Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Bowery Boys 2009: A Year of Podcasts In Review

Here's the whole menu of our 2009 podcasts. As always, you can download them all for free from iTunes and or your favorite podcast aggregator. The original blog page for each is listed below, along with a link to download directly from our satellite site.


Blog page: Webster Hall, more than a dance hall
Download here


Blog page: Ziegfeld, the maker of dreams
Download page


Blog page: Williamsburg(h), Brooklyn -- upstart city, sugar king
Download here


Blog page: Woolworth Building and the birth of the New York skyscraper
Download here


Blog page: Freedomland U.S.A., Bronx forgotten icon
Download here


Blog page: The Great Fire of 1835, downtown disaster!
Download here


Blog page: The Whyos, Gang of New York
Download here


Blog page: Pennsylvania Station -- Manhattan's Missing Treasure
Download here


Blog page: The Puck Building "What Fools These Mortals Be"
Download here


Blog page: Roosevelt Island, New York's former 'city of asylums'
Download here


Blog page: Henry Hudson and the European Discovery of Mannahatta
Download here


Blog page: Prospect Park and the return of Olmsted and Vaux
Download here


Blog page: Shakespeare In The Park, the drama behind the drama
Download here


Blog page: William 'Boss' Tweed and the bitter days of Tammany Hall
Download here


Blog page: Kings of New York Pizza: Lombardi, Totonno, Patsy, Ray?
Download here


Blog page: Ellis Island, when the world came to New York City
Download here


Blog page: Chelsea Hotel, the muse of New York counterculture
Download here


Blog page: Movin' On Up: From Kings College to Columbia University
Download here


Blog page: Haunted Tales of New York: Urban Phantoms
Download here


Blog page: Steinway and Sons: piano men and kings of Queens
Download here


Blog page: Epicenter: the glorious history of New York City Hall
Download here


Blog page: Corlears Hook and the Pirate Gangs of the East River
Download here


Blog page: Tin Pan Alley and the birth of modern popular music
Download here


Blog page: Going medieval at the Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park
Download here

Doing this podcast is such a wonderful experience and Tom and I are totally thrilled to share our joy of New York City with you. Thank you for tolerating our continued geekiness and wonder of this awesome city. We'd like to wish you all a wonderful 2010 and we look forward to presenting more shows in the coming year. Thanks for listening!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

From New Amsterdam to Alicia Keys: NYC history in 2009

(Photo courtesy of Only In Holland)

In 2009, New York went Dutch. One hundred years ago, the city threw an elaborate party, the self-important, historically aware (often inaccurate) and undeniably prideful Hudson-Fulton Celebration, honoring the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson sailing into New York harbor and Robert Fulton's invention of the steamship. Although we didn't go all out for the 400th anniversary of Hudson's discovery this year -- we've advanced from the days of cheesy historical floats -- the occasion brought the early days of New York City history yearlong recognition.

Replicas of Henry Hudson's Half Moon sailed the Hudson. New York tipped its hat to its precursor New Amderdam with NY400, a celebration that had Dutch royalty visiting a replica of an old New Amsterdam village and unveiling a permanent plaza called New Amsterdam Plein.

Museums jumped aboard with Hudson and the royals, with exhibits ranging from maps of the island's original shoreline to the display of Manhattan's official 'birth certificate'. The Museum of the City of New York's Amsterdam/New Amsterdam: The Worlds of Henry Hudson was probably the best primer for the occasion.

Of course, it wasn't just Dutchophiles in an anniversary state of mind this year. A few New York bridges (like the Manhattan and the Queensboro) coincidentally hit significant anniversaries; the Grand Concourse turned 100 years old with a celebration at the Bronx Museum and a new book.

Some ventured even further back. Eric Sanderson unveiled the Mannahatta Project, easily the most exciting project for New York history lovers, taking a hearty stab at remapping the original ecology of Manhattan island, block by block. The website is hours of geeky enjoyment. I don't really have any particular award to give, but if I did, Sanderson would be New York City history's Man of the Year.

The event of the year, to me personally, was the June opening of the High Line, a raised park made from a re-purposed stretch of abandoned elevated train tracks. Those tracks have always held a great deal of mystery for me, so I was sure I was going to cringe at the results. The Meatpacking District had already been turned into luxury retailers; what horrors awaited these strange, unique structures along the west side? But the end result respects its initial allure while creating a quiet, pedestrian friendly destination. You can balk at some of the design choices, but the project as a whole is a beautiful addition to life in the city.

Some New York advertising icons returned (the Long Island City Pepsi Cola sign), others disappeared forever (the pre-9/11 DKNY ad on Houston). A few treasures thought lost rose from the silt, like the old bell from Dreamland park in Coney Island. My favorite archaeological city find has to be that spooky tombstone found in Washington Square, the marker of one James Jackson who died in 1799. Almost 50 years after Jackson's death, someone would take one of the first photographs of New York -- an early daguerreotype of the Upper West Side (see below) -- which would then sell at auction at Sotheby's in 2009 for $62,500.

A few buildings officially became New York landmarks this year, including the La Mama Experimental Theatre Club building in the East Village and The Paramount Hotel in Midtown, and the neighborhoods of Prospect Heights and Perry Avenue became official historical districts.

Politicians made history, most of it questionable. As New York state politicians from the city prove they're every bit as ludicrous as their 19th century Tammany Hall forebears, Michael Bloomberg capitalized on the change to term limits and was re-elected as mayor. At the completion of his third term, he will be one of New York's longest serving mayors and the city's fourth third term mayor in the past 100 years (LaGuardia, Lindsay and Koch also share this distinction.)

The musical which created The Public Theater, Hair, successfully turned a 2008 stint in Central Park into a viable Broadway smash and the Tony for Best Musical Revival. Both the Yankees and the Mets left their past behind with new stadiums this year; only the Yankees christened their new field with a World Series victory, paralleling the team who first moved into the original Yankee stadium.

British epic novelist Edward Rutherfurd released his much-anticipated fictional tribute to city history, New York: The Novel, which I am at this very moment making my way through. But if I had to name a New York book of the year, two very good histories (Sanderson's companion to his Mannahatta project and Anthony Flint's zesty document of the Robert Moses/Jane Jacobs battle, Wrestling With Moses) would have to be runner-up to the National Book Award winning biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles, a book so wonderfully written, I completely forgot it weighed about a dozen pounds.

They're made men: Swell cocktails at the Hotel Pierre

Depictions of New York history didn't fare so well in movies this year. A fictional 80s New York was obliterated in the Watchmen movie (although not as satisfying as it was in the original graphic novel.) Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum was shot to pieces in The International, and a true New York film classic, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, was itself mutilated with a mediocre remake. It might be worth watching the awful Night At the Museum sequel just to see the three-minute sequence that takes place in a black-and-white 1940s Times Square. On second thought, wait for it to pop up on cable next year.

For a more satisfying look at New York history in pop culture, you had to turn once again to Mad Men, the third season of which saw Don Draper's job and marriage disintegrate, but not tragically so, in either case. As a result, it's not surprising that the hints of the past fed to alert viewers were of midtown's most glamorous hotels, most notably the Hotel Pierre, temporary home to the new Sterling Cooper.

And how great is it that the year ends with one of the most popular songs in the nation being an ode to New York nostalgia? If this blog had a theme song, it would have to be Alicia Keys' version of her hit with Jay-Z, "Empire State of Mind":

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Jacob Riis' Not-so-Rockin' 'Sane' New Years Celebration

Social reformer Jacob Riis is one of the most important men to New York City history, exposing the ghastly living conditions of city tenements and using his connections to enact change that affected thousands of New York's poorest residents. In spreading the word, he wrote a social history masterpiece 'How The Other Half Lives' and innovated multi-media techniques to inform and titillate crowds. But not all of his ideas were inspired.

At the end of his life, Riis railed against corrupting influences like alcohol and their effects on poor communities. So imagine his disgust when the New York Times began sponsoring wild New Years Eve parties outside its new headquarters on 42nd Street. Inaugurated by a lavish firework display during the first seconds of 1905, the Times Square celebration eventually incorporated its famous balldrop in 1907. (Hear all about it in our One Times Square podcast.)

As today, the outdoor celebration encourages revelry, drunkenness and chaos, things Riis did not believe benefited the city. To this extent, and with the help of former president (and good friend) Theodore Roosevelt, Riis proposed a 'safe and sane New Years Eve'. According to Riis, the good men of the city "have observed the licentious and riotous conduct of New Years crowds, with their tin horns, ticklers and bags of confetti. Anyone who has seen the crowds of rowdies on Broadway breaking hats and insulting women knows that a saner manner of celebration is desirable."

The new celebration will feature organized singing at various city plazas throughout the city, including City Hall, Union and Madison squares, with Salvation Army singers, organized bands and bandstands, leading 'civilized' public outcries of celebration via "the singing of patriotic songs and New Years ballads," per Riis.

It would be an uphill battle that evening of December 31, as the somber chorale of hymns and polite exaltation of the downtown rallies would be entirely drowned out by the throngs of cheers and music drifting from downtown. "SANE FESTIVAL SUBMERGED," shouts a New York Times headline from the next day. "The choral hosts greeted the new year with song last night, but the songs were not heard for the very good reason that in each instance there were just enough horns, rattles and other noise-making apparatuses in the hands of the din-making contingent to render even the 'Star Spangled Banner' and 'America' unrecognizable."

Such mass city-organized, end-of-year civility would never seriously be attempted again. And Riis would only live to see one more New Years Eve, dying on May 26, 1914.

Top picture above: Time Square during the day, taken between 1903 and 1910. Courtesy LOC. Second picture, from the 1930s, courtesy Times Square NYC

Monday, December 28, 2009

Further French imports from the Cloisters

In addition to the Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa and the Spanish apse from San Martin mentioned in the podcast, the Cloisters museum is also made up of parts of cloisters from Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Bonnefont-en-Comminges, Trie-en-Bigorre, and Froville -- names I dared not attempt to pronounce on the podcast!

The cloister of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert is featured in the picture which leads the post below this one. And here is a picture of the cloister from Bonnefont-en-Comminges, my favorite one actually, nearest the cafe (photo courtesy here):

Visit their official website to see a floor plan and detailed information about their collection.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Going medieval at the Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park

PODCAST The Cloisters, home of the Metropolitan Museum's repository for medieval treasures, was a labor of love for many lovers of great European art. In this podcast, I highlight three of the most important men in its history -- a passionate sculptor, a generous multimillionaire and a jet-setting curator. Equally as fascinating is the upper Manhattan park that houses the museum, Fort Tryon Park, a site of a Revolutionary War fort of the same name and the exploits of the war's most heroic women.

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: The Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park

Fort Tryon circa 1858, after the war, before the millionaire mansions. (Courtesy NYPL)

The lavish home of Cornelius Kingsley Garrison Billings, one of many spectacular homes bought up by Rockefeller to contruct Fort Tryon Park.

Check out our Facebook page for additional photographs of the Cloisters

Monday, December 21, 2009

Buster Brown and a phalanx of Bloomingdale Santas

Happy holidays! The good news is there will actually be a new podcast posted this week, by the evening of Christmas eve or Christmas morning, depending on the reliability of my available internet. The bad news is, this blog will probably not be updated for the next couple days due to some holiday travel. I'll try and sneak in one article I'm working on.

The wacky illustration below is by Richard Felton Outcault, creator of Buster Brown (who stands to one side with dog Tige), date unknown but most likely rendered in the early 1900s. Outcault created the Buster Brown comic strip for the New York Herald in 1902, after a prior creation, The Yellow Kid, lend his name to the phrase 'yellow journalism'. (Courtesy NYPL)

Click for larger view

History in the making - Last Minute Shopping edition

A rush of foot traffic at Macy's Department Store the week before Christmas, 1942 (photo by Marjory Collins, courtesy LOC)

Upstairs Witih Alice: What's it like living upstairs to history? Ask Paul Moakley, curator at the Alice Austen House in Staten Island. [New York Times]

I Feel Like Chicken Tonight: The heartwarming story of a Brooklyn boy in 1851 and his three naked chickens. [Virtual Dime Museum]

Deutsch Treat: I have asked this question many times myself: Who goes to Rolf's, the extravagantly decorated German restuarant near Gramercy Park [Lost City]

Ashes to Ashes: A close look at the Iron Triangle in Queens and its connection to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and the 'valley of ashes'. [Architakes]

Hanging Out: Fairyland Kiddie Park, Krasner's Pharmacy and other classic old signs throughout the city, barely hanging on. [Forgotten New York]

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Podcast Rewind: Keeping in tune at Carnegie Hall

1960, Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt

Since we're in the musical spirit around here, I just put up a new 'illustrated' version of our August '08 Carnegie Hall podcast in our archive feed. You can get it by clicking the iTunes link below or going directly to our feed page. Our archive shows are enhanced with photographs and illustrations that pop up on your listening device.

The Bowery Boys - NYC History: Bowery Boys Archive - NYC History: Bowery Boys Archive

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Well, we can at least show you the way through its tumultuous history, from a fortunate meeting on a Norwegian cruise ship, passed a symphonic rivalry, and into the 20th Century with some of the biggest names in classical and popular music. Includes a brief history of the New York Philharmonic.

Listen to the regular audio version here:

#54: The Bowery Boys: Carnegie Hall

A Very Special New Amsterdam Christmas

Was there a Dutch Dick Clark? New Amsterdam residents celebrate New Years in an illustration from 1879 (courtesy NYPL).

HOW NEW YORK SAVED CHRISTMAS Throughout the month I'll spotlight several events in New York history that actually helped establish the standard Christmas traditions many Americans celebrate today. Not just New York-centric events like the Rockefeller Christmas Tree or the Rockettes, but actual components of the holiday festivities that are practiced in people's homes today.

As a national American holiday, there have developed many ways to celebrate Christmas. It's a reflection of one's tradition and faith (or lack of). It's intensely religious for some, not at all for others. It is ever evolving to fit the population's needs. However, if none of the present ideas work, then there is the Puritan way: don't celebrate it at all.

There was such opposition to the holiday within the first communities of the New World that it was outright banned among the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Puritan leaders, ironically enough, took this abolition directly from the Bible; there was no celebration authorized in the book, and since it was doubtful Jesus was actually born on December 25, they considered the day a sinner's excuse for debauchery. As Puritans were by nature a homogeneous community, differing traditions were frowned upon, although modest observance was occasionally allowed. Generally speaking, December blew through the early English colonies with nary a festivity.

So where did the ingredients of modern Christmas first wash up onto the shores of North America? All signs point to New Amsterdam.

The New Netherland colony of the 17th century was not ruled by such strict restriction of belief. New Amsterdam, New York's precursor, was a company town. While laws suppressing the celebration of Christmas were on the books until 1681 up in Massachusetts and other places, down in New Amsterdam, rudimentary holiday traditions were openly, even casually, celebrated.

The settlers of Dutch New Netherland could theoretically celebrate how they wished. There were certainly observations of Christ's birth -- called Kerstydt -- but, it was often overshadowed by a more popular December holiday: Sinterklaas, a Dutch gift-giving tradition where children sat their shoes outside their homes to be filled by a visiting St. Nicolas on December 6th. (Often, perhaps due to inclement weather, it made sense to have the shoes remain inside, and perhaps better still, to hang stockings near the fireplace.)

Pic courtesy here

New Amsterdam's population in 1624 was only 270 people, with few if any children. Over the next 40 years, however, dozens of families populated the outpost, passing down family customs and linking their distant home with the mainland. With Dutch outnumbering the others, their traditions became the most prevalent. Combine that prevalence (with its extra-exciting gift-getting component) with the envy of the other non-Dutch children, and suddenly Sinterklaas becomes a highly anticipated holiday among the entire population of New Amsterdam. This, despite Peter Stuyvesant's disgust at any holiday which promoted moral laxity (also known in some circles as fun).

Or as Russell Shorto describes it: "[A]mong the English, the French, the German, the Swedish families of Manhattan, pressure was brought to bear on parents, and the Dutch tradition was adopted and, later, pushed forward a couple of weeks to align with the more generally observed festival of Christmas."

And New Amsterdamers didn't stop of Christmas; the party kept going for weeks afterwards, throwing Manhattan's very first New Year's parties.

According to one source, "On Nieuw Jaar (New Year) and Kerstydt (Christmas) the Governor's house was ablaze with candles and the young men and maidens danced in the 'entry'."

Official business for closed for weeks after, and "the burghers and their familes spent much of their time in firing guns, beating drums, dancing, card-playing, playing at bowls or nine-pins and in drinking beer." No wonder Peter Stuyvesant hated holidays!

Over time, Christmas and Sinterklaas -- one an observance of Jesus' birth, the other honoring one of his most popular saints -- would melt into each other. Even when the Dutch were kicked out of Manhattan in 1664, Sinterklaas was still celebrated in the region, further infused with English Christmas customs. However, even as the British were expelled from Manhattan, American holiday traditions were still localized, often tied to one's specific ethnicity and hardly unified. It would take New York city leaders in the 19th century and the work of New York's greatest writers to define new holiday symbols for a national audience. (Ah, but that's for another post!)

In some Dutch pockets of upstate New York, the tradition of Sinterklaas is still apparently celebrated today.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Today in history: tragedies in Staten Island, Park Slope

click pic for closer view

One of the strangest and most tragic accidents in New York history occurred 49 years ago today when two planes, one United Airlines, the other TWA, collided in midair above New Dorp, Staten Island. The United Airlines flight plummeted to Brooklyn, in the intersection of 7th Avenue and Sterling Place in Park Slope. A total of 134 people from the planes and six on the ground were killed.

Miraculously, a young passenger from Illinois, Stephen Baltz, flying unaccompanied aboard the United flight, actually survived the crash but died of his injuries the following morning at nearby New York Methodist Hospital, Seventh Avenue and Fifth Street. Today there's a plaque there that somewhat macabrely incorporates pocket change from Baltz' pocket into it. Stephen would have been 60 years old this year.

Courtesy Dumbo Books of Brooklyn

Wreckage from the TWA flight landed at Miller Field in Staten Island (seen below):

Nighttime at the Park Slope wreckage site. Physical proof of the tragedy can still visible on some of the buildings around Sterling.

Photographs courtesy LIFE/Google images

Location of the Brooklyn crash and what it looks like today:

View Larger Map

Monday, December 14, 2009

'White Christmas' roots in the Lower East Side

It's 1943, and Irving Berlin's pouring himself a cocktail (photo by Peter Stackpole, courtesy LIFE)

HOW NEW YORK SAVED CHRISTMAS Throughout the month I'll spotlight several events in New York history that actually helped establish the standard Christmas traditions many Americans celebrate today. Not just New York-centric events like the Rockefeller Christmas Tree or the Rockettes, but actual components of the holiday festivities that are practiced in people's homes today.

Irving Berlin, the most prolific of Tin Pan Alley music men, composed "White Christmas" in 1937 during a trip to California. Dwell upon that statement for a moment. Berlin, the product of Russian Jewish immigrants, wrote one of the most beloved Christmas classics in an area of the world almost entirely devoid of white Christmases.

Although he wrote the song over 25 years after the 'real' Tin Pan Alley on 28th Street dissolved into a loose assemblage of businesses throughout midtown, Berlin did get his start on that very street, learning the trade under the employ of Harry von Tilzer's publishing company and cranking out his own tunes; his first song, written in 1907 at age 19, was the Marie of Sunny Italy. Because of this connection, "White Christmas" is often considered the "most famous, most-recorded Tin Pan Alley song of all time."

Irving arrived in Ellis Island in 1893 and his family settled first with a relative on Monroe Street, then later on the third floor of a tenement at 330 Cherry Street, just a few steps away from Corlears Hook.

Although new ethnic groups in New York naturally cluster together at this time, Cherry Street was considered one of the most dense blocks in the city, and it would have been impossible to avoid the foreign traditions of others, especially if you were a curious child like Irving. His experiences of Christmas were almost entirely based on Irish friends and neighbors who lived on this ultra-crowded block. The traditions would have had little religious context for him. Although it's probably overstating to say that his displacement had a hand in the secular nature of 'White Christmas', Irving would have had only non-religious experiences upon which to inspire the song's overwhelming glow of nostalgia.

Or Philip Roth famously says of Irving Berlin's 'Easter Parade' and 'White Christmas.' in his classic Operation Shylock: "The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ -- the divinity that's the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity -- and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow."

"White Christmas," debuted in the 1942 film Holiday Inn and within a couple years became the melancholy holiday anthem for a country in the middle of World War II. More importantly, it kicked off a flurry of secular Christmas classics, as songwriters rushed to find a suitable successor. "I’ll Be Home for Christmas" debuts a year later, with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" coming a year after that.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Tin Pan Alley and the birth of modern popular music

"Down In The Subway," published in 1904 by one of Tin Pan Alley's most successful music men Jerome Remick


PODCAST The modern music industry begins.... on 28th Street? A seemingly nondescript street in midtown Manhattan contains some of the most important buildings where early American pop music was created.

Tin Pan Alley was a bustling and frenzied area, the most creative area of the city, with songwriters -- and song pluggers -- churning out iconic music. Sing along as we talk about the greatest songwriters and the process they went through to create the most influential tunes of the century.

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: Tin Pan Alley


This week's show features actual music snippets, featuring "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody" by John Steel, "Toot-Toot-Tootsie" by Al Jolson, and "Grand Ole Flag" by Billy Murray.

Music Row: Music publishers, once centered around Union Square, began collecting on 28th Street in the late 1880s and most of them stayed there until 1909. Leo Feist, seen in the first picture on the left, was probably the first to move onto the block.


Grand Slam: One of the greatest hits to come out of 28th Street was Albert Von Tilzer's Take Me Out To the Ballgame. The lyrics were written by vaudeville star Jack Norworth who popularized the song in his routines. Curiously, neither Von Tilzer nor Norworth had ever seen a baseball game at the time the song was written.

A song by Albert's brother that is, needless to say, less famous. (Pic courtesy here)

M. Witmark and Sons got their start selling their tunes straight from the vaudeville stage, later to become one of the most successful of the 28th Street firms.

By 1909, most of the music houses had moved off the street into various locations throughout midtown, catering to the budding Broadway market. One of the most lucrative platforms of popularizing songs was the Ziegfeld Follies. (Pic)

The only sign on 28th Street of its importance to the world of music is a small plaque on the sidewalk

The buildings of Tin Pan Alley are not landmarked, but there are some grassroots efforts underway to make sure the area is protected. In particular, the Historic Districts Council has a lovely writeup and features the addresses of many of Tin Pan Alley's most successful music houses. No surprise that a website on collectable sheet music should also have a great writeup on the area.

Check out what Tin Pan Alley looks like today:

View Larger Map