Monday, March 30, 2009

The 59th Street Bridge: Feelin' groovy at 100 years

The Queensboro Bridge, otherwise known the 59th Street Bridge, turns 100 years old today. Is it wrong to call it New York's most romantic bridge after the Brooklyn Bridge?

At the time of its construction, it actually went by another name -- the Blackwell's Island Bridge, since it hovers above the island that would become known as Roosevelt Island and even provided transportation for island residents via a mid-bridge elevator connected to a trolley system.

Designed by Gustav Lindenthal with help from regular collaborator Henry Hornbostel and Williamsburg Bridge engineer Leffert L. Buck, the new Queensboro would be the first to link Manhattan to Queens, a newly created borough at the time the bridge was first planned in 1902.

Despite perpetual problems with its cantilever design, a devastating collapse of one span during a windstorm and even some domestic terrorism, the bridge opened for traffic on March 30, 1909.

Its unique design, seemingly graceful and sturdy at once, set it apart from other two bridges created that decade (the latticed Williamsburg and the bolder Manhattan bridges). I think the 59th Street Bridge is one of the great underrated monuments of the Gilded Age, once demeaned as an 'ugly duckling' feeding into a less fashionable borough. History has proven the naysayers wrong; its silhouette has inspired artists, songwriters (Simon & Garfunkel, most notably) and filmmakers like Woody Allen:

NYC Roads has a complete history of the Queensboro. The New York Times ran a piece yesterday about today's anniversary.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Whyos: Gang of New York - PODCAST

Faces of the Whyo Gang: Googy Corcoran, Clops Connolly, Big Josh Hines and Baboon Connolly

PODCAST: The Whyos (pronounced Why-Ohs) were New York's most notorious gang after the Civil War, organizing their criminal activities and terrorizing law abiding citizens of the Gilded Age. Find out when they lived, how they broke the law and who they were -- from Googie Corcoran to Dandy Johnny, as well as two particularly notable guys named Danny. ALSO: How much does it cost to have somebody's ear bitten off?

Listen to it for FREE on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or click this link to listen to the show or download it directly from our satellite site

Below: Bull Hurley and Dorsey Doyle

There were some downloading and sound problems on Friday but they should be resolved now, so try again!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Beware the Forty Thieves, very first gang of New York

Above: the crowded streets of Five Points, where the Forty Thieves first made mischief

What does it mean to be the 'first' gang in New York? Most likely, it means you weren't really the first. Just the first to be caught at doing it.

New Yorkers seem to create a grim romanticism around 19th century gang life because the underworld they lived in seem increasingly more exotic. They were unofficial rulers of neighborhoods vastly changed today. Hell's Kitchen. The Tenderloin. The sleazy Fourth Ward.

And of course Five Points, the centerpiece of the Sixth Ward. That's where New York's first recorded gang, the Forty Thieves, got their start, in the back room of the 'grocery store' owned by one Rosanna Peers.

No evidence remains of what Rosanna might have looked like, but gather together what you will from the evidence. Selling hard liquors along with "brown-streaked cabbages and tattered lettuce," Rosanna's establishment was ostensibly the first bar on Centre Street in 1825, and would certainly not be the last.

I wouldn't exactly lionize her abilities, but you can't say she wasn't an entrepreneur of sorts. The cheapness of her "rutgot rum" attracted the most charming thugs and pickpockets in the city, and soon they formed a merry band of crooks, watching each other's backs, delineating common territory, and sharing their ill-gotten wealth. The Forty Thieves -- almost all Irish immigrants and almost certainly more than forty -- would grow to terrorize the streets of downtown New York for over 25 years.

Their first leader was Edward Coleman who must have some certain gruff charm as he gathered up teams of dime criminals for more elaborate jobs, including staking out this corner of Five Points, defending it from rivals. His organization included a rather strict quota system, where members had to bring back a certain amount of stolen goods or be thrown out. Rejects were either disposed of or fled to join rival gangs that soon organized in other neighborhoods.

