Tag Archives: Bowery Boys Bookshelf

The Magic of 1930s New York Through a Child’s Eyes

I don’t often review children’s books on this blog, but then again, there are few that use New York City history in such a spellbinding way as Oskar and the Eight Blessings, a winter’s tale spun from nostalgia.

Oskar, a waif with wide eyes and curly hair, is sent to New York by his parents under troubling circumstances. They are Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe and have sent their son away to an aunt who lives in upper Manhattan.

Courtesy Macmillan Publishers
Courtesy Macmillan Publishers

Nobody knows he’s arrived in New York. It’s during a snowstorm (albeit of the very best kind). He has to get to his aunt’s house before sundown. Oskar just needs to walk 100 blocks by himself through a completely foreign and bewildering city.

His journey is the basis of an extraordinary story about generosity and kindness that, believe it or not, can still exist in New  York, can still exist, maybe, in humanity. Authors Richard Simon and Tanya Simon aren’t setting Oskar out on a random landscape, but one uniquely tied to a specific time — the seventh day of Hanukkah 1938, which also happens to be Christmas Eve.

Through a gauze of magic realism, the New York Oskar experiences is a real New York. Oskar visits Trinity Church, Central Park, Carnegie Hall, the Dakota Apartments and other places, running into a host of New Yorkers (including a couple famous ones) who teach him a little something about being a decent human being.

I was brought to this book because of my interest in the work of illustrator Mark Siegel who I’ve been a fan of since Sailor Twain, his terrific graphic novel about Hudson River steamships and enchanted mermaids. His work here wonderfully captures New York as a sort of wistful historic mirage, a child’s distorted gaze over a city, enchanting and endless.  His illustrations seem to generate warmth as the story progresses towards its poignant and beautiful ending.

Oskar and the Eight Blessings
Richard Simon and Tanya Simon
Illustrated by Mark Siegel
Roaring Brook Press
Macmillan Publishers



‘Spectacle’: The Story of Ota Benga

In 1906, visitors to the Bronx Zoo observed a rather bizarre sight in the Monkey House — the exhibition of a man in African dress, often accompanied by a parrot or an orangutan.

An African pygmy, so read the sign, “Age, 23, Height, 4 feet 11 inches, Weight 103 pounds, Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa.” Displayed in one of America’s foremost institutions devoted to the display and care of exotic animals. Elephants, tigers, polar bears, snow leopards, bison. And one young man named Ota Benga.


He is the subject of Pamela Newkirk’s engaging new book Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, both a sincere ode to his tragic life and a contemporary accusation of the terrible forces that exploited him over a century ago.

But the story is really about the ghost of Ota Benga.

He spoke little English and there are no accounts from his perspective. Almost everything we know is from the perspective of a jaundiced press and the glare of condescending authority. He was the subject of great fabrications over the years; the truth is almost impossible to extricate from hyperbole.

While his story is front and center in Spectacle, but he barely raises his voice. He never had one.

1906 photograph of Ota Benga, described as being taken at Bronx Zoo. (Wikimedia) Title: Ota Bengi     Creator(s): Bain News Service, publisher     Date Created/Published: [no date recorded on caption card]     Medium: 1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller.     Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ggbain-22741 (digital file from original negative)     Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.     Call Number: LC-B2- 3971-2 [P&P]     Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print     Notes:         Title from unverified data provided by the Bain News Service on the negatives or caption cards.         Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).         General information about the Bain Collection is available at http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.ggbain     Format:         Glass negatives.     Collections:         Bain Collection     Bookmark This Record:        http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005022751/
1906 photograph of Ota Benga, described as being taken at Bronx Zoo. (Wikimedia)
Creator(s): Bain News Service, publisher 
Ota Benga is probably not even his real name. And even then, it’s twisted and distorted mercilessly, sometimes by the man himself. (When he died in 1916, he was known as Ota Bingo.)  In 1904 he was rescued from captivity in the Congo by the explorer and would-be scientist Samuel Phillips Verner.

This is probably true although Verner is an unreliable source, often changing his own biography to burnish his reputation in the science community.  Verner was the product of his age, seeing Africans as inferior beings but seeing their continent as a source of revenue. Verner sought to profit handsomely from his ‘explorations’ both by currying favor with the Belgian King Leopold II (the ruthless leader who exploited the people of the Congo) and by snatching human specimens for display in America.

Ota Benga first arrived with a group of other men and boys for an exhibition at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.  People delighted at his mischievous nature and unusual appearance. His teeth were filed into points, a decorative trait that exhibitors (including Verner) proclaimed were the product of a cannibalistic nature.

Below: Ota Benga at the St. Louis World’s Fair with other men taken from Africa 


He went back with Verner to Africa only to arrive back in America by 1906 where he was placed in the care of the American Museum of Natural History. Ota Benga actually lived inside the museum, subject to more than a few indignities. “I have bought a duck suit for the Pigmy,” wrote Hermon Carey Bumpus, the director of the museum, to Verner. “He is around the museum, apparently perfectly happy and more or less a favorite of the men.”

Ota Benga’s removal to the Bronx Zoo and subsequent display in the Monkey House has certainly been a blight to that institution’s history. The decision reveals the outmoded and racist philosophies that pervaded scientific thinking of the day.

At best, Ota Benga was simply an object in an exotic diorama with audiences prodding him to do tricks. His humanity was barely considered. At worst, the exhibition lays bare the racism of the day in the most baldy sinister way possible, corroding even the most esteemed institutions of the day.

It’s a small relief to hear of the many criticisms the zoo received in the press back in 1906. Sanity soon prevailed and Ota Benga left the zoo to live in an orphanage in Weeksville, Brooklyn.

2Newkirk gives the life of Ota Benga a proper eulogy. She crafts an intriguing tale around the many uncertainties of his biography, sometimes even stopping to analyze his state of mind.  I greatly credit the author for parsing through volumes of inaccurate news reports in search of even the smallest grains of truth.

His story ends with an unsatisfying hollowness, outside New York and far from the Congo. Few in his life ever treated him as an equal. In fact, due to his size, he was frequently treated like a boy, although he mostly like ended his life in his early 30s.  He never found a place to fit in.

