Tag Archives: Park Row

Super City: New York and the History of Comic Books

PODCAST  A history of the comic book industry in New York City, how the energy and diversity of the city influenced the burgeoning medium in the 1930s and 40s and how New York’s history reflects out from the origins of its most popular characters.

 In the 1890s a newspaper rivalry between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer helped bring about the birth of the comic strip and, a few decades later, the comic book.  Today, comic book superheroes are bigger than ever — in blockbuster summer movies and television shows — and most of them still have an inseparable bond with New York City.

What’s Spider-Man without a tall building from which to swing? But not only are the comics often set here; the creators were often born here too. Many of the greatest writers and artists actually came from Jewish communities in the Lower East Side, Brooklyn or the Bronx.

For many decades, nearly all of America’s comic books were produced here.  Unfortunately that meant they were in certain danger of being eliminated entirely during a 1950s witch hunt by a crusading psychiatrist from Bellevue Hospital.

WITH a special chat with comics historian Peter Sanderson about the unique New York City connections of Marvel Comics’ most famous characters. Sanderson is the author of The Marvel Comics Guide to New York City and The Marvel Encyclopedia.

FEATURING: The Yellow Kid, Little Orphan Annie, Batman, Doctor Strange and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

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 #187: Super City: New York and the History of Comic Books

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COMING THIS FALL:  Superheroes’ ties to New York City history will be further explored this fall in the New-York Historical Society’s Superheroes in Gotham exhibition, which opens October 9, 2015.
(Friday, October 9 is the start of ComicCon weekend).

 

A young New York boy enjoys his comic book on the Bowery. Photo taken in 1940 by Andrew Herman.

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

And here’s the comic book he’s reading from March 1940, illustrated by George Papp.

Courtesy Comic Vine
Courtesy Comic Vine

 

In this 1947 photograph taken by Stanley Kubrick, a boy watches his baby sister and enjoys a Superman comic book while his mother shops inside.

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

An issue of DC Comics’ Superman from March 1947, with a cover by George Roussos and Jack Burnley

Courtesy DC Comics / Comic Vine
Courtesy DC Comics / Comic Vine

 

A girl takes a peek at some of the comic book offerings at Woolworth’s. Photograph by Stanley Kubrick taken in 1947.

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

An issue of More Fun Comics from June 1947, produced by DC Comics:

more fun

 

The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, published in 1842, is considered by many to be the wellspring from which the comic medium derives. You can read the entire issue over at the Darmouth College Library website.

Courtesy Dartmouth College Library
Courtesy Dartmouth College Library

 

A Yellow Kid adventure which would have sprung out from the newspaper due to its vivid colors.

Image courtesy Comix  Takoma; art by Richard Outcault
Image courtesy Comix Takoma; art by Richard Outcault

 

Both Hearst and Pulitzer ran versions of the Yellow Kid comic strip during the years that they were drumming up propaganda which lead to the Spanish-American War. The unscrupulous nature of their efforts earned them the phrase ‘yellow journalism’, inspired by their war of the popular comic strip by Richard Outcault,

Courtesy the Library of Congress
Courtesy the Library of Congress

 

A section of the colorful comics section of the New York Journal, 1898.

“Familiar Sights of a Great City—No. 1 The Cop is Coming!” by Walt McDougall, New York Journal, Sunday, January 9, 1898  via New York Review of Books
“Familiar Sights of a Great City—No. 1 The Cop is Coming!” by Walt McDougall, New York Journal, Sunday, January 9, 1898 via New York Review of Books

 

Little Orphan Annie became the biggest crossover star of the early comic strip era.  Long before there was a musical, Annie starred in this 1932 melodrama, one of the earliest comic-to-movie crossovers.

annie

 

New Fun Comics #1, the very first comic book to contain all new material, and not merely reprints of newspaper comic strips.

1

 

The Batman debuted in Detective Comics in 1939, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. The city features in these adventures was Gotham City, startlingly similar to the city outside the creators’ windows.

Courtesy DC Comics
Courtesy DC Comics

 

Gotham City, aka New York City, in 1939

Courtesy U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation
Courtesy U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation

 

Vault of Horror, one of an assortment of shocking comic books produced by EC Comics in the early 1950s. The cover art is by Johnny Craig.

Courtesy EC Comics
Courtesy EC Comics

 

Bill Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, at his offices at 225 Lafayette Street.

Courtesy Tebeosfera
Courtesy Tebeosfera

 

Dr. Fredrick Wertham, the writer of Seduction of the Innocent, who lead a charge against the comic book industry.

fred

 

seduction

 

A young Stan Lee during the war as a member of the US Army’s Signal Corps. He even managed to do a bit of illustration for the cause!

stan lee

 

The Thing from the Fantastic Four with the  Yancy Street Gang, a variation on Delancey Street in the Lower East Side.

Courtesy Marvel Comics via Comic Viine
Courtesy Marvel Comics via Comic Viine

 

Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum is located on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village

Courtesy Marvel Comics
Courtesy Marvel Comics

 

What would Spider-Man be without New York City? The image of the Brooklyn Bridge (called the George Washington Bridge in the story) is featured in a classic tale involving the death of his girlfriend Gwen Stacey, written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Gil Kane, John Romita and Tony Mortellaro,

Courtesy Marvel Comics
Courtesy Marvel Comics

 

A page from Maus by Art Spiegelman, the graphic novel that brought the medium to a new level of respectability in literary circles.

Courtesy Art Spiegelman
Courtesy Art Spiegelman

 

The comic book/graphic novel continues to evolve and reach new heights of success and respectability.  Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, published last year, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for best autobiography.

 

Courtesy Roz Chast/Bloomsbury
Courtesy Roz Chast/Bloomsbury

The Avengers defended New York during an alien attack in their blockbuster film in 2012

Courtesy Film Frame/Marvel
Courtesy Film Frame/Marvel

 

All images on this website are owned by the original comic book companies which produced them.  Please see individual companies for more information.

 

RECOMMENDED READING:

If you’re into digging more into this subject, here are a few sources that I used for this podcast:

Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of An American Art Form, with written contributions by Paul Buhle

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hadju

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangster and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones

Comic Book Century:  The History of American Comic Books by Stephen Krensky

 

Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution by Ronin Ro

 

The Marvel Comics Guide to New York City by Peter Sanderson

 

The top image is from Godzilla #24, released by Marvel Comics in July 1979. Herb Trimpe penciler, Dan Green inker, im Novak letterer, from a story by Doug Moench, edited by Allen Milgrom and Mary Jo Duffy

 

The Tallest Building In New York: A Short History


Postcard from the past: When the Singer Building was the world’s tallest (NYPL)

PODCAST One World Trade Center was declared last year the tallest building in America, but it’s a very different structure from the other skyscrapers who have once held that title. In New York, owning the tallest building has often been like possessing a valuable trophy, a symbol of commercial and social superiority. In a city driven by commerce, size matters.

In this special show, I give you a rundown of the history of being tall in New York City, short profiles of the 12 structures (11 skyscrapers and one church!) that have held this title.  In several cases, these weren’t just the tallest buildings in the city; they were the tallest in the world.

At right: The Metropolitan Life Building, the tallest building in the world in 1909

Skyscrapers were not always well received.  New York’s tallest building in 1899 was derisively referred to as a “horned monster.”  Lower Manhattan became defined by this particular kind of structure, creating a canyon of claustrophobic, darkened streets.  But a new destination for these sorts of spectacular towers beckoned in the 1920s — 42nd Street.

You’ll be familiar with a great number of these — the Woolworth, the Chrysler, the Empire State.  But in the early days of skyscrapers, an odd assortment of buildings took the crown as New York’s tallest, from the vanity project of a newspaper publisher to a turtle-like tower made for a sewing machine company.

