Tag Archives: Michael Bloomberg

Here’s how to view the new display ‘New York 1942’ at Gracie Mansion

Seventy-five years ago, in 1942, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses convinced Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to move his family from their home in East Harlem (Fifth Avenue and 109th Street) to an old mansion in Carl Schurz Park. It was the former home to merchant Archibald Gracie, built in 1799, to look out at the ships of the East River and the turbulent waters of Hell Gate.

Below: Gracie Mansion in 1945. Needless to say, that chainlink fence has been replaced!

Gracie Mansion is known as ‘the little White House’. In truth, it’s yellow now, not white, but it was indeed small and perhaps a bit unsuited for its expanded new purposes. In 1966, thanks to Susan Wagner (Mayor Robert Wagner’s wife), the house was suitably enlarged with a ballroom and two reception rooms. It’s largely because of her and subsequent custodians that the mansion has now struck a perfect balance — an historical home that can vividly represent the City of New York and still comfortably keep a family.

Only one mayor has excused himself from his tradition — Michael Bloomberg — who turned the residence into a house museum, opening up Gracie Mansion to tours and even public events. After all, Bloomberg has a little change in his pocket, shall we say, and his actual home on East 79th Street was close by.

But Mayor Bill De Blasio has chosen to adhere to tradition and move his family into Gracie Mansion. In honor of that revived tradition, Gracie Mansion Conservancy is presenting a series of art installations in the house, celebrating its unique place in American history.

The latest installation New York 1942 presents a wide range of artifacts (59 in all) reflecting life in the city during World War II, a time-warping decor quietly expressing the house’s many historical layers. (An exhibition last year displayed relics from 1799, the year Gracie completed his mansion.)

In the entranceway, you’re met with prints of Norman Rockwell’s striking Four Freedoms, illustrating the accompanying freedoms of speech, worship, want and fear as outlined in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s now-iconic 1941 speech. They seem perfectly at home here and they should consider permanently installing a set here.

Throughout the house are paintings and photographs of every day life from the 1940s —  Gordon Parks photographs, landmarks in watercolors and paints, pictures of skyscrapers and housing projects alike. An old early ’40s television sits in one room; in the next, a modern widescreen presents a jazz band playing Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia.” Perhaps the most delectable artifact is its smallest — a little baseball, signed by the World Champion 1941 New York Yankees.

New York 1942 is curated with a modern eye, bringing out the diverse life of the city in the 40s, a perspective that some might have overlooked then. In particular, don’t overlook the somewhat strange Contoured Playground by Isamu Noguchi, a model for a children’s playground the artist wanted to build when he arrived at an Arizona internment camp in May 1942.

Gracie Mansion had an open house this past Sunday, presenting the installation to hundreds of visitors.   You can check out the installation yourself by booking a free tour to the historic home.  Just visit their website to directly book a spot on the next tour — Tuesdays only for the general public, select Wednesdays for schools — or call 212-676-3060.

I couldn’t take any pictures of the installation inside but I did snag a few from the front lawn!


Bloomberg’s Time Square plan: a blast from the past?

ABOVE: Park Avenue — before the cars came

I’ve posted the extraordinary picture above of pre-1920s Park Avenue a couple times in the past, but I wanted to do so again in light of Michael Bloomberg’s recent proposal to turn Times Square and Herald Square into partial traffic-free plazas. His plan calls for “traffic lanes along Broadway from 42nd to 47th streets and from 32nd to 35th streets” to be “transformed into pedestrian lanes”, with the residual traffic flowing down a Seventh Avenue refitted for four lanes.

The notion of creating public space out of vehicular traffic areas in Manhattan flies in the face of what used to be called ‘progress’ — at least in the Fiorello Laguardia/Robert Moses definition of the word.

In a way, you can say this type of reversal for the benefit of pedestrians actually began in the 19th century, before the roads were paved. When the original commissioners plan of 1811 was initiated, the intention was to direct the city’s growth and organize a rational method of parcelling out the city to developers. In doing so, it sliced up Manhattan as though it were an ice tray, rows of uniform blocks in a cross-section of streets and avenues. However, there were few parks in that original plan (at right).

In practice, however, some virtual streets were transformed into public spaces once it seemed obvious that uninterrupted rows of development would cause for an unlivable city. Notably, Central Park was envisioned in the 1850s as a way to break up the grid. (The Parks Department actually has a nice short history on this 19th century struggle.)

Another major shift towards a pedestrian driven city occurred with the disappearance of the elevated trains and creation of the subway system, opening up darkened city streets and creating new public spaces. Additionally, as in the picture above, once Grand Central began hiding its train tracks underground, the newly created real estate above it became, you know, a park avenue.

Social activism at the turn of the century, led by Jacob Riis and others, made a play at eliminating decrepit slums in exchange for pedestrian areas. For instance, Most of Five Points was wiped from the map to become Columbus Park and various governmental buildings. Swaths of land in the Lower East Side were cleared of tenements to become open space, like the Sara Delano Roosevelt Park.

Below: In this picture from 1932, tenements between Chrystie and Forsyth have been eliminated to make way for the future Sara Delano Roosevelt Park.

Robert Moses liked his parks, but he also loved his expressways, and he created both at the expense of the neighborhoods they were supposedly to have served. But Manhattan was becoming a latticework of traffic congestion well before that; everywhere you looked, streets were widened to accomodate vehicles — first carriages and trolleys, later cars and buses.

Bloomberg’s ambitions stem from a more environmental motivation, with newly installed bike lanes, pedestrian spaces in the Meatpacking District and Madison Square, and last year’s temporary no-traffic days on Park Avenue. His midtown plans, to be installed this summer, may become permanent. Below: A rendering of his virtual Herald Square: