Monday, March 31, 2008

Fashion forward, rare bird lovin' Gandhi

One final note on Union Square -- and namely, its newest addition, the statue of Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi ('Mahatma' or great soul). Although his statuary companions in the park George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and Abraham Lincoln all have symbolic ties to freedom and revolution, Gandhi is the only inclusion that links directly to Union Square's history as a center of protest.

Frequently robed in flowers or clothing, this bronze depiction of the non-violence advocate has been frozen in his peaceful walk for over twenty years, first installed on October 2, 1986, Gandhi's birthday. The sliver of garden that surrounds him is officially referred to as the Gandhi Gardens and were expanded in 2002 to look just slightly more interesting than your average traffic island.

Interestingly, it is in the exact location of Deadman's Curve, the deadly stretch of cable-car railing that was the site of several deaths in the 1880s and '90s. Today Gandhi could turn left and check out the fashions at the Diesel clothing store. Or turn all the way around and replace those sandals at the Discount Shoe Warehouse. Ack.

You might not expect an worthwhile bird-watching in one of New York's busiest areas, but apparently a group of rare Scott’s orioles have recently made Gandhi Gardens their home.

And last October, artist Judith Supine did something rather startling to ole Mohandas.

By the way, that flagpole in the center of Union Square? Installed in 1926, it's reliefed with allegorical depictions of American freedom and the text of the Declaration of Independence. But in actuality, the Independence Flagstaff was intended as a tribute to Charles F. Murphy, one of Tammany Hall's most progressive and ruthless bosses. The public naturally balked. (Washington? Lincoln? Murphy? No.) So it became a monument to the 150th anniversary to the Declaration.

Friday, March 28, 2008

PODCAST: Union Square

This former English-garden style park became the heart of protest and the labor movement. Join the Bowery Boys as we dig into the history of Union Square, from Book Row to Klein's.

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

An old view of Union Place, looking south. The oval shape of the park is readily apparent from this drawing. The park is still oval, but sidewalk extensions and the inclusion of the south 'traffic islands' configure the park into a more rectangular shape.

Two views of the 1861 Civil War rally (or Sumter rally), one from the ground...

...and from overhead.

This is Deadman's Curve, the scene of several accidents due to cable-car operators zipping through

Union Square in 1892, by the American impressionist painter Frederick Childe Hassam

A depiction of the first Labor Day march by the Knights of Labor

Labor leader Emma Goldman was arrested here at Union Square. In this picture, she lectures to an enrapt audience (of men!)

Klein's on the Square -- affordable women's clothes dominate the park for decades, until they closed in 1975. It was strangely juxtaposed across the street with the Marquis de Lafayette statue, designed by Statue of Liberty creator Frederic Bartholdi.

New York also celebrated the first Earth Day here in Union Square in 1970

Union Square is still a popular and often chaotic place for gathering in protest. Last Saturday (March 22nd), over the course of about an hour, saw a large anti-war gathering, with speakers and singers.

People used the rally to air all sorts of grievances. And wear gory costumes.

Not thirty feet away, this flower seller was offering his springtime wares.

The Greenmarket stretched from the north side and down along the east side of the Square.

At 3 pm, almost as though in opposition to the war protest, people battled in a gigantic pillow fight

Now compare those pictures to this one of a Union Square crowd in 1910:

And finally, an extraordinary panoramic view of Broadway from Union Square ... via 1890! Click to get a closer view

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The REAL story behind those confusing numbers

Some architectural monstrosities just beg to be ripped upon. Topping this list is One Union Square South, a bland 33-story structure and pioneer in the mall-ification of Union Square. Although its storefronts feature a Circuit City and a dying Virgin Mega-store, One Union Square South is defined by a piece of public art that has only gotten more atrocious and weird over time.

The Metronome was a project three years and $3 million in the making when it was finally installed in February 1999. It has confused and horrified New Yorkers ever since. The 100-foot Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel display features a brick wall striated with the undulations of water waves, interrupted with such objects as a boulder, a long tube frozen in the swing of a 'metronome', and a sphere which registers the moon cycles. Smoke occasionally burps through the hole in the middle, and a gigantic hand -- modeled after the hand of George Washington across the street on his equestrian statue -- beckons the viewer to stop and gawk at it.

Nearby is a row of 80s-era calculator digits, rolling at different speeds. The six numbers on the left indicate the proper time (i.e. 9:34 am and 21 seconds = 093421).

The six numbers on the right display the amount of time before midnight, except to be quirky, they put it backwards. So, using the prior example, there are 14 hours, 25 minutes and 39 seconds to midnight. In Metronome world, you write that as 392514.

The three digits in the middle are too blurry, presumably in the rush of micro-seconds. (Except, of course, when you take a picture of it.)

Since this piece begs the viewer to speculate the passage of time, perhaps its time to speculate what sat here at One Union Square South before this dated piece was even here. (To be fair, the piece seemed dated the moment it was installed in 1999.)

One Union Square South replaced the less glamorous address 58 East 14th Street. Passersby in the early 90s saw it as a frumpy building with modest retail space dominated by a gigantic McDonalds sign. What many may not have known was that this building contained the oldest theatrical space in Manhattan.

Rumors of this secret stage had persisted since the 1970s, but it wasn't until some clever detective work by a New York Times reporter verified in fact interior walls were built during its transition into retail space, severing the stage from a vast auditorium, sitting empty for decades.

It had once been the Union Square Theater. In its final days of operations, from 1896 until the late 30s, it had been a cinema for silent features and 'racy' pre-code pictures. As with many stages, it converted to showing films after a brief stint from 1893 to 1896 as a vaudevillian showcase. The stage saw the debut of a young entertainer named George M. Cohen, who was originally supposed to perform with his family The Four Cohens. But owner B. F. Keith needed to fill up his bill, so young Georgie took the stage himself and the boy was greeted with apparent indifference. (You can see a variant of this event in the film 'Yankee Doodle Dandy'.)

Before the racy films, before Cohen and the vaudeville, the Union Square Theater was a legitimate stage, showing mostly unsuccessful fare such as the un-intriguingly named 'A Woman's Strategem'. That show was apparently significant enough to merit articles about the details of the leading lady's costumes -- "a very quaintly-designed morning gown of crepe," "a very handsome broche with bodices of the Directoire period and point de gaze' lace sleeves."

The early days of the Union Square Theater sound a lot more engaging. When it opened in 1871, it was advertised as a 'modern temple of amusement', showcasing everything from burlesque to ballet. Its brief foray into legitimate theater -- the kind that could feature costumes of 'quaintly-designed' crepe -- came only after a small fire gutted the balcony in 1888.

Peeling time back further, we find that the Union Square Theater was carved out of the remnants of vast dining room of an old hotel the Morgan House, which was itself the five-story modification of the original building on this spot -- the Union Place Hotel, built in 1850.

A descriptive 1861 travel guide refers to the Union Place Hotel as an 'elegant establishment', and truly this was Union Square's high-class heyday, of upper-crust homes surrounding an earlier version of the square inspired by lush English gardens.

A cheeky 1852 guide to the city called Glimpses of New York -- written by "a South Carolinian (who had nothing else to do)" -- describes it as 'kept in equal style to the New York [Hotel, one of the superior hotels of the time] and the charges are a grade higher.'

Among many famous guests of the hotel were Mary Todd Lincoln in the years after the death of her husband.

Union Square eventually became the heart of New York's theater district, and apparently the Union Square Hotel was a bit of a hangout for the out-of-work. Dwight's Journal of Music proclaims " the Union Square Hotel, there is always a host of unemployed managers and actors."

Luxury hotels and out-of-work actors -- some things about New York haven't changed a bit.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Judge this book by its cover

Say what you will about Barnes and Noble. They've destroyed the small bookstore. They've homogenized the reading experience. Kelly green makes you nauseous.

But at least they have great taste in buildings.

My favorite building around Union Square is 33 East 17th Street, the glorious landmarked Century Building, built in 1881 with rustic Queen Anne style architecture by William Schinkel.

Its namesake tenant was the popular literary journal Century Magazine. Publishing illustrated short stories, it was briefly edited by Frank Crowninshield, later editor of Vanity Fair and an inaugural board member for the Museum of Modern Art. Look here to go back and read some 19th century back issues.

It was also home to a variety of other offices, include that of architect George B. Post. In 1907, a prominent Armenian exporter of Oriental rugs was shot and killed on the front steps while on his way to his office in the building. My favorite part about the report in the New York Times: the man died in the arms of a "toe dancer named Trixie Jennery."

Landmarked in 1986, the Century Building sat around virtually unused during much of the late 80s and early 90s, used basically as storage for the ABC Carpet emporium around the corner. The owner of the building for many years, a scrappy soul named Lillian Seril, seemed content to literally let it sit unused rather that have it chopped up into retail units. "I've always protected that building. I've refused to let it be pushed and pulled."

It's in this light that Barnes and Noble's moved into the building should be applauded. They moved there in the mid-90s, refurbishing the exterior and many of the interior ornamentations to their original lustre. Sure, florescent lighting and a Starbucks coffee may not seem like architectural improvements, but overall they managed to save one of Union Square's true treasures.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Know Your Mayors: Fernando Wood

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.

And now we come to one of New York's most notorious, absolutely in the top 10% of the most corrupt mayors ever in our fair city -- Fernando Wood. He was the first mayor ever to be forcibly dragged from City Hall and arrested. Even then, he was elected more than once, was seen at one point as a savior, and even received the unanimous votes of New York City's dead constituents. We also have him to thank for one of New York's most treasured landmarks.