At stake in the race for the tallest is dominance in the New York City skyline.  With brand new towers popping up now all over the five boroughs, should be worried that they’ll overshadow the classics? Or should the skyline always be in a constant state of flux?

ALSO: New York’s very first tall buildings and the ominous purpose they were used for during the Revolutionary War!

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 #169 The Tallest Building In New York: A Short History
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CORRECTION: Ack, I keep saying Crystal Palace Exposition when it’s actually Crystal Palace Exhibition! I mean, they basically mean the same thing, almost, right?
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Photo courtesy Huffington Post

The current tallest buildings in New York City are

1) One World Trade Center — 1,776 feet
2) 432 Park Avenue — 1,394 feet
3) 225 West 57t Street — 1,394 feet
4) Empire State Building — 1,250 feet
5) Bank of America Tower — 1,200 feet
6) Three World Trade Center — 1,171 feet
7 tie) Chrysler Building — 1,046 feet
7 tie) New York Times Tower — 1,046 feet
9) One57 — 1,005 feet
10) 4 World Trade Center — 977 feet

It should be noted that eight of these buildings didn’t exist 10 years ago

Statistics courtesy the Council On Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
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The sugar houses owned by the Rhinelander family. Others owned by the Van Cortlandts and the Livingstons would have all been the tallest structures in the city.

Trinity Church in 1889, the final year that it was the tallest permanent structure in New York City. (NYPL)

Trinity would be unparalleled in the New York skyline by any permanent buildings for almost 46 years.  But the Latting Observatory at the Crystal Palace Exhibition for a short time allowed New Yorkers the highest vantage on the island.

Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World Building, in context with its surroundings, including its proximity to the Brooklyn Bridge. This location would be its undoing, as the building was demolished later to make way for an automobile ramp.  (Courtesy Rotograph Project)

The Manhattan Life Insurance Building became a new neighbor for Trinity Church in 1894.  Its lantern top served as a lighthouse and an office for the New York Weather Bureau. (NYPL)

The Park Row Building, the original ‘twin towers’ of lower Manhattan, was criticized for its two-dimensional design but it’s managed to survive into modern times.  It used to host J&R Music World on its ground floor until that business closed last year.

The extraordinarily unusual headquarters for the Singer Sewing Machine Company.  The Singer Building has the rare distinction of being the tallest building every purposefully torn down when it was demolished in the 1960s.

Madison Square was already graced with both the Flatiron Building (below) and Madison Square Garden when it finally got its tallest skyscraper….. (NYPL)

…the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, pictured here with an early airplane above it, in a postcard produced by Underwood & Underwood. (NYPL)

The Woolworth Building (featured here on a cigarette card) is one of the greatest extant examples of pre-zoning law construction with no setbacks along the front side.

The Manhattan Company Building (or 40 Wall Street) sat among a host of other skyscrapers and was only briefly the city’s tallest building until Walter Chrysler and William Van Alen debuted their surprise uptown.

The Chrysler Building in 1930 with its spire freshly attached to the top, making it (for a little over a year) the tallest building in the world.

The Empire State Building became the tallest building — and the defining symbol of New York City — thanks to a determined executive from General Motors and Al Smith, the former governor of New York.

The World Trade Center returned attention to lower Manhattan and set a new record for height, literally leaving other former record holders in its shadow. (Photo courtesy Life Magazine)

SOURCES and RECOMMENDED READING

AIA Guide To New York City 2014
Empire State Building: The Making Of A Landmark — John Tauranac
Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City — Neal Bascomb
Manhattan Manners — M. Christine Boyer
Pulitzer: A Life In Politics, Print and Power — James McGrath Morris
Rise of the New York Skyscraper — Sarah Bradford Landau
Skyscrapers:A Social History of the Very Tall Building In America — George H. Douglas
Supreme City — Donald Miller
and resources from the Landmark Preservation Commission and the New York Skyscraper Museum

Pictures courtesy New York Public Library

Solomon Northup’s ominous journey to New York City, 1841

An engraving featured in Solomon Northup’s narrative Twelve Years A Slave, published in 1853.

The New York farmer and musician Solomon Northup was sold into slavery in 1841, tricked by two supposed members of a circus troupe, promising Northrup work in their traveling show.  Instead, Northrup awoke in bondage, eventually smuggled to New Orleans where he faced years of cruel servitude under a variety of plantation owners.   After regaining his freedom in 1853, he wrote the narrative Twelve Years A Slave, his harrowing account of his years in the South.

The book became a best-seller within Republican abolitionist circles, released a year after Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  It was certainly in the possession of Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet’s younger brother, who turned his Brooklyn pulpit at Plymouth Church into a sounding board for abolitionist ideas.  (One hundred and sixty years later, the Oscar-nominated film version of Twelve Years A Slave, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup, played at Brooklyn Heights Cinema, located one block away from Beecher’s church.)

Northup and his family lived in upstate New York, but New York City proper plays a small but ominous role in his narrative.  Lured by the promise of employment by two men named Brown and Hamilton, Northup travels from home in Saratoga, first to Albany, then to New York itself:

“They hurried forward, without again stopping to exhibit, and in due course of time, we reached New-York, taking lodgings at a house on the west side of the city, in a street running from Broadway to the river.”

Below: A view of Broadway (between Howard and Grand Streets) in 1840.  To the south of this view was Canal Street and Five Points.


“I supposed my journey was at an end, and expected in a day or two at least, to return to my friends and family at Saratoga.   Brown and Hamilton, however, began to importune me to continue with them to Washington.  They alleged that immediately on their arrival, now that the summer season was approaching, the circus would set out for the north.   They promised me a situation and high wages if I would accompany them.  

Largely did they expatiate on the advantages that would result to me, and such were the flattering representations they made, that I finally concluded the offer.”

Northup agrees to accompany them further north to Washington DC.  It would be there that Northup would be drugged and sold into bondage by his two nefarious companions.  But before they leave New York, they suggest that Solomon perform a certain task, curious given the subsequent events which occurred:

“The next morning they suggested that, inasmuch as we were about entering a slave State, it would be well, before leaving New-York, to procure free papers.  The idea struck me as a prudent one, though I think it would scarcely have occurred to me, had they not proposed it. 

We proceeded at once to what I understood to be the Custom House. They made oath to certain facts showing I was a free man.” 

Why is there a little confusion in Northrup’s statement regarding the Custom House?  Perhaps because the building he would have visited — at 22-24 Wall Street — was in its final days as New York’s Custom House, an office which had grown far too small for the task.  The following year, New York’s new Custom House would have at last been opened at the other end of the block — the building that is today’s Federal Hall.

Below: Northrup and his associates would have entered the building at the far right of this illustration (which depicts Wall Street in 1825)

“Some further formalities were gone through with before it was completed, when, paying the officer two dollars, I placed the papers in my pocket, and started with my two friends to our hotel.  I thought at the time, I must confess, that the papers were scarcely worth the cost of obtaining them – the apprehension of danger to my personal safety never having suggested itself to me in the remotest manner.”

Below: The interior of the New York Custom House, 1853

All images courtesy New York Public Library

After its publication in 1853, Northup’s account would be available for sale in certain New York bookstores for several years.  But keep in mind New York’s divided loyalties to the South; it would not have been a universally popular read here in the city.

Below: the book for sale in 1854 at a bookstore at 308 Broadway, and in 1856, at a Park Row bookseller, both ads from the New York Daily Tribune



The Amazing Race: In ‘Eighty Days’ Nellie Bly tries to outdo Jules Verne while a New Orleans writer vows to beat both




Greetings from Columbo, Ceylon, one of the many glamorous destinations you’ll visit in Matthew Goodman’s new book.

BOWERY BOYS BOOK OF THE MONTH Each month I’ll pick a book — either brand new or old, fiction or non-fiction — that offers an intriguing take on New York City history, something that uses history in a way that’s uniquely unconventional or exposes a previously unseen corner of our city’s complicated past.  Then over the next month, I’ll run an article or two about some of historical themes that are brought up in the selection. 

Eighty Days: 
Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around The World
by Matthew Goodman
Ballantine Books

One under appreciated facet of the Gilded Age is Western civilization’s almost addictive need to push its innovations past their upper limits within the framework of a literal competition — not just in mere quest for improvement, but in a tangible victory over its lessers.  Beauty, in a machine, meant winning.

The value of human life became secondary in the furious race of locomotives crossing vast plains of the United States, or of cross-country automobile competitions over terrain hardly suited for rubber tires, or later the famed air races of early aviation daredevils.

Speed was perfection, but it also came attached with cash prizes (from newspaper moguls or sponsors who benefited from the technology), ticker-tape parades and instant fame.

In 1873, well before the first automobiles and airplanes, one well-noticed gauntlet was thrown by the French writer Jules Verne, who created the character of Phileas Fogg, then sent him “Around the World In Eighty Days.”  The hugely popular novel celebrated both primitive and modern forms of transportation, but a principal theme was the value of speed and modern man’s victory over distance.  The world, already prevailed over by the interests of empire, could now be circumnavigated.

But could this feat be performed by an actual human? And, more daring still, could it be done by a woman?

In Matthew Goodman‘s breathless, exotic new history Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around The World, two extraordinary woman attempt to meet Verne’s challenge.  Or rather, challenges made by their New York editors, inspired by Verne’s best-selling novel and dazzled by the possibilities of an impossible quest creating splashy headlines to sell newspapers in 1889.

You are most likely familiar with Bly, the vanguard young journalist best known for her daring exposes for the New York World.  Posing as a patient in Blackwell’s Island’s lunatic asylum in 1887, Bly revealed deep-seeded abuses within the system.  Almost as importantly, Bly helped define investigative journalism along the lines of stunt work.  She was a Victorian era reality star of sorts, fearlessly defying conventions.

On November 14, 1889, Bly began her quest to beat Phileas Fogg, boarding a steamer for England on her way around the globe. What she did not know then is that the race to beat a fictional character had now been joined by somebody quite real — the journalist Elizabeth Bisland (pictured at left).

A native of New Orleans and a habitue of New York literary salons, Bisland was assigned to take a similar journey by her editor at The Cosmopolitan (precursor to today’s Cosmopolitan magazine).  With less than a day’s notice, he sent Bisland on a trip around the world on the same day — and going in the opposite direction.

Eighty Days is a tale of stops and starts, of telegraph offices and train stations, of foreign places narrowly observed by its two competitors.  Luckily, Goodman doesn’t leave you sitting with the two women, who are sometimes too tired, too rushed or too incurious to explore their surroundings.

With beautiful prose, like a craning camera, Goodman provides sumptuous detail to these fantastic and sometimes mysterious worlds — Hong Kong, Brindisi, San Francisco, Yokohama, the towns along the Suez Canal.

It becomes very clear that this is indeed a trip around the world, but along a fairly narrow band anchored by British ports.  Bly cannot stand the British;  Bisland comes to adore them.  Their personalities are reflected in their empathy.  Bisland mourns a nameless Chinese man who has died aboard her ship.  Bly, at times surprisingly unconcerned of certain conditions, buys a rowdy monkey who accompanies her for the last leg of her trip, to the great alarm of baggage handlers.  Bisland seems the more introspective, Bly the more entertaining companion.

I hate to conjure reality television for a second time in this review, but the competition within Eighty Days, so well paced by Goodman, really comes down to making connections, as often illustrated in CBS’s “The Amazing Race.”  Again, it comes down to the alleged speed of certain vessels, whether they arrive on time, and the abilities of Bly and Bisland to maneuver through foreign countries — many times unaccompanied — to arrive at their next destination.

At right: Nellie Bly, ready for action!

Eighty Days is a romp around the planet, but it returns periodically to Park Row in New York, where Bly’s newspaper has turned her journey into a best-selling sensation.  Thousands enter a contest to guess the exact time that she will finish her trip.

Like those many newspaper readers, you’ll be scrambling to guess which competitor will arrive in New York first — and, more importantly, what unfortunate event might prevent the other from victory.

Goodman’s latest tale expands upon themes he conjured up in his last book, The Sun and The Moon, another tale about fantastical journalism, regarding the Great Moon Hoax perpetrated by the New York Sun in 1835.  Newspapers are perhaps more accurate in 1889 but no less sensational.

Jules Verne himself makes an appearance too, hosting one of the competitors at his home in Amiens, France.  “She is trim, energetic, and strong,” remarks Jules’ wife Honorine.  “I believe, Jules, that she will make your heroes look foolish. She will beat your record.”

COMING FRIDAY: An interview with Matthew Goodman, the author of Eighty Days!

Pictures courtesy New York Public Library. Book cover courtesy Ballantine

The Dual Contracts: The New York City subway system gets a serious upgrade 100 years ago today

A subway map from 1924, illustrating the system created as a result of the Dual Contracts agreement.

After years of negotiations, false starts and lengthy arguments played out in the press, a group of greatly relieved businessmen entered the large hearing room of the New York Tribune Building (at Nassau and Spruce, where Pace University is today) and put their names to a series of documents that have come to be known as the Dual Contracts.

The beleaguered ceremony ran a half hour late, as a great many gentlemen crammed into the third floor meeting room to sign the official documents, stamped with gold lettering and expensively bound in morocco leather and colored ribbons.

With those signatures, the chaotic New York transportation system — with its fledgling subway and its miles of elevated lines — officially came of age that day — March 19, 1913.

“This makes March 19 a red-letter date on the municipal calendar,” declared the New York Tribune, in whose building the agreement was signed.  The Dual Contracts authorized millions of dollars of new tracks, more than doubling the system in size, from 296 miles of track to 618 miles!

Below: The buildings of Newspaper Row. The towered Tribune Building, in the middle, was the site of the Dual Contracts signing in 1913. 

This seminal agreement in American transportation history is ‘dual’ because the city negotiated two separate contracts — one with August Belmont Jr.’s Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) who operated the New York subway, and the Municipal Railway Company on behalf of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT), who ran most of Brooklyn’s transit system.

Under the agreement, the city would shoulder some of the cost of building new subway services — many into places where New York expected populations to rise in the coming years — and the two private companies would then lease the new routes from the city and profit from their operation.

At right: the headline from the New York Evening World

Essentially this gave IRT permission to operate into Brooklyn (once the domain of the BRT) and vice versa.  Previously, people arriving from Brooklyn to Manhattan had to immediately change trains once arriving into the new borough.

According to a report by the Public Service Commission later that year: “The Dual System will remove this abnormal condition and give the Brooklyn company a system of subways in Manhattan, by means of which it shall distribute its passengers through the territory south of 59th Street. Thus the present congestion at the Manhattan terminals of the bridges will be ended and the passengers from Brooklyn will be enabled to reach their destinations in lower Manhattan without change of cars or the payment of an additional fare.” [source]

As part of the deal, the two companies agreed to operate two new lines into Queens.  The importance of this particular part of the deal cannot be overstated.  The borough of Queens was just over a dozen years old by this time and still sparsely populated given its size. (Less than 300,000 people in 1910.)  With the arrival of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909, paired with new subway and elevated services provided by the Dual Contracts, the population of Queens would explode in the 1920s to well over a million.

And this didn’t just stimulate development there.  The deal brought a subway to the Manhattan’s Upper East Side and to the West Village, to most Bronx neighborhoods and down the Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.  New home and apartment developments into those regions soon followed.

Below: City luminaries gather around to watch representatives from government and the two private companies sign the pretentiously bound contracts. (Picture courtesy NYCSubway, an indispensable destination for transit history.)

The Dual Contracts also created express and local trains, facilitating another great development in the history of New York — the arrival of midtown Manhattan as the heart of business and entertainment.

In all, the contract signed one hundred years ago today made the New York City transit system the largest in the world.  In fact, it was larger than all the rapid transit systems of the world at the time — combined (according to Peter Derrick’s excellent book on the subject Tunneling To The Future).

But this also set in motion one of the great flaws of the subway system. Tracks operated by the IRT were a different size from those operated by the BRT.  The track gauge was wider on BRT tracks.  As a result, today the New York subway system still operates two different sizes of cars. (Ed: See notes below for a slight clarification/better explanation.)

On a humorous note, the original contracts, bound as they were in thick leather volumes, were apparently quite heavy to lift.  The president of the IRT remarked, “I am glad that I have enough strength to receive these contracts.”

For more details on the Dual Contracts, please check out the second podcast on the birth of the New York subway system — Subway by the Numbers (and Letters)

Who are Barnes and Price? And other notes from the podcast

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. The small building in the foreground is where the St. Mark’s Bookshop stands today. You can see the steeple of St. Mark’s. Hmm, what what’s the other 
church in the background? (Pic courtesy East Village Transitions)

Some notes on our podcast, Episode #139: St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery

THANK YOUS: For of all, we’d like to thank Rev. Winnie Varghese and Roger Jack Walters from St. Mark’s Church for telling us some wonderful stories on a sunny Sunday afternoon as volunteers worked busily to repaint that 1838 iron fence. This is one landmark is really good hands!


THE MYSTERY OF BARNES AND PRICE: There was once a second cemetery one block north of St. Mark’s that contained the bodies of less wealthy individuals in the community. In September 1864, their bodies were exhumed and moved to Evergreen Cemetery at the border of Brooklyn and Queens. The New York Times report on the exhumation mentions two individuals in particular: “The remains of two dramatic notables, BARNES and PRICE, of the Old Park Theatre, have been removed from this cemetery.”

The Park Theatre (pictured at right) is considered New York’s first great theater, sitting on Park Row in the days before there was a City Hall, a Printer’s Row or anything else recognizable or familiar about that area today. The stage entertained British officers during the Revolutionary War, and in the early 19th century presented entertainment of the highest class.

The PRICE buried in the old St. Mark’s Cemetery is most likely its former manager Stephen Price, who specialized in importing British stage stars for their American debuts. One of those was Julius Brutus Booth, who debuted Shakespeare’s Richard III here in 1822. Booth’s children Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth would enter the acting profession in the mid-19th century.

But who’s the BARNES? Most likely it was English actor John Barnes who frequented the Park and died in 1841. However, his wife Mary, billed as Mrs. John Barnes, was in many ways a bigger star, the resident ‘heavy-tragedy lady‘ who made here debut here in 1816. The two often appeared on stage together — husband for the comedy, wife for the drama.

Mary Barnes outlived her husband by a quarter century, remarrying and becoming a successful theater manager in her own right. She died in the same year that her first husband’s body was moved to Evergreen. An assessment of her career:  “In melodrama and pantomime her action was always graceful, spirited and correct.” [source]


JAMES BOGARDUS: The portico of St. Marks is one of the last remaining examples of original cast-iron construction designed by Bogardus, but there are four other buildings in New York attributed to Bogardus that still exist: 254 Canal Street, 85 Leonard Street, 75 Murray Street and 63 Nassau Street. In TriBeCa today, you’ll find Bogardus Garden, a lush, green-fitted traffic triangle. Bogardus is buried at Green-Wood Cemetery.


FURTHER LISTENING: Although Augustus Stuyvesant was the last living direct descendant, there are others named Stuyvesant that trace their lineage to Rutherford Stuyvesant. To find out why this doesn’t quite count, listen in to my podcast on Rutherford’s pet project The Stuyvesant apartment, New York’s first of its kind. (Episode #131: The First Apartment Building).

We tell a ghost story about Peter Stuyvesant and St. Mark’s Church In-The-Bowery in our most popular of our ghost story podcasts. (#91 Haunted Tales of New York)

And of course, for more information on Peter Stuyvesant himself, we devoted an entire podcast to the director-general back in 2007. (Episode 14# Peter Stuyvesant)

SLIP UPS: This weeks verbal slip-ups include me saying ‘St. Mark’s ON-the-Bowery’ twice (it’s referred to in many ways, but never that).

History in the Making: Lost, Lost City Edition

Above: 15 Park Row, today the home of J&R Electronics (between Ann Street and Beekman Street), photography by the Wurts Brothers (NYPL)

Slawson & Hobbs was a prosperous New York real estate firm. You can read about their new offices at W. 72nd Street here. That office building is still around — there’s a Cold Stone Creamery on its ground floor today — and turns a hundred years old this year.

Ah, even in a city so thoroughly studied, you can still find a little mystery under your nose — witness the “magical, frozen-in-time interior” 5 Beekman Street [New York Magazine]

Seventy-five years ago this year, the treasures of philanthropist Henry Clay Frick — not to mention his sumptuous Upper East Side mansion — opened to the public. [Gothamist]

One more vanishing sign on the Lower East Side [Bowery Boogie]

Bizarre Big Bird-like entities inhabit the rafters of an Upper East Side apartment building. [Ephemeral NY]

Staten Island husband and wife painters Adeline Albright Wigand and Otto Charles Wigand, once forgotten, get their due this week at an exhibition upstairs at the Staten Island Museum. [SI Live]

Ugh! And I just discovered this weekend that Brooks of Sheffield has ended his wonderful Lost City blog and not without a few last digs at the encroaching spectre of gentrification. “I wrote thousands of words, and posted hundreds of pictures for four-and-a-half years—nearly 3,000 posts, all told. None of them made any difference. Not really.” [Lost City]

PODCAST: Who Murdered Mary Rogers?

It’s a mystery! It’s 1841 and the most desirable woman in downtown Manhattan — the ‘beautiful cigar girl’ Mary Rogers — is found horribly murdered along the Hoboken shore. Hear some of the stories of this case’s prime suspects and marvel at the excessive attentions of the penny press.

Also: Edgar Allen Poe takes a crack at solving the case, and who is the mysterious Madame Restell?

Listen to it for free on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or you can download or listen to it HERE

NOTE: The sound quality is a little wobbly at first but it goes back to normal after the first few minutes. Sorry!

Many of the events of the story take place around the City Hall area — Anderson’s tobacco shop would have been just to the left of the picture, Mary’s boarding house to the right. (This illustration is actually from 1854, but you get the idea.)

Sybil’s Cave, in an area along the Hoboken shore once called Elysian Fields — it’s here that the body was found … and another gruesome death related to Mary Rogers would occur just a couple month later

Printing House Square, across from City Hall and mere steps from Mary Rogers’ boarding house, got into the act by printing ever scandalous detail of the murder investigation

The murder inspired Edgar Allen Poe to write ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget’, changing the names and location but leaving the essential facts intact. But had Poe been paid to write the story by one of the case’s suspects, Mary’s former employer?

Madame Restell — what role did she play in the disappearance and death of Mary Rogers?

Mary Rogers lived at a boarding house run by her mother that once stood here, just a block from CIty Hall. It was here that Mary met most of the men who later became suspects in the case.