Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Check-in for "Chelsea On The Rocks" ... finally!

Chelsea On The Rocks, that long-lingering Abel Ferarra documentary about life at the Chelsea Hotel that we mentioned here, is finally getting a theatrical release, making its debut this Friday at -- no surprise -- the Chelsea Clearview Cinema, a couple doors down from the actual hotel. How cool is that?

For the full immersive experience, listen to our podcast on the Chelsea Hotel beforehand and see how it matches up with the film.

Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Yosemite's loss: Olmstead between the parks

Hopefully some of you are watching the Ken Burns multi-hour epic documentary The National Parks: America's Great Idea, a fascinating but rather languid celebration of American preservation of its greatest natural treasures.

I'm assuming that by Wednesday, Burns should get here to New York with discussion of two national monuments (the Statue of Liberty and Castle Clinton) protected through Theodore Roosevelt's Antiquities Act. And later with the 1966 establishment of the National Register of Historic Places, as well as the 1972 formation of the Gateway National Recreational Area, scattered through Queens, Staten Island and New Jersey.

I was pleasantly pleased to hear the name Frederick Law Olmsted dropped during the first episode. Olmsted was a commissioner for the State of California in 1865, assigned to formulate a plan for Yosemite Valley, America's first natural area granted money by the United States government.

From our perspective, Olmsted was between his two great New York masterpieces. The creation of Central Park had begun in 1857, but by 1960, Olmsted's rocky relationship with the city and Tammany Hall got him replaced as superintendent. He fled to Civil War battlefields as secretary of the U.S. Sanitation Commission (prototype of the Red Cross) and eventually made his way to California as the operator of an unsuccessful mining company.

His attempts in Yosemite were not well received. His report to the state of California in 1865 is seen today as a far-sighted explication of the responsibility of government to preserve their natural gifts for the health and well-being of its citizenry. (You can read the entire proposal here.)

California just shrugged. It was their loss, frankly. Faced with this rejection and the failure of his mining practice, Olmsted came back to New York to work once again with his partner Calvert Vaux. A year after Olmsted's Yosemite rejection, work was underway on their second masterpiece -- Prospect Park.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lady Liberté and her little ladies of Paris

From this angle, she looks about the same, but looks can be deceiving (see below).

I promise, we're still doing podcasts! We'll be back on the twice-a-month schedule starting next week. In the meantime, I've actually been away on vacation the past week and a half to another fabulous city and the birthplace of the Statue of Liberty -- Paris. The New York history buff in me naturally led to a trip to find the smaller sister of the Lady Liberty. She actually has two of them.

The best known rendition, the Liberty under Pont de Grenelle in the Seine River, is a lonely creature. She overlooks a famous body of water, like the original; however, she sits at the western end of Île des Cygnes, a quiet island sliver with virtually no foot traffic. A person who lived in a tent under the bridge sat many meters away.

At 37 feet tall, she's four times smaller than the original, a gift of American expatriates given to the city in November 1889 as a thanks for the original. At first she faced the Eiffel Tower, a far more iconic view that the one she enjoys today.

The second Paris Liberty is even smaller -- a bronze model located in Luxembourg Garden that was actually used by Frédéric Bartholdi in his creation of the United States version. She may be the smallest, but technically she's also the oldest, created in 1870.

For details on Bartholdi, the statue, and the absurd struggle to get it funded, listen to one of our early podcast on the subject. Or read all about many of her other knockoffs here.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Rewind: The Evolution of Central Park

ABOVE: 1969 -- Central Park's Sheep Meadow was transformed into 'Moon Meadow', a celebration for people watching the Apollo 11 moon landing.

We don't have any regular podcast this week; however I am reposting the second part our Central Park show called 'The Evolution of Central Park, re-launching it in our secondary feed NYC History: Bowery Boys Archive. Images of some of the things we talk about now pop up on your media player while you listen. So if you've heard this one already, you might want to give it another go.

When last we left the Central Park, it was the embodiment of Olmstead and Vaux's naturalistic Greensward Plan. Then the skyscrapers came. Also, how did all those playgrounds, a swanky nightclub, a theater troupe and all those hippies get here?

PODCAST Download this show it for FREE on iTunes or other podcasting services. Click this link to download it directly from our satellite site. You can also still download the old, non-imaged version here.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Happy birthday F Scott Fitzgerald!

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald with wife Zelda, from 1921

"I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove.” -- Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby

Trace Nick's walk through Manhattan at Walking Off The Big Apple -- from Yale Club "down Madison Avenue past the old Murray Hill Hotel, and over 33rd Street to the Pennsylvania Station"

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On the Waterfront, in photographs

Above: Diane Cook's dreamy "Little Red Lighthouse, Fort Washington Park, Manhattan, 2002"

You can see the picture above and lots of other impossibly good-looking pictures at the Museum of the City of New York's new show The Edge of New York: Waterfront Photographs. The exhibition features an array of images from all eras of New York photography, including photos from my very favorite city photog Berenice Abbott.

And if you're in the museum mode this week, you should also try a new show at the New York Historical Society on controversial Kansan radical John Brown. The show John Brown: The Abolitionist and His Legacy marks the 150th anniversary of Brown's failed raid at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, an event often seen as the opening salvo for the Civil War. It's not New York City specific necessarily, although 19th century abolition activists and intellectuals in the city considered Brown a hero of sorts. And he also owned a farm in Lake Placid, New York; you can still visit the site today and see his gravesite there.

I have not yet seen the NYHS show but expect to this weekend, especially because, as my own personal family lore goes, I am a distant relative of John Brown. Personally, I don't see the resemblance.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Alphabet City gets the Hollywood treatment

But the rent was cheap: ravaged East Village avenues in the 1970s (Pic courtesy here)

Spike Lee and Robert Deniro are making a new show for Showtime called Alphabet City, set in the raggedy 1980s culture of the East Village. Expect some graffiti, a little crime, rapping and breakdancing, and lots of performance artists. Note to Spike and Bob: please resurrect John Sex for this project. Read more about the show here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Lucky Star: Danceteria and the debut of Madonna

And you can dance: Madge performs Borderline at Danceteria Photograph by Charlene Martinez

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.

Scrappy nineteen-year-old Michigan teen Madonna Louise Ciccone arrived in New York the same year as Studio 54 -- 1977.

"It was the first time I'd ever taken a plane, the first time I'd ever gotten a taxi cab. I came here with $35 in my pocket. It was the bravest thing I'd ever done," she says (in a UK Mirror interview) with her usual reserve.

She dabbled in contemporary dance with Alvin Ailey, becames employed in a potentially lucrative career at Dunkin Donuts, filmed a provocative movie, and soon began dabbling in the nightclub circuit with the rock groups Breakfast Club and Emmy. She began making dance records of her own with help from her boyfriend Stephen Bray and by spring 1982 had herself a recording contract with Sire Records.

On her way to superstardom, she performed all over town during the early 1980s -- the Roxy, the Pyramid, the Mudd Club -- but perhaps no club in the city was more influential to her career than Danceteria. Although this staple of 80s New York nightlife moved all over town during its tenure, its most recognized location is the one which saw the birth of Madonna's career -- a four-story building at 30 West 21st Street (now a swank condo!).

"I met her at Danceteria when she was sitting on [a friend's] lap. She was really, really foxy. She was really glamorous," says Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth.

She was also apparently such a fixture of the club that the resident DJ, Mark Kamins, even dated the singer. (That's getting your foot in the door.) Says Kamins: "Madonna was a regular at Danceteria. She had great style and had to be the center of attraction. She always hung out in the booth, one day she gave me a demo to play." That demo, for the song 'Everybody', eventually got her signed to a major label.

Below: Madonna debuts her future hit 'Everybody' on the stage at Danceteria

But Madonna was certainly not the only future music star to use the club to her advantage. Many started as routine employees. LL Cool J was the elevator operator, and members of the Beastie Boys were busboys. (Both LL and the Beasties are pictured below at the club, photo by Dorothy Low) Keith Haring worked at coat check, while both Karen Finley and Sade was briefly employed behind the bar.

Everybody -- everybody hip-- eventually showed up on the dance floor of Danceteria. The after-hours club originally opened in 1980 at West 39th Street, a project of club impressario Rudolf Pieper and promoter Jim Fouratt. "We put it together for $25,000. We rented everything," Pieper said in a New York Magazine interview.

The club, dramatically put, was "a dreamworld of mysterious souls, sidelong glances, and the perfume of ruin." (No, I didn't write that, they did.) Its admission policy was reputedly tight and exclusionary, but not so elitist that a trendy and fashionable nobody couldn't pass muster; only the most fabulous got to experience this stark, winding little club.

However problems with the law -- the neighborhood, after all, the Tenderloin -- forced the club to move. Several times it seems. In 1982, it eventually landed at the 21st Street location, adding John Argento as promoter. Believe it or not, Argento would later spin off Danceteria to another location -- the Hamptons.

You never knew what you were getting on any random night. Russell Simmons hosted talent showcaseson some Wednesdays, while other days might feature more eclectic nights with Philip Glass or Diamandas Galas. Ann Magnuson might be hosting a barbeque, or you might stumble into a 'rubber and leather' party.

With new wave music as its soundtrack, Danceteria seemed to dip its toes in both the East Village art scene and the Studio 54-style celebrity, employing video installations (Kamins claims they were the first to employ videos) and go-go dancers to entertain the throngs of fashionistas, artists and wanna-bes.

Like so many buzzkills, Danceteria lost its lease at 21st Street and eventually closed in 1986. It appears that another Danceteria briefly opened in the 1990s, at 29 East 29th St. (between Madison and Park).

But while we have no more Danceterias -- we hardly have any dancing at all -- the club provided the world (and its most famous material ingenue) with a glamorous film moment: this scene from 'Desperate Seeking Susan'

NOTE: I know I just touched on some of Danceteria's greatest moments and its most fascinating characters. (I didn't even mention Johnny Dynell, Anita Sarko, and Michael Alig!) Please add your memories below and if you have corrections to any information, I'd be grateful. With the type of press that Danceteria received in the early 80s, its difficult to seperate truth from the hyperbole!

You can start your Danceteria education at or flipping through this wonderful selection of flyers.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mayor Aaron Clark: lucky Whig and New York lotto king!

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 Aaron Clark
In office: 1837-1839

Aaron Clark has many claims to fame in New York history, none of them really things that recommend him as a defining leader of our city.

He's the first mayor ever elected representing the anti-Democrat, anti-Andrew Jackson Whig Party -- a political party abolished less than 20 years after Clark's victory. He was known as the 'Dancing Mayor', which was not an accomplishment but a mockery. He called himself the New York's most prestigious lottery operator, which he considered an accomplishment but sounded like a mockery. And finally he was elected amidst one of the worst financial crises in its history-- the Panic of 1837.

Clark, perhaps more honorably, was also the second man to ever be popularly elected as mayor of New York. Previously, the post was selected by the Common Council (city council), district representatives who often chose men beholden to their whims. When the state finally changed mayoral selection to one of popular election in 1834, the result caused violence at the polls and mass pandemonium. Cornelius Lawrence would come out ahead for three consecutive one-year terms.

Lawrence was naturally a candidate of Democratic machine Tammany Hall -- with their influence, who else would be the first mayor? -- but Democrats were facing strong opposition from an ascendent Whig party. In fact, the Whig candidate in 1834, Gulian Verplanck, very nearly won; the animosity between the Democrats and Whigs was so contentious that right before the election, Tammany thugs stormed their opponents headquarters, destroyed everything inside and even killed a man.

During Lawrence's tenure, the Whigs remained strong as the Democrats got weaker. In a situation which certainly has some reflection in current national events, Tammany was split between conservative and liberal factions (an 'Equal Rights' faction, as they called themselves). During a Tammany meeting in 1835, the Equal Righters stormed a Tammany committee meeting loaded with conservative members and threw them out. When the lights were turned out on the party-crashers, they lit Spanish matches or 'loco-focos' and continued. The opposition, which would eventually run the conservatives right out of the party, would forever be known as the Loco-Focos.

BELOW: A rather dramatic illustration from 1837 of the Tammany Hall split. The Loco-Focos, in this case, are the wife. (Edward Williams Clay, The Death of Old Tammany and His Wife)

So what does this have to do with Whig man Aaron Clark? At another period in history, Mr. Clark might never have gotten to experience life in City Hall. But the dissention within the Democrats opened the door for the fleeting Whig party to reign briefly in New York. With that sort of luck, it's no surprise to learn that Clark's primary occupation up to then was as operator of a lottery business.

Privately-run lotteries were, believe it or not, quite common in early American history. As we mentioned in last week's podcast, King's College was founded with a lottery pool. A young P.T. Barnum operated one up in the 1820s. Benjamin Franklin and George Washington both held fund-raising lotteries in their day. Alexander Hamilton opined that "everybody ... will be willing to hazard a trifling sum for the chance of considerable gain."

By the mid 19th century, private lotteries would be associated with more disreputable elements and would be abolished at the end of the century. Clark was thus a successful operator of an industry in the 1830s that would soon be looked upon as scandalous and unseemly.

However, in 1837, it was a highly regulated but legal trade. In Charles Haynes Haswell's classic Reminiscenses of New York by an Octagenarian, Mr. Haswell writes, "As lotteries, under certain regulations as to the drawings, which were had upon the esplanade in front of the City Hall, in the presence of an alderman, were authorized by law, there were many offices in the city, notably one at the southwest corner of Broadway and Park Place kept by Aaron Clark, a much reputed citizen." The Woolworth Building now stands on the spot where Clark's business once stood.

"He was a great lottery seller and made a fortune of it," says one source. A recollection from an 1890s New York Times article shortlists Clark as one of the "best known rich men" at the time.

Clark was born in 1787 in Massachusetts, a veteran of the War of 1812, and spent his early years as a clerk of Albany state assembly. He moved to New York to pursue banking and eventually fell into his lottery endeavors, becoming wealthy and, by extension, highly suitable for early 19th century public office. He soon moved to an alderman's seat, typically a neat launching pad into the mayor's chair.

The Whigs announced him as their candidate in 1837 against the intensely split Democrats. Conservative Tammany ran John J Morgan, while the Loco-Focos put up
the intreguingly named Moses Jacques. His opponents certainly tried to use Clark's occupation against him. Wrote William Leggett : "If we elect Aaron Clark for Mayor who knows but he may get up some 'splendid scheme' and insure 'a grand prize' to everyman who assisted in making him manager of the municipal lottery. Huzza for Clark, Fortune's Favorite!"

However Morgan and Jacques cleaved the opposition in two, and for the first (and only) time in New York history, on April 11, 1837, a Whig became mayor. He then would be re-elected in 1838 when Tammany's conservatives threw their support to him out of spite towards their liberal LocoFoco brethren. (There was apparently a shocking amount of fraud going about that year, which also helped matters.)

BELOW: The City Hall that Aaron Clark would have seen in 1839

Clark was an ardent Native American, meaning he generally despited the boatloads of Irish emptying into New York slums, driving "the native workmen to exile," he said in a meeting to the Common Council. His campaign was openly hostile to 'clannish', 'untrustworthy' Irishmen, and his tenure as mayor only stirred up xenophobic sentiments. He advocated for keeping new immigrants on ships, directing them away from city and charging them 'commutation fees' of $10.

Clark aimed his racial paranoia to the lower classes at large, fearing that the charity organizations already in place were turning the city "into a rendez-voux of beggars, paupers, vagrants and mischievous persons." [Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, p. 623)

One general benefit of this alarming hysteria was an improvement to the system of nightwatchmen and security patrols throughout the city, a "military arm" to assuage rioting and general chaos. Clark was no pansy; he would frequently lead these local militias through the city himself, breaking up rabblerousing groups.

Unfortunately, his charms were limited. He chose to woo New York's elite in a series of parties through from his home on Broadway and Leonard. Now, this had been a winning recipe for mayors like the honorable Philip Hone (whom I call 'the party mayor'); Hone practically governed from an armchair.

Clark, however, was roundly ridiculed for attempting such grand 'entertainments'. In fact, in an early form of political snark, Clark was ironically called 'the Dancing Mayor', not for his graces assumably or even the class of his "splendid patent leather pumps" but for his pretensions of trying too hard.

On his watch, the Croton aqueduct continued apace although its workers went on strike not once but twice in 1838 for better wages.

Two years of a Whig in office -- with the tide of immigrants hardly abating -- was quite enough. In the election of 1839, Tammany put up Isaac Varian, who had been defeated the year previous by his political machine's fractious split. Despite the usual cries of fraud, in this round Varian was the victor. Clark's luck, if that's ever what it was, had run out.

Clark left public life afterwards, dabbling in real estate and insurance enterprises, but most notably becoming a supporter of the upstate Hamilton College. Since 1855, the school has presented an oratory prize bearing his name. During its first year, the honor had eight competitors. "It is expected that the exercises will be unusually interesting and attractive," claimed one article.

When Clark died in 1861, he was bured right here in the city, at the old New York Marble Cemetary (Vault #89). The upcoming Open House New York in October will undoubtedly open the gates of this rustic burial yard for visitors, so I recommend bringing a lottery ticket to his headstone.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

New York Election Day traditions no longer celebrated

Today is primary election day in New York! Locals, have you voted yet? Current mayor Michael Bloomberg is not on the ballot yet -- he'll be on the November ballot -- but primary races for City Comptroller, Public Advocate, some city council seats, and the Democratic candidate for mayor are included on today's ballot

In the past, New Yorkers have celebrated election days with some behaviors and traditions that are no longer with us:

1) Lights and drama at the Flatiron Building
I'm unsure of the date of this postcard, however it's from a time when the Flatiron was one of the city's tallest buildings. Today we have the Empire State Building to help us celebrate in lights -- but the apparent tradition of a swirling spotlight has alas not been replicated.

2) Torchlight Parades
This image, of one such procession, gathered supporters of George McClellen who tried to wrest the presidency from Abraham Lincoln in 1864. I'll bet the swillholes of the Bowery were hoppin' that night.

3) Bonfire celebrations on Canal Street
In this illustration from Frank Leslie's magazine, election victory in the 1870s often spawned open fires in the street. Today, candidates are more likely to have a few drinks at the W Hotel than light open blazes on a busy thoroughfare. (Pic courtesy NYPL)

4) Wholesale violence
Repeat voting, destruction to polling places and destruction of unfavorable ballots were common practices during more contested elections of the 19th century. The Bowery Boys and other gangs were recruited to create disruption for political parties and create a hostile environment for potential voters. The image below, from the Illustrated London news, lays out the scene during the Lincoln/McClellan faceoff in 1864.

Today, the most hostility you might face are from children fighting past voters to get to their classrooms. (Pic courtesy NYPL)

5) Aligning mayoral candidates with World War I emperors
This cartoon from the New York Times implies that Kaiser Wilhelm II seemingly supports Democrat John F. Hylan and the Socialist candidate Morris Hillquist. Shudder if that were the case; Hylan ended up winning that election and held the job of mayor for eight years.

Of course, over-dramatic political cartoons and tying leaders to totalitarian regimes is still rather run of the mill in today's politics. (Pic courtesy Wikimedia)

Monday, September 14, 2009

History in the Making: Jim Carroll Edition

New York 1981: Jim Carroll (middle right) with punk stars Dave Treganna, Dave Parsons, and Stiv Bators of The Wanderers. (Picture courtesy punk turns 30)

Writer, punk poet, musician and New York fixture Jim Carroll passed away on Friday. Relive his career via words and pictures on fansite by Cassie Carter, including an exhaustive list of his past tour dates. [Catholicboy]

New Amsterdam returned to New York -- in miniature. Did you see it? "“If you talk to New Yorkers, they don’t know what’s happening." [New York Times]

You might have seen these on the East River over the weekend -- a fleet of flat-bottomed Dutch vessels in Red Hook! [Lost City]

The San Gennaro Festival returned to Little Italy this weekend. Food, fun and absolute chaos as always! [History of New York]

Today in history -- September 14, 1836: Disgraced Vice President Aaron Burr dies in Port Richmond, Staten Island. "The wonderful tenacity with which the name of Aaron Burr holds fast to the memories of the American people who know anything of the Colonial times and the Revolutionary war is the most astonishing fact in the history of a man of questionable habits, whose old age was embittered by the ever-present recollection of one great crime, committed in the zenith of his fame" [1895 recollection of NYTimes archive)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Movin' on up: from King's College to Columbia University

We're going back to school with one of New York's oldest continually operating institutions -- Columbia University. Or should we say, King's College, the pre-Revolution New York school that spawned religious controversy and a few Founding Fathers to boot. Listen in as we chart its locations throughout the city -- from the vicinity of Trinity Church to midtown Manhattan. And finally to its permanent home on the 'Academic Acropolis' in Morningside Heights.

PODCAST Download this show it for FREE on iTunes or other podcasting services. Click this link to download it directly from our satellite site. Or click below to listen here:

The Bowery Boys #90: Columbia University


As always, click on pictures for a bigger view

Freshman Years: The King's College campus in 1770, along Park Place overlooking the Hudson River. Things would not be peaceful for long on this quiet campus; several students, including young Alexander Hamilton, would join the fight for independence from England. The school would close in 1776 and become a military hospital.


Believe it or not, this is the corner of 49th Street and Madison Avenue, site of Columbia's campus during most of the second half of the 19th Century. It moved into a space formerly inhabited by the Institute of the Deaf and Dumb. Curiously, when it would move uptown in 1897, it would take over property held by the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum.

The same campus, in a photograph from 1882. The encroaching growth of the city northward seems to have taken a toll on the campus grounds. Columbia would move from midtown fifteen years later.


Frederick Augustus Porter Barnard, president of Columbia (back when it was Columbia College) from 1864-1889. In addition to bringing some prestige to the institution, his forward-thinkinig philosophies regarding education for both men and women eventually led to the formation of Barnard College.


Good Morning: The new campus slowly rises from Morningside Heights with the already completed Low Memorial Library in the background. When this photo was taken in 1897, there was little real development in the area, and it was barely even serviced by public transportation. McKim, Mead and White would turn the area into a veritable classical city.


The Low Down: The Low Memorial Library was constructed under the tenure of Columbia president Seth Low. However the building is named not for Seth, but his father Abiel Abbot Low, a successful Brooklyn silk merchant. The library is probably one of McKim, Mead and White's most beautiful existant works in the city. It's not, however, a library any more.

Nicholas Murray Butler, arguably the most influential (and controversial) president in Columbia's history, presided from 1901 to 1945, overseeing vast growth and prestige for the school.

Pictures courtesy Library of Congress, New York Public Library, Wikimedia and Columbia University

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Bobby Riggs and the early days of the U.S. Open

ABOVE: Tennis' great star of the 1940s Bobby Riggs takes a spill at the American National Tennis Championships -- later to be called the U.S. Open -- at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens. Believe it or not, the tournament was played at this Queens country club from 1915-1920 and 1925-1978. It was then tranferred to the Singer Bowl, the old Flushing Meadows music venue permanently transformed into Louis Armstrong Stadium, now part of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. (Picture above courtesy LIFE images)

You can still relive the early years of tennis at this historic club -- that is, if you're a member.

Pictured below, sometime between 1910 and 1915 (Pic courtesy LOC)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Hands across New York

I snapped this picture of the giant hand of Madame Tussaud on 42nd Street this weekend, a golden appendage which ominously dangles above her popular wax museum.

The massive amputation of a French woman reminded me of a similar disembodiment that occurred over 130 years ago. In 1876, in an effort to raise funds for its transport and display, the Statue of Liberty was displayed in Madison Square Park. Or rather, just her hand and right forearm with torch. The phantom appendage stood watch over the west side of the park for nearly six years.

And of course, this famous image of gaslight Madison Square, with Liberty's arm to the right:

Friday, September 4, 2009

Labor Day vs May Day: or why New Yorkers love a parade

A banner celebration: loading up with signs for the 1908 Labor Day Parade in New York

Labor Day is one of the few national holidays that New York City can lay claim to as their own. The roots of the U.S. holiday began here, with Union Square as its centerpiece, in 1882.

But in fact, New Yorkers borrowed the idea of Labor Day from Canada. Young Peter McGuire, educated at Cooper Union where he met labor activists like Samuel Gompers, was already making a name for himself as an advocate for workers rights as early at 1873, leading sit-ins at City Hall and heading a rally at Tompkins Square Park that was promptly broken up by police.

Workers in Canada were already marching annually by the 1870s. McGuire was invited to speak at one of these events in 1882 and decided to organize a similar event in New York. It's doubtful that his was the only voice in organizing such a massive spectacle; Matthew Maguire, from Patterson, NJ, and secretary of the New York Central Labor Union, is also said to have proposed the date. Given their deep involvement with the CLU, it's safe to consider both men (with such similar names!) as originator of the soon-to-be federal holiday.

That September 5 (a Tuesday, incidentally) anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 participants marched from City Hall to Union Square and eventually on to 42nd Street. Matthew Maguire led the parade in a carraige he share with none other than Henry Ward Beecher. After the parade, the celebration continued with a massive picnic at Wendel's Elm Park (at 92nd Street and 9th Avenue).

Below: Two of the earliest photos ever taken of a Labor Day celebration, this one from Union Square stands of a 1887 celebration, five years after the first. (Photo courtesy NYPL)

The celebration spread to other cities over the coming years, and by 1894, it was declared a national holiday.

However Labor Day isn't the only day that workers and labor organizations have rallied and protested in New York. In fact, I would hardly even say it's the primary day of protest. That would of course by May Day which is still recognized internationally as a day of protest. Unlike Labor Day, May Day actually originated in the United States. In the late 19th and early 20th century, New York workers frequently organized May Day parades, demanding more reasonable working hours, better wages and safer working conditions. The first of these parades debuted across the country in 1886.

Today in New York, the area around Union Square often sees general protests on the first of May, but Labor Day has virtually lost its meaning. In fact, it's better recognized today as the day of the festive West Indian-American Day Parade.

Below: The first is taken from a May Day celebration in 1909, over a hundred years ago. The second picture is taken from the Labor Day parade that very same year

For more information, check out our podcast on the history of Union Square.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Postcard from the Past: New York, September 1959

TEXT: "Sept 16th and 17th 1959
'Ice Capades'
Plymouth Hotel Fire at 4:30 AM
Merman in 'Gypsy'"

The Hotel Chesterfield (130-136 West 49th Street), built in 1927, was a luxury accommodation conveniently near Rockefeller Center and various Broadway theaters.

The Ice Capades referred to in this card are the well-reviewed Ice Capades program launched at Madison Square Garden. The Capades were a colossally cheesy ice extravaganza featuring music and elaborate production numbers staged upon a skating rink. The Capades played the Garden for decades, eventually dying out by the early 1990s.

The fire at the building across the street, the 18-floor Hotel Plymouth (137-143 West 49th Street), probably wasn't severe. It was built in 1929 and often hosted stars from nearby Radio City Music Hall. Neither the Plymouth nor the Chesterfield are still standing today -- demolished, in fact, to make way for a couple severe, International Style structures owned by Rockefeller Center.

At least this visitor got to see something truly historic, at least in the annals of Broadway history -- Ethel Merman in her classic performance in 'Gypsy.

This postcard and many others can be found at the Old York Library

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What a view! Library roof gardens in the Lower East Side

Click picture for greater detail

Above is a picture, facing east, of Seward Park Library in the 'lower' Lower East Side at 192 E. Broadway (picture taken in 1911). This spectacular branch library, funded by Andrew Carnegie, opened in November 1909, two years before the 42nd Street main branch opened.  All of the housing behind the library to the east has since been demolished.

The nearby park in the foreground is still there, but the small extension of Jefferson Street which separate them has been turned into a paved, closed off pedestrian plaza. The streets seen in the left of the photograph are completely gone.

The library was built by the firm Babb, Cook and Welch, whose accomplishments from the Gilded Age are seldomly still found today. But, in fact, one of the firm's lead architects William Cook was part of a committee which included Charles McKim (of McKim, Mead and White) and John Carerre (of Carerre and Hastings, who ultimately designed the famous 42nd Street branch) to standardize library designs in the city. Those two better known firms got most of the commissions; however the Seward Park library remains one of Babb, Cook and Welch's best known remaining public works.

During the library's first years, readers were actually allowed onto a "roof garden." According to a New York Times article from 1910, "There will be awnings over the top to shield from sun and the occasional shower; tables around which the readers can congregate, and a network of electric bulbs strung over the top so that there will be plenty of light for the industrious who wish to study."

Below: children and adults alike on Seward Park's roof garden

Adults were even allowed onto the roof late into the evening, including "mothers who wish to do their sewing out of doors."

Although this grand structure was placed here in 1909, it was certainly not the neighborhood's first library. Once the domain of the private sector, libraries were provided by philanthropic organizations such as the Aguilar Free Library Society, which began offering a reading room for New Yorkers at this very address starting in 1891.

Aguilar's East Broadway library, "where the readers are nearly all Hebrew," featured over 140,000 thousands books, the most popular being 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' and 'Around The World In 80 Days". This library was sold in 1902 and remade as the building which stands there today.

The Seward Park Library has gone through two major renovations, the most recent in 2004, bringing back most of the building's original lustre. As evidenced by this photo, little around it remains from its original condition.

Of course, children have changed as well. Outside of a reading by Stephenie Meyer, can you imagine this mob scene at a library today? (Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine)

Pictures courtesy NYPL

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

New York City "in decay" on primetime TV

I just caught up on all my Mad Men episodes last night and feel foolish that I never mentioned the episode from a couple Sundays ago entitled 'Love Among The Ruins.' The AMC TV show, set in the early 1960s Madison Avenue ad agency Sterling Cooper, frequently offers us peeks into classic New York landmarks and history.

'Love Among The Ruins' presented a doozy, as Sterling Cooper attempted to woo the Madison Square Garden development firm who was in the process of tearing down old Pennsylvania Station. Upon reading Ada Louise Huxtable's criticism of said destruction plans, from her New York Times column "How To Kill A City," one of the stern faced developers remarks, "People know she's an angry woman with a big mouth."

One of Sterling Cooper's own ad men fails to hide his disgust at the plan -- "I don't think it's crazy to be attached to a Beaux Arts masterpiece through which Teddy Roosevelt came and went" -- so it's Don Draper to save the day.

"New York City is in decay. But Madison Square Garden -- it's the beginning of a new city on a hill." Don sees the Garden job as a way into the World's Fair of 1964, a potential boon to a successful ad agency. Hopefully future episodes of the show will take a stab at depicting this Robert Moses pet project.

Mad Men isn't the only current TV show dealing with New York history. Believe it or not, the kitsch SyFy Channel show Warehouse 13 has used city relics for plot devices. In one prior episode, an ancient Lenape Indian talisman is discovered in a construction dig in the Lower East Side. They even indicate that it's located at Corlear's Hook, although it looks more like Vancouver.

And on last week's show, we found out that the Studio 54 mirrorball actually possesses persuasive supernatural powers. I wonder what powers the man on the moon and his coke spoon have?

You can find a recap for that particular Mad Men episode here and keep your eye out for reruns of the episodes mentioned above.