There’s only a single moment in the book where Newkirk lets us in on his marvelous potential, on a life that could have been under more fair and enlightened circumstances.

He becomes, for a moment, “a father figure and hero” to a group of small African-American boys in Lynchburg, Virginia.  “In Benga they found an open and patient teacher, a beloved companion, and a remarkably agile athlete who sprinted and leaped over logs like a boy. And with his young companions Benga could uninhibitedly relive memories of a lost and longed-for life and retreat to woods that recalled home.”

Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

Amistad, HarperCollinsPublishers

by Pamela Newkirk


Other recently reviewed books on the Bowery Boys Bookshelf:

The Lusitania’s final voyage, breathlessly told

They said the Lusitania couldn’t be sunk. The German telegrams to the contrary were merely cheap scare tactics. Besides, England will provide protection once in their heavily guarded waters. The boat is simply too big to sink. There are plenty of lifeboats, enough for the entire passenger list. Even those in steerage!

And the best one — there are Americans on board. Germany wouldn’t risk dragging her into war.

The excuses made by the passengers and crew of the Lusitania seem strikingly naive now, almost 100 years to that May 7th afternoon when the premier vessel of the Cunard fleet was taken down — by a single German torpedo — and brought to the bottom of the ocean in all of 18 minutes.

The deck of the Lusitania, 1905-07, courtesy SMU Central University
The deck of the Lusitania, 1905-07, courtesy SMU Central University

Dead Wake, the captivating new narrative non-fiction by Erik Larson, follows the tragic fate of the Lusitania from four sectors.  In England, a group of cryptoanalysts in shadowy Room 40  attempt to crack German messages as their U-boats began prowling through British-controlled waters. Meanwhile, President Woodrow Wilson, still mourning the loss of his wife, attempts to keep American neutrality intact in the face of growing threats.

But the two central perspectives are what grant Dead Wake its lurching, inevitable dread.  And Larson switches between them like the dance of predator and prey in a nature documentary.

The Lusitania on one of its early voyages, 1906, courtesy Royal Museum Greenwich
The Lusitania on one of its early voyages, 1906, courtesy Royal Museum Greenwich

In New York, docked at Chelsea Piers, passengers from all walks of life board the Lusitania, ready for leisure and occupied with trivial affairs of the day. The bookseller Charles Lauriat Jr. boards with a valise of valuable literary works. Theodate Pope, the spirited, independent woman who’s clearly Larson’s favorite,  hits the decks with her mysterious male companion Edwin Friend. A pregnant Bronx woman named Margaret Kay boards with her young son Robert, destined to get the measles.  An entire family with the last name of Luck boards the ship, never a good sign in these kinds of books.

And then there’s the enigmatic Preston Prichard, a Canadian medical student described in such striking, beatific terms that it spells doom for him almost immediately.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, the other narrative course follows the U-20 submarine captained by Walther Schwieger, a stern and sometimes unforgiving man in charge of a lonely vessel cutting through the waters of the Irish Sea.  Submarine warfare was primitive by nature and callous by design. Captains gauged the success of a mission not by numbers of ships sunk, but the amount of tonnage destroyed. Human lives were lightly considered.

Sinking of the Lusitania, European postcard
Sinking of the Lusitania, European postcard

Larson is best known for a certain flamboyant style of storytelling, meshing two or more sometimes unrelated story arcs to create a swelling crescendo of melodrama. His books bristle with energy even when artificially cultivated. His best known book, The Devil In the White City, works entirely because of this particular narrative mechanism, weaving together the tales of the Chicago World’s Fair and a ruthless serial killer

But in Dead Wake, it’s the inevitable confrontation between the Lusitania and the U-20 that drives the story, and Larson finely manages the tension.

He prefers to spend time with lesser known people aboard the Lusitania and barely looks at its most famous passengers — Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt or the Broadway impresario Charles Frohman. Once the torpedo hits, you’re genuinely invested in situations all throughout the boat.

The book has a cinematic feel and comparisons with the film Titanic will surely be made.  You can almost feel the urge to transform passengers like Pope or Prichard into the next Rose or Jack.  But the story never lapses into phoniness or boisterous, over-descriptive speculation for long. There are thankfully few of those artificial “she felt the wind in her hair” moments that hamper other narrative non-fiction book events. Larson is the master of this particular genre, and once the torpedo hits the ocean liner on that fateful May afternoon, he’s in full control of the story.

When you get to Dead Wake‘s halfway point, prepare to keep your afternoon open, because you won’t want to put it down.

Dead Wake:  The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
By Erik Larson
Crown Publishers



Ten holiday gift ideas for history buffs: The best reads of 2014 with Robert Moses, Coney Island and the Statue of Liberty

Illustration from Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City
GIFT GUIDE What do you get for that history fanatic in your life?  Afraid of buying them a book that they may have already read?  Here are nine books published in 2014 that I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year, illustrating wild and colorful corners of New York City history. I’ve reviewed a few of them in postings earlier this year if you’d like more information.  Oh, and there’s one book on here that I actually haven’t read. But how could I leave it off? I’m just assuming I’m getting that for Christmas.

New York Mid-Century 1945-1965
Annie Cohen-Solal, Paul Goldberger, Robet Gottlieb

After World War II, New York reinforced its international power and influence by becoming a vanguard in the arts. The city embraced new ideas by artists, writers, actors, architects and dancers who then went on to influence each other.  This magnificent coffee-table book sits their towering achievements side-by-side and in full color — the work of Mark Rothko, the architecture of Philip Johnson, the movements of Martha Graham, the photography of Weegee, the stage magic of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Even the Rockettes! In placing high and low performing arts together with conceptual design and abstract expressionism, New York Mid-Century convincingly illustrates New York as the world’s culture crucible.