Coleman would lead until 1838, when he violently beat and killed his wife, a 'hot corn' girl who had brought back inadequate wages from a day's work. This heinous crime earned Coleman the distinction of being the first man hung in the newly built Tombs prison, just a few blocks away.

The Forty Thieves lived on without him and were such a successful organization that they recruited younger delinquents for a specialized Forty Little Thieves, filthy tots from the street of Five Points dispatched like ruddy faced Oliver Twists to pick pockets and troll the streets for law enforcement.

They fade away into New York history, breaking off and joining other, more powerful and more politically connected gangs. They were only the seed of lawlessness in a neighborhood that would soon grant a wretched neighborhood its rather notorious status today.

As for Ms. Peer, she apparently felt no ambivalence about her clientele; another early Five Points gang, the Kerryonians, also used her rum-filled backroom as a headquarters. The Kerryonions, comprised specifically of Irish immigrant men from the county Kerry, were less terrifying than the Forty Thieves -- unless you were British, whom they reserved a special hatred for.

Below: the approximate location of Ms. Peer's grisly grocer:

View Larger Map

Monday, March 23, 2009

And how was YOUR commute today, madam?

Riding the Staten Island ferry one a fine fall morning in 1898. That is one amazing hat. (Photo courtesy LIFE archive)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Bull's Head Tavern: treating you like cattle since 1755

To get you in the mood for the weekend, every other Friday we'll be celebrating 'FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER', featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse clubs of the mid-1990s. Past entries can be found HERE.

Last time around, I wrote about Max's Kansas City, a steakhouse that served up a side of punk and pop celebrity like a glamorous cattle call. It has a few things in common with another centerpiece of social life that attracted a few of New York's boldfaced (in this case, Washingtons and Astors), combining truly Revolutionary business with pleasure. And it had plenty of red meat, of the pre-prepared variety.

The Bull's Head Tavern was the gathering-place for farmers, drovers, and merchants in the 18th century, located well outside city boundaries just east of Collect Pond. (At the Bowery, right at the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge.)

It soon became the center of Manhattan's entire meat selling and rendering industry, with the area surrounding the nearby Collect overrun with tanneries and slaughterhouses. As the Bull's Head was also located right on the Boston Post Road (later the Bowery), situated at a crossroads of livestock yards and stables, it became an ideal place for both commerce and carousing.

The Bull's Head was in operation as early as 1755, enjoying business as "the last halting-place for the stages before entering the city."

Within the next few decades, industry enveloped the area, transforming the Bull's Head into a cattle market, with pens adjoining the main building where farmers from the surrounding area herded their best specimens for sale. Inside the tavern became a literal stock market, with transactions, news and gossip being shared over brew and a hot meal. Those who lingered well into the night sometimes played a strange game called crack loo -- often gambling away any profits they might have made earlier in the day. Out in the pen, dog fights and "bear baiting" sometimes occured as entertainment.

As Washington Irving describes, at the Bull's Head he would "hear tales of travelers, watch the coaches and envy the more pretentious country gentlemen in Castor hat, cherry-derry jackets and doeskin breeches."

On November 25, 1783, Evacuation Day, the Bull's Head entered history. As the British fled New York that day, George Washington and his entourage met at the Bull's Head, preparing themselves for their triumphant entry into town. Governor George Clinton and over 800 uniformed troops and townfolk gathered right outside, preparing for the procession.

Henry Astor, the older brother of John Jacob, stepped in as owner of the Bull's Head in 1785. Already an accomplished butcher, Henry served his "celebrated cuts of meats" and often outpriced his own clientele when a particularly choice herd of cattle came travelling by.

Of course, New York was outgrowing its old boundaries by then. By 1813, Collect Pond had been drained and high society eyed the Bowery, sweeping away the filthy stockyards and factories to construct homes, shops and theatres. Moving with the changing times, some civic minded businessmen bought out Astor and moved the Bull's Head somewhere safely outside the city -- this time at 3rd Avenue and 24th Street!

