Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Greenwich Village, through the eyes of Jean Shepherd: A beatnik city of "secret treasures and hidden gardens"

 Jean Shepherd, probably best known today as the voice of 'A Christmas Story', was a regular presence on New York radio in the 1950s and 60s thanks to his memorable program for the AM station WOR.

Although you might associate his voice with nostalgic tales from suburban Indiana, he was very much a Village raconteur for much of his professional career. Some of his radio programs were broadcast live from the Limelight Coffee House at 91 7th Avenue, and he spent his last years in New York in a West Village apartment at West 10th Street.

In this 1960 short film 'Village Sunday', Shepherd describes life in the Village and around Washington Square Park. Its pretty much a light advertisement for the entirely neighborhood, a pretty lovely thing to behold considering the conflicts the area would face with encroaching development later that decade.

He then wanders over to the Festival of San Gennaro which seems to have changed very little. You can compare it yourself when this year's festival begins in a couple weeks!

Friday, August 24, 2012

New York University: A noble idea takes root in the Village, a school for the metropolis, but not without growing pains

Hogwarts of Washington Square: The beautiful and supremely ostentatious University Hall at the northeast corner of the park, circa 1850. [NYPL]

PODCAST They once called it the University of the City of New York, an innovative, non-denominational school located in a intellectual castle on the northeast corner of the Washington military parade ground. Today it's better known as New York University, one of America's largest private schools of higher education, inhabiting dozens of buildings throughout the city.

Find out more about its spectacular and sometimes strange history, from the inventors among its early faculty to some of the more curious customs among its 19th century student body. But the story of NYU is often defined by its growth, the need for expansion, and conflicts with the community.

Featuring: The prisoners of Sing Sing Prison, the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, the usual controversial plans of Robert Moses, and a strange custom known simply as The Bun.

To get this week's episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys: New York University


The Bronx campus of New York University was an attempt to affix the school into a more traditional campus. And a bucolic one too, from the looks of  this postcard. [NYPL]

The silver casket (pictured here in 1915) which contained the remains of the coveted 'Bun'. Who holds the Bun today? [Courtesy the NYU archives]

New York University's Bronx campus became a critical training facility during the World Wars. According to the caption, this is a picture from 1943 of a 'camouflage class', with "men and women are preparing for jobs in the Army or in industry." [LOC]

A 1948 model of the building that would become Vanderbilt Hall. Its construction on the northwest corner of Washington Square Park created tensions with the residents and activists of the neighborhood, one of many such conflicts NYU face in its expansion plans. [LOC]

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Bowery Boys Washington Square Park Audio Tour: a stroll through New York history, now on sale everywhere!

Today marks a big new step in the evolution of The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast and website as I present our first item ever for sale -- a special one-hour audio history tour of Washington Square Park.

In this one-hour tour, I present over 200 years of history relating to one of Manhattan's oldest and most attractive park spaces, a former potter's field for yellow fever victims that became a magnet for old New York society and a playground for revolutionary artists, writers and photographers. With a cast that includes Henry James, Stanford White, Bobby Fischer, Giuseppe Garabaldi, Edward Hopper, Diane Arbus, Boss Tweed, Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses!

The Washington Square Park Audio History Tour is great for students, tourists and lovers of Greenwich Village history. It's a tour meant to be listened to while you are walking around in the park; however the amount of ground covered in the tour is relatively manageable, so you can listen in and enjoy even if you're far away or just looking at the park via Google maps.

This audio history is for sale today worldwide and available at a host of digital retailers, for just $3.99 on CD Baby, Google Play and many other retailers. It is also now for sale in iTunes and Amazon, although they have set it at a higher price.  No matter where you buy it, most of the income will come back to the Bowery Boys, and we intend to use the profits to upgrade our recording equipment and to begin expanding to scope of our original mission into new, exciting territories.

You can buy it directly from CDBaby at the digital store below. While you're at it, I would appreciate it greatly if you went to either iTunes or CDBaby and wrote a review of the tour once you've listened to it. Spreading the word will improve the show's appearance in search results.

If I can sell enough and reach a certain threshold, I will start work again on a second tour. And I'm taking suggestions! If there's any part of the city you feel would make an interesting audio-guided walking tour, please respond in the comments or just send me an email.

And if this wasn't enough -- there's a new free podcast that will be ready to listen to by Friday! Our topic this month is closely associated with Washington Square Park and should make a nice companion to the audio tour.

Thanks for your support!

Top photo: Washington Square Park and Memorial Arch, circa 1905. [Courtesy Library of Congress]

Friday, August 17, 2012

Let us be your Park Avenue Summer Streets companion!

This Saturday is the final Summer Streets festival, when traffic is closed down from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park, along Lafayette Street and Park Avenue all the way up to 72nd Street. Get up early and enjoy a corridor of unencumbered walking and biking, with tons of activities along the way, from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Since you're walking around and don't have to worry about much traffic, put our podcast in your ears! We've actually spoken at length about many destinations along this route. So take one of these shows with you and experience a little history right where it happened. [I'm reprinting this list from last year with recent additions.]

As always you can download it from iTunes or other podcast aggregators, or you may right-click onto the links below. You can also stream directly from our Libsyn site and can also listen to any of these episode on Stitcher Radio:

1. African Burial Ground
The Summer Streets route begins near Foley Square, partially situated atop the remains of an ancient burial ground belonging to New York's original black population. Take a gander at the extraordinarily unusual monument to the west of the square. [Download]

2. Collect Pond
You'll progress up Lafayette Street and past Collect Pond Park. Below you once sat the city's source of 18th century drinking water and an eventual cesspool that had to be drained via a canal (that then became Canal Street). [Download]

3.  Petrosino Square (featured in 'Case Files of the NYPD')
Four blocks north of Canal Street sits a small park named after legendary cop Joseph Petrosino. In our 'Case Files of the NYPD' show, Tom recounts the thrilling tale of Petrosino's rise into the police force -- and his tragic demise. [Download]

4. Puck Building
Lafayette Street seems nice so far, right? The street is a bit of a destroyer however, lobbing off an original section of the Puck Building when the road was expanded south. Oh, but this former home of a 19th century satire publication is full of many surprises.... [Download]

5. The Astors 
Lafayette Street was named by John Jacob Astor who developed many luxury properties in this area -- and hundreds of far less luxurious ones everywhere else. To your right above 4th Street is the old Astor Library (which today houses the Public Theatre) and to the north is the great Astor Place. So why not learn a little about the family? [Download]

6. The Apple Orchard at 11th Street (featured in 'The Grid')
The path now moves from Lafayette to Fourth Avenue. At 11th Street, notice that the street doesn't cut through to the west. Grace Church sits there like a fortress! In our show on the Commissioners Plan of 1811, we recount the tale of Henry Breevort's apple orchard that once sat here and managed to break up the city's grand uniform plans. [Download]

7. Union Square
You'll take Fourth Avenue all the way to 14th Street, where you will be greeted with one of New York's most popular parks. Union Square used to be an oval and also the centerpiece of high society in the mid 19th century. As you begin your walk up Park Avenue South, take note of the petite sculpture of the namesake of the street where you began your walk -- the Marquis de Lafayette. [Download]

8. Radio History of Park Avenue
Radio pioneer Lee de Forest experimented with sending sound signals from his laboratory on Park Avenue and 19th Street. It was from here that the first music was broadcast, received by a radio operator at the Brooklyn Navy Yards. That's just one of a few amazing stories in our podcast on New York's role in the development of the radio. [Download]

9. Park Avenue Tunnel (featured in 'New York's Elevated Railroad')
As you enjoy your stroll up an empty Park Avenue, take note of the now-carless tunnel that plunges under the street at 33rd Street. The origin of this strange underground detour stretch back to the 1830s and the early days of the New York and Harlem Railroad. I retell the story of this former 'open sore' in our show on the New York's Elevated Railroad. [Download]

10. Grand Central
Oddly enough, one of my favorite parts of Summer Streets involves the one moment you're blocked from the sun. With no vehicles, pedestrians are able to walk around the classic structure via the elevated road. You can also closely check out the statue to Cornelius Vanderbilt, who changed the city forever with his railroad and ferry acquisitions. [Download]

11.  Met Life Building (Pan Am Building)
This is probably the structure you're the least excited to see, but hopefully, in our podcast (a personal favorite of mine), we make a convincing case for giving this building its proper due. [Download]

12. St. Bartholomew's Church and Schaefers Beer
The beautiful St. Bart's on Park Avenue and 51th Street was built on property that once held the Schaefers brewery plant. You can hear all about it in our show on the history of New York City's glorious beer history. [Download]

13. Steinway
The sleek Seagram Building on Park Avenue and 52nd Street is definitely eye-catching, or at least that weird union scab rat statue in front of it is. But a hundred years before the Seagram was even built, Henry Steinway had a huge manufacturing plant here, where he delivered to music-minded New Yorkers the finest instruments in town. The factory was almost destroyed during the Civil War Draft Riots. (You'll have to listen to the show to find out how they saved it!) [Download]

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Don't douse the glim! Four infamous dancehalls and dives which made the notorious reputation of Bleecker Street

"There are no lower outcasts in New York than the women who nightly creep out of the darkness and swarm the pavement of Bleecker Street..." L. Hereward, Eclectic Magazine, 1893

Sure, the Bowery was a rough and rowdy avenue, but one looking for more alternative adventures in the late 19th century might have found themselves somewhere along Bleecker Street. The college bars and cafes which inhabit the street now seem practically chaste compared to some of the dives once housed there.

At 59 Bleecker Street, for instance, one could find The Allen's American Mabille, a 'Parisienne' style dance hall and den of prostitution that survived several dozen police raids -- police headquarters was literally a block away -- and made Allen one of the infamous proprietors in Manhattan, responsible for "the ruin of more young girls then all the dive keepers in New York." [source]

It joined a collection of prostitution houses along Bleecker and east of Washington Square Park, so many that the neighborhood was sometimes known as Frenchtown, and not because of the fine cooking.

But American Mabille and the other 'Paris' houses, from all appearances, specialized in heterosexual couplings. A few places on Bleecker catered to male encounters and often of the most flamboyant kind, if accounts are to be believed. (Keep in mind the hysteria of the late 19th century press!)

The most famous of these was The Slide at 157 Bleecker Street, a basement dive filled with men in drag, horrifying proper New Yorkers with clientele "effeminate, degraded, and addicted to vices which are inhuman and unnatural" according to contemporary scandal sheet descriptions.

The Slide is somewhat well-known today as it shares the same address as rock venue Kenny's Castaways.

Down the street from The Slide was the Black Rabbit at 183 Bleecker Street, another dive with a mixed clientele, known for scandalous sex shows, from the likes of the 'Jarbean fairy' and a female 'sodomite for pay'. Like many of the others, it survived with sizable bribes to the police. The bar even scandalized thieves. In 1901, a reporter from McClure's Magazine entered the Black Rabbit with a pickpocket who replied, "[T]his is dead tough. I wouldn't allow this, 'f I was the chief....I like an open town where everything goes all right enough, but I'd douse the glim here." (douse the glim = turn out the lights)

Today, the historically themed 1849 Restaurant occupies the Black Rabbit's address.

Nearby The Slide was Frank Stephenson's Black And Tan at 153 Bleecker, "a place of bad repute", specializing in mixed race heterosexual encounters, something most likely frowned upon even in many low-class Bowery dives. The phrase black-and-tan was used to describe other halls where people of different races drank and caroused together.

 Top image courtesy here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Civil War Draft Riots, presented in miniature

The BBC America series 'Copper', set in the famed Five Points neighborhood, begins this Sunday at 10pm EST. I'll be Tweeting along during the show and hope to have a reaction post to it on the blog the next day.

The video above gives me hope for a program that takes its historical depiction and geography seriously. The production company Four Story Tree House, specializing in miniature recreations, has done an atmospheric take on the Civil War Draft Riots from July 1863 as a tie-in to the show.

And if it so inspires you, give a listen to our history on the Civil War Draft Riots which we recorded last summer. It's Episode #127, and you can find it on iTunes.

Friday, August 10, 2012

History In The Making (8/10) The Other Kiss Edition

You've seen the V-J Day celebration photos of Times Square from August 14, 1945, the streets filled with relief, joy and revelry. And kissing, lots and lots of kissing, possibly the greatest kiss ever photographed

But photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt was hopping all over midtown that day, documenting kisses. In fact, Eisenstaedt himself got into the act that very day, having himself photographed smooching an unidentified female reporter. (William C. Shrout was behind the camera here.) Please note the reactions of the two older ladies behind him. Click into photo for a closer view. (Courtesy Life Google Images)

Staten Island's Sleepy Cemetery: While wandering down Old Mill Road, Forgotten New York stops at a haunting church cemetery with the oldest grave sites on the island. [Forgotten New York]

All You Can Eat Sirloin Steak! And other delights from a Greenwich Village community guide from 1959. [Off The Grid]

Beauty In Beer: The New-York Historical Society displays a gown from Hillie Merritt, the winner of Miss Rheingold 1956. [Behind The Scenes Blog]

Sweet Story: Remembering the 1916 candy store Philip's of Coney Island -- and now, on Staten Island. [Brooklynology]

A Disturbing Record: On August 12, 1912, Sing Sing Prison inspired the following headline from the New York Evening World: 'Seven Die In Chair Within One Hour, Beating Record'. [Library of Congress]

Not Very Sporting: What the sites selected for the proposed 2012 New York City Olympics look like today. [New York Times]

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

New York transit system stymied by women's skirt styles

A lady in a relatively normal skirt boards a Broadway streetcar in July 1913. Now imagine trying this in a hobble skirt! (Courtesy Library of Congress)

A serious cry (mostly from men) rang out through the city one hundred years ago about the ever-expanding transit system and the scandalous style of women's skirts. Were frocks getting caught in doorways? Were dress lengths causing women fall down stairs?

Perhaps, but that wasn't the issue. The latest fashion trend, the hobble skirt, was slowing the progress of women onto and off of streetcars, causing frustrating delays.

The Parisian-style hobble skirt, with its bunched hem near the bottom to create a mermaid-like appearance, made its appearance on New York streets in the early 1910s. The new gowns required ladies to walk more elegantly and, thus, more slowly, a throwback to the Victorian gait. "[T]he mannish stride of the women of today was taken for granted as a permanent thing. Nobody expected it to change, for nobody saw the hobble skirt on the horizon." [New York Times, January 1912]

Above: Some sass from the Times fashion pages, June 12, 1910

After a millenia of unfettered skirts, this new silhouette must have seemed positively strange to elder fashionistas.

"'The hobble' is the latest freak in women's fashions," warned the Times upon their arrival in 1910.  "The hobble skirt suits none. But many, too many, women will wear what the fashion authorities decree."

Aesthetics aside, the hobble skirt created a practical problem. While measured, graceful walking might be fine on Ladies Mile or strolling along Fifth Avenue, it was an encumbrance upon the ever-moving streetcar system.

An executive of the Interborough Transit System (New York's first subway operator) grumbled to the Evening World in 1912 about the extra burden the hobble skirt created upon city transportation and called for the fashion trend to be abolished.

"Often hundreds of people will be forced to stand aside patiently waiting for some women to raise her skirts sufficiently to allow her to step into the car," said George Keegan, general superintendent.

A special 'step-less' car had even been designed with the fashionable lady in mind. The first of these "hobble-skirt, hygenic, fool proof" cars debuted on the streets of New York in the spring of 1912.

Meanwhile, underground, fashionable ladies were finding difficulty clearing the gap between the platform and subway cars. "Nearly all of the accidents in the subway are due to the fact that women wear hobble skirts," said Keegan, a claim which could not possibly have been true.

The Pennsylvania Railroad, fearful of complaints and potential lawsuits, acted upon the crisis the following year by requiring train conductors to note skirt styles and "height of heel" and report all data to their central office. "If women passengers on the Pennsylvania Railroad insist on wearing such mantraps, or rather womantraps, as hobble skirts and high heels they cannot hold this company responsible for accidents which may happen to them," claimed the railroad.

But all these railroad executives really needed to do was simply wait -- trends subside, to replaced with other, more objectionable wear.

By the time Mr. Keegan was complaining about the hobble skirt, the Evening World fashion section was already clutching its pearls in disbelief about another fashion abomination. "The high note of feminine folly has been struck.  The harem skirt is to succeed the hobbled horror which has made women hideous and ridiculous during the past year."

But, leaving taste aside, at least you could ride the subway in a harem skirt!

Illustration above is from the August 9, 1912 edition of the Evening World which accompanied the Keegan article

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Marvin Hamlisch: His first major performance, at age 6 1/2

Singular sensation: Marvin Hamlisch and director Michael Bennett on the set of A Chorus Line, 1975, photo by Martha Swope (courtesy Noh Way)

"Like the Yankees, Mr. Hamlisch is a New York institution." - Pranay Gupte, the New York Sun, 2006

The composer Marvin Hamlisch, who died last night in Los Angeles at age 68, won countless awards, created memorable scores for classic films, wrote timeless pop melodies, and exposed the soul of Broadway with 'A Chorus Line'. But if none of those things had ever happened, Hamlisch would have still made music history before he was old enough to ride a bike.

One day, Max and Lilly Hamlisch entered their living room on West 81st Street and found their five year old son Marvin playing the piano, copying the style of his older sister. Max was convinced of his child's brilliance and wanted to send him the best school available. This being New York, that school was the Julliard School of Music.

From Gerard C Gardner's 1992 biography of Hamlisch  'The Way I Was': "In his eyes, Julliard was where God learned to play the scales, and if Juilliard was good enough for God, it just might be good enough for Marvin."

Marvin secured an audition in 1951, performing the same song in different chords in front of an admissions board dressed in "his sailor-boy suit". Hamlisch was accepted into the 'pre-college division' at age 6 1/2, the youngest student ever admitted at that time.

Fortunately, Marvin became too restless for the world of concert piano.

Here's an interview with Hamlisch talking about his early years with the piano:

More information on Hamlisch's passing at the New York Times blog

And here's some Barbra, performing the Hamlisch tune which won him an Oscar and a Grammy:


Monday, August 6, 2012

Pardon our appearance. Please enjoy this smoking clown.

It's time to spruce it up around here! I'm experimenting with new banners over the next day and figuring out which looks the best. Some other design features might change as well. So if things look occasionally weird, it's most likely only temporary. Thanks for your patience!

In the meantime, here's a picture of a clown smoking under a no smoking sign during a performance of Ringling Bros. at Madison Square Garden (the one that used to be on 49th/50th Streets), 1953 (Courtesy LIFE Google images, photo by Cornell Capa)

Friday, August 3, 2012

A good day to rediscover old Pennsylvania Station!

The crowds of Penn Station (with a sizable population of sailors!) making their way out of town via Penn Station for the July 4th holiday, 1944. I encourage you to click into the image and see if you can find your parents or grandparents! Courtesy LIFE Google Images.

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the attempts by a small group of architects and architecture lovers to rescue Pennsylvania Station, the grand old, deteriorating train station designed by McKim, Mead and White and opened in 1910.

Their small but important protest was not able to save Penn Station from the wrecking ball, but their concerted efforts to call attention to the destruction of treasured landmarks drew key media attention and widespread support. As a result, many other buildings were later saved, most notably Grand Central Terminal.

The New York Times ran a really lovely account of this well-dressed group representing the 'impromptu' group Agbany (Action Group for Better Architecture in New York). You can read it here.

And this is a good time to re-visit the history of old Penn Station and the building of the Pennsylvania Railroad tunnels! Check out our podcast on the history of Penn Station. You can download the show on iTunes, or directly from here.

My original blog post from 2009 that tied into the show has a large number of pictures of the original structure and even a few of the tunnels.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

"History is nothing but gossip about the past, with the hope that it might be true." Gore Vidal 1925-2012

From 1960.  Photographed by my favorite Life photographer Leonard McCombe. [source]

The journalist and fiction writer was almost as well known for his feuds as for his writing. Here are my five favorite nasty insults that Gore Vidal lobbed at other artist and writers:

1) “Andy Warhol is the only genius I've ever known with an IQ of 60.”

 2) “The worst thing to happen to Lincoln - aside from the unfortunate incident at Ford's theatre - was to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg.”

 3) “Ayn Rand's 'philosophy' is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society.... To justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil.”

 4) “[Truman] Capote I truly loathed. The way you might loathe an animal. A filthy animal that has found its way into the house.”

 5) "As Norman Mailer would say, "It's existential." He went to his grave without knowing what that word meant."

NOTE: I had to take the original Van Vechten picture down. You can find that original here.