Tag Archives: Bowery Boys Bookshelf

The Martyr and the Traitor: Choosing Sides In The Revolutionary War

You may know Nathan Hale well from history books or from New York’s numerous memorials as a symbol of American patriotism, dying for his country long before anybody actually thought it would ever be a country.

The British hanged him in New York as a spy in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1776. He had performed no great deed for George Washington and his army — his intel never made it back to the general — except for volunteering for the spy mission in the first place.  His gift to the future United States was in believing it would exist.

Courtesy NYPL

But what if things had been a little different in the life of Mr. Hale as a young man? What if, Sliding Doors-style, decisions made by him and his loved ones had sent him down a different path? What if his ardent patriotism had, instead, been in support of the British cause?

In a captivating new book by Virginia DeJohn Anderson, a professor of history at the University of Colorado in Boulder, we are presented with an actual historical example — a contrasting figure nearly forgotten — to use for this thought experiment.

THE MARTYR AND THE TRAITOR
Nathan Hale, Moses Dunbar, and the American Revolution
by Virginia DeJohn Anderson
Oxford University Press

The story of Moses Dunbar is the flip-side to the Hale legend. The two Connecticut men were similar in a great many ways (although Dunbar was older) but circumstances led them to different causes.

Dunbar’s story is far less known than Hale’s of course. Hale was proclaimed a true patriot early in the Revolutionary conflict, and those with documents and information about the young schoolmaster proudly preserved them. His story is richly documented and well embroidered.

The opposite is true of Dunbar; he was hung in disgrace after returning home from a mission to recruit British sympathizers among his countrymen. It’s said that Dunbar’s own father offered to provide the rope.

Detail of Amos Doolittle, Connecticut From the best Authorities, first printed by Matthew Carey, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1795. (Courtesy, Connecticut Historical Society via Chipstone.)

Anderson tells both of their stories in parallel, and for a time, the reader can experience this book as an excellent social history of life in Connecticut in the mid 18th century — the degrees in which religion, marriage, education and land ownership play a defining role in an individual’s fate.

Dunbar became an Anglican, tied to the Church of England in a time with anti-British fervor was sweeping the countryside. In fact, there are moments when Dunbar seems far more radical than Hale (who, with his Yale education, is exposed to other feisty young men and books full of eye-opening revolutionary beliefs).

Courtesy Brown University Digital Repository

The most vivid portions of Anderson’s well-researched and excellently paced history involve violent attempts by anti-British mobs. Writes Anderson:

“As the weeks passed, Anglicans in general, not just clergy, became target of attacks if they did not announce their opposition to Britain. In East Haddam  a seventy-year-old Anglican parish clerk was yanked out of bed on a cold night, stripped, and beaten …… Rumors began circulating that Anglican clergy, in league with the detested Samuel Peters and with the approval of their congregations, were plotting to enslave the colony.”

Below: Nathan Hale’s schoolhouse in East Haddam, CT

NYPL

Dunbar was radicalized by his environment and, observing such displays in his community, chose church (and, by extension, Great Britain) over country. His decision would destroy him and even lead his disgraced family into vigorously supporting the American cause.

In The Martyr and the Traitor, in putting Hale and Dunbar on equal footing, Anderson underscores the intensity of the moment and the uncertainty of its outcome. Hale’s patriotism seems all the more brave but so too does Dunbar’s intransigence.

Both men died on the noose away from loved ones; their ends embody the chaos and certain danger of the Revolutionary War.

 

 

‘Fear City’: The unthinkable tale how New York City almost went bankrupt

Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, the title of Kim Phillips-Fein’s riveting new book on the 1970s financial catastrophe, isn’t wantonly comparing New York City to the devilish landscape of a horror film.

It’s the actual title of a grim pamphlet the New York Police Department distributed to tourists in 1975, providing insights into staying safe during this period of high crime and government cut-backs. Today it does read a bit like promotional material for an actual horror film The Purge, a fear-mongering document meant to embarrass city officials and galvanize communities.

