Tag Archives: East Village

Webster Hall will return: The end of an era for NYC’s oldest party room

When news circulated this week that East Village nightclub Webster Hall would be closing for renovation in August, people understandably freaked out. It seems we’re losing historically significantly places at an alarming rate, places that seem to take a little bit of New York City’s personality with them when they disappear forever.

It was announced earlier this year that the venue was switching to new corporate owner Barclays/AEG/Bowery Presents in an effort to “bring them up to contemporary standards and add a few more customer features.” For many people, that’s code for stripping a place of its charm.

But don’t panic! This change is but the latest for this storied party venue. The hall has had many facelifts over the past 130 years, evolving to mirror the tastes of Greenwich Village residents. Indeed this corporate upgrade is a belated reflection of the neighborhood’s various sleek changes. (The projected renovations seem positively mild in comparison to the blistering reinvention of Astor Place.)

In 2008 Webster Hall was designated a New York City landmark for its impressive terra-cotta architecture and its status as a beacon of ethnic and social counter-culture during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As we wrote in our book Adventures In Old New York: “Opened in 1886, the hall hosted the annual Greenwich Village Ball from the 1910s to the 1930s, a bacchanalia where artists, bohemians, drag queens, and general reprobates of the best kind came to drink, dance, and seriously make merry until early morning. It worked hard to earn its nickname “the devil’s playhouse.”

Author Allan Church wrote, “So many dances-till-dawn and fancy dress balls were held there that one Villager said of himself and his wife: ‘We’ve sold our bed. Why sleep when there’s a dance every night at Webster Hall?’ ”

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In celebration of its new landmark status, we recorded an entire episode on the history of Webster Hall back in January 2009. In 2015, some additional material was added to the show.  Listen to it here or look for it in our Bowery Boys Archive feed (episode #73):

We look forward to visiting the new Webster Hall but of course we’ll be swinging by before August 5 to bid adieu to present incarnation.  Here’s a few clippings from old newspapers, giving you a few additional insights into Webster Hall’s spectacular history:

Webster Hall was rebellious before it even opened. St. Ann’s, the church which most vigorously decried its existence, has all been erased except for its entrance:

In 1887 Webster Hall played host to a private dance for wealthy black New Yorkers, members of the Doctors’ Drivers’ Association, “a band of athletic young gentlemen who are always on the alert to bear physicians on errands of mercy.”

A depiction of the baseball scoreboard that was installed by the New  York Evening World to ‘instantaneously’ update baseball scores from Boston in 1890. [The complete article is here.]

New York Evening World
New York Evening World

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The party rages at a Webster Hall costume ball, in a photo by the great Jessie Tarbox Beals. Just click into this photo for a closer view and observe the bizarre costumes.

Courtesy Schlesinger Library
Courtesy Schlesinger Library

 

Garment workers meet out in front of Webster Hall, between 1910-1915.  The venue was a pivotal meeting spot for union groups, political activists and anarchist leaders like Emma Goldman.

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

 

Greek immigrants gather in front of Webster Hall as they prepare to return to their country to engage in the first Balkan war (October 1912).

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

From a 1930 article:

 

A 1933 poster advertising the annual Greenwich Village costume ball, designed by John Sloan

Courtesy Ephemeral New York
CourtesyLibrary of Congress

 

The cast of ‘How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying’ recording the cast album at Webster Hall, 1961.

cast

 

Jefferson Airplane’s first New York concert, January 8, 1967, at Webster Hall

(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

 

Run DMC performing at The Ritz, May 15, 1984

Photograph by Josh Cheuse/updownsmilefrown
Photograph by Josh Cheuse/updownsmilefrown

 

 

Remembering the General Slocum disaster (June 15, 1904)

The General Slocum Memorial Fountain, one of the sole reminders of one of New York City’s darkest days,  is not a very awe-inspiring memorial.

This is no dig at the custodians of Tompkins Square Park, where the memorial has been on display since 1906, nor at Bruno Louis Zimm, the fountain’s sculptor whose creation presents two children in idyllic profile, next to an engraving: “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.”

Its left side unveils its more tragic context: “In memory of those who lost their lives in the disaster to the steamer General Slocum, June XV MCMIV.”

The fountain, while charming and tranquil, is inadequate in expressing the grief and horror that filled New Yorkers on June 15, 1904, when, during a church-sponsored day trip headed for the Long Island Sound, the General Slocum steamboat caught fire and sank in the East River, killing more than a thousand passengers, mostly women and children.

This tragedy was the single deadliest event in New York City history until September 11, 2001.

This disaster virtually wiped out the German presence on the Lower East Side—entire families perished, many of whom had just gotten a foothold in New York a generation before. In a single morning the lights of Kleindeutschland, New York’s Little Germany, permanently faded.

The boat had been chartered by St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church* for their yearly day trip excursion to the Long Island Sound. It was a chance for the congregation to briefly break out of the crowded Lower East Side to enjoy a day in the sun. Among the passengers was the Liebenow family, the parents and their three daughters, Anna, Helen, and Adella, along with several aunts and cousins.

A postcard featuring the General Slocum from the Museum of the City of New York collection.

Courtesy MCNY

The Slocum left the pier shortly before 9 a.m. and began its slow crawl up the East River. Captain William Van Schaick had been
principally concerned that morning with one turbulent spot up the East River, a dangerous confluence of waters known as the Hell Gate. It had already sunk hundreds of vessels as far back as the seventeenth century. By 1904 it was still a dangerous pass, but on this day, the Hell Gate would not be the problem.

About 30 minutes into the voyage, a child noticed that a small fire had started in the lamp room below the main deck.

A crewman tried to stamp it out, throwing charcoal on it in an effort to contain it. But the flames only grew larger.

Crew members grabbed a firehose—only to find it rotten to the point that it burst wide open. These were not men trained for emergency situations; once they realized the hoses were useless, they simply gave up.

from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Civilized behavior soon gave way to panic as the flames quickly spread through the lower levels of the steamer, fire jumping from passengers’ clothing to hair.

Families moved away from the flames only to find themselves pressed up against the boat’s railings as panicked crowds pushed forward in search of fresh air. Children lost hold of their parents, never to see them again.

Crowds surged toward the Slocum’s six lifeboats and attempted to hoist them down. But they wouldn’t budge—somebody had wired them to the wall.

The life preservers, never properly inspected, were filled with rotten cork, and several exploded into dust. They were not only useless—they were actually dangerous. Panicked parents strapped preservers to their children and tossed them overboard, only to watch in horror as they sank from sight.

Below deck, passengers were burned to death—huddled in groups and trapped in corners. Smoke choked many, causing unconsciousness; many were trampled underfoot.

Some jumped into the violent waves. “There was little hope that any of the children who jumped overboard could be saved,” reported the New York Evening World. “The current all along the course taken is on a section of the river where not even a strong swimmer can breast the currents. Scores of little ones were sucked in by the whirlpools in Hell Gate.”

Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation

Crowds formed along the shores, their attention drawn by the billowing smoke, fire, and horrifying spectacle before them. The captain managed to steer the boat toward North Brother Island, where nurses, doctors, and even patients from the smallpox hospital ran to the water to rescue and attempt to revive those who had washed ashore.

Bodies on the shore of North Brother Island

The Slocum eventually floated out into the Long Island Sound, puffing clouds of cork dust into the air, while leaving a trail of tragedy in its wake.

Just after noon, the burning vessel sank, a single paddle box and a smokestack jutting out of the water.

By the final count, 1,021 people perished in the General Slocum disaster that day, making it the deadliest single event in the city’s history up to that date. In the weeks following the disaster, the streets of Kleindeutschland—today’s East Village—were filled with mourners, as the community attended funerals in the homes of those who had perished and held solemn processions through the streets.

A mass funeral through the streets of the Lower East Side — “burial of the unidentified”

New York Public Library

The Liebenow family was hit particularly hard. The entire Liebenow family died in the disaster—all except baby Adella (pictured below), just six months old at the time of the tragedy.

Two years later, now only two-and-a-half years old, Adella was hoisted to a podium here in Tompkins Square Park. She stood before a community that hadn’t yet fully recovered—would they ever?—as she tugged at a cloth to unveil the General Slocum Memorial Fountain.

NYHS

No, the fountain is not perfect. How could it be?

But why hasn’t this tragedy been better memorialized? It’s such an important event in the city’s history, and yet so many don’t know its whole story. There are a few theories about this, many having to do with the anti-German sentiment that cropped up a decade later at the beginning of World War I.

Or was it the social class of the victims that caused it to recede from memory? Adella, who died in 2004, 100 years after the disaster, believed that this might be the case. To a crowd at a 1999 commemoration of the tragedy, she said, “The Titanic had a great many famous people on it. This was just a family picnic.”

*St. Mark’s is located on East 6th Street, between First and Second Avenues, in the heart of New York’s first and largest German neighborhood. A plaque honoring the victims hangs in front.

There’s also a monument to the victims at a cemetery in Middle Village, Queens

FOR MORE INFORMATION, CHECK OUT THE BOWERY BOYS PODCAST ON THE GENERAL SLOCUM DISASTER (EPISODE #166)

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

I Called Him Morgan: The Murder of a Jazz Star in wintry 1970s New York

It was during one of those terrible February nights — blizzard winds with the streets packed tight with snow — at a jazz club in the East Village named Slug’s Saloon, packed with people haloed in cigarette smoke, that a woman named Helen Morgan walked up to one of the performers, her common-law husband, a rising jazz trumpeter named Lee Morgan, and shot him dead.

This tragedy had entered into jazz music mythology. Lee Morgan was a prodigy Blue Note Records recording star of the late 1950s and ’60s who was very nearly waylaid by heroin addiction. But by the early 1970s he was clean. And that was because of Helen.

So why did she kill him?

The new documentary I Called Him Morgan, directed by Kasper Collin, is a tranquil and lyrical retelling of Morgan’s bright, brief career and the influences that led to his redemption and death. It also shows off a cool, raw backdrop of 1960s New York grit and shadow, rendered not from acres of stock footage (although there is some) but from abstract re-creation and creative editing. The film itself is very much like a tune Lee Morgan himself would have played.

The film’s driving force is a cassette tape. In the 1990s, Helen Morgan, long released from prison, enrolled in an adult education class in Wilmington, NC, where she met jazz aficionado and former radio host Larry Reni Thomas. Familiar with Morgan’s story, he asked if he could interview her and record the session on cassette tape. She died the following month.

A music documentarian could not dream of a better plot device. Helen talks about her life and her first meeting with the young, impressionable jazz star at her apartment on West 53rd Street, near the legendary Birdland jazz club.

They were an unusual pair — she was older and streetwise, he was an adorable ball of energy and creativity — but they clicked, for a time. She even managed to get him back on his feet after a stint with heroin addiction.

Kasper Collin Produktion AB / Courtesy of the Afro-American Newspaper Archives and Research Center

Helen exists in the film only in a few fleeting photographs. She hated getting her picture taken, and in those that exist, she never looks thrilled. Lee Morgan, however, comes alive in archival footage and black-and-white photographs. Yet we hear her voice and never his — only through his forceful and vibrant music, sounding as crisp and present in the film as though it were being heard live.

The film’s dreamlike, filtered quality pairs exquisitely with the music, creating a tight-focused look at New York and the Lower East Side in particular. Slug’s Saloon was at 242 East 3rd Street, between Avenue B and C, and the entire street, clogged with snow, is shot with grainy foreboding.

Morgan’s musician friends avoided walking the street after his death; the club closed many months later. This may be a street you’ve lithely walked down many times in the past. After watching I Called Him Morgan, you may feel a sense of gloom the next time you walk past.

I CALLED HIM MORGAN
Directed by Kaspar Collin

In theaters now — Playing at the Metrograph and Lincoln Center in New York City this week

Check your local listings for showtimes and visit the website for screening dates

 

Top image courtesy Kasper Collin Produktion AB / Francis Wolff © Mosaic Images LLC

 

St. Mark’s Place: It’s Party Time in the East Village!

PODCAST: The big, brash history of St. Mark’s Place, the East Village’s most interesting street.

St. Mark’s Place may be named for a saint but it’s been a street full of sinners for much of its history.

One of the most fascinating streets in the city, St. Mark’s traces its story back to Peter Stuyvesant, meets up with the wife of Alexander Hamilton in the 1830s, experiences the incredible influx of German and Polish immigrants in the late 19th century, then veers into the heart of counter-culture — from the political activism of Abbie Hoffman to the glamorously psychedelic parties of Andy Warhol.

And that’s when the party really gets started! St. Mark’s is known for music, fashion, rebellion and pandemonium. In the 1970s and 80s, clothing stores like Limbo and club nights like  Club 57 helped define its character — punk, new wave, alternative, raucous.

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

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

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #193: ST. MARK’S PLACE: PARTY IN THE EAST VILLAGE!

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Stuyvesant Street superimposed over the planned grid. Ultimately the street was allowed to remain, breaking the grid. By the way, see that green patch at the far right? That was also a cemetery.

Courtesy EV Transitions
Courtesy EV Transitions

 

The front of 22 St. Mark’s Place from a 1914 history book. (It looks almost identical to 20 St. Mark’s, the old Daniel LeRoy House, which is still there.).  “It had a tea room in the rear of the first floor, which [the tenant] altered into a library, constructing a bathroom in connection with it. A new bedroom was added above the library, and in the basement was installed a cook.” [source]

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Deutsch-Amerikanische-Schützen Gesellschaft (German-American Shooting Society) building, 12 St. Mark’s Place, pictured here in 1975 in a photograph by Edmund Gillon

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

 

St. Mark’s Place and Third Avenue in 1914, the same year as the shootout at Arlington Hall! The Third Avenue elevated train framed St. Mark’s on the west end, the Second Avenue elevated (which actually ran along First Avenue in the East Village) to the east.

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

 

The mugshot of Dopey Benny whose gang was involved in the shootout which killed a city official.

dopey

A photo by Victor George Macarol of the boutique Manic Panic (and a man in meditation), 1975

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The south side of St. Mark’s Place, 1975

EV Grieve
EV Grieve

 

Crowds waiting to get into the Electric Circus

courtesy Alex Ross
courtesy Alex Ross

 

A flyer for Trash and Vaudeville…

trash

 

Keith Haring performing at Club 57 in a themed evening called Acts of Live Art.  For more information on Club 57, you can read my earlier article about this extraordinary club here. Dazed has a pretty great article about the place here.

Photo by Joseph Szkodzinski
Photo by Joseph Szkodzinski

 

Coney Island High, a pivotal East Village venue during the 1990s.

Courtesy Buzzfeed
Courtesy Buzzfeed

 

 

Top photo — St. Mark’s Place in 1978, Photos by Leonard Freed / Magnum Photos, care of Vintage Everyday

The Ghost of Peter Stuyvesant May Still Haunt the East Village

St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery is the oldest standing structure in the East Village.  Upon seeing it, you’re almost forced to reevaluate where you are.  It’s intriguing even to those who pass by it everyday. It’s mysterious even to those who work and worship here.

Built in 1799 by the Stuyvesant family, St. Mark’s chapel and cemetery conformed to a street grid plan unique to their farmland. Today the only street that exists from the old Stuyvesant plan is Stuyvesant Street, running diagonally through New York’s standard street grid.

The Stuyvesants planned the street on a true east-west access.  It’s the rest of the island that’s askew with the compass.

Photo by Berenice Abbott
Photo by Berenice Abbott

Buried under the church ground are vaults of some of New York’s greatest civic leaders and social notables. Daniel D Tompkins, Vice President under James Monroe, is here, although the park that bears his name Tompkins Square Park is a couple avenues over. The department store king A.T. Stewart used to be here before his remains were stolen in a bizarre ransom attempt.

Philip Hone, the so-called ‘party mayor’ of New York, is interred in a vault here. From my profile of the mayor a few years ago:  “Mostly, he’s remembered as a cultural ambassador, even commissioning artwork for City Hall, approving of a developing theater district in the not-yet-seedy Bowery and encouraging the city’s growth as an American capitol of arts and sciences.”

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

But of course the most famous individual beneath St. Mark’s is that of the original Stuyvesant — Petrus Stuyvesant, the director-general of New Amsterdam whose farms comprised much of today’s East Village and give the Bowery (Bouwerij) its name.

Stuyvesant died in 1672 in the British controlled colony of New York.  From an 1893 history on Stuyvesant: “His remains were interred in a vault beneath the chapel which he had built near his house.  When the present St. Mark’s Church was erected, on the site of the old chapel, the vault was preserved, and a commemorative stone was placed upon its wall.”

Today his vault marker can be easily seen along the side of the church, and a bust of Petrus sternly greets visitors into the church yard.

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

The bust by Dutch sculptor Toon Dupuis is 100 years old, placed at St. Mark’s on December 6, 1915. Speaking at the ceremony, oddly enough, was General Leonard Wood, chief of staff of the U.S. Army. “Peter Stuyvesant was a headstrong, positive character with intolerance of lack of interest in the welfare of his company or colony.”

So headstrong that he’s still around perhaps? Legends of the ghost of Peter Stuyvesant have been associated with St. Mark’s since the 19th century.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

One version of his ghost story recounted in the 1966 children’s book The Ghost of Peg-Leg Peter by M.A. Jagendorf, with illustrations by Lino S. Lipinsky (reprinted here):

“His body had been put into a closed vault.  But that did not stop the ghost of the governor from stomping around on black or moonlit nights in his old haunts; his farm and the city hall where he had once reigned.  Folks heard his stomping peg leg with the silver band, and saw him — and ran away in fear.  That pleased him, particularly if they were English.  He wanted no one around his grave, least of all the enemy who had robbed him and the Dutch Government.”

st marks

The growth of New York up Manhattan island so that it soon included all of Stuyvesant’s farm apparently enraged his spirit to such an extent that his apparition was reported in locations surrounding the church.

One fateful night  a sexton entered the church late at night to fetch something for the rector.

The moon was only half full, but bright enough to show church, trees … and ghost.

When the ghost saw the sexton, he raised his stick threateningly. The sexton raised his eye, took one look and ran off.

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“The governor-ghost looked after the fleeing fellow with contempt and then stomped to the locked church door. He walked through it into the church and stomped up to the hanging bell rope. Taking it in his hands he began pulling it savagely. ”

Ringing a church bell two hundred years ago meant an emergency — a fire in the region, perhaps, or a major announcement. According to legend, when neighbors ran to the church to inspect the sound, they found nobody inside. The bell rope had been torn off and its lower section was completely gone.

Over the years stories of his ghost crop up, usually tied with tales of a rapidly changing city.  One can only imagine how he’s taken to the  gentrification of the East Village!

Sometimes the ghost of the governor still comes out again and looks around sadly. But he never rings the bell any more, for he knows it will be of little use.”

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

Another disturbing event occurred at the church in 1903 although the resolution to this mystery was a bit more mundane.

One day the old clock atop St Mark’s began to act very mysteriously. “Churchgoers and others noticed last Sunday that the clock was acting in a manner befitting neither its age nor its position as hour marker over the historic graveyard. Not only was its course unreliable, but its actions were positively skittish, the minute hand having been seen to wiggle in a most undignified manner.” [source]

After several days of peculiar operation, a repairman climbed to the tower to fix the clock, only to find the culprit — “a kite string and pigeon were found to be responsible for the charges of horological misconduct lodged against the ancient timepiece.”

Below: Stuyvesant Street in 1856, an aberration to the city grid plan thanks in part to the presence of St. Mark’s Church and its well-established churchyard

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For more information on St. Mark In-The-Bowery, check out our podcast on its amazing history.  And the ghost of Peter Stuyvesant pops up in our very FIRST ghost stories podcast.

The Astor Place Cube is going away (but, really, don’t panic)

The Alamo, aka the Astor Place Cube, 1978. Photographed by Manel Armegol/Flickr

Like many remaining stalwarts of the East Village, the Astor Place Cube is headed into a “rehabilitation” of sorts.

Alamo, the sculpture by Tony Rosenthal, is being removed as Astor Place goes through an extensive $16 million renovation. The blog Bedford + Bowery observed the sculpture being lifted into a flatbed truck and driven away, to return sometime next year.  The cube has been boxed up for over a month in anticipation for its temporary removal.

It’s coming back! They swear! Still with the closure of so many East Village institutions, it’s a startling thing to see.  When it returns, it will be surrounded by pedestrian lanes and Sawtooth Oak trees.  Like many of us, it will look around its new environment and wonder what the hell just happened.

Meanwhile the Cooper Union building — the original, classic one — will still be there. As will Jerry’s Newsstand.  And, of course, the office building that was once the location of the Astor Place Opera House, famous for the 1849 Astor Place Riots.

So, goodbye for now, swirly cube. We’ll see you in 2015. (UPDATE: Per EV Grieve, the cube returns to Astor Place on June 22, 2016.)

The Alamo in 1980, photographed by Michael Sean Edwards.

The Alamo in 1988, photographed by Stu Brown.

The Alamo in 1989, photographed by firedoctor/Flickr

The Alamo sometime in the early 1990s (judging from the lack of Starbucks and K-Mart in the picture), photographed by smilerwithaknife/Flickr

The Alamo in 2009, photograph courtesy juanamarie33/Flickr

Thanks to the photographers above, and thanks to the Bedford + Bowery for being on top of this! They have a video of the removal if you want to cry cube-shaped tears.

The Astor Place Riot: Massacre at a busy crossroad as a Shakespearean rivalry ignites New York class struggles

“By the pricking of my thumbs / something wicked this way comes” — Macbeth

PODCAST England’s great thespian William Macready mounted the stage of the Astor Place Opera House on May 10, 1849, to perform Shakespeare’s Macbeth, just as he had done hundreds of times before.  But this performance would become infamous in later years as the trigger for one of New York City’s most violent events — the Astor Place Riot.

The theater, being America’s prime form of public entertainment in the early 19th century, was often home to great disturbances and riots.  It was still seen as a British import and often suffered the anti-British sentiments that often vexed early New Yorkers.

Macready, known as one of the world’s greatest Shakespearean stars, was soon rivaled by American actor Edwin Forrest, whose brawny, ragged style of performance endeared the audiences of the Bowery.  To many, these two actors embodied many of America’s deepest divides — rich vs. poor, British vs. American, Whig vs. Democrat.

On May 10th, these emotions overflowed into an evening of stark, horrifying violence as armed militia shot indiscriminately into an angry mob gathering outside theater at Astor Place.  By the end of this story, over two dozen New Yorkers would be murdered, dozens more wounded, and the culture of the city irrevocably changed.

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

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #164 The Astor Place Riot

The riot immortalized on a cigarette card. (courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)

The Old Astor Place Opera House.

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BOWERY BOYS MERCHANDISE IS ON ITS WAY! More details on Monday. But here’s a preview. [Official Bowery Boys Store]
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RIOT OR RIOTS?  You may have noticed in our podcast that we go from calling it the Astor Place Riot and the Astor Place Riots.  We both saw primary references to both the singular and the plural.  Though it was just one riot which occurred on May 10, the incidents on May 7 and May 11 constitute smaller riots or disturbances that lead up or were the result of the May 10 event.  The word ‘riot’ is even funny as it starts as a riot and ends as a massacre.

In the end, I just decided to simplify it in the headline, but I think either are acceptable

CORRECTION: In the podcast, I mention that John Jacob Astor lived in the line of stately buildings today known as Colonnade Row.  Although he built them, he never lived here.  However he moved his family into them, including his grandson John Jacob Astor III.  Cornelius Vanderbilt and Washington Irving also lived here.
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The Astor Place Opera House in 1850 and its approximate location as it looks in 2004

Inside the Astor Opera House, one of the most lavish spaces in all of New York in the 1840s.  Curiously, this illustration depicts a ball for the New York Fire Department.  Many members of the volunteer fire departments  actually set upon the opera house as part of the angry mob.

After the riots, the opera house quickly lost its cache. High society moved uptown to the Academy of Music (not so far away actually, on 14th Street, near Union Square).  The interior of the theater was eventually demolished and sold to the New York Mercantile Library and renamed Clinton Hall.

This was torn down in 1890 and replaced with the 11-story structure that stands there today.

Many considered the demons of Astor Place purged when Cooper Union was finally constructed in 1859, a decade after the riots.  In this image, we’re looking up Third Avenue and the final remnant of the Bowery.  The Third Avenue Elevated has already been built here:

William Macready:
(In the podcast, I note that a photograph — actually a daguerreotype — exists of Mr. Macready. I admit, that I only read that they exist but I was unable to find one. Once I do, I’ll replace the image below.0

Edwin Forrest: In portrait and in daguerreotype

Most images above courtesy the New York Public Library (except where otherwise noted). We thank them again for being an invaluable resource for New York City history!

History in the Making: Gangster’s Funeral Edition

Mary Help of Christian Church pictured in the 1920s (Courtesy NYPL)

Hail Mary:  There’s a rally tomorrow evening at 6pm to save Mary Help of Christian Church in the East Village.  This unique building from 1917, once serving the area’s Italian immigrant population, has been bought by a developer and is slated for demolition. The rally is in front of the church at East 12th Street and Avenue A. [GVSHP]

And here’s a brief history of Mary Help of Christians Church. It’s where they had the funeral of a few noted gangster, including that of Giuseppe Masseria in his solid silver coffin.  And Sara Delano Roosevelt, granddaughter of FDR, got married here. But, sure, let’s rip it down and put an ordinary condo please.  [Daytonian In Manhattan]

Let the music play: And is Tin Pan Alley in danger too? [Lost City]

What’s that ringing?: Riverside Church is in no danger, thank goodness, nor is the musical secret it holds: the 100-ton carillon in the bell tower. [Narratively]

Wild on wheels: And since we’re on some creative Narratively content, I think you’ll like this interactive tale of Annie Londonderry, the woman who attempted to bike around the world in 1894. [Narratively]

Unconventional: In our latest podcast on the history of the Limelight, I made mention of the number of convents in New York City over the year. Well, Forgotten NY goes one further and does a tour of the street actually named for one — Convent Avenue — featuring the beautiful neo-Gothic architecture of City College. [Forgotten New York]

And are you signed up yet for the Bowery Boys weekly newsletter Five Points?  We’re recommending out-of-the-way, oddball, historical themed events for your weekend.  Last week was Humphrey Bogart, sheep shearing, a book sale, Miss Subways and a tea party with Aaron Burr’s wives. What’s happening for Memorial Day weekend? [Sign up here]

‘Mad Men’ notes: Hare Krishna blossoms in the East Village

Prabhupada in his early days in New York (Courtesy the Hare Krishna Movement blog)

WARNING The article contains a couple spoilers about last night’s ‘Mad Men’ on AMC. If you’re a fan of the show, come back once you’re watched the episode. But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don’t watch the show at all. You can find other articles in this series here

An unusual subplot takes Harry Crane, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s smug television liaison, down to Second Avenue and the temple of the Hare Krishnas where he finds new recruit Paul Kinsey, a former agency employee. In his prior existence as a pipe-smoking gadabout, Kinsey always made note of his own hipness, and, in this case, as an acolyte of a religious thought only a few months old, we can confirm that he’s ahead of the curve again.

The Hare Krishna movement, derived from Hindu philosophies and reformatted for the groovy ’60s, was actually fostered and popularized here in the East Village.

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a Hindu teacher and proponent of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, left India in 1965 to spread his religious teaching. Eschewing material possessions, he arrived in New York in 1966 and gravitated towards the East Village, the nucleus of cultural counter-culture.

His reputation preceded him and soon gathered a small group of followers, including artist Harvey Cohen, who soon set up Prabhupada in an apartment on 72nd Street on the Upper West Side and a small studio for religious practice on the Bowery. From here the swami formed the core of what would become the Hare Krishna movement, aka the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.

Given the location, most of his early followers were young people, fascinated by Hindu imagery in books and music and in particular by Prabhupada’s expressions of religious thought, purifying secular consciousness expanding rhetoric into a simple spiritual regiment.

For many, he was as much a mystery as an answer. One early follower confessed later, “I didn’t know what Prabhupada was about. I mean we understood about one-millionth of what Prabhupada was saying.”

Key to religious practice is the ubiquitous mantra, rhythmically repeating the name of God. Said Prabhupada in a lecture in 2010. “[T]his sound, this Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare. Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, is the sound representation of the Supreme Lord.”

Prabhupada and his followers would frequently be heard chanting their familiar mantra throughout the East Village, but they would be known for one particular destination. On October 19, 1966, Prabhupada led an outdoor chant underneath a elm tree in Tompkins Square Park that lasted for almost two hours, so transcendent that even the New York Times took notice: ‘Swami’s Flock Chants in Park to Find Ecstasy.’ Today that tree (called the Hare Krishna tree) is one of the park’s most popular spots and a mecca for current adherents.

Above: From the late October issue of the East Village Other, in front of the  Hare Krishna tree [source]

By this time, Prabhupada had a new home, a former curio shop at 26 Second Avenue (between First and Second Streets). They kept the old sign ‘Matchless Gifts’ over door, while followers decorated the interior with handmade tapestries. This became the central New York temple and remains central to local worshippers to this day. “[I]n this small room on Second Avenue, guest found themselves transported into another dimension, a spiritual dimension, in which the anxieties and pressures of New York City simply did not exist.” [source]

In that first year, 1966, Prabhupada had only a few dozen followers, but at least one famous one — Allen Ginsberg.


Below: Video of Prabhupada and followers at Tompkins Square Park in 1966

 

‘Mad Men’ notes: The delirious world of Off-Off-Broadway

Radical thoughts, limited spaces: a performance at the Caffe Cino. Photo by Ben Martin (from an excellent website by Robert Patrick about this important off-off-Broadway site)

 WARNING The article contains a couple spoilers about last night’s ‘Mad Men’ on AMC. If you’re a fan of the show, come back once you’re watched the episode. But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don’t watch the show at all. You can find other articles in this series here.

 Megan might be Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s hottest new pitchwoman, but deep in her heart of delicate French extraction, she wants to be an actress. And in last night’s show, she steals away to an audition of an unnamed off-off-Broadway production. She didn’t get the part, but the experience leads her to make a jarring decision.

This wasn’t merely a plot contrivance, but rather another use of New York geography to delineate character. Don Draper was busy at Danny’s Hideaway, a Midtown East restaurant along famed ‘Steak Row‘ shimmering with late 50s — and, by 1966, ever fading — glamour. Megan’s off-off-Broadway audition could only be one place, and that was downtown below 14th Street, in the thriving epicenter of New York counter culture.

Aspiring performers have made New York their destination for fame since the late 19th century with the birth of the Broadway theater circuit. By the 1950s, playwrights and producers who challenged the preconceptions of standard, mainstream theater found homes for their work off Broadway both literally and metaphysically. The art of theater could now be explored for smaller crowds and with smaller budgets.

But even off-Broadway was not immune to financial realities. By the end of the decade, the popularity of off-Broadway created a parallel industry, “a smaller-scale version of Broadway itself.” [source] If you were to look back at the greatest off-Broadway hits of this era (plays by Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, musicals like Threepenny Opera) you’d notice that most of them have had subsequent Broadway debuts. Indeed, off-Broadway continues to be a sort of a minor league tryout for future Broadway shows.

By the 1960s, unconventional creative voices were emerging that seemed positively alien even in that world. What do you call the alternative to something that was itself the alternative? Although Village Voice critic Jerry Tallmer is credited with coining the phrase ‘off-off-Broadway’, the phrase might have sprung up naturally the first time audiences came in contact with the early works of this field — modest, broken-down, difficult and experimental shows eager to discard every theatrical trapping that had built up for the past four hundred years.

The first ‘true’ off-off-Broadway performance, according to Tallmer’s fellow Voice critic Michael Smith, was a surreal revival of Ubu Roi, performed at a Bleecker Street coffeehouse in 1960. Theatrical experimentation complimented the Village music scene nicely, as even the smallest venues could now host a production. Only in this new creative world could a cramped, smoke-filled coffeehouse like Caffe Cino, at 31 Cornelia Street, become center stage for a new theatrical revolution.

If the art was nontraditional, so too were the venues. Two churches became important homes for alternative theater in the early 1960s and they remain so to this day. Judson Memorial Church, off Washington Square, may seem austere with its elegant Italianate bell tower, turned its meeting room into an off-off-Broadway stage in 1961. And, of course, St. Marks-in-the-Bowery, took a page from its own 1920s radical bohemian past to become home to the Poetry Project and Theater Genesis (performing sometimes sexually explicit plays in the churches parish hall). Above: A poster for Theater Genesis

But just as many pivotal and provocative voices of off-off-Broadway were developing further east, in an area of the Lower East Side heavily influenced by Greenwich Village counterculture idealism and referred to by the mid-60s as the East Village. The chief among these, Ellen Stewart’s mold-breaking La Mama Experimental Theatre, opened in 1961 and rejected most theatrical instincts, featuring only new plays in a stripped-down, almost barren theatrical space. Pictured above: Ellen Stewart in 1970. Picture courtesy TCG

By 1966, off-off-Broadway became a banquet of experimental ideas, spaces for gay, feminist and African-American playwrights and performers. In effect, the opposite of a certain ad agency, where creative flowering is hindered by the whims of client preference and the banality of subject.