In 1830, this new location fell into the hands of young rancher and entrepreneur Daniel Drew, who turned the tavern into a sort of bank, marketplace and social club for local cattlemen, upgrading the establishment and building his own reputation as a saavy financier.

As this time, according to an old history, "various types of men mingled in the bar-rroom of the Bull's Head, from the rough country man to the speculative citizen, butcher and horse-fancier. Plain apple-jack and brandy and water... were the principal liquors passed over the bar. Guests were so numerous that at the first peal of the dinner-bell. it was neccessary to rush for the table or fail miserably." And of course, after hearty meal and vigorous drink, came the gambling, "throwing dice for small stakes."

Drew eventually went on to become a steamboat mogul. The site of the old Bull's Head eventually hosted the notorious Bowery Theatre (built upon its old cattleyards), then the sumptuous Atlantic Gardens by the mid-19th century.  Drew's uptown location on 24th, of course, caved in to a growing residential neighborhood. However, today there is a new Bull's Head Tavern, at that exact location, that probably smells a lot better than the original.

And not to forget, there was also a Bull's Head Tavern in Staten Island, at Victory Boulevard and Richmond Avenue. Built in 1741, this Bull's Head was a popular destination for British-loving Tories before the days of the Revolutionary War. Before it was destroyed in a fire, "people from all over the country made special trips to the old house, just to see the famous Tory headquarters," according to one old history.

The neighborhood that sprouts around that intersection at Victory and Richmond is named Bulls Head in the old tavern's honor.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Mayor Cornelius Lawrence, son of Bayside

Above: New York by 1837 (in an painting by Edward Williams Clay) -- a city surviving financial ups and downs, fires and water shortage, riots, cholera and the mayoralty of Cornelius W. Lawrence

KNOW YOUR MAYORS 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.

Mayor Cornelius Lawrence
In office: 1834-1837

We're going back to the era of the great fire one more time to take a look at the man in charge of the city during that time -- Cornelius W. Lawrence, the first elected mayor of New York.

I couldn't find any portraits of Cornelius, but I found something better: the following description from a mid-19th century journal: "...old Cornelius had the ice cream and strawberries of everything in life -- in commerce, in politics, in wives, in finances and in religion....He had a peculiar way of carrying his spectacles in his hand, behind his back while he looked at all the pretty girls he met."

But getting to that 'ice cream and strawberries' required surviving one of the most tumultuous city elections -- and the subsequent years of trauma -- that a New York mayor has ever had to endure.

Lawrence was born in 1791 in bucolic Bay Side(in the future Queens), a farm boy with big city intentions at an early age. He became entranced with the lucrative merchant culture of New York, working his way into his own dry-goods auction house, the firm of Hicks, Lawrence & Co. with the wealthy Quaker financier Willet Hicks and Lawrence's brother Richard. Their auction house was at Pearl and Fulton streets (just off Schermerhorn Row near the South Street Seaport today).

Lawrence, a high-profile merchant by 1832, was also a politically ambitious Democrat and served two years as a state congressmen before turning to local politics at a uniquely opportune moment.

Before 1834, the position of mayor had been appointed by the Common Council of the city, an unelected job that was shaped more by the political favoritism of governors and city alderman (who were elected) than by any particular leadership characteristic. This was finally amended by New York state in 1834, allowing for the mayor's job to be popularly elected. And, not surprisingly, that first election was an absolute, chaotic mess.

The long-established Democrats and a surging Whig party wanted to get their hands on this now attainable position. As a result, that election day, spring 1834, came with voter intimidation, massive fraud, and angry riots which overtook the polls, particularly in the volitile Sixth Ward. The Democrats had put up Lawrence to challenge the wonderfully named Gulian Crommelin Verplanck, a colorful poet and former Democrat. When the dust settled, the Whigs were victorious in a majority of alderman posts, but the Democrat came out on top as mayor -- by a mere 180 votes!

Below: New York in 1836, as per "Hooker's new pocket plan of the city" (Click into it for a closer view)

Lawrence would be elected for three stressful one-year terms (spring 1834-spring 1837). At the very top of his to-do list was New York's water supply. The new mayor had inherited a city quickly bursting with new residents and a paltry water supply so rancid and inadequete that one source blames it for the increase in public drunkenness. (Hey people have to drink something, right?)

Exacerbating the matter was the fear of disease. In 1832, his first year as congressman, New York was struck with a devastating cholera epidemic, killing hundreds; a lesser but no less dangerous sequel struck in 1834, just as Lawrence was getting comfortable at City Hall. And of course, the spectre of fire lurked, not just jeopardizing a highly flammable city, but Lawrence's own fortunes: he controlled shares several fire insurance companies.

Plans for what would become the Croton aqueduct were well underwway when the Great Fire of 1835 devastated New York, destroyed the Merchant's Exchange and potentially spelled doom for the city's future. Lawrence himself lost thousands of dollars in shares, although his own auction house on Pearl Street had been spared.

The mayor and his entourage stormed down to Washington begging for aid for his beleagured city, to no avail. Fortunately, former mayor Philip Hone succeeded in persuading the state government to dole out millions in relief. Meanwhile, voters finally approved the construction of the aqueduct in 1836. Within the year New York experienced a burst of rapid reconstruction; the price of New York real estate post-fire soared to outlandish prices.

But fire and water weren't Lawrence's only distresses. Sometimes he had to fear his own constituents.

BELOW: Anti-abolitionist riots kept the city on edge during the 1830s

Pro-slavery sentiment among some New Yorkers culminated in a series of deadly riots in the 1830s, one during Lawrence's first months as mayor, leading to the destruction of property owned by abolitionists and prominent businessmen Lewis and Arthur Tappan. Lawrence denounced the mob (after posing a threat to his wealthy friends) and ordered the National Guard to disperse them. Later, Tappen penned this mea culpa to the mayor, ensuring his good intentions, particularly the assurance that the abolitionists "will never, in any way, countenance the oppressed in vindicating their rights by resorting to physical force."

Being a Democrat in the 1830s meant a marraige between the Jacksonian wealthy and a powerful Irish working-class, strange bed-fellows often culminating in disaster. At a New Years eve celebration at the mayor's home in 1837, supporters stormed the doors, turning the home into a 'Five Points tavern' by one account. The police were summoned in an effort to clear away the mayor's own supporters!

As if these catastrophic events hadn't been enough, Lawrence was finally thrown out of the mayor's seat due to the results of the greatest catastrophe of all -- the Panic of 1837, a financial crisis that briefly shifted the city's power from the Democrats to the Whigs. He was defeated by Aaron Clark, who would prove to be the only Whig mayor of the city.

Perhaps ready to move on anyway, Lawrence entered the world of banking in his later years, interuppted only by a four-year stint in a federal role under President James Polk as the Collector of Customs.

He lived his later years in the city in a home near Broadway and Worth Street, before finally retiring back to the family home in Flushing. He died in 1861 and you can conceivably still go visit him; he's buried at the Lawrence family burying ground at 216th Street and 42nd Avenue in Bayside, Queens.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Great Explosion of 1845: downtown in flames (again!)

The devastating results of the monstrous fire of 1835 helped change the course of Manhattan -- hastening the residential migration up the island, rewriting the architectural nature of downtown and essentially erasing the past. There would never be another fire of such intensity and magnitude.

But New York didn't suddenly become fire-proof. In fact, ten years later came another massive blaze, in almost exactly the same place, that threatened to halt downtown's rebirth before it even began.

Some distinct circumstances set it apart from the prior, more destructive blaze. It occurred before the crack of dawn on Saturday, July 19, 1845, on the third floor of an "oil store" on New Street -- only a couple blocks from where the Great Fire of 1835 had started.  Normal summertime temperatures, sunlight creeping onto the horizon, and an influx of people going about their early morning business likely might have ensured that the blaze would have been swiftly contained.

Unfortunately, a warehouse owned by the merchants Crocker & Warren, just a block away at 38 Broad Street, was filled with a new shipment of saltpetre, used for the manufacture of gunpowder. Fire wafted in through an opening in one of the store's open iron shutters, and the result was a series of cannon-like bursts of smoke and fire, almost like a volcano, smashing into buildings across the street. It culminated in a terrible, final explosion, completely engulfing the block. The explosion was heard as far away as Sandy Hook, New Jersey.

An account from 1888 described it as:

"an immense body of flame... it instantly penetrated at least seven buildings, blew in the fronts of the opposite houses on Broad Street, wrenched shutters and doors from buildings at some distance from the immediate scene of the explosion, propelled bricks and other missiles through the air, threw down many individuals who had gone as far as Beaver Street, spread the fire far and wide, so that the whole neighborhood was at once in a blaze, and most unfortunately covered up the [fire company's] hose.... After this the firemen could with difficulty obtain any control over the conflagration."

This new blaze spread south, down as far as Bowling Green, in total destroying between 300 and 350 buildings, most of which had been partially damaged by the blaze ten years before. The financial cost to the city was great, although significantly less than that of the blaze of 1835, somewhere between $6 and $10 million.

BELOW: in this lithograph, the serene fountain in Bowling Green as flames consume buildings all around it

A guide book from 1877 assesses the damage at $7 million, but interestingly attributes the rebuilding of the affected blocks to a "constant influx of gold from the seeming exhaustless resources of the El Dorado and the Pacific."

This fire might have grown to swallow up all of downtown had the Croton Reservoir not been completed a few years before, providing a steady stream of water to put out the flames.

However, perhaps due to the awful and sudden explosion, the fire of 1845 bests that of the 1835 inferno in one unfortunate statistic: the number of fatalities.  Where only two people had died in the larger fire, at least 30 people died that July morning, including a few volunteer firefighters like lawyer Augustus L Cowdrey, whose body was never found.

It's through Cowdrey's memory that you can actually find a reminder of the 1845 fire in downtown Manhattan.  In the graveyard at Trinity Church on Broadway and Wall Street sits a tall obelisk, a fireman's memorial engraved with the names of many fallen fighters of the 19th century, including that of Cowdrey.

Friday, March 13, 2009

PODCAST: The Great Fire of 1835

Nicolino Calyo captured the terrible sight of the blaze as it might have looked from the Williamsburgh side of the East River

The Great Fire of 1835 devastated the city during one freezing December evening, destroying hundreds of buildings and changing the face of Manhattan forever. It underscored the city's need for a functioning water system and permanent fire department. So why were there so many people drinking champagne in the street?

Listen in as we recount this breathtaking tale of the biggest fire in New York City history.

Listen to it for FREE on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or click this link to listen to the show or download it directly from our satellite site.

Before the blaze: Charming Wall Street in 1825, from a 1920s guide book. Prosperity from the Erie Canal was just around the bend. (Courtesy Ephemeral New York)

The original Merchant's Exchange building, one of New York's more ornate building, featuring a statue of Alexander Hamilton standing nobly in its rotunda. (Illustration courtesy the New York Public Library image gallery)

What's the damage?: the red areas below indicate the blocks destroyed by the swift moving conflagration (map courtesy CUNY)

City officials, including mayor Cornelius Lawrence, could only watch and stare as the blaze over takes a stretch of prominent buildings. Also included below is Charles King, who watches as his newspaper the New York American is overcome by the fire.

Calyo's painted depiction of the "Burning of the Merchant's Exchange"

Another interpretation from the same angle -- the futility of battling the blaze was chillingly illustrated from the corner Wall and William streets, where winds carried the flames from building to building, high above the heads of fighters below.

As the old Dutch Church on Garden Street caught fire, a morose parishioner mounted the organ and began playing a dirge. (Where's Garden Street? According to Forgotten New York, Garden Street was "between William Street and Broadway, just south of Wall Street" and is now part of Exchange Place today.)

Aftermath at the Merchant's Exchange. Many business owners actually tranferred their stock to the Exchange building, unfortunately thinking it would be impervious to the encroaching flames.

The devastation that met New Yorkers the following day led most to believe the city would never recover.

Most of the buildings on today's Stone Street were built in the immediate years following the fire, Greek Revival-style countinghouses that are refitted for modern times as taverns and restaurants. It's also one of the few cobblestone streets still around in the Financial District area.

Who exactly was Nicolino Calyo, the man who painted so many vivid pictures of the Great Fire? Nicolino Vicomte de Calyo was a political dissenter who fled Italy in the 1830s and settled in Baltimore, becoming entranced by the new American landscape. Although his most famous depictions of New York are of the city in flame, he also painted a few serene views (like the one below, a vantage of the harbor from Brooklyn Heights).

His works are in many New York museums, including the "Burning of the Merchant's Exchange" which is at the Museum of the City of New York.

Another cool resource on the Great Fire is up at the CUNY website, with more pictures and more backstory as to New York's capacity to fight blazes in the early 19th century.

And if you're so inclined, why not visit the New York City Fire Museum? It's in SoHo and afterwards you can take a stroll down to the Financial District and imagine what it all might have looked like.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What are the boys of Brooklyn wearing?

Fall fashion in 1912: this lad named Chester enjoys the cool ocean breeze in this stylish suit, modeled here at Sea Gate, on the western end of Coney Island.

A year earlier, in 1911, Chester sports the latest in versatile beach wear, as his mother Mildred ensures not a ray of sunshine will hit her body.

October 1887 -- No ragamuffins here! On the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, some well-dressed boys attempt to barter with a street vendor -- apples for chestnuts.

Grand Army Plaza, June 1895 -- As bike riders stream past him and through the Soldiers' and Sailors' Arch, the young biker on the left proves large bows prove no hindrance to sportsmanship.

Click on photos for a larger view....

Photos by Wallace G. Levison, courtesy the Life photo archive

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Thank you Bob. Thank you Gowanus Lounge.

We'd like to offer our condolences to the friends and family of Robert Guskind, the creator and wit behind Gowanus Lounge, one of the very best blogs about Brooklyn. When I began this site over 20 months ago, Guskind's was one of the first that I linked to and read on a regular basis, admiring his observations of the culture, history and current events -- not only on the quirky, misunderstood neighborhood of Gowanus, but the entire borough. It's at times tart, always immediate, insightful and questioning.

Thankfully, after a technical glitch, the site is back up and I recommend you flip back to older posts. He had a particularly great ability to find photos of the most unusual corners of his home neighborhood. Flatbush Gardener has a links featuring other tributes to Bob and his work.

Monday, March 9, 2009

My Broadway 'Whirl Girl' obsession

See these lovely lasses? This is a photograph that ran on the HD photo website Shorpy last week, featuring some chorines from a 1921 Broadway show. "The Broadway Whirl," a lively revue knockoff, played the Times Square Theatre, a 'legitimate' stage at 217 West 42nd Street that was closed in the 1980s. If you're trying to place it today, it's directly across the street from the garish 42nd Street McDonalds.

The theatre opened in 1920, with the 'Whirl Girls' taking to the stage only a year later, in July 1921. According to the original review in the New York Times, 'Whirl' "conform[s] rather faithfully to the popular type of revue. Which is to say that it is rich in girls and costumes, equipped with two good comedians and a variety of talented dancers, full of movement and color, and in the main rather poor in idea."

The Times Square Theatre had a spotty record with hit shows, its biggest coming in 1931 with Noel Coward's 'Private Lives'. It also had nice runs with 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' and 'The Front Page' (the basis for the film 'His Girl Friday'). By 1934, however, it was turned into a movie theatre. Which is to say that, by the 70s, it was rich in girls without costumes:

As for the five damsels at top, it doesn't appear that any of them really broke out of the chorus line. Shorpy's has some interesting solo shots of a couple ladies.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Max's Kansas City: New York's celebrity steakhouse

Who do you think picked up the tab: Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin or Tim Buckley?

To get you in the mood for the weekend, every other Friday we'll be celebrating 'FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER', featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse spaces of the mid-90s. Past entries can be found HERE.

At Max's Kansas City, there was not a Max, and it wasn't in Kansas City. What you would find, however, was the birth of celebrity nightlife in New York City, a collision of culture greats before they became cliches, glamour with a tattered cuff.

There were certainly nightclubs in downtown Manhattan that became magnets for revolutionary musicians and artists well before Max's. But I maintain that no place organized and fetishized its celebrity clientele quite like this little club on 213 Park Avenue South (between 17th and 18th streets), providing canvas aplenty for Andy Warhol's pop art crowd and underground music's biggest pioneers. Nights at Max's begat the culture of Studio 54.

Max's was actually Mickey's -- Mickey Ruskin that is, a lawyer who opened a string of cafes and bars in the early 60s, eventually cultivating relationships with Greenwich Village artists and writers who would pop in to showcase their talents. His first, the 10th Street Coffeehouse (between 3rd and 4th Aves.), became a poets corner, with standing-room audiences listening to beat and experimental poetry. In another venture, a bar called the Ninth Circle, Ruskin began attracting painters and artists, quickly becoming, in his own words, one of New York's leading "middle-class beatnik bars."

Successfully moving from coffee to liquor, Mickey now wanted to try the restaurant business. He bought the failing Southern Restaurant near Union Square, and on December 6, 1965, transformed it into Max's Kansas City.

The mysterious name purportedly comes from one of Ruskin's more famous clients from the Ninth Circle, poet Joel Oppenheimer . According to a documentary on Max's Kansas City, Oppenheimer heard Ruskin wanted to open a steakhouse and claims, "When I was a kid, all the steakhouses had Kansas City on the menu because the best steak was Kansas City-cut, so I thought it should be 'something Kansas City.'"

Although people have suspected the 'Max' comes from fellow poet Max Finstein, Oppenheimer claims a more logical origin. "Wouldn't you eat at a place called Max's? I said, 'Mickey, believe me, it's Max's Kansas City.' Two days later, he called back again and said, 'I don't know why, but I mentioned the name to some people, and they all loved it.'"

Whatever the story, the restaurant soon became more known for its crowds than for its simple menu. All of Mickey's writer and artist friends migrated to Max's, a loyal crowd but not enough to keep the doors open. Then Andy came.

Ruskin is unsure of the date, but Andy Warhol soon became a regular, and with him came his entourage of geniuses, models and freaks. And with them came reputation and notoriety. The biggest names generally camped out in Max's backroom, which soon gave way to music and photography, attracted like moths to the nightly absurd mixture of the beautiful and the famous.

"I met Iggy Pop at Max's Kansas City in 1970 or 1971," recalled David Bowie. "Me, Iggy and Lou Reed at one table with absolutely nothing to say to each other, just looking at each other's eye makeup."

William Burroughs smoking in a corner with Allen Ginsberg. Twiggy and Mick Jagger and Dennis Hopper -- dancing to live performances upstairs like the Velvet Underground (performing at Max's during their last days), Bob Marley or a young Bruce Springsteen on acoustic guitar.

Meanwhile, in the front room gathered artists and writers, many of whom were too broke to pay their checks and occasionally paid for their meals with original art. Imagine having a meal paid for with an original work of art by William de Koonig or minimalist Carl Andre!

A staple of the late 60s, Ruskin weathered the following decade for only a few years before closing its doors in December 1974. But the story was not over.

BELOW: Blondie performs at Max's

The name and location was snatched up by club owner Tommy Dean Mills, who revitalized Max's as a viable punk club, restoring a bit of its prior glamour, booking hot punk banks like Blondie and the Ramones, glam acts like the New York Dolls and before-they-were-famous performers like the B-52s, Devo, and Madonna.

Most notably were the post-Sex Pistol shows by Sid Vicious, messy and unforgettable; three months before his death, Sid attacked Patti Smith's brother Todd inside the club and was thrown into jail. (Or maybe not; see notes below for a possible correction.)

That incarnation of Max's closed in 1981. Believe it or not, there have been later, ill-advised attempts to reopen Max's, but best it remain gone. I would hate to see it become a Las Vegas attraction like that other 70s staple.

Please check out this colorful website tribute to Max's , as well as Max's latest incarnation as a non-profit lifeline "to financially distressed individuals in the creative and performing arts for housing, medical and legal aid."

BELOW: Those wacky boys of Devo

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Happy birthday, American bureaucracy!

Today is an unsung day in American history. Two hundred and twenty years ago today, concept became reality, as the very first assembled United States Congress, as stipulated in the newly ratified Constitution, met at Federal Hall in downtown Manhattan. The illustration above (from 1789) looks west on Wall Street, past the hall to Trinity Church. You get a good sense of how relatively on the outskirts of town the Hall still was at that time.

Federal Hall was the center of American government from that day until December 6, 1790, when Congress moved to Philadelphia for ten years, before its permanent move to Washington D.C.

If things look a little odd to you in that picture, they should. Federal Hall certainly doesn't look like that today. The current building that calls itself Federal Hall was actually built in 1842, on the same spot as the original, which was ingraciously torn down in 1812.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

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:

Monday, March 2, 2009

Snow shocked: The Blizzard of 1888

Longacre Square -- the future Times Square -- after the Blizzard

A March blizzard like the one today is discouraging as we're so close to ridding ourselves of winter forever. But putting it all in perspective, it'll never top the absolute worst March snowstorm of all time, a snowy catastrophe that completely shut down the city -- the Blizzard of 1888.

In an age before radio and television, in a city with elevated trains and few effective snow-clearing techniques, New York was held hostage as the blizzard pelted New England, starting as freezing rain on March 11, then building to a 36-hour deluge of wind and snow from March 12-13, winding up the next day. The East River became a solid floor of ice, destroying dozens of boats and ferries. Telegraph poles and rudimentary electrical wires crumbled under ice and wind. Food deliveries stopped, supplies of fresh water froze up; many in downtown tenements froze to death in their rooms.

The storm also underscored the city's need for an underground transit system. One unfortunate reporter for the New York Sun was on a packed morning Sixth Avenue elevated and observed: "The train moved down a little below Seventeenth street and stopped. It stayed there more than two hours. Then it moved ten feet and stopped another hour; ten feet more and another hour; finally to a little below Sixteenth street, and there it stuck until 5 minutes before 3 o'clock."

Here's a few more images from that horrific event. See, today isn't so bad:

Aftermath along the elevated trains. Within ten years, New York would begin work on underground tunnels to accomodate a more convenient mode of transportation

Not having the luxury of 'sick days' or lenient work environment, most New Yorkers braved the awful weather to go into work that day. What greeted them were a death-defying latticework of icy wires and downed telegraph poles.

The scene behind the Grand Central Depot at 43rd street -- essentially paralyzed

A Harpers Weekly illustration summing up the scene at Union Square. Not a day to hit the Ladies Mile shops!

The view of Park Row in front of the Brooklyn Bridge entrance in Manhattan, with the old post office to the right. Again, just invision sliding down one of these sidewalks, dodging uncontrollable trollies and the risk of falling poles and wires

The Brooklyn Bridge, barely a few years old, aches under the burden of tons of snow and violent winds
(Life archive images)

The truly adventurous, however, were well prepared, such as this man in Prospect Park, armed with snow shoes. (Pic courtesy the Brooklyn Historical Society)

And the scene was certainly no better in the town of Jamaica (Union Avenue is pictured here), which would be incorporated as a part of the borough of Queens just ten years later (pic courtesy wintercenter)