Its advice included:

  1. Stay off the streets after 6 P.M.
  2. Do not walk.
  3. Avoid public transportation.
  4. Remain in Manhattan.
  5. Protect your property.
  6. Safeguard your handbag.
  7. Conceal property in handbags.
  8. Do not leave valuables in your hotel room and do not deposit them in the hotel vault.
  9. Be aware of fire hazards.

The flyers enraged Mayor Abe Beame, who was scrambling to come up with money to save New York, and he even slapped a restraining order upon the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association who was attempting to distribute the flyers. “Abandoning the notion of leafleting the airports,” writes Phillips-Fein, “police officers instead drove around trucks decked with American flags and red-white-and-blue bunting around the city, blasting out warnings about the threats to public safety.”

How did New York City get itself into this weakened, paralyzing situation? And just as impossibly — how did the city manage to get out of it?

Metropolitan Books
FEAR CITY
New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics
By Kim Phillips-Fein
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Co.

In Fear City, Phillips-Fein manages to sift through this complicated and seemingly indecipherable story and recount even the most gloomy late-night board meetings with a vital urgency.

In essence, it does have a horror-film quality, as we watch a festering monster grow in size within the corridors of government. New York’s financial woes began in the late 1950s, as the city began taking out large, virtually unchecked loans, playing elaborate games on spreadsheets in order to pay the bills. They were assisted by state government (who at first facilitated such borrowing and even changed laws to allow it) and the eager ratings agencies who considered New York a safe A-rating bet as late as 1973.

Mayor Beame, besieged by reporters outside of Gracie Mansion

Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

To be fair, under prior mayors, coffers began aching under increased funding of social services, expanded to combat growing threats such as the depopulation of some neighborhoods (due to the growth of suburbs) and the spectre of deteriorating infrastructure.

But by the mid 1970s, the city and its new mayor Abe Beame faced the terrifying possibility of bankruptcy. This would not only be bad for the city, but for the nation as a whole, destabilizing the country’s banking networks. Indeed New York threatened to fall into a hole and pull the entire country in with it.

“Over time,” writes Phillips-Fein, “the fear of bankruptcy took on a life of its own.”

The one person with certain power to bail out the city chose not to. President Gerald Ford would eventually butt heads with his own vice president Nelson Rockefeller over the country’s involvement with New York. “Most of Ford’s advisers believed New York was shamelessly begging for help to prop up its welfare state. The cold light of default … might be the only thing that could compel the city to change its ways.”

We know how that ended up turning out.

But if Ford wouldn’t come to the table to offer assistance, Beame often had a problem admitting there was a problem at all. At times he sounds like an addict, frantically coming up with excuses for his own behavior. “He claimed the city was just running low on cash while it waited for revenues to arrive.”

You may know portions of this story quite well — some of you lived through it — but you may not know the varying and even opposing ways that the city got out of this mess.

On one level, it did so with the help of financiers and CEOs, leading task forces  of great and questionable power.

Empowered by a late-night act hurriedly passed by the state senate, the ominous-sounding Emergency Financial Control Board oversaw all city expenditures, “wrest[ing] control over the city’s finances out of the hands of the mayor and the City Council.” Among those on the board were the CEOs of New York Telephone Company, American Airlines and Colt Industries (the gun manufacturer).

Below: Anger at the EFCB’s actions to close Hostos Community College inspired vigorous protests. Such community action helped save the college.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

But the real bailout came from the citizens of New York themselves who weathered the horrifying notion of “planned shrinkage,” the drastic and detrimental cutbacks to hospitals, schools and public transit, generally speaking, with great resolve. (Events like the Blackout of 1977 notwithstanding.)

But they did not weather them quietly.

