Saturday, May 30, 2009

History in the making - 5/30

I'll take two! A salesman goes the course to sell a spring hat in an unnamed New York City department store, circa 1962. (Courtesy LIFE, photographer Yale Joel)

How Do I Look? The Tenement Museum blog and historian Warren Shaw has the scoop on how the old Lower East Side was depicted in the old days in film, books and on stage. You can also download Warren's 'From the Triangle to the Tiger' as a podcast here. [Tenement Museum, Gotham Center]

Just an Intermission, Folks Theatre 80, on of the East Villages most distinctive and oldest stages, may be losing its prime tenant, but its owners have no intention of shutting down. Lorcan Otway: "When we came to Saint Marks Place in 1964, there was not a tree on the block. My father planted the first three trees on this now tree lined promenade." Bravo! [EV Grieve]

Never Out Of Style Chelsea's Bed Bath and Beyond, as it looked 100 years ago [Ephemeral New York]

Who has the shelf space? The Times takes a look at New York's many Nobel Prize laureate winners. Also do you know where in the city the Nobel monument is? [City Room]

And finally, is the New York Post ripping off scoops from our favorite New York's blogs? Check out the controversy at Jeremiah's Vanishing New York blog.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Happy Friday - xo Babe and Beau James

Sorry, I don't have time to do a regular post today but I hope you all have a perfect weekend, courtesy of mayor Jimmy Walker and Babe Ruth....

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mayor Jimmy Walker: a finer class of corruption

Jimmy Walker, Hollywood version of a mayor

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.

MayorJimmy Walker
In office: 1926-1932

Has a New York mayor ever reflected the decade he governed more perfectly than Jimmy Walker? Although John Hylan was actually the 1920s more effective mayor, it was Walker who embodied the Jazz Age spirit in his style, and the tragic Depression-era change of fortune in his downfall. He glamours us today because he's both movie star and rebel; but the corruption of his regime is equally as striking and even disturbing in its grandiosity.

Walker is easily one of the most notorious mayors of New York, but today we can appreciate his brashness, his independence and class, just as we can lament his subservience to diabolic Tammany-era politics. He wasn't the last disgraced mayor the city would see in the 20th century, but his abdication neatly defines the modern era's defining fall from grace.

Jimmy, born June 19, 1881, was a New York boy and a golden one at that, raised in Greenwich Village among the bohemians, the son of an Irish immigrant who became a well connected Democratic assemblyman. Walker's first passion seems to be music; in 1905 he stormed Tin Pan Alley writing songs such as "There's Music In The Rustle Of A Skirt" and "Will You Love Me in December As You Do in May?" with its melancholy refrain:

Will you love me in December as do in May,
Will you love in the good old fashioned way?
When my hair has all turned gray,
Will you kiss me then, and say,
That you love me in December as do in May?

Below: In an odd ceremony with the mayor of Albuquerque

He had even less hesitation in announcing a political career, especially as Father had connections to a certain Al Smith, governor of New York. An adopted son of Tammany Hall, elected first to the state assembly in 1910 then to the state senate in 1914, young Walker sought Smith's guidance and the governor soon took a fancy to the smooth, impeccably dressed young man, who shone like a new penny on the Senate floor. As he was described by Robert Caro:

"Pinch-waisted, one-button suit, slenderest of cravats, a shirt from a collection of hundreds, pearl-gray spats buttoned around silk-hosed ankles, toes of the toothpick shoes peeking out from the spats polished to a gleam. Pixie smile, the 'vivacity of a song and dance man,' a charm that made him arrive n the Senate Chamber like a glad breeze' The Prince Charming of Politics.....slicing through the ponderous arguments of the ponderous men who sat around him with a wit that flashed like a rapier. Beau James."

Smith took him under wing, maneuvering him through the entanglements of state politics, shielding Walker when his excesses got the better of him. He was a philandering cad and a boozer, even then. When opportunity arose to challenge the successful John Hylan for mayor of New York, Smith wanted Walker to run, but only if he would change his ways. Walker changed them all right; instead of partying out at speakeasies with chorus girls, he moved the whole production to a private penthouse funded by Tammany favors.

That election in 1925 was fierce. First, Smith had to dispense of Hylan in the Democratic primary -- and in the halls of Tammany. The two split the storied political machine, but eventually Walker won out. Next, he faced the Republican-Fusion candidate Frank Waterman in the general election, who cried of potential Tammany corruption to the new subway system if Walker were elected. (Waterman would, of course, be right.) Beau James, however, went unabated. He ran as a people's mayor, somebody who enjoys and the same pleasures as those voting for him:

"I like the company of my fellow human beings. I like the theatre and am devoted to healthy outdoor sports. Because I like these things, I have reflected my attitude in some of my legislation I have sponsored -- 2.75 percent beer, Sunday baseball, Sunday movies, and legalized boxing. But let me allay any fear there may be that, because I believe in personal liberty, wholesome amusement and healthy professional sport, I will countenance for a moment any indecency or vice in New York."

Right! Walker was one of the people. Everybody bought it but nobody believed it. He swept into office because New York, in 1925, was prosperous, a Jazz Age mayor for a Jazz Age city.

Once elected, of course, Walker countenanced all sorts of indecency and vice. He was frequently in Europe on vacation. When he was in town, it was rarely at City Hall. The lavish new Casino nightclub in Central Park became his unofficial headquarters, with Ziegfield dancer Betty Compton at his side. (Walker's wife was out of town, frequently.) City business was often discussed with the pop of champagne cork.

Some things got done that first term: the New York hospital system was consolidated on his watch, he purchased thousands of acres for park land (including Great Kills in Staten Island), and grew the municipal bus system -- greatly benefiting more than a few friends who happened to own the bus company given the exclusive franchise.

He managed to turn on his old ally the governor, scrubbing City Hall of any Smith loyalists, granting more jobs to his type of Tammany men, filling their own pockets but allied to the charming man in charge.

How did he stay so popular? This was the late '20s and people wanted the mayor to reflect prosperity and confidence. He also gave back, in symbolic gestures. Even as the new subway system became clogged with corruption, he staved off a strike while keeping the fare at five cents, thought at the time to be an incredible concession.

He easily won election in 1929 against a largely outmatched Fiorello LaGuardia. Tammany was in place and unstoppable; but the voters still chose not to look askance at Walker's dalliances, and even the newspapers were charmed. The New York Times wrote of his "great personal charm, his talent for friendship, his broad sympathies embracing all sorts of conditions of men," then recommended him under the guise that "the Mayor that he has been gives only a hint of the Mayor that he might be."

That hinted-at mayor never materialized, because the Stock Market crash did, plunging the city's fortunes into ruin and exposing the weaknesses of a government consumed with greed. Suddenly, having an extravagant, indecent mayor didn't seem like such a good idea.

Archbishop of New York Cardinal Hayes, once dazzled, now condemned the mayor's amoral ways, opening the flood doors for others to lay the city's problems was Walker's feet. Eventually the accusations reached the ear of governor Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A commission lead by Justice Samuel Seabury exposed deep veins of corruption throughout the city's legal system and police force. Innocent citizens, often women, would be charged with crimes and forced to pay steep fines to get out of jail time. (Many times they couldn't pay, and off they went, dozens at a time.) Neighborhoods, most often Harlem, would be routinely raided and its residents taken in, wild charges conjured for maximum penalty.

This would line the pockets of dozens of judges and vice squad officers. Newspapers dubbed it the Tin Box Parade, "after one testified that he had found $360,000 in his home in a 'tin box...a wonderful tin box'" (Caro).

Walker himself was brought to the stand to testify, the judge warning those in the court room not to look the mayor in the eye, lest they succumb to Walker's sensational charm.

After months of epic battles on the stand -- Walker eluding hot button questions about his personal bank accounts, delaying appearances until after Roosevelt's nomination for president was assured -- the embattled mayor could fight no longer. With Roosevelt mere months from his national election, he needed to be rid of Walker. Walker obliged in the classiest way possible: he resigned on September 1, 1932, and went on a grand tour of Europe with his Ziegfeld girl.

He was never charged with a crime. He was barely even held accountable for anything. Back in New York three years later, he held a series of smaller posts, including one for the New York garment industry that was assigned to him by new mayor LaGuardia, his former rival.

Nothing stuck to him. He died in November 1946 of a brain hemorrhage, just two years after returning to his first love as the head of a big-band record label with a stable of artists that included Louis Prima and Bud Freeman. Ten years later, Hollywood decided to do something very redundant and make a movie of his life, starring Bob Hope as Beau James. It would follow a screenplay only slightly less glamorous than the real thing.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The return of New York's nuttiest island this Saturday

The city reopens Governor's Island this Saturday. Sitting between downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn, Governor's is a five minute ferry ride to a true flashback to New York history. Forts, abandoned military homes, quiet bike paths and wide green fields. It feels like you're strolling through an empty college campus with a magnificent view of the harbor.

But in light of Henry Hudson's anniversary and a statewide celebration of New York's Dutch roots, it's worth remembering Governor's Island's place in the New York's origin story. For the Dutch settled here first -- an entire year before permanently setting foot on Mannahatta.

The original Lenape name Pagganuk was translated into the Dutch as Noten (or Nooten) Eyland -- both meaning Nut Island, for its thick groves of chestnut and hickory trees.

Much has been made of the original 1624 settlement of French Walloons onto the island, as a symbolic birthplace of American tolerance, as the original Dutch patent for the settlement included a provision that "everyone shall remain free in religion and that no one may be persecuted or investigated because of religion."

If you haven't heard it yet, check out our Governor's Island podcast for some more information. The official site features information on walking tours and upcoming entertainment.

Pictured above: Governor's Island in April 1865

Friday, May 22, 2009

Henry Hudson and the European Discovery of Mannahatta

We turn the clock back to the very beginnings of New York history -- to the European discovery of Manahatta and the voyages of Henry Hudson.

Originally looking for a passage to Asia, Hudson fell upon New York harbor and the Lenape inhabitants of lands that would later make up New York City. The river that was eventually named after Hudson may not have provided access to Asia, but it did offer something else (hint: PETA won't be happy) that attracted the Dutch and eventually their very first settlement -- New Amsterdam.

PODCAST 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

The island of Mannahatta in the days before the Dutch (courtesy the Mannahatta Project). Hudson would have anchored off the tip on the western side, his eyes on the river that stretched north.

Lenapehoking: that's what the original inhabitants of the area called the land that comprised the New York City metro area, New Jersey, western Long Island and surrounding areas (map courtesy wikimedia)

The first guy to arrive, Giovanni da Verrazano (or Verrazzano, depending on where you look), was greeted by the Lenape at the mouth of New York harbor. He touched down on today's Staten Island but never ventured further into the harbor.

Hudson's ship the Half Moon -- or rather a replica that was launched for the 1909 Hudson-Fulton Celebration

Henry Hudson, an Englishman who tried twice for his country to find a northern route to Asia before being enlisted by the Dutch East India Company. He never found a passage for them either, but he did find the river that today bares his name.

Hudson's voyage up the Muhheakantuck (the Lenape name for the Hudson River) brought him into contact with several tribes, with encounters growing increasingly unfriendly. By the time he sailed back down the river to Mannahatta, they were flat out attacked by natives in canoes.

On his last voyage, Hudson's crew mutinied, throwing the captain, his son and a few remaining loyal crewmen into a boat and setting it adrift in the Arctic.

With no alternate route to Asia, the map below illustrates the trade routes the Dutch East India Company had to eventually travel to build their empire. (map courtesy Hofstra)

There are lots of events planned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Hudson's discovery. NY400: Holland on the Hudson celebrates New York's Dutch heritage. Hudson 400 focuses on the explorer himself, with a timeline of events. Meanwhile Explore NY 400 lists statewide celebration.

I wrote about some of the more curious events of the Hudson-Fulton Celebration in a prior blog posting.

And for your immediate gratification, check out Amsterdam/New Amsterdam, the well reviewed show at the Museum of the City of New York

Apparently, the replica of the Half Moon was in Poughkeepsie just yesterday!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

At last! Washington Square Park returns

The Washington Square arch, in quieter times

The newly symmetrical, freshly renovated Washington Square Park took down the security fences yesterday, finally allowing people back in to enjoy one of Manhattan's oldest parks.

Gothamist has photographs from the park's grand re-opening yesterday. You might also like to check out our podcast on Washington Square Park -- one of our very first shows! -- which you can download for free in iTunes or listen to right here, then head on over and take a gander at the accompanying photo page.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

New York Fleet Week: 25 years of sailors, everywhere

New York's first Fleet Week was 25 years ago in a city presumably a lot less kind to men and women in all-white uniforms. When they arrive this Wednesday, however, they'll have an extra-special landmark to greet them -- the newly reopened at the Sea, Air & Space Museum on the USS Intrepid.

You might want to stumble into work a little late tomorrow so you can catch the parade of ships in the Hudson River tomorrow at 10:30am. From then until Memorial Day, be on the lookout for wandering clusters of naval men and women all around the city.

(Photo from 1942, by Alfred Eisenstaedt, LIFE images)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Moving day for the United Nations 1951

Fifty-eight years ago today, the headquarters for the United Nations officially move from their temporary offices in Lake Success to the brand new 39-story Secretariat Building in Manhattan facing the East River, just a few months after the building opened in January. The General Assembly that year would be held in Paris, as the permanent assembly hall would not be ready until the following year.

Above, in a photo taken a couple months earlier (March 1951, Andreas Feininger), window cleaners prepare the glittery glass-curtain for the new arrivals.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Jungle Alley and wild nights at Connie's Inn

Connie's during the day, with the Tree of Hope directly in front of it

FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER To get you in the mood for the weekend, every other Friday we'll be 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.

NIGHTCLUB Connie's Inn
In operation: 1923-1933

The strange and sad irony of Harlem nightlife in the 1920s -- during the neighborhood's height of creative powers -- is that the biggest clubs featured the world's top African-American musicians, but only a white audience could go hear them. This ridiculous arrangement, however, did allow many performers a unique forum to launch their careers, for this string of whites-only establishments soon became the hottest spot in Jazz Age New York. A district of these clubs soon took on the moniker Jungle Alley.

Concentrated on 133rd Street between Lenox and Seventh avenues, Jungle Alley was a place for downtown white Manhattanites to dabble in the saucy, 'dangerous' sounds of jazz as performed by some of the most talented people in the world. Elegant, new Pontiac and Franklin sedans lined the street delivering partygoers to the likes of The Cotton Club and Small's Paradise, the two biggest names among virtually dozens of establishments on Jungle Alley. And of course a couple blocks away at 131st and 7th Ave, in a basement near the Lafayette Theatre -- there was Connie's Inn, in no way as plain as its name suggested.

Cotton, Small's and Connie's -- these were the big three of Jungle Alley.

The Connie in question is Conrad Immerman, a German immigrant who, with his brother George, moved to the neighborhood and opened a chain of delicatessens. (According to lore, a delivery boy at one of those delis was none other than a young Fats Waller.) However, with prohibition, it became far more profitable to alter their business plan to include speakeasies. By 1923, the brothers had opened Connie's at one of the most prominent corners in Harlem. Right next to it sat the famous Tree of Hope, a large chestnut who the alleged powers of good fortune for those who rubbed it. (A remnant remains on the stage of the Apollo Theatre.)

It certainly worked for Connie. His establishment soon rivaled the Cotton Club as the hotspot for New York's trendier white crowd.

Why would Immerman exclude blacks? One source suggests this wasn't Connie's natural inclination: "Connie was not a bigoted man. Connie's reason for exclusivity policy is a matter of profit; he assumed his white downtown clientele did not wish to sit, cheek in jowl, with African Americans." Faint justification today. Connie's success spawned a virtual industry of whites-only clubs in the neighborhood. He bolstered the segregation by giving in to it passively. Eventually, though, Connie's would open for black audiences -- after hours, when the downtowners had returned to their homes.

Connie's attracted the best and the worst of the underworld, "a shady clientele of gangsters and molls, rumrunners, and bathtub bootleggers" according to one source. A black newspaper the New York Age says, "Immerman's is opened to Slummers; Sports; "coke" addicts, and high rollers of the White race who come to Harlem to indulge in illicit and illegal recreations."

Slummers and sports alike packed into Connie's 500 seat club, elegantly ornamented, one of the classier looking establishments of Jungle Alley. The stage could fit a couple dozen dancers, a rollicking jazz orchestra and a few prime performers sewn together into a variety of spirited production numbers. Winding across Connie's stage were artists like Moms Mabley, Fletcher Henderson and Louis Armstrong.

One stage show by Fats Waller, eventually titled Hot Chocolate, was successful enough that it transplanted for a successful run on Broadway. Armstrong would recall racing between the Broadway stage -- where he would perform 'Ain't Misbehavin' every night -- and Connie's, where he was a contract performer.

Armstrong was uncomfortable with the mob-controlled world of New York nightlife, and Connie's place was no exception. One night during a performance in Chicago, he was compelled to return to New York to perform for Connie.

According to an Armstrong bio, Louis claims that a gangster Frankie Foster "was sent over to my place to see that I catch the first train out of New York...I said 'New York? Why that's news to me.' Foster said, Oh yes, you're leaving tomorrow morning.' Then he flashed his big ol' pistol and aimed it straight at me. With my eyes big as saucers and frightened too, I said, 'Well, maybe I am going to New York."

Connie's was a haven for mob activity; Connie's brother George was even kidnapped for a time during a 'disagreement'. But then, everybody was acting funny in those desperate final days of Prohibition. By 1933, Connie's had closed its door, not fit for a world of legal entertainment.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Queens 1935: now where did I park my car?

Suburban living in Queens, circa 1935 (photo courtesy LIFE images)

By the way, thanks to all that came out to our New York History Trivia night on Monday. It was a fabulous turnout! A lot of history buffs came out tried out there knowledge on some really tough questions. The Municipal Art Society website has some more information on the results.

I'll be back updating the blog with a regular post on Friday.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Eliminating the Third Avenue Elevated

Looking up the Bowery in 1920 (from LIFE images)

Fifty-four years ago today, Manhattan passengers said goodbye a true vestige of 19th century New York -- the elevated railroad.

The last ride on the Third Avenue El was taken on May 12, 1955. The line stretched up almost the entire length of Manhattan (from Chatham Square, just below Canal Street) all the way up to East 149th Street in the Bronx. 

How did Manhattan look from the vantage point of an elevated train system in the 1950s? Check out this vintage short from 1950, letting the camera roll through a typical ride on the Third Avenue during a sunny day: 

Monday, May 11, 2009

Trivia tonight at the Musical Box 6:30

We're busy preparing the questions for tonight's New York City history trivia fest at the Musical Box. Hope you can make it out to join the fun. You can bring your friends to create a trivia group of up to four people, or just arrive a bit early and form a group with others to increase your chances!

Time 6:30pm – 8:30pm
Just $5 to play, MAS members free.

Located at The Musical Box, 219 Ave. B, New York, NY
just take the L train to First Ave., then walk two blocks east or follow the map below:

View Larger Map

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Boys will be B'hoys: a comic taste of Williams-boig

Great sun! If you love the street lingo of 19th century New York, then you should check out Beertown B’hoys at Zuda Comics, an online comic by Steve Bialik set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, circa 1894. It's a stylized take on New York's criminal element, following the adventures of street kids stealing and killing their way through the rough Brooklyn streets. It's currently in a competition to become an ongoing series, so pad a hoof over there and give it a vote, ya hear?

And just in case all the tawking confuses you, Bialik includes a glossery of terms on his regular website.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Roosevelt Island: New York's former 'city of asylums'

The original Smallpox Hospital, designed by James Renwick, still stands today thanks to diligent restoration. (Click pic for detailed view)

PODCAST 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

Looking north over Roosevelt Island, which cleanly splits the East River. Picture the buildings gone, the bridges wiped away, replaced with fruit trees and a small farm. The island has adopted several names over the years, including Minnahanonck ('It's Nice To Be Here'), Varkens Island (aka Hog's Island), and Manning's Island.

The penitentiary, opening on the now-named Blackwell's Island in 1832, defined the next 100 years on the island -- overcrowded, chaotic, inadequate facilities, grim and corrupted

Another illustration of the prison, this from 1853, showing a rather unusual feature to its side: a garden, which would be kept by inmates to feed themselves

Food fight! Conditions inside the prison -- as in most places on the island -- were guided by mischief and chaos. Harpers Magazine 1860 (courtesy NY Public Library)

The Lunatic Asylum, aka 'the Octagon', became as overcrowded as the island's prisons, often with people who would not have been considered 'crazy' today. Only two wings of the asylum were ever completed. Today, the Octagon is a luxury apartment complex.

Intrepid reporter Nellie Bly exposed the wretched conditions within the asylum when she went undercover there in 1887.

Male and female almshouses, catering to the homeless, the desperately poor and the elderly. Some residents would spend time at the penitentiary or work house, check out, and check back in here. (Images from here)

The Smallpox Hospital came to the island in 1856, a Gothic structure by James Renwick that saw thousands of diseased patients a year.

An illustration from 1868 expresses the dire scene at one of the island's many hospitals. Confining all manner of sick and injured to one island might have been good for the general population, but was often a dangerous proximity for the sufferers, especially during epidemic time.

A dramatic change came in 1909 with the construction of the 'Blackwell's Island Bridge', better known today as the Queensboro or 59th Street Bridge. A trolly stopped at the middle of the bridge, letting passengers off who then took an elevator down to the island. The elevator was dismantled by 1970.

The workhouse, home to prostitutes and drunks, was also a popular place to dump protesters and labor reformers, as evidenced by this group of brave looking women.

As Welfare Island, many of the major institutions would soon leave (to other New York islands) leaving on chronic care hospitals and a whole lot of abandoned property.

The Roosevelt Islamd Tram was an instant hit when it debuted in 1976, inspiring romantics and comic book writers alike.

The haunting lighthouse at night, built by island inmates and still illuminating the East River, though the dangers of ships smashing against the rocks of Hell Gate are long gone.

The Renwick Ruins still stand at the south end of the island, the former smallpox hospital still managing to give people a bit of a chill when seen close up (and preferably at night).

An extraordinary look at the island: in 1903, Thomas Edison made a short film using the island as a backdrop. The views include the lighthouse, the Octagon, the penitentiary and the construction work of what would become the 59th Street Bridge

You can find anything you want to know about Roosevelt Island at two excellent blogs, Roosevelt Islander and Roosevelt Island 360. The Main Street Wire, the RI community newspaper, has a great website with an exhaustive history timeline. And naturally, the always reliable Correction History, for all you prison history buffs, has some great info as well.

Click here for some prior articles we've written on this blog about Roosevelt here, include Charles Dickens' visit to the island and an article about the late godfather of RI, 'Grampa Munster' Al Lewis.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Paging Dr. La Montagne, Manhattan's first physician

Nothing underscores the harshness of early New Amsterdam more than the notion that the Dutch settlement, which first settled at the tip of Manhattan in 1625, didn't actually have a real trained physician for almost twelve years.

Most likely, in these earliest years, medical emergencies were handled by ship surgeons and non-professionals skilled in a set of rudimentary practices. More practiced professionals eventually came, such as the man who can lay claim to be Manhattan's first practicing physician Johannes La Montagne, a Huguenot who arrived in 1637, settling outside the colony in Haarlem.

Johannes soon became "the only doctor in Manhattan in whom the settlers had any confidence," practicing surprisingly sophisticated (for the day) innovations in Dutch medicine. Like the millions of doctors who would follow in his footsteps, Johannes would soon benefit handsomely from his expertise, gaining a vote in the first official voting council of the new colony under director-general William Kieft. Johannes was also the first of many Manhattan physicians who was also versed in the art networking; within a year he became Kieft's right hand man and an extension of of the director-general's wishes, however misguided.

Unfortunately, this devotion to Kieft and the desires of the Dutch West India Company over the needs of the colonists proved to help undermine the new colony, eventually leading to Kieft's ouster and replacement by Peter Stuyvesant. To his credit, La Montague then won over the steadfast Stuyvesant, who kept him on as a member of his council.

Shockingly, before La Montagne, if one needed actual surgery, one went to the barber. According to one old history, "it might be remarked that a that time barbers were commonly looked upon as surgeons. Any skilled barber was likely to be applied to for surgical procedures."

These 'barber-surgeons', adroit in "performing minor operations", mostly worked on ships and were hardly skilled in the modern advances of 17th century medicine. Eventually La Montagne was able to regulate these barber-surgeons himself, issuing permits to those practicing in the colony and even those who sailed out of New Amsterdam ports.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Asylum! The insane foundations of Columbia University

The charming structure above, depicted as though it were a rest stop on the road to Eden, sits on land now occupied by Columbia University in Morningside Heights.  Students driven mad by their studies can find cold comfort knowing that the former occupants of this acreage were also mostly certifiably insane. Welcome to Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, one of the first institutions of its kind in America, opening in 1821.

This Bloomingdale has nothing to do with the creators of Bloomingdale's department store, the sons of Benjamin Bloomingdale.  The lands northwest and well outside city limits of 1820s New York were referred to as simply Bloomingdale, most likely a derivation of an old Dutch word 'Bloemendaal'.  Bloomingdale Road, the path from 23rd street that ran up to Harlem, would later be renamed Broadway.

The Bloomingdale Hospital Centenary, as it was called, sat at 116th Street and Bloomingdale until it moved to White Plains, NY, in 1894.  Employing the latest advances in psychiatric study, the hospital released an announcement in 1821, declaring, "This institution has been established with the express design to carry into effect that system of management of the insane, happily termed moral management..."

The alleged 'morals' of these asylums were called into question by reformers, many years before Nellie Bly would perform her crackerjack investigations at Blackwell's Island's own asylum. In 1872, the hospital reacted to accusations of abuse with the following statement printed in the New York Times:

"In reference to the report of the Visiting Committee of the Bloomingdale Lunatic Asylum, published in the Times some days since, Mr. Townswend, council for Mr. Van Vleck, yesterday stated to a reporter that these charges had often been made against similar institutions, but never before so direct.

The insane, he said, were kicked and choked until blood spurts from the mouth and nostrils -- some being driven to suicide by systematic cruelties.

He commented on the report of the overseers, making out everything to be 'lovely in the Asylum.... "Does anybody suspect that the people employed in such institutions, while still under engagement, would risk their positions by admitting that they had practiced outrages upon the patients, or had been lewd in their actions?"

Apparently, that question was not answered to anybody's satisfaction, as accusations of misconduct dogged the institution.  By the 1880s, as the city grew up around it, landowners complained that the asylum was bringing down property values.  (This was the impetus for putting such 'charity' institutions on New York's islands in the first place.)  Eventually it was decided to move Bloomingdale's outside the city entirely.

Although most of the building was demolished, at least one part were left untouched and remains part of the Columbia University campus -- Buell Hall (also known as the Maison Fran├žaise) sitting next to Low Memorial Library.  The building that houses Maison Fran├žaise was once Bloomingdale's exclusive asylum for wealthy men who could afford to keep themselves from the general population. Essentially, for the insanely rich.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Club 57 and the sweet, sweet smell of St. Mark's Place

Those crazy kids! The revelers of Club 57 (featuring, among others, Keith Haring), circa 1980

FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER To get you in the mood for the weekend, every other Friday we'll be 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.

I try not to editorialize too much about the places I write about, because like people, the beauty of a neighborhood is in the eye of the beholder. But these young whippersnappers today just do not understand how profoundly awesome St. Mark's Place used to be. *waves fist* There's a Pinkberry there now. Kim's Video is gone. Where's the edge?

Yes, yes, things change. And not everyone would agree anyway; in fact, a traditional New York history buff might look upon anything that happened on this East Village street after 1960 as being pure deterioration. Formerly a part of Peter Stuyvesant's farm, the street transformed from luxury mansions to the heart of German immigrant culture at the turn of the 20th Century. You could say St. Mark's suffers from a ghost limb. The street used to officially extend one block west before dignified Cooper Union moved into the neighborhood. It now starts at Third Avenue and barrels through to end at the foot of Tompkins Square Park on Avenue A.

The street was also one of New York's great epicenters for counter-culture, the home to agitators like Emma Goldman and Leon Trotsky, underground jazz clubs and gay bath houses, avant-garde artists and musicians, and finally, by the late 70s, the stomping grounds of punk youth. It's during this period that our subject, Club 57, enters the story.

Nightlife in the late 70s was epitomized by Studio 54 -- high fashion, disco, celebrity and, quite frankly, aristocratic staleness. If disco didn't appeal to you, it might have been the most loathsome place in the universe. As more and more clubs began aping and distorting the Studio 54 formula, what was your average East Village, pink-haired, multiple pierced, non-traditionally beautiful transgendered girl to do?

We've already seen in this column one rebellious strain -- the Paradise Garage, which took the big club aesthetic and transformed it into a temple for music worship. When Club 57 opened up in the basement of the Holy Cross Polish National Church at 57 St. Mark's Place, it had another philosophy: why must celebrities have all the fun?

The strange and the beautiful (Photo by Harvey Wang)

Club 57 was an anti-disco, anti-glitz dingy diamond of the early new wave era, a 'punk do-it-yourself' romper room managed by budding performance artist Ann Magnuson. (She's now an icon of the downtown New York scene. You may remember her from Desperately Seeking Susan.)

According to Ann, she was hired in 1979 by the owner of Irving Plaza whose smaller club here at St. Mark's needed to be spiced up with "'alternative' entertainment" that reflected the clientele of the neighborhood. With some creativity and abandon, Magnuson and her gang of misfits turned the basement into her own "low rent answer to Andy Warhol's Factory," "a center for personal exorcism, devising theme parties (or "enviroteques," as one drug-dealing-conceptual-artist ex-boyfriend liked to call them)," for its outcast, straight, gay, vanguard clientele.

The theme parties would mock serious musical conventions, often requiring silly or even conventional dress done in an ironic fashion -- nights like Putt-Putt Reggae night, 'A Night At the Opry', and Elvis Memorial night (where everybody dressed as their distorted version of the King). One event featured club goers sitting around making model planes; another emulated the thrill of lady wrestling.

These probably weren't like the costume parties you're used to. Kenny Scharf: "There were drugs and promiscuity -- it was one big orgy family. Sometimes I'd look around and say 'Oh my God! I've had sex with everybody in this room!"

One of Club 57's more successful nights was the Monster Movie Club, every Tuesday, showing "the worst monster movie they could find," according to Drew Straub.

The soundtrack for these absurdist weekly carnival shows were stars of the outer reaches of punk, new wave and rap. The club featured performances by St. Marks resident Klaus Nomi, Fab Five Freddy and John Sex. When it did feature more established names, they were along the lines of the Buzzcocks and the Cramps

Below: the band Certain General plays at Club 57, April 1981

The club soon gained a rowdy reputation. According to Magnuson, her Elvis Memorial night was disrupted when "local juvenile delinquents" caught the air conditioner on fire, sending bizarre Elvis lookalikes spilling into the street. Its reputation was spirited enough to keep away to more 'cultured' avant garde of venues like the Mudd Club. Said Magnuson, "The Mudd Club was more into coolness and being hip and shadowy and mysterious, while Club 57 was about being loud and bright and colorful and kooky and silly -- and doing mushrooms."

However one artist who was not detoured was Keith Haring who frequented the club and credits it for inspiring "the beginning of a whole career as the organizer and curator of some really interesting art shows."

Club 57's time was brief; it opened in 1979 and closed four years later. But its influence would spread into many other underground clubs, including the longer lasting Jackie 60. Today's St. Mark's Place could definitely benefit from a little infusion of its wild, retro chaos.

Below: the wonderful Wendy Wild, a fixture of Club 57 (Photo by Ande Whyland)