Tag Archives: Columbia University

Happy birthday Langston Hughes! A few stops in Harlem to celebrate

Since I was a teenager, I’ve had an affinity for writer Langston Hughes, the revolutionary jazz poet who was born 115 years ago today in 1902. I grew up in Springfield, Mo., about an hour away from Langston’s birthplace in Joplin. One of the brightest lights of the Harlem Renaissance grew up here?, I frequently pondered in English class.  In fact, Hughes is considered Joplin’s most famous son.*

But you don’t need to follow Langston’s footprints back to the Ozarks. Celebrate his birthday with a mini-walking tour, four Manhattan addresses that were pivotal to Hughes’ development as an iconic African-American voice and a star of the Harlem literary scene–

 Young Langston in college, 1928

Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

181 W. 135th Street  — Langston’s first exposure to Harlem’s creative energy was as a Columbia University student in 1921, wandering the street, hoping to see “Duke Ellington on the corner of 135th Street, or Bessie Smith passing by, or Bojangles Bill Robinson in front of the Lincoln Theatre, or maybe Paul Robeson or Bert Williams walking down the avenue.” [source]

Before moving into Columbia’s Hartley Hall (1124 Amsterdam Avenue), however, Langston took a room here at the YMCA, known for its live drama productions and art shows. He didn’t need to stroll around to find Robeson; he got his start acting in productions at the YMCA.



Dapper gentlemen: At a 1924 celebration in Langston’s honor, at the home of Regina Andrews on 580 St. Nicholas Avenue. The author is to the far left, followed by future sociologists Charles S. Johnson and E. Franklin Frazier; novelist and future doctor Rudolph Fisher; and Hubert T. Delany, who would become a New York justice in 1942, appointed by Fiorello La Guardia.

634 St. Nicholas Avenue — Although Langston would rent out a studio in 1938 down the street at 66 St. Nicholas Avenue, he frequently stayed at this address in the Sugar Hill area of Harlem, the home of his friends Toy and Emerson Harper. (He referred to them as ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’.) Hughes later moved with the couple to another address…

20 East 127th Street  For 20 years, Hughes worked out of the top floor, by now an international phenomenon. He was residing here (his own ivory tower) when he died in 1967. The house was up for sale for awhile, but was finally sold in 2011 in a Sotheby’s auction.

 515 Malcolm X Boulevard (at W. 135th Street) — The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library, is Hughes’ final resting place. His ashes are contained underneath the foyer floor, beneath an inscription: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” But the library always had a long association with Hughes. His ‘poetry-play’ ‘Don’t You Want To Be Free‘ played to sold-out crowds in the basement of the library in 1938. The play co-starred Robert Earl Jones, the father of James Earl Jones.

You can find a far more in-depth walking tour of 1920s Harlem here.

*Another African-American cultural icon, George Washington Carver, was born in the town of Diamond, Mo., fifteen minutes southeast of Joplin. If you’re ever swinging through that area of the world, the George Washington Carver National Monument, where his home was located, is worth a stop.

 

Modern Family: Black and Latino Alliances in New York City

The political landscape of modern New York City is a stew of neighborhood, borough, financial and ethnic interests built upon over two centuries of experience and tradition.  The most interesting story of the past fifty years — both locally and nationally — is the ascension of minority voices into the public sphere, reflecting population changes but also rising strategies of organization.

How did non-white New Yorkers first find their voice in modern politics? In Upsetting the Apple Cart, an impressive navigation through late 20th century politics by Frederick Douglass Opie, the answer comes from seemingly surprising places — the hospital, the classroom, the kitchen table.

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Opie, a professor at Babson College, inspects the particular relationship between New York’s black and Latino communities as they find ways to align at the workplace and in the voting booth. Today it seems obvious that two large minority interest groups might team up to achieve common goals, but it wasn’t until after labor and student activists explored the relationship in the 1950s and 60s that alliances were forged in the major political spheres.