Communities were not afraid to push back against aggressive cuts that would have endangered them, such as the efforts by one Greenpoint community to save their fire house from closure and another by a South Bronx residents to stop the shuttering of a unique educational institution — Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College of the City University of New York — aimed at the community’s bilingual residents.

Phillips-Fein, an associate professor at New York University, has crafted one of the best history books of the year out of one of the ugliest periods in New York City history. Aspects of this story reverberate into present dilemmas — on the local, state and national levels — as austerity measures take center stage as possible solutions to deficits and shortfalls. Let’s not hope for any sequels.

Below: New York City 1976

Photo/John VanderHaagen

 

New York City 1977

Photography by Derzsi Elekes Andor

The New Brooklyn: The ups and downs of a very frenetic borough

The subtitle to Kay S. Hymowitz‘s engaging and often provocative new book The New Brooklyn: What It Takes To Bring A City Back is a bit of a misnomer.

Brooklyn is not back in any conventional sense of the word. It has not returned to any kind of sense of normalcy or financial stability. In fact, Brooklyn has never felt more granular, a borough with newly formed and slightly unstable multiple personalities. If it were a person, you might medicate it.

Brooklyn is back — for many, safe, vibrant and livable but it is also beyond. It’s in a category all to its own.

Below: The new Williamsburg

Courtesy John/Flickr

Brooklyn is also my home. I live two blocks from a row of millionaires to the east and two blocks from working class residents in a housing project to the west. Retail options are frayed and deeply unsatisfying to all — expensive boutiques next to drug stores with lines down the block. No grocery stores in sight. A few blocks away lies the Gowanus Canal, a perilously grim body of water that now, in 2017, attracts glassy chemical films on its surface and luxury condos at its banks.

The past two decades in Brooklyn have been transformative in a way that few places in the world have experienced. This is certainly the most tumultuous era for the borough since it was dragged into the embrace of Greater New York — via the Consolidation of 1898. 

It can be one of the greatest places to live in the United States. It can also be a frustrating, hopeless place. Its dysfunctions are legion. The pockets of Brooklyn which foster great cultural changes are never far from others that are (intentionally or otherwise) closed to any sort of change.

Below: Sunset Park

Courtesy Barry Yanowitz/Flickr

Recent shifts began in the early 1990s when younger people, mostly single, began flocking to the industrial neighborhood of Williamsburg after they couldn’t find acceptable space across the river in the East Village and the Lower East Side. This, in itself, was not a new phenomenon; Brooklyn Heights saw a similar ‘bohemian’ gentrification a century ago, as did Park Slope in the 1960s and 70s.

But the Williamsburg migration initiated a widespread lurch of gentrification into Brooklyn — some of it, as Hymowitz notes, with great degrees of population displacement. Gentrification is considered a bad word for many, a sign of Brooklyn becoming deeply homogenized to the detriment of its working-class residents.

The New Brooklyn
What It Takes To Bring A City Back
by Kay S. Hymowitz
Roman & Littlefield

Roman & Littlefield

In The New Brooklyn, Hymowitz looks at the more nuanced effects of gentrification by diving into the histories of seven neighborhoods — Park Slope, Williamsburg, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Sunset Park and Canarsie. (My only objection to this book is that the surveys are so engaging that I would have loved to read her take on other intriguing corners — Red Hook and Brighton Beach, for example.)

Below: Brownsville

Courtesy Nathan Prelaw/Flickr

She notes that gentrification, even of the most well-intentioned kind, is always fated for a rough landing. “When the educated middle class sets up housekeeping amid people from a different culture — whether white working class, poor black or immigrant  Hispanic, Chinese or whoever — tensions are inevitable.”

Gentrification in Brooklyn has come in all forms, with varying degrees of displacement. While sensitive liberal tenancies among current displacers has made gentrification into a bad word, this was not so deeply concerning in the 1960s — in Park Slope, for example — when the city was spiraling towards financial doldrum.  Writes Hymowitz:

“[G]entrification can drive out residents by increasing evictions, demolitions and landlord harassment, and raising rents to heights that existing tenants cannot afford. This kind of displacement has a decades-long history in gentrifying Park Slope. In the early days (and despite their countercultural sympathies), brownstoners made no bones about wanting to evict tenants whom they often inherited with their newly purchased brownstones.”

Below: Park Slope

Courtesy John-Paul Pagano/Flickr

Yet the Williamsburg-into-Bushwick-and-beyond form of gentrification is of an entirely different breed; it became an international model for urban renewal. “Everyone, including people who might have once aspired to the Ritz, whether in Tokyo, Stockholm, Berlin, Philadelphia or Chicago, wants to be cool in a Brooklyn sort of way.

While this has made Brooklyn an overall safer place to live, it’s also created an experience quite out of reach for many. In Hymowitz’s survey, she also visits Brownsville, a neighborhood almost entirely closed off from the so-called “rebirth,” a place where residents, mostly poor and working class African-Americans, are struggling to break free from life in “the permanent ghetto.”

The New Brooklyn is anchored firmly in history with an excellent overview of Brooklyn’s past upfront and startling neighborhood histories beginning each chapter. History explains the reactions to modern changes.

In Bed-Stuy, longtime residents are concerned that rapid gentrification is changing the nature of this historic center of black culture. While in Sunset Park, as Hymowitz notes, “you’d be hard-pressed to find any anti-gentrification protests or activists taking up the cause.”

— By Greg Young

Below: Bedford-Stuyvesant

Courtesy Melissa Felderman/Flickr

 

 

Top picture — Brooklyn 1945, courtesy New York Public Library

 

The New York Riots of 1964: Violent history with a haunting familiarity

One hot summer’s morning, in the neighborhood of Yorkville on the Upper East Side, high school student James Powell was shot and killed by police officer James Gilligan.

Powell either attempted to stab the officer or else the unarmed boy was brutally set upon by a man with violent tendencies. Gilligan, a war veteran, was either defending himself from a troubled delinquent or else he gunned down the teenager with little remorse.

There were few actual witnesses but dozens of bystanders. The incident took place across the street from a high school, and the students, incensed by rumors and the fear of blood running in the streets, began panicking.

The year was 1964.

It’s hard not to read the opening pages to Michael W. Flamm’s gripping In The Heat Of The Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and the War on Crime (University of Pennsylvania Press) and not see the parallels to modern police brutality cases.  So many different testimonies obscure the truth that it’s hard to know what really did happen in front of 215 East 76th Street that day. (Video footage might not have even cleared it up.)

Yet Flamm’s book isn’t specifically about the crime, but the chaos which ensued — the New York Riots of 1964 (with the most violent night often referred to as the Harlem Riot of 1964). For several evenings following the shooting, a host of speculations and false rumors — mixing with grief and despair on a series of hot summer evenings — led to roaming violence and looting in Harlem (with some also reported in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant).

The incidents which occurred that summer stem from hostilities which had built up within the black community for decades. A great distrust between the police and African-Americans played a part in the rising crime rate in poor neighborhoods like Harlem in the 1960s.

Courtesy the New York Daily News

Fearful residents felt powerless against increasing criminal behavior and drug abuse in their streets but didn’t risk involving law enforcement, who most considered corrupt and racist.

White residents avoided black neighborhoods — and vice versa — due to wildly dramatic reports in the press. Black power movements like the Nation of Islam escalated talk of violence while, in some neighborhoods, white vigilantes stopped and interrogated every black person found in the streets.

Writes Flamm: “New York sounded to the rest of the country like some frontier town helpless before the uncontrollable violence stalking its streets.”

Dick DeMarsico, New York World Telegraph & Sun

Flamm follows two parallel threads, both coming together in raw, unexpected ways. The first is a terrifying minute-by-minute account of the late-night street riots, the chaotic protests and the rallies organized by those who wished to funnel that rage into a mechanism of change. The second is the reactions of politicians and civil rights leaders to New York’s race and law enforcement problems.

The author’s meticulous research finds microcosms of hate and fear at nearly ever corner — of the kind which will make nobody particularly nostalgic for the period. “Central Harlem seemed like a war zone, with screams from people and cracks from bullets as they ricocheted off brick walls and cement sidewalks.”

New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Wolfson, Stanley, photographer.

At the center of the story is civil rights leader Bayard Rustin (pictured above) and the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), often caught between keeping and promoting the peace and quelling the concerns of angry residents.

At one point, Rustin was literally disarming people. “The toll might have gone much higher if not for Rustin, who personally disposed of three cases of dynamite — enough to destroy a city block — after two young black men agreed to give it to him instead of using it.”

Few history books I’ve read in the past twelve months have felt as immediate as In the Heat of the Summer, with anecdotes that seem to speak pointedly to the events of today’s headlines.

For example, some police authorities applauded television coverage of the riots. Said one commissioner: “It’s the best answer we have to the cries of police brutality. The camera, after all, cannot distort or lie; the worst that can happen is that the film is edited. But what you see on the home screen is the actual occurrence.”

Insomniac City: A strange tale of love and a tribute to off-beat New York

Writer and photographer Bill Hayes moved to New York in 2009 and experienced what many of us have already learned:  the nights are magic and the subway is a wilderness.

He began jotting down his observations of peculiar experiences, the strange behaviors of others existing in their own little New Yorks. “Every car on every train on every line holds a surprise,” writes Hayes, “a random sampling of humanity brought together in a confined space for a minute or two — a living Rubik’s Cube.”

Above and below: A couple of the many strange and captivating photographs by Bill Hayes featured in the book.

During the day he would aim a friendly camera towards New Yorkers of all shapes and affinities. Hayes left San Francisco after the tragic death of his partner and fortunately seems to have fallen into New York like one of its many prodigal souls. His experiences aren’t unique; they mirror yours and mine.

Except for the fact that, oh yes, he falls in love with a noted British neurologist and author — the late and dearly missed Oliver Sacks.

Oliver Sacks, photographed by Bill Hayes

In Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me, Hayes’ new memoir and urban rumination, we’re presented with a bird’s eye view of New York’s universal appeal to outsiders, paired with a microscopic look at two of those outsiders.

Sacks, a celebrated author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and Awakenings (the basis of the Robert De Niro/Robin Williams film), was a guarded individual, coming out to himself late in life and socially removed from non-professional affairs.

Hayes introduces us to Sacks’ extraordinary worldview, an intellectual who brought critical thinking into the slightest of gestures and loved going to the roof to drink wine out of the bottle. The love and reverence Hayes has for Sacks is clear, referring to him throughout the text as just ‘O’, giving us their intimate moments only when they illuminate something of his genius.

Insomniac City is a fragmentary, often poetic look at love of a city and of an individual, told in notes and journal entries. It’s a book one could easily devour in a single sitting but I suggest prolonging the experience, reading a little at a time, allowing the individual anecdotes to inform your own adventures out in the big city.

It take on a set of colossal tasks; it can be poem, a documentary and a tribute on just a single page. Hayes is giving us permission to stare into his life — and into the lives of others — in the same durations of time that we experience each other in our daily lives.  In those flash moments of bonding on mass transit or on the street, where we may imagine what another person is thinking and feeling before they vanish.

And knowing, in his vignettes, that he’s exposed an intimacy with strangers, he then bares his own to us, his unabashed mix of love, friendship and bewilderment to a wonderful, complicated man, who also came and went.

INSOMNIAC CITY
New York, Oliver and Me
Bloomsbury Publishing

 

Photographs courtesy Bill Hayes and Bloomsbury

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.

2

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 

1

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.

Tomorrow-Land
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: