Saturday, June 28, 2008

PODCAST: DeWitt Clinton and the Erie Canal

Meet former mayor, governor, senator and privileged son DeWitt Clinton, one of New York's most successful politicians and champion of the Erie Canal.

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

In this painting by C.Y. Turner, Clinton ceremonially pours a bucket of Lake Eric water into the Hudson River

DeWitt's uncle George, war hero and tenacious governor of New York

This John William Hill painting from 1829 depicts a bucolic stretch of the canal

A very early locomotive, the Dewitt Clinton, ran for two years starting in 1831, running between Albany and Schenectady.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Mayors, gay pride and a podcast delay

This week's show will be posted on here and up on iTunes tomorrow. Sorry for the delay, but it's a good one!

The show is about a former mayor of New York City. Check out our Know Your Mayors series for little tales on a few prior leaders of the city, the influential and ineffectual.

The picture above is former mayor Guiliani and current mayor Bloomberg at the 2001 Gay Pride Parade. Of course this year's parade is on Sunday, although I doubt Rudy will be making an appearance there. Refresh your memory on the parade's origins by listening to our show on the Stonewall Riots.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

FOR RENT: Rustic luxury can be yours in Bottle Alley!

In this city of rising rent prices and fancy new condos, why not step back in time and live amidst the rustic charm of ole New York? Who needs Kohler fixtures and hardwood floors? That's not what a real New Yorker would do!

Address: 47 Baxter Street
Location: The trendy and exciting Five Points neighborhood
Five Points is one of New York's most thriving areas for community and commerce, a real melting pot populated with New York's youngest and hippest new citizens. Newspapers have been buzzing about this neighborhood for years!

-- 1 bedroom (can sleep 15-20 people)
-- Fifth floor walk-up
-- Convenient access to outhouse
-- Filled with the natural aromas of the city
(NOTE: Hallways do not feature electricity, so gas lamp may be needed to navigate tight stairwell)
-- Centrally located to dozens of bars, brothels and the other great sites of Five Points (Mulberry Bend, Bandit's Roost)
-- Just a short walk to trendy Bowery district
-- ADDED BONUS: Neighborhood murder rate now just slightly lower than Hell's Kitchen!!

Starting at just $9.50 a month!

What some are saying:

"Bottle Alley ... is a fair specimen of its kind....! Look into any of these houses, everywhere the same piles of rags, of malodorous bones and musty paper all of which the sanitary police flatter themselves they have banished to the dumps and the warehouses!"
-- Jacob Riis

"No one would ever dream that a tumble-down building in the rear was an abode of human beings!"
-- Harper's Magazine

"The vilest filth that ever offended a human nostril covered the paving stones and even the door sills! Besotted women lay as they had fallen!"
-- New York Tribute

But don't take our word for it. Come take a look today:

Google Map of 47 Baxter Street

View Larger Map

NOTE: May require a time machine back to the year 1860

(Thanks to Tyler Anbinder's great Five Points book for the newspaper quotations above)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hey kids! Wanna be president? Don't be New York mayor.

Yesterday was the opening of Campaigning For President at the Museum of the City of New York, a look at the city's participation in some of the most famous and contentious presidential elections in history. The exhibit will focus on the city's role in deciding the outcomes, as well as some of the famous New Yorkers who once coveted the White House.

It got me thinking about the recent phantom campaign of Michael Bloomberg and colossally failed one of former mayor Rudy Giuliani. Is it possible for the leader of the biggest city in America to step up to the role of Commander In Chief?

The answer is a big, fat NO, at least so far. Not one New York mayor who ever actively tried or hinted at being interested in the job ever got it. And the list of also-rans is long indeed:

Michael Bloomberg -- Bought the dress and corsage but never showed up to the prom

Rudy Giuliani -- Showed up to prom an hour late, couldn't find any partner to dance with, and left after one song

John Lindsay (mayor from 1966 to 1973, pictured at right) didn't fare much better than Rudy in the quest for the 1972 Democratic nomination. Starting out of the gate strong, like Rudy he stalled in Florida and eventually dropped out. Given the catastrophic changes to the city in the 1970s, I'm surprised anybody thought having 'mayor of New York' on their political resume would have garnered national favor.

Robert F. Wagner (1954 to 1965) never ran for president but was short-listed to be Adlai Stevenson's vice president in 1956. (He was also beaten in balloting by Al Gore Sr. and John F Kennedy Jr. But they were ALL beat for the spot by the clearly more popular, always reliable Estes Kefauver.)

William Jay Gaynor (mayor 1910-1913) was widely considered a potential presidential hopeful, even with an assassin's bullet lodged in his neck. Had he actually lived through his term as mayor, who knows?

George Brinton McClellan Jr (mayor 1904-1909) was never a presidential candidate but his father and Civil War icon George B. McClellan Sr certainly was. Dad ran in 1864 against Lincoln in his second term, promising to end the war in the South.

A Oakley Hall (mayor 1869 from 1872) was as closely tied to the Boss Tweed Ring as a politico could be, but even he harbored presidential hopes. Considering he had to temporarily resign from mayor due to the Tweed scandal, I can't imagine how much luck he would have had.

DeWitt Clinton (mayor for ten non-consecutive annual terms starting in 1803 ending 1815) collected political positions like butterflies, but the one he could never catch was the presidency, defeated by incumbent James Madison in 1812. By June, Madison had declared war on England and later fled the White House when the Brits torched it.

The closest a mayor ever got to the top job was Edward Livingston, who became Secretary of State to Andrew Jackson. Which is interesting, as Livingston was literally ran out of Manhattan after his stint as mayor several years previous due to debts and scandals.

The real road to power is through the office of New York state governor. Four former governors have become president (Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland, Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt), four more were vice president (George Clinton, Daniel Tompkins, Levi P. Morton and Nelson Rockefeller) and two have even become chief justice of the Supreme Court (John Jay and Charles Evans Hughes).

Heck, even those governors who failed to become president did so in a dramatic and historic fashion, such as former governors Al Smith, Samuel Tilden and Thomas Dewey (of the particularly famous photo below).

Monday, June 23, 2008

Manhattan's first taverns: Wooden Horse and City Tavern

New Amsterdam city hall, once one of Manhattan's very first taverns

McSorley's Ale House certainly deserves to throw that Old in its title, happily swilling the devil's juice for 154 years. But it's positively a youngster compared to evidence of Manhattan's first two taverns, opened in the days when New York was just barely even New Amsterdam.

Henry Hudson first set eyes on Mannahatta in 1609. Fifteen years later, the Dutch came into New York harbor to begin their permanent settlement. In 1625, work began on Fort Amsterdam, which served as protection from the Indians and as the heart of the developing town. But by that time, New Amsterdam already had a brewery, which began production in 1612!

This young settlement was filled with young traders and shipmen who enjoyed their drink. Their liquor requirement was most likely fulfilled by captains selling it out of their own boats or residents from their own homes. But it's fur trader Philip Geraerdy that wears the distinction as first private tavern owner. He was granted a lot on "Stone street, between Whitehall and Broad Street," in 1641 (or possibly 1642, depending on which source you look at) to open his Wooden Horse Tavern (Het Houten Paard).

According to author Mark Caldwell, the name was probably a jab at punishment he had received as a soldier, forced to straddle "two boards nailed together to form a sharp wedge that rested on four legs" due to some sort of subordination.

Geraerdy most likely served no more variety than what can be found at McSorley's today, ale and possibly wine.

A more official tavern also opened in the same year. Governor of New Amsterdam William Keift had a costly stone structure built at what is today Coenties Slip and Pearl Street and called it City Tavern. Taverns of course were far more than booze dispensaries. They served as inns, meeting halls, social networking places and sometimes even offices. It makes sense then that when the city was incorporated in 1653, City Tavern morphed into what would be New Amsterdam's very first city hall (Stadt Huys or State House).

By that time, many other taverns had opened with names like Three Small Pigeons and the Blue Grape. In fact, the Dutch brewery business was booming by this time, supplying local ales to Dutch settlements throughout New Netherland.

Friday, June 20, 2008

PODCAST: McSorley's Old Ale House

Grab yourself a couple mugs of dark ale and learn about the history of one of New York City's oldest bars, serving everyone from Abraham Lincoln to John Lennon --- and eventually even women!

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

McSorley's through the ages. Here's one from 1937:

The outside from 1945



And McSorley's today

The backroom:

Two of John Sloan's most famous works, with McSorley's as its subject:

Woody Guthrie hams it up by the coal burning stove.

Women win the right to vote: dark ale or light ale!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

All hail the Coney Island Mardi Gras parade!

Before there were Mermaids, there was Mardi Gras. Above: ghoulish revelers from the 1911 parade

An even larger collection of freaks and aquatic oddities than Coney Island's everyday normal assortment will come slithering down Surf Avenue this Saturday with the 26th annual Mermaid Parade.

The parade is the heart of Coney's modern freak-show aesthetic, Christmastime for the tattooed and glittery. Most people think that, unlike most New York City parades, the Mermaid parade celebrates nothing specific, only a joy of costume, summertime and silliness. In fact, Coney Island 'mayor' Bill Zigun and Coney Island USA created the parade in 1983 as an homage to an even more legendary seaside tradition: the Coney Island Mardi Gras parade.

Let that stew in your mind a bit. Coney Island meets New Orleans.

The annual Mardi Gras celebration lasted from 1903, the heart of Coney's heyday, until 1954 -- the heart of the Robert Moses years. Curiously, it always took place in mid-September, which I suppose is a nicer time for a parade than a seaside New York February. The parade coincided with the end of the season and the annual shuttering of the amusement parks.

In 1906, the great parks of Coney Island like Dreamland were still standing. Nathan's famous hot dog stand wouldn't be open for another ten years. And the Mardi Gras parade that year managed to attract 500,000 people. "Police Commissioner [Thomas] Bingham visited the Island and had [his] full share of attention from confetti throwers and wielders of the 'tickler'."

I don't know what a tickler was back then, but the idea of what I think it is being thrust at a police commissioner is absurd. Probably a souvenir from a Luna Park ride called the Tickler (which doesn't look that fun, see image from 1906):

That same year brewery mogul Herman Raub (pictured below), founder of the Coney Island railway, was anointed king of the parade.

The Mardi Gras parade sounds like it was a horrifying, chaotic, fabulous mess. In 1911, the celebration also gathered about a half million people to view the tenuously religious celebration. "Gangs March Through Street Insulting Women and Wrecking Stores And Restaurants" shouts the Times. "Several Hundred Arrested."

It seems part of the fun of the original Mardi Gras involved drunken displays of violence.

Despite rampant (probably exaggerated) violence, the parade became the star of a wacky Fatty Arbuckle-Buster Keaton film, the 1915 'Coney Island'. It hit celluloid later in 1935 in the Popeye the Sailor Man short 'King of the Mardi Gras'.

By 1921, the parade had to deal with a new menace -- Prohibition. "It was agreed that Prohibition had struck Coney Island a staggering blow." Many revelers dressed in costumes that "referred satirically to blue law advocates."

One popular event at the parade was the annual 'prettiest baby' competition. In 1921, the winner was "Rita Murphy, 6 years old, of 2,005 Sixty-Third Street, Brooklyn, dressed as a jockey." The tot was awarded "a ninety-two-piece silver set which she can use to start housekeeping when she gets married." What a future young Rita had in store for her!

The parade sadly petered out thanks to Robert Moses's ridiculous plan to turn the area into "an area of predominantly residential character." Brooklyn Pix has a good shot of the final spectacle, that looks alarmingly similar to today's Mermaid Parade.

I can only imagine what horror Moses would experience by glimpsing the Mermaid Parade today. He may get the last laugh. With an overhaul of Coney Island beginning next year -- or already beginning, depending on how you look at it -- the parade's role may be greatly affected. So go down to Coney Island this Saturday and make sure you appreciate it in all its goofy and charming glory. (Check here for all the details.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Bowery Boys get older! Plus: 200 years of fire hydrants

Early engraving of some Bowery b'hoys lolling about a fire hydrant, up to no good

Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of our very first podcast. We just want to say thank you to everybody who has subscribed on iTunes and other podcast services. Our first year has been a huge success and we have a lot of exciting plans coming up for year two!

I know we have some rather massive topics that we've yet to cover (Empire State Building, the subway system, Central Park) but we'll get to most of them in the coming months, as well as experimenting with some more obscure topics.

I'll try and keep updating this blog 4-5 times a week depending on my schedule.

Again, it's been a blast so far and we've got lots of great ideas to keep improving the show. Thanks for letting us go ballistic geeky about this city that we love.

And now, more old New York City fire hydrant pictures. Why you ask? This year is the 200th anniversary of the very first hydrant in the city. Go here for a fairly comprehensive history of these invaluable street features:

Below: more fire hydrant shenanigans, this time from some wacky Lower East Side kids, picture dated July 9, 1936

Also from the 30s, a more sedate usage of a hydrant, a father and his son take a sip with the five-year-old Empire State Building in the background

A fireman from 1908 (Photo courtesy Old Picture of the Day)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Scary sculpture babies: JOIN US on Governors Island

Governors Island has been open for a few weeks now and greeting people as they wander this historic military base are dozens of sculptures and installations, certainly the most comprehensive display of public art in the city outside a museum.

The Sculptors Guild takes to the grounds of Nolan Park on its 70th anniversary with a wide variety of unusual pieces. In 'Building 408', observe a group of artists as they make a collection of watercolors on site.

But the most spectacular concentration of artistic weirdness is in 'Building 14', where the Governors Island art collective Figment displays several installations alongside the building's traditional room settings.

Nolan Park was for decades the quiet residence of military officers, living in rustic two-floor Victorian homes, a five minute ferry ride from downtown Manhattan. Nolan Park is already a rather surreal place to stroll around; you're allowed to enter many of the empty homes and imagine who the people were who once lived here. Of course, the experience is intensified with the inclusion of modern art:

And of course, Governors Island joins the rest of the city next Friday as one of the four artificial waterfalls by Olafur Eliasson are finally switched on.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Was there really a British sex prison in SoHo?

Above: Peaceful Lispenard Meadow, future home of a British prison brothel?

In the days of Collect Pond, the surrounding area was equally diverse and almost impossible to mentally construct today. Southeast of the pond was a place known as Beekman's Swamp, a wetland drained by British landowner Jacobus Roosevelt on what would much later become the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge.

A more disturbing legacy lurks on land in today's Soho -- Lispenard's Meadow (or simply Lispenard Meadow). The rather un-meadow-like marshland lay on property owned by merchant Leonard Lispenard, an early treasurer of King's College (later Columbia University).

Situated north of Collect Pond ("from... Worth Street to Spring Street") and just west of today's Broadway, the swamp was eventually split by the newly built canal and drained in the 1810s.

But prior to that, according to legend, acts of horror and depravity supposedly took place here in the latter years of British occupation of the city.

Thousands of British and Hessian soldiers poured into the British holding of New York between 1776 and 1783. You can find details of the outrageously crowded conditions on one of our prior podcast on the subject of life in British New York.

Below: The intersection of Canal Street and Broadway, circa 1812. Lispenard Meadow would have been on the west side of Broadway

To satisfy these men's carnal cravings, an enterprising captain named Jackson "kidnapped" 3,500 prostitutes from England. Most likely the women were coerced with promises of cash or opportunity in a time when it appeared New York would forever remain a British property.

Packed into twenty boats, they sailed to New York. Not all of them made it. One boat sank mid-voyage presumably killing all onboard, so Jackson decided that to make his quota of women, he would simply swing by the West Indies and take 350 more -- possibly slave women already but all of African background.

Once arrived in New York, the captives were kept in a stockade located here in Lispenard Meadow, where the women became sexual prisoners to serve the needs of the British troops. Known as the 'Jackson Whites' and the 'Jackson Blacks', these women were allegedly locked inside the stockade until the moment the British fled New York in 1783.

There's really little documentation to prove all the seamier details of this story. Although such a lurid story isn't outside the realm of possibility, it exists only as a story among the native people of the Ramapo Mountain range, who supposedly trace their lineage to these women, fleeing from New York after the war to reside in this supposedly Tory-friendly area of northern New Jersey.

Still, strolling through Soho past high fashion boutiques and major chain clothing stores built on land that potentially kept a massive sex prison has a odd symbolic quality to it, no?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

History in the making - 6/14

Street art in Gowanus

After checking out our podcast on Canal Street, stop by Forgotten New York for their beautifully photographed walking tour of the Manhattan Bridge area [Forgotten New York]

Better hurry out to Coney Island; the pier and boardwalk may be closed as early as the end of the month. [Kinetic Carnival]

It's more fun when they don't close and become bank branches: 'Sturgeon King' Barney Greengrass turned one hundred years old this week. [City Room]

Meet the first blogger mayor of New York -- Phillip Hone [Colonade Row]

It ain't looking pretty for Chelsea old eccentrics home Hotel Breslin. [Vanishing New York]

Do you still think ancient drinking hole Chumley's will be open this summer? Think again. [Lost New York]

Friday, June 13, 2008

PODCAST: Collect Pond and Canal Street

Collect Pond (and what I assume to be Bunker Hill) as depicted in watercolors by artist Archibald Robertson in 1798

We celebrate a year of New York City history podcasting by re-visiting the topic of our very first show.

Downtown Civic Center used to have a big ole pond in the middle of it which provided drinking water for the island's first inhabitants.

What happened to it, why is it important today and how did it give rise to Canal Street, New York's biggest traffic thoroughfare?

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

From the Mannahatta Project, a visualization of downtown Manhattan, with Collect Pond and acres of forest

Hard to believe, but this is downtown Manhattan and Collect Pond

An early 19th century map of Collect Pond and the streets that usurped it. (Click into it to see details.)

A mid-century depiction of Five Points, this corner in particular being where Paradise Square sprang up, an ambitious residential project doomed by soggy land and noxious odors

The Tombs Prison, in 1890, before being condemned. Its squalid conditions are legendary and are due in part to unsatisfactory construction over the former Collect Pond area

The early days of Canal Street. The actual foul-smellin canal was concealed with a row of lovely trees shielding the new tenements and businesses surrounding it

A tiny park surrounded by government buildings pays homage to the early (and far more natural) days

The most dramatic reminder of the neighborhood's early days, however, is the African Burial Ground Memorial, which opened last year