The first half of Upsetting the Apple Cart traces the influences of both the unions and the civil rights movement upon minority workers at local hospitals and students at universities.  Frustrated by lower pay and unfair hours in comparison to their white counterparts, black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers found common ground and successfully organized. This culminated in a massive, ultimately successful city-wide strike on May 8, 1959, lasting almost two months.

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Minority higher-education students at Columbia University, Hunter College and other school found other reasons to work together — to improve enrollment and educational needs. At Columbia students successfully closed the campus in protest over a new gymnasium being built in Morningside Heights, seen by many as an encroachment into the majority black neighborhood.

Personally I found the second half of Upsetting the Apple Cart more intriguing, but then, I love rooting around in the history of New York backroom political alliances.  Opie’s book excellently explains the early history of black and Latino political organization, from the rise of power in Harlem by the Gang of Four (including David Dinkins and Charlie Rangel) to the first politicians of Puerto Rican, Mexican and Dominican descent in New York.

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 08: Daily News front page dated Nov. 8, 1989, Headlines: DAVE DOES IT, Dinkins in close race, Florio wins in jersey, City Charter passes, David Dinkins elected Mayor of New York City (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES – NOVEMBER 08: Daily News front page dated Nov. 8, 1989, Headlines: DAVE DOES IT, Dinkins in close race, Florio wins in jersey, City Charter passes, David Dinkins elected Mayor of New York City (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Politics is made from shifting alliances but it wasn’t until the victory of Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago in 1983 that the united front of African-American, Hispanic and Latino-American activists made itself felt in a major political race. Such unification of goals made its way to New York through the presidential aspirations of Jesse Jackson and the various (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to unseat New York mayor Ed Koch.

The apex of minority political alliances occurred with the election of David Dinkins, famous for his appeal to the “gorgeous mosaic” of New York ethnicities. Dinkins won because, in the end, he appealed to a majority of New Yorkers. But Opie makes note of the unique organizations of outer-borough Hispanics that helped get him elected.

Wait, did I mention that Upsetting  the Apple Cart is also a cookbook? Somewhat incongruously, traditional recipes for tamales, arroz con pollo, fried chicken and other dishes pop up throughout the chapters. Opie, a food traditions professor, emphasizes the role of social interaction in creating these unique coalitions.  To paraphrase a popular adage, the best way to a neighbor’s heart is through her stomach.  The success of these early alliances lends some credence to food as the great uniter.

Upsetting the Apple Cart:
Black-Latino Coalitions in New York City from Protest to Public Office
by Frederick Douglass Opie
Columbia University Press

 

Strike pictures courtesy 1199SEIU

Photographs of college football players in New York (1914)


Above: the Columbia University football team, 1914

Click into the images for bigger view.  The first two team photos were taken sometime in Fall 1914, on the Columbia University campus. (As in, in the middle of campus.)  The first solo portraits were taken on Oct 24, 1914, during the Cornell vs Brown match-up at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan.  The second set of solos were also taken at the Polo Grounds, at the Washington & Jefferson vs. Rutgers game on Nov. 28, 1914.

The Columbia University football squads, 1914




Dr. Albert Sharpe (1877-1966), coach for Cornell, former football player for Yale University. Reminds me of this guy, no?

Clarence W. Bailey, right tackle for Cornell

Edward J. Gallogly, left tackle for Cornell

Murray Shelton, right end for Cornell

William Nicholas Ormsby, left end for Brown, later served in the Navy during World War I

Theodore Chandler, full back for Brown

Brown University Quarterback Leslie Russell Clark with left halfback Leonard Horcross.

Brown University team, in a huddle at Polo Grounds. (By the way, Cornell defeated Brown in this game.)

Johnny Spiegel, halfback for Washington & Jefferson College

Hugginweg — full name and team affiliation unknown, although his uniform is similar to Spiegel’s

The amazingly named Burleigh Cruikshank, from Washington & Jefferson

Gordon — full name unknown, probably Washington & Jefferson, given the uniform

And finally, a long shot of the Polo Grounds itself in 1913 (an Army-Navy football game), one of America’s great sports venues of the early 20th century.

All photos courtesy Library of Congress

The sitting-out bag: Nobody wore this winter look for fun

Not cool: “Boy wearing coat with attached bag covering feet, seated at table, outside of classroom, reading, New York City.” Courtesy Library of Congress

Hopefully the New York hipster community will never pick up the sitting-out bag as a trendy winter fashion trend. In their day, no teenager wore this cumbersome device for fun.

The sitting-out bag was basically the sleeping bag for daytime, a device used to warm the body in New York’s so-called ‘open air schools’.

One may immediately ask, “Why submit children to study outside in cold weather?” Subjecting any child to such conditions today would probably lead to a lawsuit. But a century ago, such measures were believed to be helpful in fending off one of the most horrifying dangers to children of that era — tuberculosis.

Below: The Seward Park Library opened up its rooftop as a reading room for students, both as a way to beat the heat but also to encourage the flow of air and the prevention of disease. (Courtesy NYPL, date unknown, photographer Lewis Hine)

The so-called ‘open air schools’ instructed students in environments with ample ventilation, often on rooftops or outdoors.  According to a 1916 analysis of the movement, an open-air schoolroom was “fully exposed to the air on one or more sides, providing merely shelter from wind and rain. There is no artificial heating, the temperature of the room always being that of the open air.”

The first open-air school in New York opened in 1908 on an “abandoned ferryboat.”  Easily the most notable of New York’s open-air schools — and a model of this unusual form of education — was the Horace Mann School, operated by the Teachers College at Columbia University.

Horace Mann’s students had to meet a certain unfortunate criteria.  “The children who make up the classes were chosen because they were nervous, or irritable, or anaemic, or undernourished.” [source]

Tuberculosis was one of the leading causes of death worldwide in the 19th century and would not fully be controlled until the widespread acceptance of vaccines after World War II.

Below: An advertisement promoting “fresh air in abundance”

But while the open-air school was created for the prevention of one illness, it most likely encouraged another — pneumonia. And that’s where the sitting-out bag comes in, a thick sheath of material that allowed the student to study even in freezing temperatures.

It was by no means a pleasant ensemble.  One guide to open-air schools described the sitting-out bags as “made of a brown, pliable, hairy, felt-like cloth bound with tape and fitted with snap fasteners.”

Because the sitting-out bags were often used by several students — and reused, over many years — parents were encouraged to make their own sitting-out bags at home for their children.  An article in a 1910 Survey Magazine offered tips to adults on how to make homemade sitting-out bags. (If you’d like to make your own sitting-out bag, find the instructions here, but you’ll need lots of braid and cotton batting.)

Many sitting-out bags came with hoods, leading to the alarming sight of an entire classroom of hooded children in stiff uncomfortable cocoons. Below is pictured a hooded version, advertised in the Journal of the Outdoor Life in 1922. A sporting magazine?  Sadly, no. The publisher of this guide to open-air living was the National Tuberculosis Association.

The sitting-out bag: Nobody wore this winter look for fun

Hopefully New Yorkers will never pick up the sitting-out bag as a trendy winter fashion trend. In their day, no teenager wore this cumbersome device for fun.

Below: “Boy wearing coat with attached bag covering feet, seated at table, outside of classroom, reading, New York City.” Courtesy Library of Congress

1

The sitting-out bag was basically the sleeping bag for daytime, a device used to warm the body in New York’s so-called ‘open air schools’.

One may immediately ask, “Why submit children to study outside in cold weather?” Subjecting any child to such conditions today would probably lead to a lawsuit. But a century ago, such measures were believed to be helpful in fending off one of the most horrifying dangers to children of that era — tuberculosis.

