage? ACT UP.”

NYPL

A sobering ACT UP ‘welcome wagon’ message. “But remember, when you are back at home, the brave legacy of the rebellious queens and dykes who sometimes embarrass you when you see our marches on television.”

NYPL

 

In front of Stonewall in 2013 after the announcement of the Supreme Court verdict in United States v. Windsor, overturning the Defense of Marriage Act.

Photo by Greg Young

Stonewall Inn and Christopher Park, 2015

Photo by Greg Young

Outside the Stonewall in 2016, following the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.

Photo by Greg Young

 

Stonewall 2016, now with police protection! Taken in August 2016, following the announcement of Stonewall as a National Monument.

A Witness to Violence: Colonnade Row and the Astor Place Riots of 1849

On May 10, 1849, Astor Place erupted into bloody violence as crowds took to the streets and battled it out — over a Shakespearean actor. It was the first time in American history that a state militia trained its muskets upon the very population it had been sworn to protect.

Courtesy NYPL

Yet of the many structures today surrounding Astor Place, only Colonnade Row (at 428–434 Lafayette Place) still remains from that dreadful day. From between its columns that May night, residents observed the horrifying violence firsthand. These old buildings, distinctive for their Corinthian columns, seem especially weathered when compared with the dazzling Astor Library across the street, home to the Public Theater since 1967.

(Colonnade Row, it should be noted, is also something of an off-Broadway landmark. The Astor Place Theatre, located in the basement, has been home to the flamboyant Blue Man Group spectacle for so long that the original performers have since turned gray.)

Vauxhall Gardens (Courtesy NYPL, lithography by George Haywood)

In 1805 this area was home to Vauxhall Gardens, an outdoor recreational venue that functioned something like a privately run park. But the city was expanding north, and wealthy fur trader–turned–real estate tycoon John Jacob Astor understood high society’s desire for more refined residential quarters.

In 1826 Astor sliced a street right through Vauxhall Gardens and named it after the Marquis de Lafayette.

Upon the western side of Lafayette Place (now Lafayette Street) he commissioned an upscale housing complex originally called La Grange Terrace, named for the marquis’s estate back in France.

An image of Colonnade Row from 1899 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

As historian Alvin F. Harlow later observed, Astor “was ridiculed for his folly in building such mansions on the very outskirts of town, but he was right.”

Completed in 1833, La Grange Terrace was quite a large and lavish address, boasting nine residences (today’s Colonnade Row contains only four of these original houses) that attracted notable members of high society—a relation of Washington Irving, the father-in-law of President John Tyler, even Astor’s own grandson. They were among the toasts of the town, hosting dinner parties in their twenty-six-room(!) mansions, and enjoying such state-of-the-art luxuries as central heating and indoor plumbing.

Some residents of La Grange Terrace were home on the evening of May 10, 1849, the night that all hell broke loose.

Inside the Astor Place Opera House for the Ball of the New York Fire Department (Courtesy NYPL)

Located just up the block between Astor Place and 8th Street, the Astor Place Opera House had opened two years before as a place for the city’s elite to gather, flaunt their good fortune, and take in an evening of (often imported) culture. Indeed, this was the case on the night of May 10, when they gathered to witness a highly antici- pated performance of Macbeth, starring William Charles Macready, England’s most famous tragedian.

For years Macready had been engaged in high-profile thespian warfare with New York’s most celebrated hometown actor, Edwin Forrest, a charismatic star whose rugged, brawny performances endeared him to working-class audiences.

Below: William Macready in costume, painted by John Jackson

At first, the publicity surrounding their rivalry was a boon to both actors and to ticket sales wherever they performed. Both Macready and Forrest toured the United States in separate productions, many times visiting cities just days apart from each other. Audiences would attend both shows and argue for days about the superiority of one performance over the other.

Soon, however, it seemed these boisterous theatrical arguments were about something larger than the delivery of a Shakespearean soliloquy. Tensions were simmering about something deeper than any actor or performance, but rather that which they represented.

Forrest’s popularity among the Bowery crowd, especially the new Irish immigrants seeking to survive on the lowest rung of New York life, emboldened them against Macready. Macready’s fans, meanwhile, were eager to associate themselves with the fineries of English society. To Macready’s rarified audiences, Forrest represented the growing dangers of the impoverished immigrant class in the rapidly expanding city.

Below: Edwin Forrest, in a later photographic portrait by Mathew Brady

As the actors’ public feud grew more heated, so too did the ire of their respective audiences. And here, in May of 1849, both actors were performing in the same city at the same time. Tensions were high.

On May 7, Forrest supporters had disrupted a performance of Macbeth at the Opera House, pelting the stage with wilted vegetables and rotten eggs. Scorned and embarrassed, the English actor vowed never again to perform in New York and packed his bags to head back to London.

Prominent city leaders (including Washington Irving, a frequent guest at La Grange Terrace) convinced him to stick around for his final, highly anticipated performance three days later. Macready begrudgingly acquiesced.

That night, May 10, thousands of anti-Macready rioters packed into Astor Place, pushing up against the police forces gathered around the theater.

Tensions mounted as the crowds swelled, raising their voices—and then the stones started flying. Protestors pulled cobblestones from the street, pelting the police officers while screaming to burn the theater to the ground.

Inside, the audience tried to keep its focus on Macready, who gave a fine performance, given the circumstances, the drama of the evening enhanced by the growing sense of danger in the air. Once the show was over, Macready wisely disguised himself and made a quick exit through the back of the theater, never to perform in America again.

As darkness fell, the police struggled to contain the crowd and needed backup. The state militia marched from Washington Square and gathered inside the stables of La Grange Terrace, ready to disperse the agitated crowd that filled the square.

The soldiers fired shots into the crowd, seemingly without a distinct target. Anger turned to panic as thousands pushed and shoved, pulling in and trampling innocent bystanders in their path. By the time the crowd finally dispersed, at least twenty-five people had been shot and killed, some from stray bullets that hit them inside their homes.

This violent episode signaled the beginning of the end for Astor Place as an elite destination. Soon, ritzy developments opened farther north near Union Square, Gramercy Park, and later, Madison Square, and the old Opera House was torn down.

In the 1850s Astor Place saw the opening of two institutions that would give it a new educational purpose: the private lending library owned by the Astor family (opened in 1853) and the Cooper Union institution of higher learning (in 1859).

The remaining structures from the 1930s (Courtesy NYPL/Wurts Bros)

Unsurprisingly, La Grange Terrace experienced a spectacular fall from grace. It played various roles over the next several decades, functioning as various hotels and boardinghouses, before five of the nine houses were demolished in 1902.

The other four continued into the twentieth century as curious relics of a bygone era. In 1965 they were among the inaugural structures to be saved by the newly formed Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Even with battered old columns, this landmark tells a marvelous story of New York—from blue bloods to Blue Men.

The above is an excerpt from our book The Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available at bookstores everywhere.

Going Up: New York got its first commercial elevator 160 years ago

Cast-iron construction, pioneered in America by architect James Bogardus in the 1850s, became the preferred method of building large dry goods shops and department stores in the mid- and late nineteenth century, thanks to the speed with which these enormous buildings could go up and the savings they presented over heavier, more cumbersome construction methods.

Today SoHo contains the largest surviving collection of cast-iron buildings in the world. Wandering through these streets in the late afternoon, sun ignites their white- and cream-colored exteriors. It’s magical—and the stuff of a million postcards, album covers, and selfies.

But SoHo contains another secret. It’s the location of New York City’s very first commercial elevator.

There had been so-called ‘hoisting elevators’ — crude platforms elevated by man power — but they were dangerous and their cords easily snapped. Elisha Otis, an inventor from Yonkers, New York, perfected the safety break which allowed a large containment to be moved up and down without fear of plummeting. He debuted this device to enthusiastic acclaim at the 1854 Crystal Palace Exposition. And soon, after some savvy newspaper advertisements, Otis finally found his first major client.

Library of Congress

That would be the magical emporium of E. V. Haughwout, at Broadway and Broome Street, a luxury store which sold fine china and glassware. The corner building’s two-sided cast-iron construction and facade was the first of its kind when it was completed in 1857, and soon inspired blocks lined with similar construction throughout SoHo.

Below: The department store — and the elevator — were first opened ‘for public inspection’ on March 23, 1857.

New York Times

But its most important contribution was placed inside—a passenger elevator, installed the same year, which lifted and lowered its wealthy clients to its various exotic departments.

According to the website of OTIS elevators themselves: “On March 23, 1857, Otis’ first commercial passenger elevator was installed in the E.V. Haughwout and Company…….The price of the elevator was US $300. The unit rose at a speed of 40 feet per minute (0.2 meters per second).”

From the New York Tribune: “Among the novelties we noticed is an elevator to be worked by steam, which is to be furnished with a sofa and carriage to carry ladies from one floor to the other. The steam engine and boiler are located on the rear lot disconnected from the main edifice.”

Museum of the City of New York

The grand opening on March 23, 1857, drew thousands of curiosity seekers throughout the entire day. Although the time to visit would have been right around 7:30 when all the lights went on at once spontaneously, “in all the windows of the six stories. The view from lower Broadway and Broome Street will be truly grand.

Haughwout’s Emporium was also famed for its French champagne and for the fine flutes that it was drunk from. Surprised? While the neighborhood today still pops more than its share of bubbly, SoHo was never more glamorous than during the Haughwout years. And part of the reason for its acclaim was its marvelous, state-of-the-art elevator.

More pictures of the Haughwout Building, courtesy the Library of Congress, via the Historic American Buildings Survey, Cervin Robinson, Photographer March 1967.

The above is an expanded excerpt from our book The Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available at bookstores everywhere.

Henry Street Settlement and the Legacy of Lillian Wald

Without perhaps intending it, social services pioneer Lillian Wald, in her desire to help thousands of poor immigrant women and children in the Lower East Side, also saved a rare and forgotten part of New York City history.

The modern Henry Street Settlement is spread throughout several buildings in the neighborhood, providing health care, shelter, job training and a host of services to the community.  But it started out in just three adjacent Federalist-style townhouses on Henry Street, recruited into duty by Wald and her benefactor Jacob Schiff to stem the tide of disease and harm that threatened families in the world’s most densely populated neighborhood in the late 19th century.

Children gallivant and pose for pictures outside 265 Henry Street, date unknown (Courtesy Henry Street Settlement)



A Different Lower East Side
As New York grew northward in the 19th century, wealthy landowners carved up their land with hopes of profit and a desire to foster New York’s next great elegant neighborhood. Revolutionary War colonel Henry Rutgers, who lends his first name to the street where the Settlement makes its home, sold off his property near Corlear’s Hook to businessmen with financial concerns along the Manhattan waterfront.

Below: An illustration from Forgotten NY, outlining the dividing line (literally, Division Street) between surrounding properties and Rutger’s own (in yellow). The buildings discussed are at Henry and Montgomery.

Many of the great shipbuilders lived in today’s Lower East Side (in the 1810s, it might have been called the Upper East Side) in fabulous residences within walking distance of the shore. Even by the 1850s, when the character of the neighborhood began to change, the mayor of New York Jacob Westervelt still resided at 308 East Broadway close to his shipyards. His neighbor at 281 East Broadway was city surveyor Isaac Ludlam.

Typical of the buildings that defined the neighborhood were 263 and 265 Henry Street, Federalist townhouses built in 1827. Its neighbor 267 Henry Street is a touch more ornate, with a different shade of brick  in a Georgian Eclectic style.

Picturing these streets today lined with such buildings is requires a vivid imagination. That’s because of the sudden mass of immigrants who arrived in New York by the 1850s, moving into poorer neighborhoods along the waterfront and in places like Five Points. Most of the homes along once-elegant Henry Street were torn down and replaced with tenements. Later, many of those tenements were themselves replaced with blocks of apartment complexes in the early 20th century.

These three Henry Street buildings have survived (as well as a few others, including Ludlam’s old home) because they were repurposed by a woman of uncommon compassion, one of New York’s most important figures in health and social services.

Settling Down

Lillian Wald first came to the city in 1891 as a student of New York Hospital’s nursing program. An intelligent and ambitious woman from Rochester, Wald quickly found purpose in one of the few respectable professions in the late 19th century where women could rapidly excel.

She’s marveled at today as a person of extraordinary compassion. But in many ways Lillian was a modern entrepreneur, able to latch onto the progressive instincts of the day to solve the immediate social ills facing New York with great imagination and a bold lack of prejudice.

When Wald founded the Nurses Settlement in 1893, she was building upon the practices of altruistic Christian programs (like the Methodist missions into Five Points) that brought social services into the very heart of slum-filled, overcrowded neighborhoods. However Wald was Jewish, and her perspectives involving health care were profoundly nonreligious and ‘universalist’ for the day.

Below: Nurses heading out to the tenements

In that year she also met wealthy banker Jacob Schiff (who himself had immigrated to New York in 1865) who purchased the three Henry Street buildings for Wald to properly set up her nursing agency. From that moment, it became the Henry Street Settlement, housing a squad of nurses sent out into the neighborhood to tackle an ungainly number of health issues.

In an era where poor patients were often turned away from standard hospitals, Wald and her team of extraordinary women provided care for free, often risking their own lives to enter squalid tenements and exposing themselves to many illness that today have been completely eradicated. (One of her nurses, Margaret Sanger, would later become America’s leading birth control advocate.)

A nurse scales a rooftop to access a patient’s home. Judging from the gas tanks in the distance, she’s in the area of today’s upper East Village.

The Settlement had no problem making the former Henry Street residences into working clinics. The rooms still felt like a home in its decor, a respite for many visiting patients. The nurses lived upstairs in rows of small bedrooms, most of which today have been turned into cozy offices.

The most lively (and historically important) room at the Settlement was the dining room, with large mahogany tables where Wald entertained a wide variety of guests, from poor patients to the great thinkers and Progressive voices of the day.

Below: A knitting class in the famous Henry Street dining room, May 1910. The fireplace at left is still very much intact. [LOC]

Beyond Borders
The Henry Street Settlement soon expanded its mission statement to generally improve the quality of life in the Lower East Side. Concerned that neighborhood children had no place to play, Wald set aside her courtyard to become one of New York’s first playgrounds in 1902.


Below: The location of the playground, just behind the Henry Street structures, pictured in an 1895 image by Jacob Riis and a most recent image.

Wald frequently held meetings here for strikers rallying against the women’s garment industry. In 1909, she invited both white and black guests for a dinner, organizing a group that would soon grow to become the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP).

An excerpt from her 1915 book ‘A House On Henry Street‘ illustrates the racial politics of such a seemingly simple dinner party:

“At the time of the first convention of the organization, [the NAACP] formed to further better race relations in this country, the occasion promised to be almost too serious unless some social provision were made. 

I suggested a party at the House, but even the organizing committee was fearful. ‘Oh, no!’ they protested. ‘It won’t do! As soon as white and colored people sit down and eat together there begin to be newspaper stories about social equality.’ 

‘But two hundred members of the conference couldn’t sit down,’ I submitted. ‘Our house is too small. Everybody would have to stand up for supper.’ ‘Then it would be all right,’ they said with relief, and the party was successful.”

Below: One of the two original dining tables. Wald hosted hosted dozens of intellectual luminaries in this room, including Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacob Riis and Theodore Roosevelt.

Wald would become a leading figure for New York social programs, often enlisted by the city to bring improvement to the city’s other public services. (In 1902, Henry Street’s Lina Rogers become the very first school nurse.)  The Settlement even become an important venue for the arts with the debut of the Neighborhood Playhouse theater in 1915.

The tradition lives on at the Abrons Arts Center, another part of the Settlement that continues to be a critical part of the Lower East Side cultural community. (Below: A flyer for a WPA meeting, between 1936-41, LOC)


Wald died in 1940, but her Henry Street Settlement has only expanded in the years since her passing. Today they have facilities in over a dozen buildings throughout the neighborhood, expanding their focus to include job training, mental health services, adult education, a shelter for victims of domestic violence and even a computer lab.

Those original three buildings, housing mostly administrative offices today, are still a wonderful expression of an early era of New York history. Traces of that history sits next to the practicalities of office life; in one room, an original kitchen hearth and brick oven from the original tenants sit next to a couple photocopiers. Employees sit at laptops in Lillian Wald’s original bedroom with its spectacular sleeping porch overlooking the former playground.

The Henry Street Settlement hopes to use the Partners In Preservation grant money to combat the challenges of keeping their nearly two-centuries old offices in working order, to upgrade and prepare these old rooms for many more decades of providing a little more life to the Lower East Side.

Below: A portrait of Lillian Wald by William Valentine Schevill, hanging in the U.S. Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.

(Portions of this article originally ran on this site back in 2012)

Courting New York’s Legal Landmarks

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.”

Courtesy MCNY

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….

Courtesy Brooklyn Public Library

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

Fall Foliage Alert! Talk a lovely walk through Green-Wood Cemetery

The stunning colors of autumn are upon us, and  you can appreciate the full glory of fall within the limits of New York City, accessible by public transportation. In past years, I’ve focused on the spectacular leafy vistas at Woodlawn Cemetery, Wave Hill and the New York Botanical Garden, as well as Sailors Snug Harbor in Staten Island.

But Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery offers the colors of fall in a most mysterious, gothic setting, thanks in part to its age (opening in 1838). Its rambling ‘rural cemetery’ design presents a surprising adventure, with a variety of trees changing different hues at different intervals.

I was there this weekend working on a segment of the next episode of The First and was utterly distracted by the beauty.  Take a look at some of the pictures I took — covering only a small area of the grounds — and plan a visit in the next couple weeks before the leaves are gone. 

Grab a map at the gate and go on a hunt for the cemetery’s most famous residents — Henry Ward Beecher, Boss Tweed, Peter Cooper (his gravesite is the first picture below), Horace Greeley, James Gordon BennettJean-Michel Basquiat and many, many more.

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The Statue of Liberty turns 130 years old: Eleven facts about the near calamity that was her 1886 dedication

The Statue of Liberty celebrates her 130th birthday tomorrow. Technically, I suppose, it’s the anniversary of her dedication, a star-studded, pomp-laden ceremony that took place on Friday, October 28, 1886. But for many months previous, she was a fierce presence in the harbor, as the copper monument was arduously stitched together from far flung pieces — including an arm which sat in Madison Square Park for many years — upon a contentious new pedestal by Richard Morris Hunt.

 

The dedication ceremony was not the sterling event of pure American patriotism that one might expect. The reality of her debut proved far more interesting:

1) The weather was totally awful that day. Nasty weather, rainy and wet, nearly wrecked the day, with the statue surrounded in mist and then a ‘regular London fog.

2) It was as much a celebration of the French as it was of the statue. Despite the rain, a contingent of 20,000 men in French uniform marched down Fifth Avenue in the morning, and the French tricolor was waved alongside the flag of the United States from virtually every window and balcony.

3) The early action took place in Madison Square Park. The official ceremony began near the Worth Monument next to Madison Square Park, with President Grover Cleveland, the statue’s creator Frederic Bartholdi and other luminaries in a parade reviewing stand, enjoying marching bands in the pouring rain. Apparently, Cleveland stood in the downpour for over two hours without an umbrella. (This is most peculiar behavior, considering what is popularly believed to have happened to President William Henry Harrison a few decades previous.)

4) No respect for veterans! A minor controversy erupted involving the participation of the three remaining living veterans of the War of 1812. They had been slated to join the parade, but somebody neglected to send a carriage for them. “The Memorial Committee of the Grand Army forgot us three times. We will never appear on a public occasion again,” proclaimed 90-year-old General Abram Daly.

Below: The official invitation to the inauguration ceremony.

 

5) Lady Liberty was covered in a gigantic French flag. After the parade, all New Yorkers, en masse, rushed towards Battery Park, ostensibly to watch the dedication ceremony (but then, of course, it was too foggy to see anything). The dignitaries, meanwhile, maneuvered a boat through crowded waters over to Bedloe’s Island. They were greeted by a looming, shadowy figure draped in a gigantic, wet French flag. The effect, according to the newspapers, was one of mystery and eeriness. “[T]he nearest of the men-of-war could be seen floating like phantoms on what might either have been fog or water so far as the eye could see.” [source]

6) There’s only room for one Lady at this ceremony. Despite being a celebration of a large, glorious woman, there were less than a dozen actual women invited to the Bedloe’s Island ceremony, of the 2,500 or so that slowly made their way to their seats. (A boat of bold suffragists did navigate close to the island.)  In one way, it was for the best; it took hours for people to arrive at the island. The bandleader, the estimable Patrick Gilmore, played a bevy of marches and French folk songs until he and his musicians was soaking wet.

7) It was really too loud to be having a ceremony at all. Explosions and whistles, the “impish screech” of steamships and tugboats, filled the harbor in celebration, and nobody on Bedloe’s Island could really signal to anybody to get them to stop. The dedication prayer and several speeches were drowned out. Ferdinand de Lessups, developer of the Suez Canal and head of the French delegation, dryly remarked of the noisy steamships, “Steam, which has done so much good in the world, is just now doing us a good deal of injury.”

8) Unveiling fiasco! At the close of a very grand speech by New York senator William Evarts, a series of signals was to be sent to Bartholdi, holding a cord which would pull away the gigantic flag. There was a miscommunication however — in the middle of Evarts speech — and the cover was pulled off of Lady Liberty too early. This elicited a deafening, celebratory cry of horns, cannons and shouts from all around the harbor. Evarts, however, was still speaking. Nobody could hear him, and thus people at the ceremony actually began dispersing. Everts ended by turning to President Cleveland, who sat nearby, and uncomfortably finished his prepared remarks. Awkward!

9) No ‘Enlightening the World’ today. The weather was so bad that the Statue of Liberty’s torch could not be illuminated, so plans for an elaborate ‘pyrotechnic display’ were scrapped.

10) The disaster that almost was: There were so many boats in the water — with fog and mist still impeding visibility (as pictured above) — that it is actually quite incredible that President Cleveland and the French dignitaries made it off of Bedloe’s Island alive. In fact, the president had to transfer to a smaller boat which successfully got him to the Penn Railroad station on the New Jersey side.

11) Occupy Wall Street? The celebration didn’t stop there. Parades and marching bands marched well into the evening, with apparently little crowd control. At around Broadway and Wall Street and further south to Maiden Lane, streets were so clogged that there was literally no movement for over an hour. Overhead, people shouted from rooftops and even shot off pistols. Meanwhile, further north on Canal Street, somebody actually had the wise idea of placing a cannon on a rooftop and firing it in celebration. (No word on any suspected damage.) The city’s grand fireworks display did eventually take place, on November 1st.

For more information on the history of the Statue of Liberty, check out our podcast, recorded in October 2008! Download it here.

Photos courtesy Library of Congress digital archive

African Burial Ground: New York’s unforgettable monument (NPS 100)

This month America celebrates the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, the organization which protects the great natural and historical treasures of the United States. There are a number of NPS locations in the five borough areas. Throughout the next few weeks, we will focus on a few of our favorites.   For more information, you can visit National Parks Centennial for a complete list of parks and monuments throughout the country.  For more blog posts in this series, click here.
The following also features an excerpt from the Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available for sale wherever books are sold and online at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

 

A vivid display inside the visitor center at 290 Broadway.

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AFRICAN BURIAL GROUND NATIONAL MONUMENT
DUANE STREET, CIVIC CENTER, MANHATTAN

 

The African Burial Ground, tucked right into the heart of Lower Manhattan, two blocks north of City Hall, represents one of the greatest archaeological finds and saddest stories in New York’s history. The somber monument, opened in 2007, gives long overdue respect and honor to the remains buried here of New York’s first African and West Indian communities.

 Contrast this with lower Manhattan’s other two burial grounds — at Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel —with their carefully preserved marble tombstones and prestigious roster of permanent residents. Whereas Trinity’s cemetery has a fence to preserve the peace, this burial ground has no such border to keep the city at bay.

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In fact, the African Burial Ground is far larger than the site of today’s monument. Its true size is unknown, although it is believed to cover about seven acres, stretching out under many of the surrounding buildings, including those in Foley Square and along Chambers Street.

The burial ground dates back to the seventeenth century, when New Amsterdam was a company town for the thriving Dutch West India Company, and the town’s early settlers were primarily traders, not builders or town planners. In their eyes, they didn’t sail all the way across the Atlantic from Holland to do menial work.

And so in 1626, to stimulate and facilitate the colony’s growth, the Dutch imported the New World’s first African slaves, a group of eleven people. Early records show that they were assigned names associated with their homelands or original captors: Antony Congo, Dorothe Angola, Jan Negro. Slave labor would be used to build many of New Amsterdam’s major structures, including the large wall that lined the northern edge of town.

One of the most notorious landmarks of the slave trade sat at the corner of Wall and Water Streets (once the shoreline, back in British New York). The Meal Market was established in 1711 not only for the buying and selling of raw products like grains, but also for the purchase and leasing of “negroes and Indian slaves.”

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

It’s interesting to note that under the Dutch, enslaved men and women could earn their freedom and eventually own property. But those who did gain independence were not permitted to reside within the city’s walls. Instead, they were forced out beyond the borders to settle in the “free Negro lots” found around the southern edge of Collect Pond.

Things got worse for the colony’s slave population in 1664, when the British took control and renamed the colony New York.

They brought with them their own stricter slavery traditions and stripped away those meager legal protections that had been afforded by the Dutch. New York was not a plantation town; many families owned one or two slaves and they were usually kept in or near their homes. By the 1740s thousands of enslaved men and women from Africa and the Caribbean lived in New York, more than one-fifth of the city’s population.

The visitor center serves as a museum about slavery and an exhibit to the early black experience in New York

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While a diverse number of religions were practiced under English rule, most black New Yorkers eventually converted to the Anglican Church. But Trinity Church did not allow the remains of black people, slave or free, to be buried in its churchyard. And so this population was forced outside the city walls again, this time claiming some land south of Collect Pond as their own private burial ground.

In their burial ceremonies and mourning practices, the city’s African and Caribbean residents were able to display their original religious beliefs, and could come here and bury friends and loved ones according to traditional burial customs.

The remains of 419 individuals are contained in mounds outside next to the monument.

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In the early years, at dusk, New Yorkers would hear the foreign-sounding music, drum beats, and the sounds of exotic ceremonies drifting down from the burial yard.

Well, that was simply too frightening for some white New Yorkers, and so, starting in 1722, it became illegal for blacks to congregate at night, and a 1731 law prohibited more than twelve people from gathering during the day at the burial ground. These draconian laws against black New Yorkers were instigated due to the events of April 1712, when a group of slaves conspired to burn the city. Twenty-one enslaved and freedmen were put to death in retaliation.

While these laws put a damper on many religious ceremonies, it was still possible to show some freedom of expression in the burials themselves. The dead were buried in wooden boxes, most facing east, as was customary for some African religions, and trinkets of religious or personal value (cowrie shells, pipes, buttons, and pieces of coral and crystal) were placed inside the coffins with the deceased.

Images of the remains found on the site of the very building you’re standing in are displayed inside the visitors center.

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With the departure of the British in 1783 and the beginning of the city’s great march northward, this land quickly became much more valuable. By the early 1810s, Collect Pond and its now-spoiled natural surroundings were simply filled in, the marshes drained, the hills leveled.

The graves of many of New York’s early slave and free black population, the resting place of approximately 15,000 bodies here, were covered over in landfill, in some places 16 to 25 feet deep.

Map of the site and the projected location of other burials. Below is a current Google Map satellite view of the site:

Courtesy National Park Service
Courtesy National Park Service

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The early structures built atop the burial ground were not very tall, none more than a few stories high. As a result, the depths of their foundations were no deeper than 20 feet or so. In some places, the burial ground lay below the newly erected buildings, completely preserved by the landfill that had been hastily thrown over it.

Flash forward—way forward—to 1991, when New York City was home to hundreds of skyscrapers, but unbelievably this small seven-acre area still only held structures of modest height. When work began on a nearby government building at 290 Broadway, excavators happened upon the first evidence of human remains. Throughout the next year, excavations would uncover a total of 419 bodies, along with a wide assortment of artifacts.

The monument to this discovery, completed in 2007 and operated by the National Park Service, returns a bit of grace and reverence to this site, and focuses on the spiritual beliefs of those who were interred here centuries ago. Immediately to your right is a set of seven evenly and elevated spaced beds of grass, where the bodies of the 419 have once again been buried, collected in hand-carved wooden sarcophagi.

The following words are inscribed upon the monument (Duane Street, between Broadway and Lafayette Street. Visitors’ center at 290 Broadway):

For all those who were lost
For all those who were stolen
For all those who were left behind
For all those who are not forgotten

WANT MORE INFORMATION? Visit the NPS African Burial Ground National Monument site for more information.

LISTEN TO OUR PODCAST! We have an entire show on the African Burial Ground. It’s Episode #115. You can find it on iTunes or download it from here.

Stonewall Inn: The story of New York’s newest National Monument (NPS 100)

This month America celebrates the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, the organization which protects the great natural and historical treasures of the United States. There are a number of NPS locations in the five borough areas. Throughout the next few weeks, we will focus on a few of our favorites.   For more information, you can visit National Parks Centennial for a complete list of parks and monuments throughout the country.  For more blog posts in this series, click here.
The following also features an excerpt from the Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available for sale wherever books are sold and online at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

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STONEWALL NATIONAL MONUMENT
CHRISTOPHER STREET, WEST VILLAGE, MANHATTAN

On June 24, 2016, President Obama — who had conjured the name of Stonewall Inn in his 2013 inaugural speech — designated the location of the 1969 Stonewall Riots as a National Monument, to be overseen by the National Park Service.

Twelve days earlier, a gunman walked into a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and killed 49 people. It was the deadliest terrorist attack since September 11, 2001, and certainly the greatest single attack upon the American LGBT community in history.

For days after, a makeshift memorial to the Orlando victims sat in front of Stonewall Inn. Even today, as you enter the building, a list of their names greets you upon the wall, next to an older sign that states ‘THIS IS A RAIDED PREMISES’, a vestige of a time when gay bars were diminished, not decorated.

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Thus is the power of Stonewall’s symbolism, the dignity and community represented in the air around this stumpy, architecturally unspectacular structure.

Recognizing the enigmatic atmosphere of this place, Stonewall National Monument is actually the building proper and the portion of Christopher Street which sits in front of it, as well as the entirety of triangular Christopher Park.  This includes one very relevant piece of art — the four human statues known as the Gay Liberation Monument (placed here in 1992) — and one somewhat random inclusion — a statue to Union general Philip Sheridan.

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But perhaps the most unusual aspect to the National Park Service’s newest acquisition is that Stonewall Inn is still very much an active bar, even more so now for its fame. Its Big Gay Happy Hours are but one of many things which sets this NPS site apart from, say, Grant’s Tomb.

There’s a constant police presence in front of Stonewall Inn. On a given night you may even see armed guards out in front, a curious dichotomy with the drag queens who perform on the second floor. I cannot wait to see how they incorporate a temporary ranger station and a visitor center.

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It’s unfortunate that Stonewall — a historic symbol of safe space — should feel like slightly less of one because of current events. But this situation does provide another, more hopeful optic: the image of an alert and engaged law enforcement, entrusted in keeping a gay bar safe and secure.

If you could somehow go back in time to tell the men and women who were arrested in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, about this, they would have laughed (and maybe spit) in your face.

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In the 1960s the mob had a veritable monopoly on the Greenwich Village gay scene, tucked invisibly down the neighborhood’s side streets. No bar catering to gays and lesbians could stay open without paying bribes (to both the mob and the police), and complaining bar owners had a funny way of finding themselves arrested—or worse. Indeed, police detectives sometimes posed as gay men to corner alleged “homophiles.”

One of these dank and unappealing bars on Christopher Street was the Stonewall Inn. Its history was long and colorful: A former stable, it became a notorious “teahouse” in 1930, then a somewhat respectable restaurant, then was gutted in a fire before becoming a darkened-window dive bar catering to homosexuals in 1967.

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There was nothing especially notable about the Stonewall, with its watered- down drinks and its hat-and-coat check. There was dancing and a jukebox and a good mix of white, African American, and Hispanic patrons just looking to have fun. Wouldn’t you be upset if they kept shutting you down for no good reason?

This is precisely what the police attempted just after 1 a.m. on June 28, 1969, when uniformed and undercover cops raided the packed bar and prepared to arrest the patrons.

Protesters gathered in the streets outside the Stonewall Inn in the days following the riots on June 28.

Courtesy CNN
Courtesy CNN

But people were not having it. A crowd outside the bar began heckling the officers as they started their arrests, pulling patrons from the bar and loading them into wagons. One woman in handcuffs fought fiercely, inspiring an extraordinary coalition of street youths and drag queens to push back against restraint. The crowds swelled as patrons from other bars joined the fracas, filling Christopher Street and pushing back against police harassment until well after four in the morning.

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What began as proper “rioting”—or aimless anger in the streets—grew more focused over the next several days, as hundreds of marginalized New Yorkers returned to the street in front of the Stonewall with a newfound sense of solidarity. Their example inspired people throughout the city—and around the country.

One year after the raid, activists would gather in front of the Stonewall and march up to Central Park, an event that would become the city’s annual LGBT Pride March.

Today gay pride celebrations and parades in many European countries are referred to as “Christopher Street Day” celebrations. Although Stonewall Inn has gained national importance today, it is Christopher Street itself that retains the symbolism for many.

And that is why a very small portion of that street — forever associated with struggle —  is America’s newest National Monument.

WANT MORE INFORMATION? Visit the NPS Stonewall National Monument site for more information.

LISTEN TO OUR PODCAST! We have an entire show on the Stonewall Riots. It’s Episode #49. You can find it on iTunes at the Bowery Boys Archive, featuring our older shows.  Or download it from here.

You can also hear it here via SoundCloud: