Category Archives: Neighborhoods

‘Citizen Jane’: A new film explores the legacies of Moses and Jacobs

FILM REVIEW The story of Robert Moses versus Jane Jacobs has grown to such an epic scale by this point that it scarcely represents reality anymore. Their legacies have taken on super heroic form — the Avengers of New York City history, if you will — representing the basic evils of corrupt government and the essential good of humanity in protecting its citizens from distress and exploitation.

Many might walk by a certain aspect of New York City life that remains troubling and may, to this day, immediately attribute it to Moses, while strolling through a bustling neighborhood and thanking Jacobs for her inspiration. These instincts aren’t wrong but they are reductive.

A new documentary seeks to keep Moses and Jacobs in the realm of the mythical. Citizen Jane: Battle For the City, about the critical fight against urban renewal in the 1950s and 60s,  plays out in New York City, of course, but its title pointedly leaves out the location. The movie is bookended (perhaps burdened) with a greater context — their fight now possibly reverberates into the struggles of all modern cosmopolitan life and even the fate of our planet.

You may be quite familiar with the main players and their biographies.  Moses, the city’s parks commissioner, began to amass great power and influence after World War II, using federal money and modernist ideas to develop urban renewal programs that would rewrite the landscape New York City. Jacobs, “just a housewife” as she was later described by Moses and his cronies, was a journalist and urban theorist who evolved the fight to save the integrity of her own Greenwich Village neighborhood into one to preserve the vital characteristics of the city.

Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

Citizen Jane brings these stories alive using a wonderful assortment of film footage and interviews. Without a doubt, the greatest pleasures of this film are the actual voices of its two subjects.

Moses is at his most cantankerous here, often growling out the defense of his own plans. He describes slums as “a cancerous growth,” complains about people who don’t want to relocate, then labels his critics as in “opposition to everything that’s progressive.”

But Jacobs can be vitriolic herself of course. Fortunately there’s an abundance of interviews which the film uses to narrate Jabobs’ personal journey from a passive journalistic voice to a crusader against, in her own words, the “full flowering of the expressway power city.”

Rendering of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Courtesy Library of Congress

The film, directed by Matt Tyranuer, makes bold and sometimes ominous choices of presenting the stark contrasts of changing urban life, building towards the ultimate confrontation — the development of the Lower Manhattan Expressway.

Even here, the director makes a wise decision to let original news and promotional film footage from the period speak for itself. While it is true that the central conflicts presented within Citizen Jane are truly modern and universal, there’s just nothing like hearing the voices of 1960s New Yorkers, complaining about Robert Moses and afraid of losing their homes, to help bring those points across.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
Directed by Matt Tyrnauer
Altimeter Films
Now playing in theaters and On Demand

 

 

Two strange secrets of DeWitt Clinton Park in Hell’s Kitchen

DeWitt Clinton Park, far west in Hell’s Kitchen between West 52nd and West 54th Streets, has two unusual features that harken to a time one hundred years ago — and millions of years ago!

The park’s most striking feature is an unusual rock formation that juts out just west of the sports field. This unique outcrop, dating back 450 million years (that’s right: read that again!), is called exotic terrane, meaning that a portion of the earth’s crust formed by two tectonic plates grafted together to create a rock composition unlike anything that surrounds it.

Horsing Around: Children daily play around one of the oldest exposed areas of Manhattan’s natural topography. At top, in the 1934 image, the same rocks (more exposed and treacherous) greeted other children. 

Courtesy Greg Young

Over the past couple of centuries, most of Manhattan’s unique geological features have been smoothed over by the city, which hired workers to push plows and drive dump trucks filled with dirt. Thankfully, this extraordinary feature was left in place during construction

But on the eastern end of the park sits a more somber reminder of the past —  New York’s most touching World War I memorial, a lonely doughboy with a rifle slung over his shoulder holding, wait, what is that?

He’s offering up a handful of poppies, flowers that held a decidedly different meaning during the statue’s dedication in 1930 than they have today.

Poppies grew in abundance in the Flemish town of Ypres, site of multiple battles during the war, and the bright-red variety came to symbolize the fallen.

A quote from the famed World War I poem “In Flanders Fields” by poet- surgeon-Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae hugs the base, explaining the mysterious imagery:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

(The bolded part above appears as an inscription on the memorial.)

But this sorrowful monument of Hell’s Kitchen has another tragic element. It was crafted by sculptor Burt Johnson, known for creating many statues of World War I doughboys (a nickname for American soldiers) across the country. You can find another example of his work in Doughboy Plaza in Woodside, Queens.

But Johnson died in 1927 while still modeling the memorial intended for the park. His widow made arrangements for the statue to be completed and eventually, in the fall of 1929, it was installed at De Witt Clinton Park.

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

Open House New York 2016: Ten fascinating FREE places to visit

This weekend is the 14th Annual Open House New York, the city’s annual celebration of history, architecture and design.  Hundreds of places throughout the five boroughs will throw open their doors to visitors. So that weird old church you’ve always wanted to visit? It’s probably open.  Ever wanted to explore a neighborhood you’ve never been to but needed a reason to go?  This is your reason.

Some places featured this weekend did require reservations, most of which have been taken.  (But not all. check the Open House website to be sure.)  But a large number of locations have free admissions — museums, historical houses, unusual residences and so many more.

Here are a few recommendations of places to visit this weekend that are completely free to visit.  You can find the full list here.  Plan your weekend today!  I’ll be around running around to several Open House sites for most of the weekend so follow along with me on Twitter (@boweryboys) or on Instagram (boweryboysnyc).

In additional, I’m also providing a little ‘suggested listening’, prior Bowery Boys podcasts which relate directly or indirectly to the Open House New York sites in question.  You can download them via iTunes or at the links provided below.

BRONX

  1. CUNY Bronx Community College
    University Heights
    Sunday, October 16, from 12 to 4pm

The former Bronx campus of New York University has some of the most stunning and truly unusual architecture in the city, a mix of both fine Beaux Arts masterpieces and captivating 1950s and 60s Brutalism structures.  Several buildings on campus will be open and offering tours. They are:

Gould Memorial Library — designed by Stanford White and named for the daughter of Jay Gould

Hall of Fame of Great Americans (pictured above)— A frozen-in-time tribute to great American thinkers and inventors that will make you feel like you’re on Mount Olympus

North Hall and Library — A bit of tasteful new architecture that makes itself right at home on campus

Marcel Breuer Buildings — For those with modernist tastes, check out New York’s most handsome Brutalist survivors

Suggested Listening: Try our trilogy on Bronx history, particularly Part Two (The Bronx Is Building) featuring the construction of the New York University campus.

BROOKLYN

Bedford-Stuyvesant
10:00 am – 6:00 pm
10:00 am – 6:00 pm

The Black Lady Theatre is a sister location of the Slave Theatre on Fulton Street and has been closed for many years. But the eye-catching murals inside are currently being restored, and this weekend, you’ll be able to give them a peek. 

Courtesy Scott Heins/Gothamist. You can read about the park's opening here: http://gothamist.com/2016/05/26/brooklyn_navy_yard_cemetery_park.php#photo-4
Courtesy Scott Heins/Gothamist. You can read about the park’s opening here: http://gothamist.com/2016/05/26/brooklyn_navy_yard_cemetery_park.php#photo-4
Brooklyn Navy Yard
12:00 pm – 4:00 pm

Here’s a curious thing — the site of a naval hospital cemetery, closed since the 1920s (“the known remains were removed to Cypress Hill,” according the website), is now a stunning, landscaped meadow and boardwalk. Afterwards, head over to the BLDG 92 to learn a little about the wonderful history of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

 Suggested Listening: In our Ghost Stories of Brooklyn podcast, one spooky story references a burial spot near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Your just a few blocks away from the haunted house on Clinton Avenue!

MANHATTAN

Financial District
9:00 am – 4:45 pm

Visit this memorial to the early days of our country — the place where George Washington was first inaugurated. And guess what — actors playing Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton will be on site today!
Suggested reading and listening: Check out my recent article on Federal Hall then listen to our podcast on John Peter Zenger and the Freedom of the Press, where Federal Hall (back when it was City Hall) plays a big role.

Civic Center
12:00 pm – 4:00 pm

City Hall began throwing open its doors to Open House events last year, and we’re so thrilled to see them part of the program that we’re recommending a visit again. Play special attention to City Hall’s spectacular, if occasionally curious, art collection. Afterwards, visit to other architectural masterpieces close by — the Surrogate’s Courthouse and the Manhattan Municipal Building.

Suggested Listening: Listen to our podcast on the history of New York City Hall.  

Photo by Edmund Vincent Gillon, courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Photo by Edmund Vincent Gillon, courtesy Museum of the City of New York
West Village
12:00 pm – 6:00 pm
12:00 pm – 6:00 pm
An extraordinary amount of history has taken place here. Once the site of Bell Telephone Laboratories, this site was transformed into a  a vital artists community in 1970. There are tours of the place throughout the day.

Suggested Listening: The High Line once streaked by this location just west of here — you can still see where it once entered a building on Washington Street — so take a listen to our history of the High Line.

7. Rockefeller University

Saturday, October 15: 10 am – 4:00 pm

I suspect you’ve strolled around Columbia University or New York University, but rarely Rockefeller’s campus here on the waterfront. Now’s your chance.  Walking tours every thirty minutes of this historic set of building.

4140-broadway-at-175th-st-5
Photo courtesy Daytonian In Manhattan. You can read an in-depth history of this building at http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-glorious-loews-175th-street-theater.html

8. United Palace
Washington Heights
Saturday, October 15: 10am-4pm

Don’t miss this opportunity to peer inside the former Loew’s 175th Street Theater, a former vaudeville house and movie theater which opened in 1930. Guided tours at 11 am, noon and 1pm.

QUEENS

Astoria
12 – 4pm

Go for brunch in glorious Astoria, then check out the galleries that explore certain aspects of Queens early history.  Kevin Walsh of Forgotten NY speaks at 2pm on Saturday!

ALSO: You’re close to a few other Queens Open House sites, including Brooklyn Grange, the Welling Court Mural Project, the Noguchi Museum, and Socrates Sculpture Park.

Courtesy Internet Book Archives, circa 1851
Courtesy Internet Book Archives, circa 1851

STATEN ISLAND

1000 Richmond Terrace

Livingston, Staten Island

10:00 am – 5:00 pm; 10:00 am – 5:00 pm

I feel like I recommend people go to Snug Harbor every year for Open House New York, and I’m not going to change my stripes this year.  Its a place of stunning architectural and natural beauty that still feels like it operates on a different wavelength from the rest of the city.  Opened in 1833 as a home for aged sailors, Snug Harbor is one of the largest collections of Greek Revival architecture in the United States.  Check the Open House website for tour times.

NOTE: Make a day of it in Staten Island. The National Lighthouse Museum, the Alice Austen House and Fort Wadsworth are all open for Open House.

Suggested Listening: The early history of Staten Island is featured in our show on the Staten Island Ferry.

Pokemon Go is indirectly an excellent mobile app for history buffs

This weekend I strolled around Carroll Park in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, and observed at least 8 or 9 people staring intently at their phones, occasionally wiping their index fingers rapidly at the screen.

In the center of the park is an 18-foot-tall World War I memorial dedicated in 1921, emblazoned with the names of those from the neighborhood who had died in the war. On one side of this monolith are the words: “THEY FACED THE PERILS / OF THE SEA AND THE / HIDDEN FOE / BENEATH THE / WAVES.”

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People were gathered here thanks to Pokémon GO, the hot new mobile app that transfers the adventures of the Japanese fantasy franchise into the real world via a nifty GPS location tie-in.

The player’s avatar can now wander the city streets looking for adventure in the form of creatures to capture by throwing Poké Balls at them. The world is rendered as an abstract grid devoid of buildings until you interact with one of the creatures. At that point, both the real and virtual worlds collide. Suddenly it’s as though you have a cognitive ‘third eye’, seeing a beast from another dimension that the rest of the world wanders past indifferently.

For instance, here’s the corner of Wall Street and South Street

IMG_9589 (1)

At this busy intersection I had a vigorous battle with a starfish-like creature. I was not very good at this game and, at several points, threw virtual Poké Balls that would have caused many injuries had they been real. Finally I was able to successfully rid Wall Street of this terrible menace.

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Several friends recommended this game to me over the weekend due to one particular aspect — its innovative use of landmarks as a critical component of game play. Icons which appear as spinning blue cubes sit over the location of various neighborhood landmarks. These are permanent Pokéstops, magical places where users can grab vital items for the game, like food for your Pokémon. (You see, your captured creatures are trapped in a virtual prison of your own design. Best not to focus too closely on this part of the beloved Pokémon mythology.)

The reason I’m bringing this up — the reason there’s a Pokémon post on this page at all — is this unique game feature. For players to use these Pokéstops,  they must actually visit them.

And that is the wondrous, possibly accidental glory of Pokémon GO — it’s become the best neighborhood and historical landmarks app on the market.

For instance, here was the sight that greeted me yesterday out in front of Trinity Church at Broadway and Wall Street. As tourists were buzzing by and service was just getting out at one of New York’s most famous religious spaces, I was observing the landscape reduced to this:

IMG_9593

There were several blue squares contained within Trinity Church graveyard. A player could check out those squares from afar but had to actually walk into Trinity and get close to them to seek their rewards.  Even in death, Founding Father and Broadway superstar Alexander Hamilton was providing his countrymen with guidance as one square was hovering over his grave, as though an otherworldly embodiment of his greatness:

IMG_9592

At many sites, a short history is provided with each blue square. Sure, Hamilton is a very popular figure at the moment, so naturally some explanation might be presented here. But how many games primarily geared towards children would have a short history of the building across the street — the Equitable Building?

IMG_9591

 

Back in Trinity, a player could stroll the cemetery and check out other blue square and — it is sincerely hoped — the rest of the history of this intriguing place. But as one who lives in the physical realm AND the virtual spirit realm, you have work to do. For within the graveyard is another Pokémon to catch — the arguably inappropriate Haunter, a play on Ghostbusters’ Slimer and, perhaps, Richard Churcher, the six year old who died in 1681 and whose tombstone is the church’s oldest.

IMG_9595

 

The game provides silly juxtapositions that only history and New York lovers will really appreciate. For instance, it looks like there’s some Squirtle on the menu at old Delmonico’s Restaurant:

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At this point, you may be wondering — doesn’t this all seem sort of dangerous? People wandering the streets, staring at their phones, swiping rapidly to capture a nonexistent entity ghoulishly hovering upon a sidewalk that actual people are walking? Indeed there are many potential hazards to this game that many people have already identified.

But here’s where I found Pokémon Go an especially valuable tool for exploring New York City. For one, simply stop playing the game! Who cares about capturing Pikachu or Chortlefoot or Poofybee or whatever? Just use the app as a device for finding intriguing places in your neighborhood. Not only is this less stressful — after all, who wants to be tasked with catching monsters on your day off? — but it’s free. (The app has paid features for those who want to go deep into the game’s universe.)

The Pokéstops aren’t merely historical landmarks but beloved neighborhood places as well. For instance, using the app while strolling around Brooklyn elicited many sites and quirky attractions I’d never really noticed before:

On Baltic Street:

IMG_9573

IMG_9574

 

Near Borough Hall:

IMG_9579

On Flatbush Avenue:

IMG_9606

How did an international game developer identify such specific and locally beloved places for a fantasy game?  Niantic basically took the information from a prior game called Ingress which was created from user submissions.

And that’s what makes this app a particular pleasure for use in a big city, where neighborhoods might have had dozens of users populating Niantic’s databases. (I’d be very curious to see how enjoyable this experience is in a rural area.) Not all the landmarks have historical descriptions attached to them, but almost all were at least identified by a regular visitor to that place, perhaps even a neighbor.

How else to explain such curious oddities as these (from Wall Street and Cadman Plaza, respectively)?

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Of course, naysayers might immediately point out that the landmarks are only being used for game purposes and users aren’t expected to really interact in any meaningful way. And should we really be encouraging MORE walking and phone gazing? But even if most people just skitter away after collecting their virtual items, a few people may stop and pay attention. At very least, ignoring the gaming aspect entirely and using the app merely for its locations makes for a great scavenger hunt with your friends.

It’s like the Points of Interest section in our book Adventures In Old New York, but without random cuddly monsters populating the streets. I could see it awaken a renewed interest in neighborhood geography. Just yesterday, I saw both a father and son using it to locate one particular Pokéstop which also happened to be Brooklyn’s oldest synagogue.

IMG_9576

(You can actually check out all the blue squares from the comfort of your couch, but they can only be used for gameplay if you’re near, thus the message in pink above.)

 

 

Jane Jacobs, born 100 years ago today! Celebrate with a weekend walk.

Jane Butzner was born 100 years ago in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  Jane Jacobs died on April 25, 2006, in Toronto, Canada. But for much of her life in between, she changed the way people thought about cities from her perch in North America’s largest — New York City.

Jane Jacobs was a revolutionary thinker in an age where ‘big ideas’ shaped cities. City planners thought about grand plans, not street corners. Jacobs became a breakout philosopher on everyday urban living, revealing practical realities that were completely misunderstood by those making real decisions.

Without Jacobs — and the countless activists and preservationists before and after her — we would not have New York City 2016. (You can take that statement both as a tribute and perhaps as a sly criticism as well.)

Now I didn’t know Jane, but I’m pretty sure she would like you to celebrate her birthday in one of the two following ways:  1) Go to your favorite neighborhood in New York City and spend money there at local businesses, or 2) Go to a neighborhood you’ve never been to before and learn everything you can about it. 

Of course, before cutting the birthday cake today, why not listen to the Bowery Boys 200th episode celebration of the life of Jane Jacobs? The podcast includes audio from Jane herself, waxing on about the creation of her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

If you’re looking for something to read today about Jacobs, by all means, jump into Death and Life or perhaps one of these books.

Today’s Google Doodle, celebrating Jane’s 100th birthday:

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 8.03.55 AM

After that, plan on joining one of the many Jane’s Walks this weekend, sponsored by the Municipal Art Society of New York. There are dozens and dozens of free walking tours, from May 6-8, that you’re sure to find one right in your back yard. (Maybe literally your back yard if you live somewhere historic!)

Check out the entire list right here and plan out a whole weekend of adventures.  Below is a list of ten notable tours that caught my eye and sound like exceptionally unique ways to spend an afternoon.  Plus an extra one that I’m personally invested in:

Times Square 1975. Courtesy Getty Images via Gothamist
Times Square 1975. Courtesy Getty Images via Gothamist

DIRTY OLD TIMES SQUARE
Manhattan, Meet at Duffy Square
Friday, May 6, at 1pm, 2 hours
Details here
Tag line: “Most of old Times Square has been carefully obliterated by generic hotels and office buildings, but there are still vestiges of its seedy past—if you know where to look.”
Led by Robert Brenner

HOW AUDUBON PARK DISRUPTED MANHATTAN’S GRID
Manhattan, Meet at Audubon Monument, 550 West 155th Street
Friday, May 6, at 6pm, 1.5 hours
Saturday, May 7, 1:30pm
Sunday, May 8, 11am and 2pm
Details here
Tag line: “The distinctive footprint that disrupts Manhattan’s grid west of Broadway between 155th and 158th Streets—the Audubon Park Historic District—did not come about by accident or from the demands of local topography.”
Led by Matthew Spady

Photograph by Helen Barksy, 1971. Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Photograph by Helen Barksy, 1971. Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

EL BARRIO DREAMS: FOOD, ART, CULTURE (AND CHANGE)
Manhattan, Meet at Vendy Plaza (Park Avenue and 116th Street
Sunday, May 8, 1pm
Details here
Led by Flaco Navaja
Tag line: “Our walking tour will explore the dynamics of a community in flux, looking at the history of East Harlem and the political and cultural significance of that history, as well as examining competing visions for the neighborhood’s future. ”

THE LOST HIGH LINE
Manhattan, Meet at NW corner of Washington & Houston Streets
Saturday, May 7, 11am
Details here
Tag line: “Today, that remaining section of the High Line has become one of the city’s major attractions. But what about the ghosts of the past along its southern route?”
Led by Joan Schechter

The littlest residents of former Little Syria. Courtesy Library of Congress
The littlest residents of former Little Syria. Courtesy Library of Congress

MANHATTAN’S LITTLE SYRIA: THE HEART OF ARAB AMERICA
Manhattan, Meet at St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church
Sunday, May 8, at 10:30am
Details here
Tag line: “Immigration to the United States from the territories of Greater Syria — now Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine — began in the 1870s and 1880s. The most important neighborhood of the immigration — and its economic and cultural heart — was along Washington Street in the Lower West Side of Manhattan.”
Led by Todd Fine

THE BRONX’S MAIN STREET: WALKING THE GRAND CONCOURSE
The Bronx, Meet at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, North Wing Lobby
Saturday, May 7, 11am
Details here 
Tag line: “While visiting key sites along this major thoroughfare, Goodman will provide a brief history of the Grand Concourse and explain the development of its diverse neighborhoods and communities.”
Led by Sam Goodman

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

HISTORIC JACKSON HEIGHTS – AMERICA’S FIRST GARDEN APARTMENTS
Queens, Meet at the Chase Bank @ 75th Street and Roosevelt
Saturday, May 7, 11:30am
Sunday, May 8, 11:30 am
Details here
Tag line: “We’ll explore the architectural qualities of Jackson Heights, developed by Edward A. MacDougall of the Queensboro Corporation in 1916. The neighborhood contains a variety of architectural styles with private gardens at the center of each city block.”
Led by Michael Limaco

ON LOCATION: THE VITAGRAPH STUDIOS AND THE HISTORY OF FILM IN MIDLAND BROOKLYN
Brooklyn, meet at Midwood Development Corporation
Sunday, May 8, 3PM
Details here
Tag line: “At Avenue M and 14th street, The Vitagraph Company of America built the nation’s first modern film studio in 1906, where it operated until 1925 as one of the most prolific moving picture companies in the world, making Brooklyn the epicenter of film production long before Hollywood.”
Led By Nellie Perera and Melissa Frizzling

Photo courtesy the US Coast Guard
Photo courtesy the US Coast Guard

TIBET, OPERA, AND THE LUCKY CHARMS LEPRECHAUN: EXPLORING THE HIDDEN GEMS OF LIGHTHOUSE HILL
Staten Island, meet at the clubhouse of Latourette Golf Course on Edinboro Road
Saturday, May 7, 3PM
Details here
Tag line: “Himalayan Buildings, a working lighthouse, a golf course and a widow’s walk are just some of the interesting sights we will see. Some of the historical tidbits include “Why is the neighborhood called Lighthouse Hill?” and “Why are the streets named after places in the UK?” and “What notable people lived here?””
Led By Meg Ventrudo

THE HILLS ARE ALIVE!
Governors Island, meet at the Battery Maritime Building
Friday, May 6, at noon
Details here
Tag line: “See New York Harbor from a breathtaking new vantage point 70 feet in the air. Here is your chance to have a sneak peek at the newly planted Hills on Governors Island before they open to the public this summer.”
Led By Ellen Cavanagh

 

And finally, if you happen to be around Chelsea and the West Village on Saturday, check into the fascinatng tour below led by Kyle Supley. If all goes according to plane, I’ll be making a guest appearance during the tour, speaking at one particular location. Unfortunately, I will not be wearing chaps to this event!

GAY BARS THAT ARE GONE
Manhattan, meet at 515 West 18th Street
Saturday, May 7, 7pm
Details here
Led by Kyle Supley
Tag line: “Past patrons, NYC history buffs, and those just looking for a good time, take note! From ballrooms to discos to piano bars, we’ll observe the shifting typology of the gay bar. Together, we’ll cover everything from the raids to the raves.”

PODCAST REWIND: The Great Fire of 1835

The Great Fire of 1835 devastated the city during one freezing December evening, destroying hundreds of buildings and changing the face of Manhattan forever. It underscored the city’s need for a functioning water system and permanent fire department.

So why were there so many people drinking champagne in the street?

Listen in as we recount this breathtaking tale of the biggest fire in New York City history.

THIS IS A SPECIAL ILLUSTRATED PODCAST!  Chapter headings with images have been embedded in this show, so if your listening device is compatible with AAC/M4A files, just hit play and a variety of pictures should pop up.  The audio is superior than the original as well. (This will work as a normal audio file even if the images don’t appear.)

ORIGINALLY RELEASED MARCH 13, 2009

 

For this and our older episodes (Episodes #5-#75), subscribe to The Bowery Boys: NYC History Archive feed, on iTunes, directly from our host page, or directly via our RSS feed.

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great fire

 

Nicolino Calyo captured the terrible sight of the blaze as it might have looked from Red Hook, Brooklyn. (He also painted the breathtaking scene above.)

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Before the blaze: Charming Wall Street in 1825, from a 1920s guide book. Prosperity from the Erie Canal was just around the bend. (Courtesy Ephemeral New York)

The original Merchant’s Exchange building, one of New York’s more ornate building, featuring a statue of Alexander Hamilton standing nobly in its rotunda. (Illustration courtesy the New York Public Library image gallery)

What’s the damage?: the red areas below indicate the blocks destroyed by the swift moving conflagration (map courtesy CUNY)

City officials, including mayor Cornelius Lawrence, could only watch and stare as the blaze over takes a stretch of prominent buildings. Also included below is Charles King, who watches as his newspaper the New York American is overcome by the fire.

Calyo’s painted depiction of the “Burning of the Merchant’s Exchange”

merchant-exchange

Another interpretation from the same angle — the futility of battling the blaze was chillingly illustrated from the corner Wall and William streets, where winds carried the flames from building to building, high above the heads of fighters below.

As the old Dutch Church on Garden Street caught fire, a morose parishioner mounted the organ and began playing a dirge. (Where’s Garden Street? According to Forgotten New York, Garden Street was “between William Street and Broadway, just south of Wall Street” and is now part of Exchange Place today.)

 

Aftermath at the Merchant’s Exchange. Many business owners actually tranferred their stock to the Exchange building, unfortunately thinking it would be impervious to the encroaching flames.

The devastation that met New Yorkers the following day led most to believe the city would never recover.

day-after

Most of the buildings on today’s Stone Street were built in the immediate years following the fire, Greek Revival-style countinghouses that are refitted for modern times as taverns and restaurants. It’s also one of the few cobblestone streets still around in the Financial District area.

Who exactly was Nicolino Calyo, the man who painted so many vivid pictures of the Great Fire? Nicolino Vicomte de Calyo was a political dissenter who fled Italy in the 1830s and settled in Baltimore, becoming entranced by the new American landscape. Although his most famous depictions of New York are of the city in flame, he also painted a few serene views (like the one below, a vantage of the harbor from Brooklyn Heights).

His works are in many New York museums, including the “Burning of the Merchant’s Exchange” which is at the Museum of the City of New York.

Another cool resource on the Great Fire is up at the CUNY website, with more pictures and more backstory as to New York’s capacity to fight blazes in the early 19th century.

And if you’re so inclined, why not visit the New York City Fire Museum? It’s in SoHo and afterwards you can take a stroll down to the Financial District and imagine what it all might have looked like.

A Culinary Tour of the Lower East Side

PODCAST A flavorful walk through the Lower East Side, exploring the neighborhood’s most famous foods.

Join Tom as he experience the tastes of another era by visiting some of the oldest culinary institutions of the Lower East Side. From McSorley’s to Katz’s, Russ & Daughters and Economy Candy — when did these shops open, who did they serve, and how, in the world are they still with us today? He explores the topic with author Sarah Lohman of the Four Pounds Flour blog.

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 Stitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #202: A Culinary Tour of the Lower East Side

___________________________________________________________________________

The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

________________________________________________________________________

 

 

A groovy bite: How has Katz’s Delicatessen managed to last so long? This picture was taken in 1975 but it could have easily have been taken today with a black-and-white filter slapped over it.

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(Photo by Edmund Vincent Gillon, 1975, courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

 

Another timeless classic — McSorley’s Old Ale House, in a photo taken by Berenice Abbott, 1937. (Ms. Abbott would have been one of the only women even allowed into McSorley’s in 1937!) How has this bar managed to stay open — and look virtually the same for over a century?

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nypl.digitalcollections.510d47d9-4fca-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.v

 

The Russ and Daughters interior before a renovation that widened the store.

Courtesy Russ and Daughters
Courtesy Russ and Daughters

A potato merchant in the Lower East Side. It was because of the proliferation of these peddlers that the city eventually opened the Essex Street Market in the 20th century.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

 

Tom, recording on the road at McSorley’s Old Ale House, being a day drinker!

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For more information on guest host Sarah Lohman‘s upcoming book Four Pounds Flour, check out her website.

And for more information on the history of a few of the locations mentioned in the show, check out these other Bowery Boys: New York City History podcasts:

PODCAST: McSorley’s Old Ale House

 

http://www.boweryboyshistory.com/2010/03/bowery-boys-greatest-hits-back-to-katzs.html

GOWANUS! Brooklyn’s Troubled Waters

PODCAST The history of the Gowanus Canal, at the heart of a trendy Brooklyn neighborhood today, once used to be quite beautiful and non-toxic.

Brooklyn’s Gowanus — both the creek and the canal — is one of the most mysterious and historically important waterways in New York City. By coincidence, it also happens to be among its most polluted, shrouded in frightening tales of dead animals (and a few unfortunate humans) floating along its canal shores. Its toxic mix is the stuff of urban legends (most of which are actually true).

But this was once the land of delicious oysters. This was the site of an important Revolutionary War battle. This was part of the property of the man who later developed Park Slope.

But, in current times, it ALSO happens to be one of New York City’s hottest neighborhoods for real estate development. How does a neighborhood go from a canal of deadly constitution to a Whole Foods, condos and shuffleboard courts?

With the  Gowanus’ many personalities (and with Tom gone this week) I needed a special guide for this fraught and twisted journey — writer and historian Joseph Alexiou, author of Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal, bringing his expertise to help me wade through the most toxic portion of the show.

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 Stitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #201: GOWANUS! Brooklyn’s Troubled Waters

___________________________________________________________________________

The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

________________________________________________________________________

Further to that Lord of the Rings comparison, here’s a map from a 1909 history of the Old Stone House, documenting the moves of British troops in the summer of 1776.

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The view from Gowanus Heights, or the Heights of Guan. Print by Hermann Julius Meyer, 1840.

Courtesy Museum of the city of New York
Courtesy Museum of the city of New York

 

By 1910, the banks of the Gowanus were no more natural than the dankest tenement slum.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

The Carroll Street Bridge, pictured here in 1960, originally built in 1889. It’s one of only two retractable bridges in New York City.

Courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society
Courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society

 

National Packing Box Factory at Union and Nevins Streets, pictured here in 1960.

courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society
courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society

 

The site of the ‘flushing tunnel’ at Butler Street in 1960.

Brooklyn Historical Society
Brooklyn Historical Society

Here’s the view from the other side, looking south, taken last weekend:

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The Gowanus at Smith and Ninth Street, 1978. (Photograph by Dinanda Nooney

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

 

Some views along the Gowanus from last weekend, admiring the glory of its dingy, busted architecture.
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Current residential construction, right along the Gowanus.

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I wasn’t joking about the doll parts. There’s a whole motley collection of weird junk around the Gowanus. Luckily, no deformed Gowanus rats in sight.

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Here’s a four legged fellow in the Gowanus — a table.

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A couple views of the Gowanus from the Bowery Boys Instagram page:

Out exploring in strange places for next week’s new podcast! #boweryboys

A photo posted by Gregory Young (@boweryboysnyc) on

 

Gowanus alleyway on Nevins Street. #boweryboys

A photo posted by Gregory Young (@boweryboysnyc) on


For more information on the happy, shiny of the Gowanus Canal, check out Alexiou’s new book Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal from NYU Press. Here’s the interview I did with Joseph on the blog a few weeks ago.

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Where They Lived: Remembering the victims of The Triangle Factory Fire

On this day in 1911, late in the afternoon, fire swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located on the upper floors of a ten-story building near Washington Square Park. Due to odious practices by the factory’s supervisors, the doorways were blocked and the fire escapes were in poor shape.

Library of Congress/Bain Collection
Library of Congress/Bain Collection

Hundreds of employees, mostly young immigrant women, scrambled to escape by any means necessary.

When the fire was finally extinguished, 146 workers had been killed in the blaze. Many, fearing death by the flames, leaped to the street below to the horror of onlookers who had stumbled over from the park.

Library of Congress/Bain Collection
Library of Congress/Bain Collection

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire is one of the most horrible tragedies in American history, both an indictment on New York sweatshop industries and the lack of any oversight about safety in high rise buildings.  Many building regulations that keep us safe today were directly put in place due to these events.

From the New York Tribune the following day:

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But on this anniversary I wanted to focus on the people who died at the Triangle Factory that day. Can we imagine something about them by looking at where they lived?

Thanks to the research of Michael Hirsch and the Kheel Center at Cornell University [found here], it’s possible to actually come up with a map of the homes of all 146 victims of the Triangle fire. It would look something like the map below. Just zoom into it to look at the individual sites and take a look at which neighborhoods and boroughs that were most affected:

NOTE: The addresses are accurate, but a few of the points are approximately placed. In a few cases, the streets no longer exist, so I placed the points in close vicinity.

To nobody’s surprise, the neighborhood most devastated by the tragedy is the Lower East Side (The east side above Houston Street — i.e. today’s East Village — didn’t take that new designation until the late 1950s.) There doesn’t seem to be a block in the neighborhood with an empty home that day one hundred years ago.

A few years before the Triangle fire, the Lower East Side had experienced an even more ghastly tragedy — the explosion of the General Slocum paddle steamer on June 15, 1904. Among the 1,021 victims of that horrific event, most lived in this neighborhood and specifically in the German area of Kleindeutschland. As the victims were mostly women and children, the disaster effectively marked the end of the German enclave here. New York wouldn’t see such a large loss of life until September 11, 2001. [There’s a Bowery Boys podcast on this subject, recorded on its 110th anniversary.]

The deaths of the 146 garment workers on March 25, 1911, did not produce the same effect to the neighborhood, but certainly the loss was gravely felt in tenements and houses throughout the city. The map shows that the disaster’s immediate impact reverberated even into the other boroughs.

Essex Street  in 1905. “You feel lonely. How would you like to live here?”

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

 

East vs. West
Of the 146, most all of them were born in three countries — Italy, Russia or Austria. A handful were born in the United States, presumably the children of first generation immigrants. So it’s no surprise most of them found homes in the Lower East Side, still the heart of immigrant life in the early 20th century. But I really didn’t expect it to be so decisive. Outside of a small cluster of people who lived in Greenwich Village close to the factory, there were no victims who listed addresses anywhere on Manhattan’s west side — not in Hell’s Kitchen, the Upper West Side, or anywhere else.

Below: In front of 110-118 East 86th Street in July 1916

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

 

Yorkville and Beyond
I’m fascinated by those who lived further out, near the growing German neighborhood of Yorkville on the Upper East Side, for instance. A great many took streetcars and elevated trains into work from Brooklyn and the Bronx, and some might even have taken advantage of the new subway (although in 1911, its route was very limited). No surprise that none of them lived in Queens; the ethnic neighborhoods of that borough would really flourish after the 1920s.

And then there’s young Vincenza Billota, a 16 year old girl who lived out with her uncle in Hoboken, NJ — the only one of the victims to commute into the city. Her uncle came in from New Jersey that night to identify Vincenza who burned alive inside the factory. He identified her because her shoes had recently been repaired; he recognized the cobbler’s work.

From 1909, the caption reads “Tenement dwellers dropping clothes from fire escape for Italians on East side.”

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Missing Tenements

There’s something moving about finding and identifying the homes of the victims. Most of these people had no solid roots, no property they owned. Only an address, a home they most likely shared with family members and other tenants. Every year on the anniversary of the fire, the sidewalks outside these addresses are marked with chalk, the names and ages written on the ground as a yearly reminder. You can look at a photo array from the 2011 chalk excursions here.

They didn’t live in fabulous Beaux-Arts mansions or apartment buildings. Their homes were tenements, most overcrowded and poorly maintained. Thus, many of the actual buildings themselves are gone. In the cases of the victim’s homes on Monroe Street, even most of the street itself is gone, replaced with more modern housing projects.

At left, 135 Cherry Street, the home of fire victim Rose Cirrito. The photo is from 1939 (courtesy NYPL); the entire row of buildings was later demolished.

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509 East 13th Street was the home to two Italian girls, Antonietta Pasqualicchio and Annie L’Abate, and an older Italian woman Annina Ardito, who all lost their lives that day. But that building has been replaced with a modern apartment.

Family and Friends
To grasp a disaster of this magnitude — at a vantage over one century later — you have to deal with it in generalities. The victims were mostly girls, mostly immigrants, mostly uneducated. However, by singling out a particular address, the individual tragedies come into focus. And oddly, you get to place that person’s life next to what inhabits that address today. In the case of the Lower East Side, some of these places are now restaurants, bars and luxury condos.

143 Essex Street was the home of two victims — two teenage brothers Max and Sam Lehrer from Austria. Both had arrived in the United States via Ellis Island in 1909; another Austrian, Sigmund Freud, also arrived at Ellis Island that year.

Young Jennie Stellino had lived in New York since she was 12 years old; she died in the blaze at age 16. She walked to the factory every day from her home at 315 Bowery, one of the few with a fairly easy commute. Jennie survived the blaze but died from her burns three days later. Decades later, the building at that address became internationally renown for the tenant at its ground floor, CBGB’s.

I’m not sure there’s even a 35 Second Avenue anymore. The street is inhabited by a diner and a few bars today; the Anthology Film Archives sits across the street. But it was the home to three women who lost their lives that day — Catherine Maltese and her two daughters.

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For more information on on the Triangle Factory Fire,  you can listen to the Bowery Boys show from  April 2008 (Episode #42) that gives a dramatic overview of the event. You can check it out by downloading it straight from this link or getting it on iTunes from our back catalog feed Bowery Boys: New York City History Archive.
Or you can play it here:

 —–
There’s a memorial today at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, with flowers on the sidewalk for every person who perished in the fire.
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The display has an eerie parallel to one of the more disturbing images from the fire.
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This is an expanded version of an article which ran on this blog on the 100th anniversary of this Triangle Factory Fire.
Picture at top: The Lower East Side in 1913, from the rooftop of the Consolidated Gas Building (4 Irving Place), cleaned up version of public domain image courtesy Shorpy

St. Marks Place at MCNY: A talk with Ada Calhoun and Luc Sante

St. Marks Is Dead, the new book by Ada Calhoun on the history of St. Mark’s Place, was one of our favorite books of the year.  Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, a grungy look at New York’s Gilded Age by Luc Sante, is one of our favorite books ever.  Combine the two, and you have a must-see event at the Museum of the City of New York!

As part of their My City Book Club series, Calhoun and Sante will be in conversation at the museum on Wednesday, January 27, 6:30 pm, to discuss the past and future of one of New York’s most curious streets. If you heard our podcast on St. Mark.s Place from last year, you know some of the story — a once-respectable street (and home to Alexander Hamilton’s widow) that became home to East Village hippie and punk culture in the late 20th century.  What’s been the appeal of this street and what does the future hold?

There’s a reception afterwards and get your copy of Calhoun’s book signed afterwards. And we have an offer code for Bowery Boys listeners and readers to get a discount! Go to MCNY’s website to order your tickets and use offer code MARKS to get a deep discount on your admission ($6 off the $16 ticket price).

 

The Museum of the City of New York is at 1220 Fifth Avenue. See you there!

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Picture at top:  Deutsch-Amerikanische-Schützen Gesellschaft (German-American Shooting Society) building, 12 St. Mark’s Place. taken in 1975 by Edmund Gillon, Courtesy Museum of the City of New York