Below: The Seward Park Library opened up its rooftop as a reading room for students, both as a way to beat the heat but also to encourage the flow of air and the prevention of disease. (Courtesy NYPL, date unknown, photographer Lewis Hine)

2

The so-called ‘open air schools’ instructed students in environments with ample ventilation, often on rooftops or outdoors.  According to a 1916 analysis of the movement, an open-air schoolroom was “fully exposed to the air on one or more sides, providing merely shelter from wind and rain. There is no artificial heating, the temperature of the room always being that of the open air.”

The first open-air school in New York opened in 1908 on an “abandoned ferryboat.”  Easily the most notable of New York’s open-air schools — and a model of this unusual form of education — was the Horace Mann School, operated by the Teachers College at Columbia University.

Horace Mann’s students had to meet a certain unfortunate criteria.  “The children who make up the classes were chosen because they were nervous, or irritable, or anaemic, or undernourished.” [source]

Tuberculosis was one of the leading causes of death worldwide in the 19th century and would not fully be controlled until the widespread acceptance of vaccines after World War II.

Below: An advertisement promoting “fresh air in abundance”

3

But while the open-air school was created for the prevention of one illness, it most likely encouraged another — pneumonia. And that’s where the sitting-out bag comes in, a thick sheath of material that allowed the student to study even in freezing temperatures.

It was by no means a pleasant ensemble.  One guide to open-air schools described the sitting-out bags as “made of a brown, pliable, hairy, felt-like cloth bound with tape and fitted with snap fasteners.”

Because the sitting-out bags were often used by several students — and reused, over many years — parents were encouraged to make their own sitting-out bags at home for their children.  An article in a 1910 Survey Magazine offered tips to adults on how to make homemade sitting-out bags. (If you’d like to make your own sitting-out bag, find the instructions here, but you’ll need lots of braid and cotton batting.)

Many sitting-out bags came with hoods, leading to the alarming sight of an entire classroom of hooded children in stiff uncomfortable cocoons. Below is pictured a hooded version, advertised in the Journal of the Outdoor Life in 1922. A sporting magazine?  Sadly, no. The publisher of this guide to open-air living was the National Tuberculosis Association.

4

Movin’ on up: from King’s College to Columbia University

We’re going back to school with one of New York’s oldest continually operating institutions — Columbia University. Or should we say, King’s College, the pre-Revolution New York school that spawned religious controversy and a few Founding Fathers to boot. Listen in as we chart its locations throughout the city — from the vicinity of Trinity Church to midtown Manhattan. And finally to its permanent home on the ‘Academic Acropolis’ in Morningside Heights.

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The Bowery Boys #90: Columbia University

WE MADE A COUPLE REVISIONS AND A CORRECTED VERSION OF THE SHOW IS NOW UP!

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As always, click on pictures for a bigger view

Freshman Years: The King’s College campus in 1770, along Park Place overlooking the Hudson River. Things would not be peaceful for long on this quiet campus; several students, including young Alexander Hamilton, would join the fight for independence from England. The school would close in 1776 and become a military hospital.

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Believe it or not, this is the corner of 49th Street and Madison Avenue, site of Columbia’s campus during most of the second half of the 19th Century. It moved into a space formerly inhabited by the Institute of the Deaf and Dumb. Curiously, when it would move uptown in 1897, it would take over property held by the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum.

The same campus, in a photograph from 1882. The encroaching growth of the city northward seems to have taken a toll on the campus grounds. Columbia would move from midtown fifteen years later.

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Frederick Augustus Porter Barnard, president of Columbia (back when it was Columbia College) from 1864-1889. In addition to bringing some prestige to the institution, his forward-thinkinig philosophies regarding education for both men and women eventually led to the formation of Barnard College.