The Lost Tribe of Coney Island
Headhunters, Luna Park and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century
Claire Prentice

Inspired by an unusual photograph of native people around a fire — taken in Coney Island — Prentice explores the sad but true story of the Igorrotes, a Filipino tribe, taken from their home for profit and exploitation to America’s recreational seaside capital.  The exhibitor Truman Hart was a would-be P.T. Barnum, a charlatan profiting from the tribe’s appearances at Luna Park. He eventually unravels, drinking heavily and running into problems with the federal government.  This is light but fascinating window into the stark reality of Coney Island entertainment.

A History of New York in 101 Objects
Sam Roberts

In a 2012 column, the venerable New York Times writer and editor recruited 50 precious objects into service of the story of New York City, a tale that began over 13,000 years ago.  He elaborates on those objects in this new book and expands the contours of his itemized history with 51 additional items.  From artichokes to Gilded Age clocks, rusty spikes to the New York Public Library lions,  Roberts’ history is a friendly, colorful way to experience New York City, a Whitman’s Sampler of our city’s past.

Chop Suey USA
The Story of Chinese Food in America
Yong Chen

America’s love for Chinese food predated America’s love for its Chinese residents. The original Chinese settlers from the West produced a variation of their homeland cuisine that was easily prepared and extraordinarily flavorful, allowing immigrants to make strides in urban areas and, eventually, throughout America.  Chen carefully places America’s craving for dishes like chow mein into the context of racial prejudices against Asians in the 20th century.  And if this makes you a little hungry, you’re in luck — the author presents some of his favorite recipes for steamed fish, Kung Fuo chicken and moon cakes.

Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers & Swells
The Best of Early Vanity Fair
Various Authors; Edited by Graydon Carter with David Friend

For the one hundredth anniversary of Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter has put together a collection of stories from the magazine’s first incarnation, from P.G. Wodehouse‘s take on the fitness craze of 1914 to Allene Talmey‘s survey of New York nighclubs in 1936. The entirety of the Jazz Age in contained between them — the fashion, the reverie, the amusement, the agony. But most of all — the modernity. If anything defines most of these spectacular entries, it’s the coy observations of change, how America left the Gilded Age to became something awkward but none the less brilliant.

The Race Underground
Boston, New York and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subway
Doug Most

The subway is one of the defining creations of New York’s Gilded Age, but it was hardly a foregone conclusion.  Both the underground systems in Boston and New York benefited from great genius and even greater wealth. As Boston Globe editor Doug Most notes in his captivating read, the systems even shared wealthy benefactors — the brothers Henry and William Whitney, one in each city, negotiating a host of political and technical speed bumps on their quest to build the country’s first subterranean route. Most’s story is especially fascinating in outlining the difficulties of these ambitious projects. What seems an absolutely sound decision today was deemed highly risky and politically fraught in its day.

Supreme City
How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America
Donald L. Miller

This snappy, crowded tale, among the most entertaining books on New York City history I’ve read in the past couple years, is indeed an epic about New York City in the Jazz Age, but it’s a wildly different tune than the one in which you’re familiar. This is a tale of architecture and invention, of a boldness and proportion that New Yorkers take for granted today. Miller recounts the invention of Midtown Manhattan, but it’s also about a spiritual shift in urban life. Industrial visions and personal journeys alike culminate in the year 1927, a watershed date for New York, and arrive within the Manhattan grid system, mostly along 42nd Street between Eighth Avenue and Lexington Avenue, the nucleus of a new urban vision. The story ventures out through the entire city of course but always to the beat of this new Midtown.

The 1964-65 World’s Fair And The Transformation Of America
Joseph Tirella

The United States experienced an incredible social transformation in the mid-1960s. Unfortunately for Robert Moses, these soaring changes to American life clashed with the rosy and naive vision of his second World’s Fair in Flushing-Meadows, Queens.  You may have read about the fair before in other books, but Tirella takes care to place it within a larger context, allowing you to marvel at the strangeness of the fair’s futuristic visions. Embarked upon as the launching pad for progress and modern technologies, Moses’ pet project became a symbol for forgotten and outdated values.

Liberty’s Torch
The Great Adventure To Build The Statue of Liberty
Elizabeth Mitchell
Lady Liberty represents so many lofty sentiments that we forget what she actually was almost 140 years ago — an impetuously complex enterprise by a group of French thinkers to embody a way of thinking onto an edifice of copper.  As ridiculous as it is monumental, Liberty was the product of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi’s extraordinary vision, a production process borrowing from centuries of French metallurgy and the tireless efforts of fund-raisers on both sides of the Atlantic to convince the people of America of the statue’s noble intent. In essence, by the end of Mitchell’s narrative, you’ll be impressed that the Statue of Liberty was even created at all!

And here’s one that comes out on December 23 and I haven’t even read it! So let me just merely call it to your attention…

Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City
Pierre Christin, Olivier Balez

Will a graphic novel about the life of Robert Moses that’s less than 1/10th the length of The Power Broker adequately convey the ambitions, the motivations and the sheer destructive force of his legacy? Probably not. But Chilean illustrator Oliver Balez brings a bold and stylized luster to the landscape of New York skyscrapers and highways. And the graphic representation of Moses brings him one step closer to being an outright comic-book villain (or anti-hero, depending on you read it).

“Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers & Swells”: What a party! Courtesy Vanity Fair and the toasts of the Jazz Age

Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers & Swells: The Best of Early Vanity Fair
Various authors
Edited by Graydon Carter with David Friend
Penguin Press

BOOK REVIEW  Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers & Swells: The Best of Early Vanity Fair sounds like a soirée in book form, but it’s a lot more than that.  If anything, the book’s title is a bit constricting.  The bohemians, the bootleggers, the flappers, the swells — they’ve all brought guests along with them. Welcome!

One hundred years ago, Vanity Fair was a men’s fashion and style magazine that gradually became known for some of the best published writing in the world. It was a veritable sounding board for the wits of the Algonquin Round Table whose entire membership either wrote for it or were written about within it.

After the Great Depression, its publisher Conde Nast (the man) folded its contents into his more successful women’s magazine Vogue.

Its spirit was revived in 1983 by publisher Conde Nast (the corporation) and re-energized in the early 90s with the introduction of editor Graydon Carter, best known for the dearly lamented Spy Magazine, which is the closest anyone ever got in the ’90s to the droll swagger of the Algonquin crew.

For its one hundred anniversary, Carter has put together a collection of stories from the magazine’s first incarnation, from P.G. Wodehouse‘s take on the fitness craze of 1914 to Allene Talmey‘s survey of New York nighclubs in 1936.  The entirety of the Jazz age in contained between them — the fashion, the reverie, the amusement, the agony.

But most of all — the modernity.  If anything defines most of these spectacular entries, it’s the coy observations of change, how America left the Gilded Age to became something awkward but none the less brilliant. In one essay, Aldous Huxley tries to literally define the word: “Let us not abuse a very useful and significant word [modern] by applying it indiscriminately to everything that happens to be contemporary.”

Here are the world’s greatest authors of the early 20th century, attempting to define their era from the vantage of a barstool or a kitchen table.  D.H. Lawrence takes on the modern female, implying she’s merely an update on the ancient woman.  Music critic Samuel Chotzinoff zeroes in on the origin of jazz music in 1923, still in its infancy. Tremors in sports, world affairs, women’s fashion and the stage are all tackled by a rich embarrassment of talents.

We see here the birth of legends at the dawn of their careers, through a variety of writing samples, light fiction to poetry.  My favorite (no surprise) are the early poems by Dorothy Rothschild (Parker) who beautifully bemoans whole categories of miserable co-workers, in-laws and other species. “I hate actresses/They get on my nerves.”  Stroll past the entries from T. S Eliot and Gertrude Stein to find an introduction to readers from Carl Van Vechten of the young poet Langston Hughes.  “Hughes has crowded more adventure into his life than most of us will experience.”

Modern Vanity Fair is known for personality profiles, and there are many on display here.  Most of the subjects themselves are scarcely quoted themselves; instead their images are preened and paraded by imminent writers and colleagues.

Actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr writes about his wife Joan Crawford (at left) in a 1930 essay. “She is intolerant of people’s weakness.  If someone does her a wrong she is slow in forgetting it but when she does there is no doubt of her attitude. (Fairbanks and Crawford divorced three years later.)  Alexander Woollcott waxes poetically about the unpoetic Harpo Marx.  Paul Gallico turns Babe Ruth into a proto-Superman. “He rose from Rags to Riches. Sink or Swim. Do or Die.”

Moments of great foresight rise throughout the essays. Walter Lippman predicts the entire Internet age in his essay on publicity:  “It may even be that when men have lived for a few more generations … the race will no longer have any prejudices in favor of privacy.  They may enjoy living in glass houses.” David Cort‘s post-mortem on the stock market crash of 1929 reads like cynical analysis from 2008.  “Those who recanted, who sold out and are bankrupt, have already been forgotten.  Wall Street wants fresh money, fresh optimists.”

Also included here is Anne O’Hagan‘s defiant laundry-list of woman in 1915 who make more than $50,000.  “Consider the growing horde of decorators,” she says in one refrain.

Virtually every major name of the arts and letters makes a brief appearance in Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers & Swells.  The collection’s tremendous breadth in subject matter makes it sometimes difficult as a straight-through read, but I would encourage you try it anyway.  In total, this is as much a story about America between the Great Wars as any actual historical tome.

And a quick note about my two favorite stories.  If you only know E.E. Cummings (at right) from his poetry, then you have a treat in store here in a short humorous narrative from 1925 which begins with the sentence, “Calvin Coolidge laughed.”

And then there’s “An Afghan In America,” written in 1916 by Syyed Shaykh Achmed Abdullah, a brief and beautiful tale about old traditions as they play out in a New York ballroom.  “He danced with her for the rest of the evening.  He did several new steps.  He also drank forbidden spirits. Many of them.”

Vanity Fair covers courtesy Conde Nast Publications

Previous recommendations from the Bowery Boys Bookshelf:

The New York City subway system opened 110 years ago today; An interview with The Race Underground author Doug Most

Crowds at the now-defunct City Hall Station of the brand new New York subway system. (NYPL)

One hundred and ten years ago today, the first train of the New York City subway system began its first trip underneath the city, filled with eager and excited passengers.  Thousands lined up to take this revolutionary new ride, promising a jaunt from City Hall to Harlem in under 30 minutes. At the helm of the very first subway ride was the mayor himself, George B McClellan Jr., refusing to relinquish the wheel until he had completed most of the distance.

The subway is one of the defining creations of New York’s Gilded Age, but it was hardly a foregone conclusion.  Early attempts at underground transportation by innovators like Alfred Ely Beach were waylaid by political corruption.  Elevated railroad and streetcar companies were hardly enthusiastic about it. Even the idea of going below disturbed and frightened some people.  Proponents of the subway in New York must have grimaced when Boston beat them to the punch in the late 1890s.

Both the Boston and New York subway systems benefited from great genius and even greater wealth. As Boston Globe editor Doug Most notes in his terrific book The Race Underground: Boston: New York and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subway, the systems even shared wealthy benefactors — the brothers Henry and William Whitney, one in each city, negotiating a  host of political and technical speed bumps on their quest to build the country’s first subterranean route.

At right: Subway riders, painting by F. Luis Mora, 1914 (NYPL)

Most’s story is especially fascinating in outlining the difficulties of these ambitious projects.  What seems an absolutely sound decision today was deemed highly risky and politically fraught in its day.  On this important anniversary, I thought I’d ask the author to elaborate on the significance of this day and the spectacular achievements of these two rival cities. (And I highly recommend picking up his book this week. After all, has there ever been reading material better suited to commute reading?)

The final chapter of The Race Underground is actually titled “October 27, 1904 “? This is obviously an important date for New Yorkers, but what is it about the events of that particular day that make this a milestone in American (and even world) history?

Doug Most: ​Well, first I loved the contrast between how Boston celebrated opening its subway and New York celebrated its subway opening. Boston opened in the morning and just treated it like any other day. Here it is, we built it. New York celebrated like New Yorkers, they made it a spectacle, a party, and all the politicians and key figures wanted to play their part. Very different openings.New York’s subway was a huge achievement for many reasons. That it was built, tunneling through the ​Manhattan schist, using dynamite where needed, was incredible. Many workers died during the construction and my book tells the dramatic story of how they worked, dug, and died tragically. But that’s how society makes progress, right? We have to learn through tragedy. The New York subway was a great example of that.

The newly completed subway tunnel in 1904, before the big inaugural ride on October 27, 1904 (Library of Congress)

The greatest obstacle for the creation of the subway wasn’t merely physical or political; it was convincing people that travelling underground could be a clean and safe experience. What were a few of the beliefs or superstitions people held in the early days?

DM:  ​It’s something we take for granted today. We bound downstairs staring at our phones and tablets and papers, and don’t give a second though to the underground. But back then in the 19th century, the underground was terrifying for people. It was where Lucifer lived! The Devil! Where vermin made their home.People needed to be convinced subways could be clean, safe, dry and healthy, that the air would not be poisonous and kill them. I love the story of London opening a pedestrian tunnel around 1840, and thousands of people taking one look down that tunnel and going right back up to the street, refusing to walk through it. That was 1840! In terms of history, not that long ago. It took a long time for society to accept the underground as a safe place to travel.​

Under Tremont Station in Boston (courtesy nycsubway.org)

Your story is framed as the glorious rivalry between two brothers – Henry and William Whitney – and two rival cities, Boston and New York. But Boston really manages to pull ahead for much of the story. Was this because the needs of the city were easier to accomplish or was it because of New York’s corrupt political system at this time?

DM:  I think it’s both. New York struggled politically with some big decisions and some key characters stood in the way of progress, including of course Boss Tweed. New York absolutely should have been ahead of Boston; they were talking about a subway in New York in the mid 1800s, but it didn’t get built until 1900.Boston didn’t start thinking subway until 1887 and then moved very quickly. New Yorkers were not happy to see that little podunk city to the north making so much progress while their city kept getting bogged down in politics.​

Digging up Union Square to lay cable-car lines, 1891. (New York Public Library)

The story of The Race Underground features an extraordinary build-up of transportation technologies, from noble but failed technologies (the pneumatic tube) to others that led to the birth of the subway (like electric streetcars). What do you personally consider the most interesting or surprising development in transportation prior to the birth of the subway?

DM:  Well the story of the cable car was fascinating, because it seemed like for a few years that was the future of urban transportation. It was cleaner and faster and smoother than the horse-pulled carriage, and people enjoyed riding them and it really looked like it might take off. San Francisco gave birth to it, and other cities, including New York, experimented with it.But as cities quickly learned, the cable car had a big problem. Those cables could twist and snap and fixing them was slow and expensive. And when a cable snapped, the entire system ground to a halt. Plus, cables were only effective in cities with lots of long straight roads like New York. But in smaller cities, like Boston, with twists and turns and narrow streets, cable cars just didn’t make sense. I love the story of how the cable car was almost our future, and then suddenly, it was gone!​

Now speaking of that pneumatic tube, here’s a what if? – say Beach faced no opposition from Boss Tweed and the elevated railroads. Could New York have actually built a viable transportation system using this method? After all, people are looking into pneumatic systems for possible high-speed travel today!

DM:  No. Chapter One in my book, the story of Alfred Beach and Boss Tweed, is really my favorite chapter for so many reasons. And the great fan he used, the Western Tornado, to blow his subway car down the tracks. But was a fan really going to blow subway cars all over the island of Manhattan? No it wasn’t. The technology being talked about today is so sophisticated, involving electromagnetic charges and other methods far beyond basic pneumatic tubes. ​But Beach was a dreamer, a lot like Elon Musk of Tesla, and we need dreamers like that to push us forward as a society. So that’s why I love his story so much.

What features of the modern New York City subway system are you the most impressed by today? And what could use some serious improvement?DM:  The speed is impressive and so is the reach of it — how you truly can reach almost every corner of the five boroughs on the subway. That’s so different than other cities, especially Boston and Washington, for starters, where the transit systems are much smaller and harder to survive on without a car. I am not sure I have any great suggestion for New York’s subway. I’m a big fan of it, and loved riding it when I lived at 80th and Broadway, and love taking my kids on it today when we come back to visit. It’s a treat and it’s a part of history I hope people appreciate.​

Below: New York’s distinctive subway entrances, inspired by the subway system in Budapest, 1905 (New York Public Library)

Back in 2010, the Bowery Boys did an entire series on the history of New York City transportation.  In honor of this great day in New York City history, why not check out one of these shows which traces the history of getting around the city — from the first ferries in the 18th century to the struggles of maintaining a modern subway system into the 21st.  You can find these episodes on iTunes or download them directly from the links below:

Part One: Staten Island Ferry
A look at the earliest forms of transportation in New York harbor, with a focus on the early ferry services from Staten Island
Blog: Staten Island Ferry, its story, from sail to steam
Download here

Part Two: New York’s Elevated Railroads
Starting with the introduction of horse-drawn streetcars and omnibuses to the innovation of elevated trains running along four avenues in Manhattan and in various parts of Brooklyn
Blog: New York’s Elevated Railroads; Journey to a spectacular world of steam trains along the avenues
Download here

Part Three: Cable Cars, Trolleys and Monorails
Electrified trolley cars became the most common form of travel in New York starting in the 1890s and into the new century. Find out why they succeeded and why two other forms — cable cars and monorails — did not.
Blog: Cable cars, trolleys and monorails; Moving around on New York’s transportation options
Download here

Part Four: New York City Subway, Part 1: Birth of the IRT
The story of the very first subway which went nowhere (Alfred Ely Beach and his pneumatic tube train) and the one that eventually did (August Belmont and the Interborough Rapid Transit).
Blog: The New York City Subway and the Creation of the IRT
Download here

Part Five: New York City Subway, Part 2: By The Numbers (And Letters)
The surprisingly difficult attempt to expand the subway system and the curious public/private partnership which got it done. Plus: the history of the future of the Second Avenue subway line
Blog: Modern history of the New York Subway: Expansion from the 1-2-3, A-B-C, Second Avenue and beyond
Download here

Post-Script: Subway Graffiti 1970-1989
Art. Vandalism. Freedom. Blight. Creativity. Crime. Graffiti has divided New Yorkers since it first appeared on walls, signs and lampposts in the late 1960s. This is a history of the battle between graffiti and City Hall. And a look at the aftermath which spawned today’s tough city laws and a former warehouse space in Queens.
Blog:  The wild times of the subway graffiti era 1970-1989: At the city’s worst, an art form flourishes along transit lines
Download here

“A History of New York in 101 Objects” by Sam Roberts: or why you should never throw anything out

BOOK REVIEW Looking at history as a collection of objects is a pursuit best suited for a hoarder.  Every item strewn along the timeline has the potential of being totemic to human experience.  A similar review of your own life might imbue symbolic power to such things as an old teddy bear or a dried corsage.  (This is why I hang on to that T-shirt from a 1988 New Order concert, even though it’s literally in tatters.)

Compacting this materialistic tour into an exact number — a round number — treats the span of history like a Billboard pop chart, but it also means the objects in question are especially potent with meaning.

In 2010, the British Museum, in association with the BBC, produced a radio and podcast series called “A History of the World In 100 Objects,” summarizing all of earthly existence with a survey of the museum’s own precious artifacts.  The episodes were richly researched and incredibly entertaining.  I wanted to jump on a plane to London and go check out that Clovis spear point and Oxus chariot model myself.

The list was a smash success because it was like a history class and an Antiques Roadshow in one.  It spawned several knockoffs. It has influenced public school curriculum. (I even tried one semi-successfully: A History of New York in 100 Buildings.)  It’s an attractive idea in the Buzzfeed age — history as a completed bucket list.

Sam Roberts, the venerable New York Times writer and editor, has taken a crack at a similar project relating to New York City history. In a 2012 column, he recruited 50 precious objects into service of a tale that began over 13,000 years ago.  He’s returned with a book called The History of New York in 101 Objects which expand the contours of his itemized history by 51 other things.

 A Whitman’s Sampler of our city’s past — I mean that, there’s a famous cookie and a sugar factory in it — Roberts’ history is a friendly, colorful way to experience New York City.

Unlike the concrete selections of the British Museum, Roberts has chosen items from a metaphysical attic of ancient documents, architectural details, and even abstract concepts.  As a tie-in to Robert’s book, the New York Historical Society has currently made a gallant attempt at gathering up a few of these.  (The show runs until November 30.)

At left: A draft wheel from the Civil War Draft Riots makes the cut.

As Roberts makes very clear in the introduction, these items represent his impression of history, a group of subjectively chosen tools to express the New York story from a variety of angles.

Each object is accompanied by a 2-3 page description of what it represents upon the map of history. A graying toll ticket represents the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. A New Yorker cartoon stands in for the city’s changing views of the outside world.

There are commonplace objects (a bagel and an artichoke, a paper coffee cup) next to items of great artistic beauty (the lions of the New York Public Library, a golden statue atop the Municipal Building).  Each looking onto the tale of New York as though through a lens of different colored glass.

My favorite entries are those that depict small, unusual items or things I’ve walked past every day without thought. Included here is a clock in Grand Central Terminal, but not the clock you’re thinking of.  That rusty little remnant of the original Grid Plan — secretly hiding in Central Park — is here.  My favorite New York awning is on the list — the ragged, filthy one that once hung over CBGB.

Such a book leaves wide avenues for debate over which objects were included or left out. In the end, this is an exercise of graceful balance.  Of course there are certain things unrepresented here.  A book such as The History of New York in 101 Objects shouldn’t be seen as a reason to exclude memory; it’s simply an inspiration to run out and find your own history — at the grocery store, overhead in the skyline or in the gutter.

Picture courtesy New York Public Library

25 Great Books About the Founding Fathers (and Mothers)

Independence Day may be over, but our celebration of the Founding Fathers continues all this week, culminating in a brand new podcast this Friday! I thought I’d share some of my favorite books on the subject of America building, great reads on the personalities of the men and women who helped form America.

 Included here are some of my favorite biographies, as well as narrative histories of events between 1783 and 1817. And there’s a couple event-specific books on the Revolutionary War, for some context.  I’ve purposely chosen recently written books (and thus readily accessible) with one exception — Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention by Catherine Drinker Bowen, written in 1966.  Not only is it still a fascinating read, but it was the first book I ever read as a kid about the early days of America.

Do you have any favorites from this time period that I’ve left out? Include your choices in the comments! (Please note it may take a few hours for comments to appear below.)


Supreme City: The ascent of Midtown Manhattan in the 1920s

A view of Midtown Manhattan, looking southeast, by the Wurts Brothers (NYPL)

Supreme City
How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America
by Donald L. Miller
Simon & Schuster

Supreme City, by Donald L. Miller, certainly one of the most entertaining books on New York City history I’ve read in the past couple years, is also one of the strangest.  Almost as an obligation, New York’s Prohibition-fueled nightlife and the rowdy administration of Jimmy Walker are conjured up front, and colorfully so, only to then be placed aside.

This is not a book about the standard subjects of the 1920s.  This is indeed an epic about New York City in the Jazz Age, but it’s a wildly different tune than the one in which you’re familiar.

This is a tale of architecture and invention, of a boldness and proportion that New Yorkers take for granted today.  Supreme City recounts the invention of Midtown Manhattan, but it’s also about a spiritual shift in urban life.  This is the story of how New York City became not only a supreme city, but a supersized one.

Miller, a professor of history at Lafayette College perhaps better known for his works on World War II, approaches the sprawl of New York’s most ambitious decade almost like a mathematician. He ties this epic — a swirl of large personalities and impossible ideas — into a specific intersection of time and place.

It’s as though a slew of particles (comprised of ambitions and personalities) just slammed into each other one day, creating a new form of urban environment.

Industrial visions and personal journeys alike culminate in the year 1927, a watershed date for New York history, and arrive within the Manhattan grid system, mostly along 42nd Street between Eighth Avenue and Lexington Avenue, the nucleus of a new urban vision.  The story ventures out through the entire city of course but always to the beat of this new Midtown.

From here, Miller brings in the components of growth, the great innovators and personalities, plotted in relation to each other and to the great city blossoming under their feet.

These aren’t just the standard innovators, the expected cast — David Sarnoff, Duke Ellington, Charles Lindburgh. Sure, you get a bit Texas Guinan‘s drunken swagger, a little of Jack Dempsey‘s scrappiness.  But Miller gives equal prominence to perhaps less colorful real estate gurus and planners whose contributions created the playing field of modern New York. While it’s always nice to relive the 1920s through a lens of champagne and The Great Gatsby, Miller’s concern is with the players who actually built the city.

The engineer William Wilgus receives deserved placement in Supreme City for his innovations of covering the unpleasant tracks of Grand Central to create acres of new land, “taking wealth from the air” and inventing New York’s ultimate canyon of wealth — Park Avenue.

Architect Emery Roth brought the apartment skyscraper to Midtown and practically invented the allure of the penthouse.  The almost faceless Fred French — his section is actually called “Who on Earth was Fred French?” — turned the apartment complex into a swanky, thematic thrill with such Midtown projects as Tudor City (a 1928 illustration pictured at left).

Of course, it took the wealthiest New Yorkers to fuel these changes. New money sparked the new playing field.  The old families hastened their migration up Fifth Avenue, their mansions abandoned, torn down and replaced with the high-end shops in which they would later shop.

While department store masters like Edwin Goodman swept out the socialites to build his Fifth Avenue temple of commerce Bergdorf-Goodman, the pleasant rivalry between Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden helped generate the avenue’s reputation of social perfection and high glamour.

Sensing the upward surge of Midtown — its almost-amoral infinite rise — impresarios like Samuel “Roxy” Rothefeld, Florenz Ziegfeld and George “Tex” Rickard rose to create venues to corral the masses.  Midtown became home in the 1920s to the industries of entertainment — publishing, radio, television.  Even Seventh Avenue below Times Square found purpose in the swell as America’s Garment District.

As Midtown grew in the 1920s, the instruments of getting there also rose to the challenge, finally conquering the Hudson River, from the Holland Tunnel to the George Washington Bridge.

The story is so big that Miller can’t contain all of it. Supreme City captures that place before the Great Depression, perhaps New York’s single most decadent moment. He does not venture out into the other boroughs and rarely even ventures below 42nd Street. From the vantage of the Chrysler Building — the treasure most indicative of the age — those places are hazy and distant.  By the last page of this heavy tome, Midtown Manhattan creates everything, drives everything, almost entirely is everything.  That energy is certainly infectious, making Supreme City is an rich, propelling read.

The wonder of the Chelsea Hotel: ‘Inside the Dream Palace’ — an interview with author Sherill Tippins

The Hotel Chelsea, August 1936, photograph by Berenice Abbott (NYPL)

Inside the Dream Palace
The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel
by Sherill Tippins
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Few places in New York exist with so many ghosts as the Chelsea Hotel. Oh, I don’t know if it’s really haunted, but the historical figures that have gained inspiration from their stays at this storied place have certainly left their mark.  But with geniuses — with the pressure of being genius — also comes drama, escapism, and tragedy.

Sherill Tippins‘ new book on the Chelsea Hotel — aptly named Inside the Dream Palace — does double-duty as a hall of fame for great substance-abusing artists and writers.  It’s a wondrous, colorful account of a unique social living experiment as it slowly dismantled its pretensions and became a rustic den of creativity, community and debauchery.

All the great tales are recounted here — from Dylan Thomas‘s death to Sid and Nancy‘s tragic evening — and a many new ones introduced.  For all the names I expected to see (Henry Miller, Arthur C. Clarke, Thomas Wolfe, Patti Smith), there were a great many more that have surprising connections to this unique landmark.

I had such a fantastic time sampling the lives of the Chelsea’s various characters that I wanted to ask the author a few questions myself.  Here’s Sherill Tippins, elaborating upon the hotel’s unusual origins, its tenacious spirit and uncertain future:

Reading of the original philosophies behind the Chelsea Hotel – the utopic, if somewhat simplistic notion of communal living of various types of classes – I kept thinking ‘Wow, imagine if somebody tried floating this idea today!”  What was it about this period and this project specifically that made people open to such a radical suggestion?

ST:  In the wake of Boss Tweed’s thefts, the long, deep recession of 1873, and the usual massive shift of wealth to the top one percent that followed (sound familiar?), the city’s social fabric seemed to many New Yorkers to be irredeemably destroyed.  People were so desperate for some kind of workable solution that New Yorkers from different economic classes started meeting in unprecedented ways – “bankers sitting next to bakers,” as one reporter put it in amazement – to discuss what had happened to the city and how it might start to recover.

Into this critical moment in history walked the Chelsea’s architect, Philip Hubert.  Basically, Hubert appealed to New Yorkers in the same way every successful idea man has in New York, before or since – via their pocketbooks.  (Below: The Chelsea, photographed by the Wurts Brothers, NYPL)

He introduced the concept of cooperative living – showing how much cheaper it was for New Yorkers to form a “club” to buy their own land, build an apartment house to their own liking, and share the costs of maintenance, fuel, and other services.  The new cooperative apartments were so appealing and cheap that the demand for them proved nearly insatiable.

Here was a way to bridge the stultifying divide that had opened up between classes in a society where status was determined by the size of an individual’s bank account, so that citizens felt compelled to isolate themselves, as Hubert put it, “to guard their dearly cherished state of exaltation.” New Yorkers who lived together, on the other hand, would have to converse and exchange ideas. Alliances would form, and perhaps these alliances would arm groups against the chicanery of the next Boss Tweed.

To create real diversity, Hubert had to make cooperatives not only practical but, in a sense, sexy.  He managed that feat with the Chelsea Association Building, set in the heart of New York’s racy theater district, at the intersection of all the new elevated railroad lines and equidistant from the Ladies’ Mile shopping district and the decadent Tenderloin.  To make life at the Chelsea even more enticing, he built a cooperative theater and a drama school to go with the cooperative, and invited in an assortment of artists, musicians, actors and writers to spice up the core population of businessmen, financiers, and working people.

You walk us very vividly through different decades of the Chelsea’s strange and storied existence. If you could re-visit a particular era of the Chelsea yourself, to which time period would you like to see? Its earliest days, the wild 60s, or another era?

:  Every time I’m asked this question I respond differently, because in fact I love every era at the Chelsea. Today, though, I’ll choose the Depression era as the one I’d most like to experience.

It was a surprisingly idyllic time at the hotel.  Room prices had lowered to a level that artists could actually afford, and secondly because many residents experienced a new kind of creative freedom as they were subsidized financially by the W.P.A. (“I can’t begin to tell you how rich everyone was,” one artist recalled.)

This was the era when the residents laid down a set of “house rules” that have been followed, more or less, ever since: don’t interrupt people during work hours; don’t visit without an invitation; don’t hit up famous neighbors for a job or a connection, and so on.  With their privacy protected, working artists felt comfortable socializing after hours: Edgar Lee Masters entertaining Thomas Wolfe in his suite, Masters and the artist John Sloan listening to music on the Victrola together, Van Wyck Brooks dropping in for cocktails with Sloan….  It was from these interactions that a real, lasting Chelsea Hotel culture was born—a culture that would nurture generations of artists in the decades to come.

From ‘Dream Palace’: “The artist Brion Gysin and his close friend William Burroughs arrived to market their new invention, the Dream Machine.”

You’ve written about so many iconic writers and artists, both in this book and in your past projects. And this is really a story of icons, as they pass through this extraordinary landmark.  But I greatly enjoyed stumbling upon some of your rather obscure figures here, those fairly forgotten today. Any particular individuals that you newly discovered in your research that were a particular favorite of yours?

ST:   One of the most fascinating longtime Chelsea Hotel denizens, who is known surprisingly little considering his cultural contributions, is the anthropologist-musicologist-artist-filmmaker-occultist Harry Smith (at right).  Smith created The Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of powerfully resonant American blues, ballads, gospel, and other songs that helped inspire the 1960s folk music movement and that inspired Bob Dylan in particular.

At the Chelsea, in his role as house magician, Smith provided the Yippies with a magic spell for levitating the Pentagon and Leonard Cohen with a love spell to seduce the singer Nico. (It failed, sadly.) Smith was also an experimental filmmaker, considered a genius by the underground film community; his films were designed to affect viewers neurologically, presumably altering their state of consciousness as a path toward further evolution. In the 1970s, Smith created a film, Mahagonny, based on the opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht and featuring such Chelsea Hotel residents as Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Allen Ginsberg—a film intended to communicate to all cultures, regardless of language or location, humanity’s troubled state.

There are others I found captivating, even if they weren’t known outside their small circles of admirers.  In fact, I would have included hundreds more if I’d only had the pages to contain them.

There’s also a large amount of tragedy associated with the Chelsea, from the most famous events (Dylan Thomas and Sid Vicious, of course) to even the footnotes of history, those known only for their awful ends.  For instance, the woman who cut off her hand and jumped off the roof. (I went back and read that sentence like six times!)  Did you sense any particular reason for this in your research? Is it just the density of dramatic figures that stayed here? 

ST: I’m so glad you asked that question, because I’ve asked it myself so many times!  Unfortunately, I’ve never come up with a definitive answer, but I can give you my hypothesis.

Somehow, from the beginning—according to the letters and other writings in various archives—the Chelsea has always felt feminine to those who have lived in it.  Feminine and maternal, like a mother welcoming her children into her arms.  I would imagine that if one were in a state of existential despair or psychological extremity, one might look for comfort to an architectural (archetypal?) mother figure, particularly as one made the ultimate decision to end one’s life.

I’m thinking of Frank Kavecky, the impoverished young artist who was robbed on the subway of funds he was holding for the Hungarian Sick and Benevolent Society.  Discovering his loss, he went straight to the Chelsea – checking into a room for the afternoon, locking the door, settling himself into a rocking chair, and shooting himself in the head.

And Almyra Wilcox, the well-to-do visitor who overdosed on pills while writing a love letter to someone she knew she’d never see again. She was found dead the next morning, unfinished letter in hand.  Reading these stories, I think, if I were ready to do myself in, I might choose the Chelsea.  Wouldn’t you?

Photo by Claudio Edinger (courtesy Ed Hamilton/Living With Legends)

The fate of the Chelsea Hotel remains undecided, sitting empty, “like a corpse in its niche on Twenty-Third Street.”  If you could somehow dictate the future of the Chelsea yourself, what would you like see happen here? A return to its transient roots or an entirely new purpose altogether? 

ST:  Of course, the obvious desire would be to bring back the old days, with the former co-owner Stanley Bard managing the Chelsea and his son, David Bard, waiting in the wings. But since life is about moving forward, I would hope that the new owner, Ed Scheetz, will respect the Chelsea’s traditional function as fully as he claims to do.

The new owner has some intriguing ideas for the “new” Chelsea: creating a small, urban MacDowell-colony type program in which a half-dozen artists would enjoy free room and board, along with space on the ground floor to display or perform finished work.  He has shown me his plans for placing large, expensive rooms next to small, relatively cheap ones, to encourage a mix of people in the traditional Chelsea Hotel way.  He has assured me that he intends to maintain the building as a hotel, with the much-needed circulation of daily visitors from around the world, along with permanent residences whose occupants can pass on the community’s memories and values.

All of this sounds wonderful. The challenge, as always, lies in making this culture both “real” and affordable. It’s ultimately my hope that Ed Scheetz will be willing to go so far as to make the Chelsea the loss leader of his collection of New York hotels, if that’s what it takes to keep the life of the Hotel Chelsea going.

Sherill was also on the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC, talking about the book. Here’s the show (and thanks to Chip Pate on Twitter for pointing this out!): 

Other recent selections from the Bowery Boys Bookshelf: