Friday, March 29, 2013

Geek Love: Literature, trivia and a Bowery Boy in Brooklyn

This Monday, April 1st, in support of Lit Crawl NYC, I'll be appearing at the literature event 'Geek Love' at The powerHouse Arena in DUMBO, Brooklyn.

I've done a reading with Lit Crawl NYC in the past, and it's a terrific (and intense) way to enjoy local literary stars under the guise of visiting a few homegrown bars. They deserve your support, and frankly, powerHouse is a great space and bookstore, to boot!

The core of Monday's soiree will be a trivia contest, so bring a friend or find some new ones while you're there.  I'll be delivering a couple of the literature trivia questions, so you know there may be a couple with a historical bent. The event starts at 7pm, with trivia around 7:30 or so.

Trivia prizes will be provided by Brooklyn Winery, Angelika Film Center, Kings County Distillery and many more.

Here's the official description of the event. Hope to see you there!

"Whether you’re into Harlequin romances or Proust, come seek your book-loving soul mate at Geek Love. Lit Crawl NYC’s “mixer of the minds” brings together the sexiest dorks in the Big Apple for a night of drinks, bookish trivia, and fun prizes. Bring your buddies and make some new ones—we’ll assign you to a team of cute and brainy strangers to guarantee you’ll go home with a prize, a date, or at least a good story!

Singles, “takens,” and everyone in between welcome. The $15 admission includes one drink and a $5 credit at the powerHouse store. Proceeds benefit Lit Crawl NYC.

Featuring a lineup of bookish guests, including Emma Straub (Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures) and Teddy Wayne (The Love Song of Jonny Valentine), and an Event Committee of editors, publishers, and publicists from the lit world.

Buy tickets here (but hurry, as they will probably sell out!)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Easter fashion parade 1913: Images of the annual stroll, now with automobiles, celebrities and 'ladies in vermilion'

People in Sunday finery stroll past the New York Public Library building. The library had not even been open two years by the time this picture was taken in March 23, 1913.

New York City's time-honored Easter custom -- the Sunday morning Fifth Avenue Easter bonnet stroll -- once turned the wealthiest residents of Fifth Avenue into primping peacocks, their Sunday best on display.   The makeshift parade, which some believe traces back to New York's Dutch days, blossomed into a full-assault of expensive headwear once the upper crust made Fifth Avenue.their home.

Thousands lined the street, either brandishing their most expensive apparel or else to gawk at those wearing it.  It was the closest New York got to a high-end fashion show, with dressmakers parked on the corner, taking notes.  "All the women were slim who could be," remarked the New York Tribune's fashion writer, "and a few were who couldn't."

But the 1910s brought a new accessory to the Easter parade -- automobiles.

A decade before, there were probably no more than 1,000 automobiles in all of New York City. By 1913, there were enough to create what must have been Fifth Avenue's very first automobile traffic jam.

All the photographs featured here are from Easter Sunday, 1913.

The magnificent Enrico Caruso even participated in the Easter stroll. He looks fanciful in his top hat and a bit like Batman villain the Penguin.

Apparently it was an unseasonably cold day that Easter in 1913 and most society women, braving the chill, wrapped up their fine gowns in heavy wraps and coats of various animal skin.  "Furs and pink noses" was the fashion assessment, according to the Tribune.

Still, in the sea of coats and curious hats, one woman managed to make an impression. "LADY IN VERMILION AN EASTER CUBIST' cried the newspaper the following day -- on its front page, no less.  "...[W]ho was the young lady in bright vermilion, with lips of a vivid purple, who talked excitedly to hide her shivering as she passed St. Patrick's Cathedral?"

The New York Tribune ran this banner photograph the following day. (Note the dog in the corner.) Sadly I don't believe any of these ladies was the aforementioned 'vermilion lady':


Of course, there's still an annual Easter bonnet parade; it's smaller but far more flamboyant.

 Pictures courtesy Library of Congress

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

New listeners to the Bowery Boys podcast? Here's some highlights of the last 149 episodes -- and a hint for no. 150

Thanks to the profile on the Bowery Boys podcast which ran on NPR:Morning Edition a couple weeks ago, we've seen a lot of new listeners to the show.  Welcome aboard!  We're grateful to have you join this amazing community of history lovers interested in the story of New York City.

If you've just discovered the podcast, you might be a little daunted by our back catalog. I'm daunted by it at times.  (There's a few older shows that I've completely forgotten that we recorded!)  To help you sort through the 147 episodes that are currently available, here's a rundown of some back episodes that may interest you:

1) The Early Years For our first few dozen episodes of so, we recorded weekly.  As a result, the shows are shorter and less deeply researched.  However if you want to take a dive into the older shows, subscribe via the Bowery Boys Archives (also found on iTunes).  Many of these have been relaunched as 'illustrated podcasts,' meaning photographs and other things pop up on your listening device as we speak about things.  Try (Episode #46Barnum's American Museum, the two episodes on the Revolutionary War (Episodes #35 and #36) and of course the Brooklyn Bridge (Episode #29).

2) Ghost Stories Our annual Halloween shows are always fun to produce, a mix of urban legend, historical context and good ole fashioned storytelling.  Spooky Stories of New York (Episode #65), featuring supernatural tales of the Algonquin Hotel, a SoHo eatery with a secret in its basement, and an axe-wielding witch of Staten Island. And, of course, sound effects.

3) Next month is the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Woolworth Building so give our episode on its history a try. (Episode #76)

4) The Great Fire of 1835 gave us an opportunity to tell a straight-through narrative about a deadly blaze that destroyed almost a third of Manhattan during a frozen December evening.  This is one of my top five favorites. (Episode #78)

5) Robert Moses was 100th episode, and of course about the man we reference again and again in future shows. You need to know the story of Moses before you can understand the story of modern New York. Hopefully we did his tale justice. (Episode #100)

6) For Bowery Boys On The Go, we recorded five stories on the history of New York transportation, from land to sea.  Best listened to if you're actually riding aboard ferry or subway -- although sadly there are no cable cars. (Episode #106 Staten Island Ferry, Episode #107 Elevated Railroad, Episode #108 Cable Cars, Trolleys and Monorails, Episode #109 New York Subway Part One, and Episode #110 New York Subway Part Two)

7)  Want to know what we're preparing for Episode #150? Well, here's your first clue. WATER. Listen to Episode #143 Water for New York: The Croton Aqueduct, one of many shows we've recorded on New York infrastructure.

8) And finally -- a new Bowery Boys audio history walking tour will be released next month!  We've released two thus far -- the walking tour on Washington Square Park (on sale on iTunes and Amazon, or click the box in the top right column) and a free tour on the High Line (Episode #136).  I'll reveal the subject of this walking tour on next week's show.

And if you haven't done so already, please join our Facebook page. Next week I'll be posting something there -- a treasure from our past! -- that will only be available to those on Facebook.

Top picture courtesy New York Public Library

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The owls are not what they seem: It appears the clock in Herald Square may not be a portal for the Illuminati after all

Pic courtesy Brecthbug/Flickr

Bummer. I so wanted the spectacular owl-infested Herald Square clock, once perched atop the offices of the New York Herald across the street, to be a secret meeting portal for the Illuminati.

I facetiously brought up the theory in our December podcast on the history of Herald Square.  Upon the door of the clock, which sits in the northern portion of the plaza, is a strange symbol featuring an owl and stars:

Picture courtesy entrance/Flickr

The extravagant James Gordon Bennett Jr., the Herald's editor at the end of the 19th century, has frequently been linked to the Illuminati.  They say the shadowy, all-powerful organization, with alleged ties to some of the darkest secrets from ancient history, gather to manipulate world affairs only at night. And thus their insignia features the owl -- ever vigilant, mysterious and wise.

Bennett was obsessed with owls and festooned his lavish newspaper offices with the bird, many with glowing eyes.  Below: Roof decorations on the old Herald Building, pic courtesy NYPL

In fact, Bennett had commissioned Stanford White to design a lofty mausoleum for Bennett at his death, featuring an owl 200 feet high, to be placed in Washington Heights!  But when White was murdered on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden in 1906, Bennett's grandiose plans were scrapped.

Below: The article from the New York Times, featuring a pencil sketch of the proposed owl monument.

The Herald clock features the goddess Minerva and her trademark companion -- of course, an owl.  Like the owl, Minerva herself is frequently represented in Illuminati symbolism.  Adding to the mystery are the names of the two bell-ringers below here, Gog and Magog -- entities from the biblical era and mentioned in the Book of Revelation. "When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the Earth—Gog and Magog—and to gather them for battle."

So you can just imagine how this has stirred the conspiracy theorist community over the years.  It's all practically begging for a Dan Brown novel or a Nicolas Cage film.  After all, if miles of underground passages exist underneath Trinity Church in 'National Treasure', what could possibly lurk here in Herald Square, beneath Bennett's old symbol-laden clock?

Alas, one of our listeners Ryan Cox has dispelled the existence of any clandestine passageways with a few well-timed photographs. It seems the door is nothing more than a custodian's closet!

Okay, I mean the realists among you probably assumed this the whole time.

But what if there's a secret passage behind all the hoses and brooms?  What if Illuminati members step over the mop bucket to get there?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Spring awakenings: Odes to Robert Moses in Kissena Park?

I love flipping through the collections of the NYC Department of Records because, on top of strange crime photographs and rote images of city blocks, you occasionally find images like the ones above.

According to the caption, these female and male dancers are performing in Kissena Park, Queens, in 1927. (In the fall, but they seem appropriate images to celebrate in the spring.) What are they doing exactly? Who knows? Who cares!**

Possibly they are celebrating the fact that Kissena, in Flushing just east of Flushing Meadows, greatly expanded to nearly its present size that year.  But it wasn't property owners that were celebrating.  The city, grabbing the land in eminent domain, reimbursed landowners one-third of their demanded value.  A state Supreme Court judge approved the sale, adding, "No Rockaway or Florida boom in its wildest dreams ever approached the millions sought by property owners in this proceeding." [source]

Even more development would come to Kissena with the arrival of *trumpets* Robert Moses, Parks Commissioner!  Kissena would be linked up with Flushing-Meadows a couple decades later, creating a bold 'Queens corridor' of parkland -- some refer to it as an 'emerald necklace' -- that could only have been crafted from Moses' imagination.

In typical Moses fashion, Kissena was later expanded to include a modestly-sized golf course and, in the 1960s, a bicycle velodrome.

Below: Kissena Lake in 1926 which lends the entire park its name

**Another theory is that their dancing is a celebration of the life of Isadora Duncan, who died in a car accident the month before these images were taken, in September 1927.  They seem to be sharing the same effervescent whimsy of Duncan's famous stage dances, not to mention the same flowy outfits.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Brooklyn ghost story: A famous actress, a rowdy tavern, Cobble Hill's 'ghost-haunted spot' and a fool named Boerum

Above: While this is the old Brooklyn Schermerhorn house, it's of a similar type to one that Ms. Melmoth may have owned, quickly becoming a tavern after her death.

Less than two hundred years ago, in the area approximate to the neighborhood of Carroll Gardens today, there was a very, very rowdy tavern.

It was located east of Red Hook Lane, "in a retired and beautiful spot, near the line of the present Carroll, between Clinton and Henry street," a place of intense merriment and gluttony, partaking of beer and hunted game, devouring buckets of oysters taken from the shore. (Many years later, perhaps in penance, St. Paul's Episcopal Church would be built near this spot.)

The tavern had once been the home of the famous British stage actress Charlotte Melmoth (depicted at right, in one of her finest roles as Queen Elizabeth).  She retired in 1812 to this grand home off Red Hook lane and spent her last days instructing the children of wealthy Brooklyn families.  Although an actress (hardly the most respected field of work in the early 19th century), her skills of etiquette and elocution brought up the next generation of Pierreponts and Cornells and Luquers.

However, when she died in 1826, her once-proper home took a detour into the debauched, becoming a popular location for young revelers.  Melmoth, buried at St. Patrick's Old Cathedral on Mott Street, certainly rolled in her grave.

The secluded, wooded tavern attracted young men, farmers and sailors, "their orgies being carried on with a freedom to which the retired character of the spot was particular conducive." [source]

The gridded streets had not yet been cut through the wooded areas.  Slightly north, in the distance, sat the ruins of old Cobbleshill Fort, the hill itself leveled decades ago by the British.  The fort was briefly refurbished for possible conflict due to the War of 1812 -- old Fort Swift, they called it -- by the late 1820s, much of the stone would have been covered with dense overgrowth.

According to legend, one evening at around 11 p.m., the men at the converted tavern discovered they had run out of brandy.  Unacceptable, of course, to a bunch of rowdy drunks!  To replenish their supply, somebody needed only to run down Red Hook Lane to the Brooklyn ferry and retrieve more.

Less than a half-mile walk, of course, but one that passed by the old ruined fort, approximately near the intersection of today's Court and Pacific streets.  Sitting near to the fort was "a ghost-haunted spot," a frightening, decrepit place well-known to locals, "about which dreadful stories are whispered, which lent wings to the feet of such unwary village urchins as chanced to pass it after dark."

Below: Brooklyn and the East River in the early 1800s, from Gowanus Heights (today's Green-Wood Cemetery), from an original painting by W. Bartlett. This is a bit south of the events described but gives you a good (if romanticized) idea of the still-verdant countryside that defined the area.

Nobody wanted to admit they were frightened to venture out alone, and yet despite their incredible thirst, nobody volunteered for the task.  Finally, a man named Boerum, thirsty and bold, declared he would head to the ferry and retrieve the brandy.  And if he happened to run into a ghost, all the better, he proclaimed!

It's safe to assume this Boerum (whose first name is not given) is of the same Dutch Boerum clan which gives the neighborhood Boerum Hill its name.  Sadly for this fellow, he would not live long to carry on his family's good name.

According to Henry Reed Stile's 1869 history of Brooklyn, Boerum jumped on his horse and headed down the lane , toward the ferry and that sweet, sweet brandy.  Two hours later, when Boerum had not yet returned, his anxious (and sobered-up) friends became concerned and decided to venture out looking for him. Safety in numbers, after all.

At right: where Red Hook lane would have been located, cutting through the modern neighborhood of Cobble Hill.

"Mounting, not in hot haste, they turned their horses' heads towards the village and on approaching the haunted ground, they found Boerum's horse standing against the fence not far from the house, and when they reach the spot itself, their companion was discovered lying senseless on the road, with features horribly distorted."

We can only guess what "horribly distorted" might mean.  The friends quickly took Boerum back to the tavern, but the man was too far gone.  "[H]e lingered for two or three more days, in a speechless condition, then died."

What had happened to young Boerum?  He had never made it to the ferry to fetch the brandy, and no evidence was ever found among the ruins.

Within a few years, the ruins themselves were leveled, and even most of Red Hook Lane was eliminated, as a street plan turned the region into orderly neighborhoods.  Still, as you pass through Cobble Hill at night, on your way perhaps for a little brandy of your own, remember the cautionary tale of young Boerum.

The ghost story is featured alongside more standard history in Stile's 1869 two-volume history of Brooklyn.

Pictures courtesy New York Public Library, except for labeled map, showing Red Hook Lane, which is from Forgotten New York

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Dual Contracts: The New York City subway system gets a serious upgrade 100 years ago today

A subway map from 1924, illustrating the system created as a result of the Dual Contracts agreement.

After years of negotiations, false starts and lengthy arguments played out in the press, a group of greatly relieved businessmen entered the large hearing room of the New York Tribune Building (at Nassau and Spruce, where Pace University is today) and put their names to a series of documents that have come to be known as the Dual Contracts.

The beleaguered ceremony ran a half hour late, as a great many gentlemen crammed into the third floor meeting room to sign the official documents, stamped with gold lettering and expensively bound in morocco leather and colored ribbons.

With those signatures, the chaotic New York transportation system -- with its fledgling subway and its miles of elevated lines -- officially came of age that day -- March 19, 1913.

"This makes March 19 a red-letter date on the municipal calendar," declared the New York Tribune, in whose building the agreement was signed.  The Dual Contracts authorized millions of dollars of new tracks, more than doubling the system in size, from 296 miles of track to 618 miles!

Below: The buildings of Newspaper Row. The towered Tribune Building, in the middle, was the site of the Dual Contracts signing in 1913. 

This seminal agreement in American transportation history is 'dual' because the city negotiated two separate contracts -- one with August Belmont Jr.'s Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) who operated the New York subway, and the Municipal Railway Company on behalf of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT), who ran most of Brooklyn's transit system.

Under the agreement, the city would shoulder some of the cost of building new subway services -- many into places where New York expected populations to rise in the coming years -- and the two private companies would then lease the new routes from the city and profit from their operation.

At right: the headline from the New York Evening World

Essentially this gave IRT permission to operate into Brooklyn (once the domain of the BRT) and vice versa.  Previously, people arriving from Brooklyn to Manhattan had to immediately change trains once arriving into the new borough.

According to a report by the Public Service Commission later that year: "The Dual System will remove this abnormal condition and give the Brooklyn company a system of subways in Manhattan, by means of which it shall distribute its passengers through the territory south of 59th Street. Thus the present congestion at the Manhattan terminals of the bridges will be ended and the passengers from Brooklyn will be enabled to reach their destinations in lower Manhattan without change of cars or the payment of an additional fare." [source]

As part of the deal, the two companies agreed to operate two new lines into Queens.  The importance of this particular part of the deal cannot be overstated.  The borough of Queens was just over a dozen years old by this time and still sparsely populated given its size. (Less than 300,000 people in 1910.)  With the arrival of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909, paired with new subway and elevated services provided by the Dual Contracts, the population of Queens would explode in the 1920s to well over a million.

And this didn't just stimulate development there.  The deal brought a subway to the Manhattan's Upper East Side and to the West Village, to most Bronx neighborhoods and down the Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.  New home and apartment developments into those regions soon followed.

Below: City luminaries gather around to watch representatives from government and the two private companies sign the pretentiously bound contracts. (Picture courtesy NYCSubway, an indispensable destination for transit history.)

The Dual Contracts also created express and local trains, facilitating another great development in the history of New York -- the arrival of midtown Manhattan as the heart of business and entertainment.

In all, the contract signed one hundred years ago today made the New York City transit system the largest in the world.  In fact, it was larger than all the rapid transit systems of the world at the time -- combined (according to Peter Derrick's excellent book on the subject Tunneling To The Future).

But this also set in motion one of the great flaws of the subway system. Tracks operated by the IRT were a different size from those operated by the BRT.  The track gauge was wider on BRT tracks.  As a result, today the New York subway system still operates two different sizes of cars. (Ed: See notes below for a slight clarification/better explanation.)

On a humorous note, the original contracts, bound as they were in thick leather volumes, were apparently quite heavy to lift.  The president of the IRT remarked, "I am glad that I have enough strength to receive these contracts."

For more details on the Dual Contracts, please check out the second podcast on the birth of the New York subway system -- Subway by the Numbers (and Letters)

Monday, March 18, 2013

History in the making: Hopscotch in Brooklyn edition

Children while away the days in front of 43-49 Willow Place in Brooklyn Heights, 1936. These buildings, known as Colonnade Row, were built over a hundred years before this picture was taken. And they still look pretty much the same today! Photo by Berenice Abbot. (courtesy NYPL)

Carded: The evolution of the New York driver's license, including some early learner's permits from the early days of the automobile.[New York Times]

Signs of the past:  If you get a kick out of seeing old historical markers along the side of the row, you'll want to check out Forgotten New York's survey of old markers (many of them long gone) of obscure historic sites in Queens. Including a former home of DeWitt Clinton! [Forgotten New York]

Hello, Yellow Brick Road: The History Chicks podcast turn their attention to the history of L. Frank Baum and the creation of the Wizard of Oz. [History Chicks]

The story of Vivian Gordon: A woman found murdered in Van Cortlandt Park: how a shocking crime that would circuitously lead to the resignation of Mayor Jimmy Walker. [Smithsonian]

Matinee at the Mayfair: Yet another old building comes tumbling down in Times Square, this one with a marvelous film history. [Jeremiah's Vanishing New York]

We're No Angels: Scouring the old baptism books in the Trinity Church archives has led to a surprising find involving one of Hollywood's greatest actors. [Trinity Wall Street]

Friday, March 15, 2013

Happy St. Patrick's Day! A tribute to the 69th Regiment

The 69th Regiment -- aka the Fighting Irish -- have always led New York's St. Patrick's Day parade and have been the heart and soul of New York's Irish community since the early 19th century.  During the Civil War, they were the first to be called, fighting at the battle of Bull Run.

The image above depicts the regiment departing from the St. Patrick's Old Cathedral in Little Italy.  The church was a final stop in early St. Patrick's Day parades.  Today of course, the parade marches by the uptown St. Patrick's on Fifth Avenue.

For a little history on Irish New York and the two stories of St. Patrick's, try out these two podcasts:

-- St. Patrick's Old Cathedral (download Episode #9 here)
with a blog post on its upgrade to a basilica in 2010.

-- St. Patrick's (New) Cathedral (download Episode #134 here)
with the accompanying blog post with some amazing pictures of St. Pat's

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The legend of Freedomland USA: Theme park memories from the kids who played there

America, as depicted by Freedomland USA pre-opening map -- courtesy Viewliner Ltd.

WOW. The response to our profile on NPR Morning Edition has been truly overwhelming. It's been a very wild and exciting couple days. Thanks to everybody who has written us via email, Facebook and Twitter and welcome to our new listeners!

One amusing result of the airing of the piece is a resurgence of interest in Freedomland USA, the 1960s amusement park in the Bronx. I did a short podcast on the long-forgotten America-themed park back in 2009, and an original advertisement for one of the park's more unusual attractions -- reenactment of the Chicago fire! -- was used in the NPR story.

The comments section on the blog page relating to our podcast is filled with recollections of people who visited Freedomland USA as a kid.  Here are a few selected comments about particular aspects of the park, giving a little more insight into this strange and mystifying place, written by those who were actually there:

Elsie the Cow
featured in the Borden's Barn Boudoir, a barn that promoted Borden products. Yes, not only was Elsie a part of Freedomland, she had a very seductive image back in the 1960s

"I hadn't even thought of Freedomland since the 60's. It stopped me in my tracks when I heard the name. I remember my family and our friends who lived across the street all piling in the station wagon for our drive from Levittown to the park. Nothing else came to mind, but when you mentioned Elsie the cow- BINGO! I was mesmerized by that cow...I remember just standing there and being thrilled. Who knows what will captivate a little girl's imagination." -- Jablow

The Chicago Fire
 "Yeah! The Chicago Fire. I was selected to help pump one night & so we started pumping and all of a sudden, the pump started moving by itself - it was motorized! As a 12 year-old, I was crushed by the fakery. The good part was the photographer for LIFE Magazine snapped the scene so I became a smudge on a piece of newsprint." -- Big Al

"I still have my certificate recognizing my efforts to help put out the Chicago fire! Don't remember Murray the K being there, but the WMCA good guys used to broadcast from a "space ship" in Futureland. Saw Little Peggy March there once, singing "I Will Follow Him." Fond memories of seeing Elsie the Cow, too."

Courtesy Flickr/slideshopper

Defying Gravity:
"As a kid growing up in Somerville, N.J. I got to go to Freedomland 3-4 times. My most vivid memory is of an attraction where stuff rolled uphill. You could set a soda can on a table and even though it looked like it was angled down hill, the can rolled up the hill. It still amazes me. Freedomland was the closest we kids from N.J would come to Disneyland for a really long time. California was on the other side of the country and Disney World was not even started yet. I have many great memories of a visit with my cub scout troop." 

"Went to Freedomland several times over two summers loved the fried chicken with honey in "New Orleans", "Casa Loco" with weird distortions of gravity, and I'll never forget seeing my father's face of amazement as we stood a couple of feet away from Benny Goodman and His Orchestra. The place was so cool."

Special Events:
"Hey, does anyone remember seeing Chuck McCann do his Halloween kids show from the park? Absolutely! I remember bits and pieces of it like it was yesterday and I have been looking for references online about it for a number of years. As I recall it had two actual children and a number of puppets including a witch. It was one of my favorite Halloween specials. I have been trying to find a New York TV guide from October 1963 as I understand it's listed there."

"I was in a Yo-Yo championship contest hosted and judged by Chuck McCann. At Freedomland, I think it was 1962."

Above: Louis Armstrong at Freedomland, picture courtesy the Louis Armstrong House Museum

"I was 10 years old with Ed Sullivan on the original broadcast about Freedomland. It took all day to tape the show segment. He was very patient and very kind." "Only thing I remember is seeing The Four Seasons perform on a chilly, damp, windy day. First concert I ever attended."

"One of the most memorable events of my childhood was seeing Louis Armstrong at Freedomland."

Photo courtesy Gorillas Don't Blog

Stagecoach drama:
"I was stunned to hear about Freedomland on NPR today. I was there with my sister when they had the stagecoach accident that eventually caused the financial ruin of Freedomland

Apparently, the horse handlers warned the owners that the train that ran through the park would spook the horses. That is exactly what happened the day we visited. Coming down the last hill, the horse spooked and bolted. The stagecoach flipped over and severely injured most riders. 

My sister and I were on top and were thrown clear of the coach. I had a small cut on my elbow and my sister had a damaged tooth. Others broke legs and spines when they were trapped under the coach. My uncle and cousins helped lift the stagecoach off the injured. Many lawsuits later, Freedomland closed. I never heard anyone mention that place until today." 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Bowery Boys on NPR: Morning Edition!

The Bowery Boys were featured in a profile this morning on NPR's Morning Edition!  You can give the segment a listen here.  You can also download the segment from that site.

Our sincere thanks to NPR and to Caitlin Dickerson for featuring us on the show.

If you're interested in any of the particular episodes mentioned in the piece:

Freedomland USA -- podcast and blog post
The Grid: Commissioners Plan of 1811 -- podcast and blog post
Tin Pan Alley -- podcast and blog post

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Cosby Show: A despotic governor in colonial New York and the sensational trial of John Peter Zenger

PODCAST A long, long time ago in New York -- in the 1730s, back when the city was a holding of the British, with a little over 10,000 inhabitants -- a German printer named John Peter Zenger decided to print a four-page newspaper called the New York Weekly Journal.

 This is pretty remarkable in itself, as there was only one other newspaper in town called the New York Gazette, an organ of the British crown and the governor of the colony. (Equally remarkable: Benjamin Franklin almost worked there!) But Zenger's paper would call to question the actions of that governor, a virtual despot named William Cosby (at right), and in so doing, set in motion an historic trial that marked a triumph for liberty and modern democratic rights, including freedom of the press and the power of jury nullification.

This entire story takes place in lower Manhattan, and most of it on a couple floors of old New York City Hall at Wall Street and Nassau Street. Many years later, this spot would see the first American government and the inauguration of George Washington.

But many could argue that the trial that occurs here on August 4, 1735, is equally important to the causes of democracy and a free press.

And somehow, we manage to fit Kim Kardashian into this.

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.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to straight from here:
The Bowery Boys: John Peter Zenger and the Power of the Press

CORRECTION: I can't read my Olde English very well.  In reading from a page of the New-York Weekly Journal, I inadvertently say 'Fulgom Panagenics' instead of 'Fulsom Panagenics'. Fulgom is not a word, fulsom(e) is, meaning very complimentary or flattering.


An artfully stained copy of the New-York Weekly Journal from 1733

 Andrew Hamilton, the lawyer who saved the day in the John Peter Zenger trial. His eloquence and command of language helped win the day for lovers of free press.


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The first Wizard of Oz adaptation blows into Columbus Circle, delighting New Yorkers and a certain tea mogul

The very first musical version of The Wizard of Oz opened at the Majestic Theatre (at 5 Columbus Circle) on January 20, 1903, after playing to enthusiastic audiences in Chicago.  L. Frank Baum wrote the book to the musical, based on his novel 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz' which was published in 1900.

The temperatures were chilly that day, but New Yorkers were undeterred. Or, as the New York Times observed: "With a dash of brilliant discovery 'The Wizard of Oz' last night discovered the north pole of the Broadway theatrical world in the Columbus Monument, at Fifty-ninth Street. In a proximity as close as that of the Majestic Theatre frosts undoubtedly threaten, just as there is said to be a gathering chill in the theatres situated near the south pole in the Flatiron Building."

The vaudeville act Montgomery and Stone played the Scarecrow and the Tinman.  Here's an image that was published in the New York Tribune:

Anna Laughlin, who played Dorothy, headed quickly to New York's budding film business, starring in eighteen films between 1913-1915, many for the Brooklyn-based Vitagraph Company.

As for the Cowardly Lion, he was played by the handsome pantomimist Arthur Hill.  He became so beloved in the role that he returned to the Broadway stage in other roles, always playing animals (including the wolf in a rendition of 'Little Red Riding Hood').


Among its admirers later that summer was the renown yachtsman Sir Thomas Lipton (at right), such a popular figure in 1903 that mobs arrived in Columbus Circle just to see his car pull up to the theater.  An ode to Lipton was performed by one of the chorus girls -- Tommy! Oh! Oh Sir Tommy! You're a dandy from your feet up -- to his quite noticeable embarrassment.  Still, he came back to see the show a second time. Standing to give a speech, "[h]e may have intended to say more, but a misunderstanding about the calcium lights threw him suddenly into darkness, and he sat down."

And yes, Sir Lipton founded the Lipton Tea Company.

The show was a blockbuster, running in New York for two whole years, eventually closing on the final day of 1904.   I believe 'Wizard' was the inaugural performance at the Majestic Theatre, which survived several decades -- as the International Theatre, it even co-hosted the Academy Awards -- until it was demolished in the 1950s.

The play was such a success that Baum was convinced to write a sequel called 'The Marvelous Land of Oz'.  From there, he went on to expand his Oz franchise for several more books, including beloved installments featuring Tik-Tok, the Patchwork Girl and Ozma.

On the occasion of its 225th performance, the management of the Majestic gave out souvenir ,telescopic silver drinking cups, "in which the friends and well-wishers of 'The Wizard of Oz' may drink to that potentate's long long life and prosperous reign."  With a new Oz film coming out this Friday, that reign continues.

Clippings courtesy the New York Tribune/Library of Congress. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Marks of the grid: A remarkable find in Central Park

So this random little bolt in a rock may not look like much, but it could be the last remaining on-site evidence of the creation of New York City's grid plan.

Inspired by Marguerite Holloway's book 'The Measure of Manhattan', I went looking for this unusual object hidden in Central Park, discovered by geographers several years ago and believed to be a bolt used in the original survey of Manhattan by John Randel Jr. in the 1810s.

Randel and his team poured over the island, marking spots along a delineated grid that would become the intersection of streets and avenues.  Reuben Sky Rose-Redwood, one of the researchers who discovered the odd bolt, believes it's from Randel's original survey due to its placement.

Indeed this would have be the exact location of an upper Manhattan intersection had Central Park not been carved out in the 1850s.  If this random little bolt is indeed part of that original survey, then it's truly an extraordinary link to New York City history.

I'm not going to reveal the location of the bolt, but you can search around the web for clues to its whereabouts.  Needless to say, if you do go on a hunt for this potential key to the Manhattan grid plan, please leave it be if you find it.  (Also, this means you're a bonafide history geek like me. Congratulations!)

If it's ever definitively confirmed to be a tool of Randel's, hopefully the park will provide some kind of protection.  Rarely does one find historical objects in situ.

Monday, March 4, 2013

'The Measure of Manhattan': The grid plan of New York comes to life, as does its eccentric creator

BOWERY BOYS BOOK OF THE MONTH Each month I'll pick a book -- either brand new or old, fiction or non-fiction -- that offers an intriguing take on New York City history, something that uses history in a way that's unconventional and different or exposes a previously unseen corner of our city's complicated past.  Then over the next month, I'll run an article or two about some of historical themes that are brought up in the selection. 

The Measure of Manhattan: 
The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel Jr.
by Marguerite Holloway
WW Norton & Company

The man at the center of Marguerite Holloway's 'The Measure of Manhattan' is a genuine riddle.

The surveyor John Randel Jr. rarely wrote about himself, jotting down observations of land elevation and incompetent workmen as he mapped out the legendary grid plan along the island of Manhattan.

This ambitious task, occurring early in his career, would assure his place as a pivotal, if quiet, figure in American history.  During this period, he is studious, focused and, let's just say it, a mite uninteresting.  But just as the grid is completed, Randel's personal story comes to life.

A traditional historian might not know what to do with the life of Randel, a man who ages into astonishing eccentricity and temperament.  But.Holloway, a journalism professor at Columbia University, treats this story as a two-fold mystery, turning something that could into a real unexpected -- and often unpredictable -- treat.

Her first concern is the grid itself, the orderly row of streets and avenues that arose out of the former hills and streams of Manhattan, following researchers who are attempting to determine how drastically the landscape has been altered over the years.

Evidence of the original surveying job -- which sliced through private property and reorganized nature into something unrelenting and orderly -- can be found in Central Park.  In fact, a bolt sits lodged in a rock, the last remaining evidence of Randel's assiduous work.  It's an astonishing discovery.

As is Randel, the man who probably put it there.  The young surveyor, taken under wing by the well connected DeWitt family at the start of the 19th century, worked on the grids to Manhattan and Albany before he was 30 years old, braving the wrath of farmers to mark rectangles in the landscape.  So unusual was the island's terrain that Randel invented his own surveying equipment specifically suited for the job at hand.

But even as Holloway goes deep into Randel's technique, there appears to be a vacuum at the center of the story.  Randel's personality seems opaque, even non-existent.  But wait.

The most fascinating aspects to Randel's character come after the grid is completed, when the surveyor attempts to cash in on his remarkable accomplishment.  He naturally attempts to sell copies of his maps but, in these heady days before copyright, is thwarted by a competitor who basically duplicates his work

From that point, he seems to spend as much time in lawsuits as he does doing field work.  He goes to work on an upstate length of the Erie Canal, only to annoy his peers and tarnish his reputation.  Is it professional jealousy at Randel's enormous skills, or is the great, embittered surveyor becoming obstinate?

As Benjamin Wright, canal engineer and enemy of Randel's, once said of his rival in 1824: "I think him the most complete hypocritical lying nincompoop (and I might say scoundrel if it was a Gentlemanly word)....."

At left: A notice for another of Randel's great projects, the New Castle and Frenchtown railroad, the first railroad in Delaware 

Far from a career of increasingly applauded works, Randel becomes stepped in controversy at every turn, even as he moves from canals to railroads.  He's perpetually strapped for cash, even attempting to build his own estate (amusingly called Randelia) with unfortunate results.  In a desperate act of "piracy", according to the author, he even attempts to collect his very own tolls from a canal he himself surveyed and engineered!

Holloway, employing an extraordinary depth of research, describes a man of great talent who gets ripped asunder by America's rapid growth, defined not by accomplishment but debt.  In a way, this is as pure an American story as it gets.

The tale often pulls back at times to modern day, constantly reminding us of Randel's most stunning accomplishment, a New York grid plan so implanted that it seems impossible to imagine that anything else ever existed here.  In particular she turns her focus to Eric Sanderson and his amazing 2009 Mannahatta project, pulling a reverse-Randel in trying to map out the original landscape as it appeared in the year 1609.

Randel returns to New York near the end of his life for the industrial exhibition held at the Crystal Palace in 1853, America's first great show of its technological prowess. It is here that Randel reveals his last, greatest idea -- an elevated railroad transporting passengers up and down the length of avenues he had himself marked over forty years earlier.

His visionary ideas were rejected.  Over fifteen years later, well after Randel's death, New York built an elevated railroad anyway.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Fun money: The Buffalo nickel, 100 years old this month, makes Wall Street messenger boys rich (for a couple hours)

The U.S. Sub Treasury Building -- today's Federal Hall -- as it appeared in a colorized postcard in the 1900s (courtesy NYPL)

"Hey! Getcha buffalo nickels here. Only 15 cents!"

On March 1, 1913, the usual bustle of Wall Street was enlivened with the voices of young men -- mostly messenger boys, bank runners and peddlers, according the Evening World -- with handfuls of shiny new nickels, the first run of what would become known as the Indian Head nickel or the Buffalo nickel.  And in these heady morning hours, many managed to sell the five-cent piece for triple its value.

"The down-at-the-heels men, who sell picture postcards and neckties from pushcarts on Ann Street, scented a bargain and hurried to the Pine Street El Dorado to sink their little capital in nickels."   The "Pine Street El Dorado" in that quote refers the New York Sub Treasury building, later referred to as Federal Hall.  (It's second entrance is on Pine Street.)  The Sub Treasury received $10,000 worth of new nickels in ten wooden kegs.

Unfortunately for these budding young nickel entrepreneurs, the novelty wore off by noon and the Buffalo nickel sunk back down to its original face-value cost.

The new nickels were designed by the sculptor James Earle Fraser, a former assistant of the estimable Augustus Saint-Gaudens and best known in New York perhaps for his equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History.

Fraser, a professor at the Art Students League, designed the new coin from a studio at 3 MacDougal Alley, off of Washington Square Park.  An admirer of Western and Native American imagery, Fraser used a series of models for the noble Indian profile on the front of the coin.  For the buffalo on the reverse side, Fraser reportedly went to Central Park Zoo and used their old buffalo Black Diamond for a model.

At right: James Earle Fraser in 1912 with a clay model of a Theodore Roosevelt bust (courtesy National Cowboy Museum)

Or at least, Black Diamond has always been considered the model for the buffalo nickel.  In fact, Fraser may also have used specimens from the Bronx Zoo including a fiesty beast named, appropriately, Bronx.  Given the renown of the Bronx Zoo collection -- the institution essentially saved the buffalo from extinction -- it might have made more sense to use their animals as models.

Despite outcries from manufacturers of coin operated devices -- who claimed the new five-cent piece would not fit in their machines -- the buffalo nickel was minted in February 1913, replacing the Liberty Head nickel that year.  (A small handful of Liberty Heads were made in 1913, becoming some of the most prized coinage among the numismatic set.)  Americans got a preview of the new coin when a small number were distributed by President William Howard Taft at the groundbreaking for the National American Indian Memorial in Staten Island, a monument that was ultimately never built.

A week later, on the first day of March, rolls of the new buffalo nickels were distributed to New Yorkers on Wall Street, and millions more sent across the country for distribution.

Perhaps Fraser's design was a tad too whimsical for some.  The term 'buffalo nickel' soon became slang for something nearly worthless.  Just a month later, the New York Sun reported, "[T]he $1,500 mathematical job didn't mean anymore to him yesterday afternoon than a buffalo nickel."

In 1921, one of Fraser's human models, the chieftain Two Guns White Calf, pitched his teepee atop the luxury Hotel Commodore next door to Grand Central Terminal in a publicity stunt.

The buffalo nickel was replaced in 1938 by the more familiar Thomas Jefferson model.

Below: A news clipping featuring an image of Two Guns White Calf with his daughter. (Courtesy Flickr/sharknose)

Coin image courtesy Coin Collecting For Beginners