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Good Morning: The new campus slowly rises from Morningside Heights with the already completed Low Memorial Library in the background. When this photo was taken in 1897, there was little real development in the area, and it was barely even serviced by public transportation. McKim, Mead and White would turn the area into a veritable classical city.

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The Low Down: The Low Memorial Library was constructed under the tenure of Columbia president Seth Low. However the building is named not for Seth, but his father Abiel Abbot Low, a successful Brooklyn silk merchant. The library is probably one of McKim, Mead and White’s most beautiful existant works in the city. It’s not, however, a library any more.

Nicholas Murray Butler, arguably the most influential (and controversial) president in Columbia’s history, presided from 1901 to 1945, overseeing vast growth and prestige for the school.

Pictures courtesy Library of Congress, New York Public Library, Wikimedia and Columbia University

Asylum! The insane foundations of Columbia University

The charming structure above, depicted as though it were a rest stop on the road to Eden, sits on land now occupied by Columbia University in Morningside Heights.  Students driven mad by their studies can find cold comfort knowing that the former occupants of this acreage were also mostly certifiably insane. Welcome to Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, one of the first institutions of its kind in America, opening in 1821.

This Bloomingdale has nothing to do with the creators of Bloomingdale’s department store, the sons of Benjamin Bloomingdale.  The lands northwest and well outside city limits of 1820s New York were referred to as simply Bloomingdale, most likely a derivation of an old Dutch word ‘Bloemendaal‘.  Bloomingdale Road, the path from 23rd street that ran up to Harlem, would later be renamed Broadway.

The Bloomingdale Hospital Centenary, as it was called, sat at 116th Street and Bloomingdale until it moved to White Plains, NY, in 1894.  Employing the latest advances in psychiatric study, the hospital released an announcement in 1821, declaring, “This institution has been established with the express design to carry into effect that system of management of the insane, happily termed moral management…”

The alleged ‘morals’ of these asylums were called into question by reformers, many years before Nellie Bly would perform her crackerjack investigations at Blackwell’s Island’s own asylum. In 1872, the hospital reacted to accusations of abuse with the following statement printed in the New York Times:

“In reference to the report of the Visiting Committee of the Bloomingdale Lunatic Asylum, published in the Times some days since, Mr. Townswend, council for Mr. Van Vleck, yesterday stated to a reporter that these charges had often been made against similar institutions, but never before so direct.

The insane, he said, were kicked and choked until blood spurts from the mouth and nostrils — some being driven to suicide by systematic cruelties.

He commented on the report of the overseers, making out everything to be ‘lovely in the Asylum…. “Does anybody suspect that the people employed in such institutions, while still under engagement, would risk their positions by admitting that they had practiced outrages upon the patients, or had been lewd in their actions?”

Apparently, that question was not answered to anybody’s satisfaction, as accusations of misconduct dogged the institution.  By the 1880s, as the city grew up around it, landowners complained that the asylum was bringing down property values.  (This was the impetus for putting such ‘charity’ institutions on New York’s islands in the first place.)  Eventually it was decided to move Bloomingdale’s outside the city entirely.

Although most of the building was demolished, at least one part were left untouched and remains part of the Columbia University campus — Buell Hall (also known as the Maison Française) sitting next to Low Memorial Library.  The building that houses Maison Française was once Bloomingdale’s exclusive asylum for wealthy men who could afford to keep themselves from the general population. Essentially, for the insanely rich.

Barack Obama’s New York City

Since Barack Obama is the reason we don’t have a podcast this week, I thought I might as well spend a few moments looking into Obama’s short stay here in New York City, as a Columbia University college student from August 1981 to 1983, and as a community organizer until 1985.

Grandpa and Grammy Dunham visit Obama during his stay at Columbia University


I can hardly think of a better place to get a crash course in race relations and cultural diversity than New York City in the early 80s, and in fact, in Dreams of My Father, he credits his stay here with permanently shaping his perceptions.

His infamous party days and drug experimentation seems to have taken place at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he spent his first two years. According to Obama, he transferred to the more prestigious Columbia University because he “wanted to be in a more vibrant, urban environment.” He graduated with a degree in political science.

Interestingly, there’s not much to talk about academically about Obama, as Columbia hasn’t released his student records. He doesn’t talk about particular students by name, and may in fact not known too many of them. According to his book, Barack “spent a lot of time in the library. I didn’t socialize that much. I was like a monk.” During this “intense time of study,” he also “stopped getting high” and started running.

And it was here in 1982 that he received a phone call one night about the death of his father Barack Obama Jr in a car crash.

If you’re interested in tracing the steps of your future president, here’s a few sites to check out:

Alleyway near 109th Street and Amsterdam Avenue — according to his book, Obama slept here on his first night in town, unable to find an apartment. His infamous tale of bathing in a fire hydrant with a homeless occurs the next morning.

339 East 94th– Obama apparently bounced around several apartments in upper Manhattan. In fact, if you live up there, he might have slept on your floor! One place we can definitively pinpoint was on East 94th street, where he befriended his Puerto Rican neighborhood and sat listening to the soothing sounds of nighttime gunfire. Trivial fact: the landlord of the building at the time Jay Weiss, was then married to actress Kathleen Turner!

Butler Library, Columbia University — The foundations for Obama’s education into politics occurred here, presumably bent over books until wee hours.

Business International Corporation (215 Park Ave South) — the current headquarters of the company that employed Obama for a few months after he graduated, paying off his student loans. Essentially a financial newsletter firm for companies wishing to expand overseas, it was here that he “would imagine myself as a captain of industry, barking out orders, closing the deal, before I remembered who it was that I had told myself I wanted to be and felt pangs of guilt for my lack of resolve.”

City College — Obama’s first work as a community organizer started here, under the employ of the New York Public Interest Research Group. According to a New York Times article, the group promoted reform on issues like financial aid and mass transit, although Obama reports trying to “convince minority students at City College about the importance of recycling.”

Central Park — See if you can find the exact spot where this picture was taken:

** FILE ** This undated photo provided by the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., shows the Democratic presidential hopeful, Obama, in New York City, while a student at Columbia University. Obama received his B.A. degree in political science in 1983 from Columbia. (AP Photo/Obama Presidential Campaign, File) ORG XMIT: WX315

Know Your Mayors: Abram S. Hewitt

Our modest little series about some of the greatest, notorious, most important, even most useless, mayors of New York City. Other entrants in our mayoral survey can be found here.

Abram Hewitt could easily be considered a very pivotal mayor in New York City, given the significant development and personal connections he had to the heart of the city. However a shipwreck very nearly did him in before he could even get started.

Hewitt, born upstate in Haverstraw, attended Columbia and taught mathmatics, where he became friendly with a student he was tutoring, Edward Cooper. The two of them later voyaged to Europe in 1844, but on the way back to America, their ship capsized off the coast of Cape May.

He, Edward and the crew were later rescued, but the experience affected Hewitt deeply (and rather vaingloriously): “It taught me…that my life which had been miraculously rescued belonged not to me, and from that hour I gave it to the work which from that time has been in my thoughts — the welfare of my fellow-citizens.”

It had a more lucrative effect as well; for Edward Cooper happened to be the only son of industrialist Peter Cooper. Hewitt’s bravery bonded him with the Cooper family, becoming lifelong friends with Edward and marrying Edward’s sister Sarah.

He helped found Trenton Iron Company with the Coopers and became the first to experiment with the inexpensive steel-producing Bessemer process in the United States.

But politics was soon in Abram’s sights, especially with the crumbling of Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall after his fall in 1871. Hewitt reorganized that once-corrupt Democratic political machine with political rewards for himself, elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1874.

He even tried his hand at national politics, managing Samuel Tilden’s nearly-successful quest for the White House in 1876. Remember this from history class? Despite Tilden winning the popular vote, an electoral fiaso gave the election to Rutherford B Hayes.

As Hewitt held court in Washington — becoming, in Henry Adams’ words “the most useful public man in Washington” — his close friend and brother-in-law Edward Cooper would be elected mayor of New York in 1879.

Hewitt’s connections in Washington would assist in getting the neccessary attentions brought to the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Although David McCullough dryly notes that Hewitt might have inadvertantly helped weaken the Bridge by helping deliever the wire bid to Brooklyn native (and total fraud) J. Lloyd Haugh. (More about him in last week’s podcast.) Hewitt would give a most stirring speech during the Bridge opening ceremony in 1883.

Finally, Hewitt himself would become mayor of New York City in 1886 during a heated election in which a candidate by the name of Theodore Roosevelt would place third.

Hewitt strong distain for corruption in city politics ran him against his old organization Tammany Hall. He also had strong moral convictions, fighting to keep city saloons closed on Sunday. (This did not endear him to many people.) However, he strongly advocated the creation of new city parks and began work on a much-delayed underground train system — which Tweed’s machine had stalled for years. In fact, Hewitt is considered the “Father of the New York Subway.”

He was defeated in 1888, partially due to angering the Irish community because he refused to attend the St Patricks Day Parade. (Hewitt tended to be of a more nativist stripe; among other demands, he required all immigrants take a literacy test.)

He spent his later years as a philanthropist, on the boards of the Carnegie Institution and the Museum of Natural History. When he died in 1903, Andrew Carnegie himself claimed the former mayor was “America’s foremost private citizen“.

KNOW YOUR MAYORS: Seth Low


We speed ahead over a hundred years after our last Know Your Mayors entry to that jovial man with the funny name, Seth Low. He holds a very unique place on the list of mayors, as he has been both the mayor of Brooklyn (from 1881 to 1885, back when it was a separate city) and mayor of the new five boroughed New York City — in fact, the second mayor ever of the consolidated city, from 1902-1903.

A likable organizer and leader, ‘the people’s candidate’ as he was called, fast-tracking through city politics, Low was on-site for a number of significant changes to the city. Elected Brooklyn mayor near the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, Low was perturbed by seeming delays to its completion and, with the help of New York’s mayor William Grace, attempted to oust its Chief Engineer Washington Roebling. Outvoted at the trustees meeting, Low then about-faced (like any good politician) and, on opening day, symbolically met Grace halfway of the new bridge.

Low made his most influential mark as the president of Columbia College from 1890-1901, shuffling the school from midtown to its present location in Morningside Heights, involving McKim, Mead, and White to design the new buildings, including the wonderful Roman revival throwback Low Memorial Library (named for Low’s father, a successful Brooklyn silk merchant). Oh, and during his tenure, Columbia dropped the College and became a University.

Below: the beautiful Low Memorial Library on the Columbia campus

By 1898, thanks in part to the Bridge, Brooklyn and the other boroughs were combined with Manhattan to create Greater New York. Low was then elected mayor again, of the entire city, crushing the Tammany Hall candidate with the help of his friend Mark Twain, who stumped for him at political rallies. (Think Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, or Mike Huckabee and Chuck Norris!)

Low was only mayor for a single year, but brought such reform to the city as lower taxes and a purge of corruption within the police department. His short tenure is more importantly symbolically, as he won the job as a ‘fusion’ candidate of two different major parties — the Republicans and the Citizens Union, both seeking to squash the Tammany Democrats.

Perhaps by way of karma, he lost his re-election bid in 1903 to another name associated with the Brooklyn Bridge, George Brinton McClellan Jr, treasurer of the bridge. McClellan, by the way, would open the Manhattan Bridge during his six-year term as mayor.

Low finished his professional career heading another prestigious school — the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama — serving as chairman from 1907 until he died in 1916.

Students currently attend the I.S. 96 Seth Low Intermediate School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.