The Philadelphia-born Wood had distinguished himself as a former merchant and then as a member of Congress from 1841-43. His meteoric rise came through the assistance of Tammany Society, the frequently corrupt Democratic machine which all but dominated New York politics. By 1855, the year Tammany placed Wood in the mayoral seat, the Society was at the height of their control.

During his first term, 1855–1858, he was initially seen as a moral reformer, who "closed saloons on Sunday, suppressed brothels, gambling houses and rowdism, [and] had the streets cleaned" according to Tammany historian Gustavus Myers.

But these tokens of fortitude were a facade to extort support from those very vice industries. By 1856, he abolished the Sunday saloon restriction in exchange for their support. The Municipal Police Force under Wood became corroded with graft and bribery, at times more fearful than the crime they were purportedly there to eliminate.

So it should come as no surprise that even nativist gangs like the Dead Rabbits were soon under Wood's control, ensuring 'fair' elections -- fair for Wood, that is -- by destroying ballot boxes, tossing others into the river and even tallying votes from lists of voters in cemeteries. It helped that rival gangs like the Bowery Boys (the gang, not us) were in the pockets of the Republicans.

Fed up with New York's culture of corrupt law enforcement, in 1857 the state legislature formed a rival police force the Metropolitan Police Force. Wood's Municipal force, fat from its complex institution of graft that essentially left crime to fester unabated, were not interested in stepping aside, nor did Wood relinquish his power to the Republican-controlled state. When Albany-appointed State Commissioner Daniel Conover arrived at City Hall, Wood promptly threw him out. (Wood had hired his own state commissioner, Charles Devlin, who bought the position for $50,000.)

Conover returned with the Metropolitan police force and a warrant for Wood's arrest. Wood's Municipal men were waiting, and when the captain grabbed Wood and began dragging him from City Hall, the Municipal men pounced.

Soon Metropolitan police were battling Municipal men, a surreal conflict now known as the Police Riots of 1857. With the assistance of the National Guard, Wood was briefly arrested. The Metropolitans eventually disbanded, but not before a chaotic summer of two rival police forces, cancelling each others arrests and raiding each other jails. Ah, it was a great time to be a knife-wielding gang member. *sigh*

Disagreements with Tammany left Wood without his primary backers and out of office in 1858. (Industrialist Daniel Tiemann was mayor from then until 1860.) But under the aegis of a new political machine, called Mozart Hall, he swept back into office for another two year term.

This time, his allegiances took on a Confederate tenor. A sympathizer with the Southern cause, especially as New York's profits as a port city were tied closely to Southern plantations, Wood suggested that New York City secede with the South. In his official recommendation, he proclaims, "Amid the gloom which the present and prospective condition of things must cast over the country, New York, as a Free City, may shed the only light and hope of a future reconstruction of our once blessed Confederacy."

"With our aggrieved brethren of the Slave States, we have friendly relations and a common sympathy," he remarked, in statements made January 6, 1961.

He also had a prescient idea for all the wrong reasons -- to merge Manhattan, Staten Island and Long Island into a new independent commonwealth, known as the Free City of Tri-Insula. Had Wood gotten his way -- and his plan was greeted warmly by the corrupt Common Council -- the city might have joined the South. Less than forty years later, of course, similar consolidation plans (with less anarchic pretentions) prevailed.

Unfortunately for his grandiose schemes, the Civil War erupted in April of that year at Fort Sumter and a huge outpouring of support in New York soon swept Wood's ideas into obscurity. In fact, being a crafty politician, he was soon organizing troops for the Union cause, the eventual result of which would soon lead to New York's draft riots in 1863.

By then, however, Wood was out of the mayoral office and onto other pastures -- namely the U.S. House of Representatives. How this man could have been elected with his track record is personally beyond me, but thus is the way of the New York political machine.

He did, however, leave us with one lasting mark on the city -- the present-day location of Central Park.

Monday, March 24, 2008

What's the fate of Thurman Munson's locker?

At the end of the 2008 season, the Yankees will pack up their things and move across the street to their new stadium. The bronze plaques and memorials of Monument Park will also make the move across.

Yet there is one more unusual memorial at the stadium the fate is which is undetermined. It's nowhere near Monument Park or, for that matter, anywhere the public may readily see it. In fact, the person who may be the most familiar with it at the moment is Derek Jeter, superstar shortstop and captain of the team. Because this particular memorial happens to be the locker right next to his -- the well-preserved locker of former captain Thurman Munson.

Munson was a lone bright spot on the Yankees roster during the early 70s, named rookie of the year in 1970 and American League Most Valuable Player in 1976. He was not only a great player but was well liked among fans and even his opponents. In fact when the idea of naming team captains was re-instituted -- the tradition had not been followed since Lou Gehrig -- Munson was the natural candidate.

Although it should be noted that Munson had vicious public rivalries with the two of major league baseball's other star catchers of the time -- Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk. Richard Bradley in his book The Great Game, even refers to Munson as harboring a "smoldering, furious dislike" of Fisk. Munson and Reggie Jackson were also known to butt heads.

Although from Ohio, he had a scrappy New Yawk-ness that distinguished him from other players. He flipped off unruly fans. He grew a mustache -- and later, a beard -- in defiance of George Steinbrenner

On August 2, 1979, Munson was flying his private Cessna, practicing landing maneuvers at the Canton, Ohio airport, when he crashed into a tree and his plane exploded. Munson was dead at age 32. His death sent a shock wave through major league baseball and its fans. Several days later, the team appeared at a moving eulogy in Ohio, then flew back to New York that night to defeat the Baltimore Orioles.

In his honor, Munson's number 15 was retired, a memorial was placed in Monument Park, and his locker permanently frozen in time. Since 1980, despite a packed clubhouse, the captain of the team was kept his locker next to Munson's.

So the question remains then what to do with this impromptu memorial once the Yankees leave for their new home. Does it make sense to transfer the locker to the new locker room?

Munson's widow certainly hopes the locker will remain in the clubhouse. Most likely the locker and its contents will be housed in a new Yankees museum at the stadium, with an "open locker" perpetually kept in the locker room to honor all past Yankee greats.

Strangely enough, Munson would be the first of three Yankees players to die in private plane crashes. Pitcher Jim Hardin died while piloting a small aircraft in Key West in 1991; more recently, Cory Lidle tragically crashed into a Manhattan apartment building in 2006.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

History in the making - 3/22

Above: new Yankee Stadium

We'd like to give a big thank you to Kevin Walsh for giving us a generous shout-out on his site Forgotten NY. Most of you I'm sure are familiar with this great site, the ultimate investigative New York history site that specializes in the unique and sometimes unknown corners of the city. And if you haven't already, go out and find the book of the same name. It's invaluable for curious New Yorkers....

And in the rest of the NY history universe:

Webster Hall -- bawdy speakeasy, modern dance club, newest New York landmark [City Room]

Other potential landmarks -- not looking so good (sorry 287 Broadway, Kosciuszko Bridge, etc.) Lost City has the round-up [Lost City]

Brooklyn Bridge Easter Egg Hunt! Woo-hoo! [Dumbo NYC]

Lauren is challenging herself to visit and write about every single New York neighborhood. Check out where she's been thus far [New York City Challenge]

Some grim Knickerbocker Village headlines from the past! [Knickerbocker Village]

Friday, March 21, 2008

PODCAST: The New York Yankees

Get ready for nine innings (or 30 minutes) of the greatest sports team ever -- the New York Yankees. Hear about their modest beginnings, their best players, and the fate of Yankee Stadium, their home for 85 years.

(And I apologize in advance for this week's echo-y sound...had some difficulty with one of my directional mics!)

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

Babe Ruth in 1915, as a Red Sox. He would be traded in 1919 to the Yankees, thus beginning the Curse of the Bambino.

Ruth was alledgedly traded to the Yankees to finance Frazee's musical No No Nanette. (Frazee's name appears on the top of this poster.) Full disclosure -- we dismiss this musical in the podcast, although musical enthusiasts might proclaim No No Nanette was very well worth it, if nothing more than for its signature song "Tea For Two." Its first run ran over two years in 1925 and a 1971 revival did win several Tony Awards.

Babe at his retirement....

Babe Ruth in 1948, with a young Yale player, George H. W. Bush

Yankees owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston, with (fourth on the right) Red Sox owner Harry Frazee.

Yankee Stadium in its opening year 1923

The player who probably enjoys the greatest mystique in the pantheon of iconic Yankee stars -- Lou Gehrig

Joe Dimaggio with rival Ted Williams from the Red Sox. These two were almost traded with each other by their rival owners over an unfortunate night of cocktails.

DiMaggio 'the Yankee Clipper' retired in 1951 and soon found himself in an ordinary life with an ordinary wife.

And who doesn't love them some Casey Stengel, one of the best baseball managers who ever lived?

Mickey Mantle at batting practice

A 1960s Yankee board game

Billy Martin and the man who would repeatedly fire him, George Steinbrenner (Pic courtesy the New York Times)

The controversial but undeniably sensational Reggie Jackson

Billy Martin with Thurman Munson

Monument Park at Yankee Stadium, honoring the greatest in baseball. Thank God they moved it out of center field....

About our guest host:
A former journalist, Tanya Bielski-Braham is a writer, personal chef and full-time "foodie" who specializes in educating her clients on healthy, tasty diets and proper nutrition. She can be reached at [Ed. note -- A Yankee fan who's an amazing cook!]