Friday, May 31, 2013

The startling history of Bellevue Hospital, beyond the horror stories, the last resort for the New York unwanted

Bellevue from the waterfront, 1879.  Proximity to the shoreline -- which once gave the original mansion here that 'belle vue' -- was key in the early years of Bellevue, as sometimes it was the fastest way to get to the hospital when roads were less than ideal. (Courtesy NYC HHC)

PODCAST Bellevue Hospital, you might have heard, once had a very notorious psychiatric ward. But those horror stories have only distracted from the rather breathtaking -- and heart-breaking -- history of this historic institution, a lifeline not only for the sick, but for the poor, the incarcerated, the abandoned -- even the dead!

The hospital traces its origins to a six-bed almshouse that once sat near the location of New York City Hall today. Despite its humble and (to the modern eye) confusing original purposes, the almshouse was miles better than the barbaric medical procedures of early New York, courtesy the ominous sounding 'barber-surgeons'.

A series of yellow fever epidemics moved care for the sick to a former mansion called Belle Vue near Murray Hill -- and, in fact, with a strong connection to the Murray of said Hill.  Soon the institution fulfilled a variety of roles and in rather ghastly conditions, from 'pest house' to execution ground, from a Pathological Museum to New York's first city morgue.

A great many medical advances came from Bellevue, not least of which the origins of the modern ambulance. But some of that progress has been obscured by the reputation of the Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital which opened in 1931 and 'hosted' a variety of famous people with disturbing issues.  And in the 1980s, Bellevue would take on another grim role -- during the most distressing years of the AIDS crisis.

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The Bowery Boys: Bellevue Hospital

Bellevue traces its start to the original Almshouse which sat in the old common ground that is today City Hall and City Hall Park.  The first infirmary was on the second floor, a total of six beds and originally just one doctor.  When it moved to the Belle Vue mansion during the yellow fever years, this building became refashioned for several institutions, including (as seen below) Scudder's American Museum, which became the basis for P. T. Barnum's museum of the same name. (Courtesy NYPL)

The first incarnation of the 'almshouse hospital' in 1852.  By this time, the city had expanded up to this area of Bellevue, and the hospital both farmed out services like its penitentiary and 'pest-house' to Blackwell's Island and expanded its current site to serve the needs of thousands of newly arrived immigrants. (NYPL)

The hospital always had a morgue -- its mortality rate, after all, was quite high in the 1830s-40s -- but in 1866, it expanded to become New York City's first city morgue.  Bodies had to be buried after a few days, but for identification and forensic purposes, clothing and other personal articles were kept on display for a month then put into storage.

The first ambulance service ever started at Bellevue in 1869, thanks to the hospital's connections to the Civil War. The fleet of horse-drawn ambulances features a gong to get through busy streets and a container of brandy as an early reliever of pain.

By the way, I read in one source that the railing of that spectacular entrance to the left was actually taken from the balcony of the demolished Federal Hall, where George Washington was sworn in as America's first president! I'll have to find out more about that.... (NYC HHC)

The circus of Barnum and Bailey annually visited the old hospital, entertaining the patients who watched from those glorious iron balconies.  This picture is from 1919 and featured some performers dresses as Indians. (Courtesy Bellevue Hospital Archives)

The hospital's enduring reputation for treating alcoholics -- and the less-than-glowing reputation of its psychiatric ward -- were featured in the Billy Wilder film 'The Lost Weekend', which won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Patients had to be evacuated in October 2012 during Hurricane Sandy and was only restored to full service in February of this year.

CORRECTION: In discussing early hospitals that moved into old mansions, I mention Long Island City Hospital, but meant Long Island College Hospital.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Roosevelt Island - from the New York Times to tomorrow's podcast!

In this weekend's New York Times Travel section, I chat with Emily Brennan about three places outside the borough of Manhattan that would make ideal destinations for tourists if the lines get too long at the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty.  You can read the interview here, but the places I discuss include:

-- Wave Hill - It can be a bit challenging to get there, but this green oasis -- once home to young Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain -- is worth the journey

-- Snug Harbor - It's just a short cab or bus ride from the St. George ferry station in Staten Island, and an amazing collection of architecture awaits you along Richmond Terrace.

-- And finally, Roosevelt Island, with an amazing view of Manhattan, an oddball assortment of historical structures (from the lighthouse to the ruins) and of course that tram ride!

Roosevelt Island (once known as Blackwell's Island and Welfare Island) features prominently in tomorrow's new podcast, a story of desperate circumstances, bizarre medical practices and a Revolutionary War era mansion.

Also to prepare for tomorrow's new show, may I suggest a couple prior blog posts?

-- Execution Corner: 13th and 2nd Avenue
-- Asylum! The insane foundations of Columbia University

And thanks to Emily Brennan for a great interview.

Picture courtesy NYPL

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Strangers Hospital: Your special home on Avenue D, brought to you by Boss Tweed's plumber king

A genuine survivor: The building to the right was once the Strangers Hospital in the 1870s.  This picture, by Berenice Abbott, was taken many decades later, in 1937.  And the building is still around today! (Picture NYPL)

New York used to lump the sick, the poor and the homeless into one mass of needy unwanted.  Since its founding, the city has struggled take care of the growing dual problems of poverty and plague, but in a way that kept the unwanted safely invisible to its wealthier classes.

With the rise of immigration starting in the 1840s, the problem became too pervasive to simply throw people into large catch-all institutions like Bellevue Hospital (which, in its early years, served as almshouse, hospital, quarantine, prison and morgue).  Soon Blackwell's Island became the solution, with a string of grim institutions lining the East River island.

Below: For those less 'worthy', a cold night might have meant sleeping in the local police station. In the illustration below (1877), the homeless are turned out into the street at morning's light. (NYPL)

Another solution for the homeless arose in 1870s in the delirious days of the scandals of the Tweed Ring.  John H. Keyser made his fortune in the growing new field of indoor plumbing; in fact, he seemed to be wildly successful at it, a sudden millionaire in an era were certain men -- with certain connections -- grew wealthy overnight.

Keyser may have had friends in high places, but he expressed an unusual need for the common man. Perhaps his outreach was a tad cynical; the poor he helped often voted the way Keyser preferred.  But with the city facing a severe poverty crisis, even the baited gesture had beneficial results.

The plumber king operated a 'Strangers Rest' at 510 Pearl Street in 1869, a boarding house for vagrant men and women.  The vagrant house was situated halfway between City Hall and Five Points, and it operated on that spirit as well, an abode of good will and a little favoritism.  You could stay if you were deemed "worthy," meaning either good behavior or an unofficial pledge of allegiance to the Democratic Party.

The following year, Keyser purchased a building for $8,000 owned by the New York Dry Dock Company and transformed it into the Strangers Hospital, a vagrant home and care center in the vastly crowded Lower East Side.  The building is still standing today at 143-145 Avenue D.  Across the street is the Dry Dock Playground.

The Strangers Hospital opened in January 1871 with dozens of bed in several wards, a reading room, Russian and Turkish baths, a recreation room, and a chapel, with walls made of "India rubber, to avert the absorption of any infectious materials."

An opening day blessing announced its unique mission: "It is not intended for the benefit of the wealthy, who in times of sickness can command the comforts of a well-ordered home and the attendance of a skillful physician or surgeon.  Nor yet the beggar, who leads a life of dissolute idleness, rotating in winter and in sickness about the charitable institutions of this city.  It is intended for the succor and restoration of the deserving poor......strangers -- strangers to the home of plenty and comfort in which they have been born and nurtured, and from which misfortune and disease have parted them."

In other words, you were worthy if they deemed you to be so.

It was an odd differentiation.  As an accommodation for up to 200 people, it served not only as a regular treatment hospital for the 'deserving poor', but as a convalescent home and halfway house.  Most likely, you had to be recommended but a tenant in good standing and, as I mentioned, it probably helped if you were a Democrat.

I underscore that because the Strangers Hospital didn't last very long, closing in 1874. And this is why -- Keyser was known as the 'Ring Plumber', a crony of William 'Boss' Tweed who enjoyed thousands of dollars in kickbacks and special favors.  Tweed went to trial in 1873 for his crimes, and his cronies, although never formally charged, were disgraced.

Below: Keyser would have been one of the links of this chain of favoritism, envisioned by illustrator Thomas Nast 

Contemporary sources of the day are not kind to Keyser, with one account call him "a real live Oily Gammon [arch-villian, from an English phrase which meant fatty ham], an Americanized specimen of the article -- revised and improved in order to fit him to be a bright and shining light in the fraternity of which he is a member."

By 1877 Keyser went bankrupt.  Still, his obituary lists several more philanthropic efforts by Keyser, including a "free eating house" in Washington Square in 1888.  From the headline: "Thousands were aided by Man Accused to Being Tweed's Partner." So whether or not his actions were sincere, he did manage to fund the feeding and caring of thousands of poor and sick New Yorkers.  Where does such a legacy stand?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Central Park's Maine Monument: Dedicated 1913

At Memorial Day celebrations one hundred years ago, one of New York City's great war memorials was finally unveiled -- the Maine Monument, at the southwest corner entrance of Central Park.  The monument pays tribute to the 266 American soldiers who perished on the USS Maine, which exploded in Havana, Cuba, on February 15, 1898.

Given the various wars which have involved the United States since then, this event is sometimes overshadowed, but it so horrified and angered Americans that emotions helped fuel the conflict known as the Spanish-American War later that year.

This is often considered a war manufactured by New York publishers as anti-Spanish rhetoric in the papers -- the seeds of so-called 'yellow journalism', featuring outlandish exaggeration or out-right fabrication to sell their product to New Yorkers -- led directly into military engagement.

Newspapers were not only behind the causes of war; they were behind its monuments too.  Within days of the explosion, William Randolph Hearst called for donations for a memorial to the Maine's fallen crew.

Just as Joseph Pulitzer had done a decade earlier for the Statue of Liberty, Hearst went directly to its readers, young and old, to help fund a tribute to the Maine.  Given the wall-to-wall coverage of the war that year and the ample profits from newspaper sales, it's strange that Hearst couldn't just fund the whole thing himself.

Less than a month after the disaster, people around the country were fund-raising for the Maine Memorial.  In March 1898, a traveling comic opera crew was raising money in Oklahoma when its lead actress killed herself.  The following month, a vaudeville benefit at New York's Koster & Bial in Herald Square was overtaken by sailors who took to singing patriotic songs from the balconies.

Hundreds of special benefits were hosted in theaters and stages across the country over the next decade.  It's unclear how much of the proceeds ended up funding the monument, as it took well over a decade for money to be raised and its design -- by New Jersey architect Harold Van Buren Magonigle, America's go-to memorial designer of the Gilded Age -- to be approved.  Magonigle enlisted his frequent collaborator Attilio Piccirilli to create the bronze and marble sculptures.

Some of that earnest enthusiasm seems to have disappeared when the memorial was finally dedicated on Memorial Day 1913.  According the New York Sun, leading New York artist erupted in "a storm of criticism" at the shiny, ostentatious design, with aesthetes calling the work a "misfit" and "a disgrace to the city."

Many thought its relationship to the actual Maine was lost in vague theatrical symbolism.  "Architecturally and constructively the whole thing is cheap and bad."[source]

The memorial was unveiled with a grand military parade and the attendance of ten warships in the harbor, including one from Havana.  There was, of course, one great conflict on everybody's mind that day when, in the official ceremony, sworn enemies Hearst and Mayor William Jay Gaynor met at the unveiling. (Among many grievances, Hearst had unsuccessfully run against Gaynor for mayor in 1909.)  With utmost restraint, Gaynor managed to shake Hearst's hand without punching him in the face.

Two years later, a second memorial to the Maine was placed in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.  And in 1926, a lavish monument was placed in Havana, Cuba.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Evangelist of Kitsch: Liberace's final performances, with the Rockettes, at Radio City Music Hall 1986

Liberace is the embodiment of a certain California flamboyance, but New Yorkers were as susceptible to his allure as anyone.

In fact, for this brightly-painted musical showman, Radio City Music Hall was a second home.  He continued to smash box office records here year after year as late as the 1980s, well past his prime as anything more than a jewel-encrusted artifact.  In 1985, his stint here grossed more than $2 million.

He went out, of course, in a blaze of glory and sequins.  His final live show anywhere was at Radio City on November 2, 1986, capping two weeks of consecutive shows at the venue. (Most stars have a hard time packing the house one night!)

The entertainer, with his flowing robes, acres of feathered frippery, furs and wires and "dancing waters," was enough spectacle for any stage, but for this series of shows, he was also joined by the Rockettes and a gigantic simulation of the Statue of Liberty holding a candelabra. Photo of the tickets courtesy Bob's Liberace

Time Magazine's Richard Corliss, in a 1986 article called 'The Evangelist of Kitsch, sets this scene:  "The lights go down in Manhattan's deco dream palace, Radio City Music Hall, and Mr. Showmanship makes his entrance, flying across the huge stage in a cocoon of feathers, enough for a whole flock of purple ostriches."

That's right;  in a move that would inspire future boy bands, Liberace flew in, "attached to a wire like a puffed-up Peter Pan, in a hundred pounds of purple and white feathers," according to the New York Times.

The audience lapped up every bon mot of coy comedy.  Corliss: "They laughed as he sat down on his studded coattails and remarked, 'If the rhinestones are turned the wrong way it'll kill ya.'"

Liberace was assisted on stage by his new handsome assistant Lee;  his last assistant and chauffeur -- and not-so-secret lover -- Scott Thorson had settled his palimony lawsuit out of court just earlier that year for $95,000. (This is the subject of Sunday night's Behind the Candelabra with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon.)

Believe it or not, it wasn't Lee or the Rockettes that got the most stage time with Liberace during the Radio City Music Hall performances.  That honor belonged to 14-year old child pianist and "Liberace protege" Eric Hamelin, who performed a piano duet with the feather-frocked superstar ("Slaughter on Tenth Avenue") and a couple other numbers. At right: the star and his protege (source)

Stephen Holden at the Times was understandably critical of the actual performance.  "His heavy-miked pianism is at once metallic sounding, exaggeratedly florid in ornamentation and unbendingly rigid in tone and phrasing," said the critic.

But the audience lapped it up, as he buoyantly hopped from classic to classic with jokey classical trills linking the songs together.  His tribute to Chopin led right into "Mack the Knife."  His mournful, dripping "Send In The Clowns" spiraled into the silly '60s novelty song "Bumble Boogie."

His final song that final evening was "I'll Be Seeing You".  The audience leaped to their feet as Liberace in his sumptuous robes and dazzling bejeweled rings gave his final bow.  Three months later, Liberace would be found dead of AIDS-related pneumonia in his Palm Springs home.

He left the stage with his personal charms intact even as his engineered facade had practically disintegrated.    "Too many young performers have forgotten that the most important part of show business is not the second word, it's the first," he was quoted as saying . "Without the show there's no business."

Believe it or not, video footage from those final Radio City Music Hall concerts.   While this footage is poor quality, the fact that it exists at all is extraordinary.  Pop open the champagne and enjoy!

Courtesy showmanlee on YouTube.


Top picture courtesy NBC/wire image

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Go Thistles! The finest names from old NYC soccer teams

Above: The New York Nationals and the New Bedford Whalers play the Polo Grounds, circa 1928 (Courtesy NYPL)

The announcement on Tuesday of a second Major League Soccer team for New York -- sponsored by Manchester City FC and the New York Yankees -- has sent me down a rabbit hole of soccer history, courtesy this excellent and exhaustive article on the subject by David Litterer.

The New York Football Club will join the New York Red Bulls on the soccer fields in 2015.  But when do they get a new name? NYCFC seems so, I don't know, average.

New Yorkers have been playing soccer for almost 140 years with regional leagues forming in the 1880s.  By the early 1900s, newspapers were beginning to call it soccer (or "soccer" football, as in this article). Here are a few of the more interesting names of organized soccer teams from New York City over the many years:

New York Thistles -- played from the early 1880s until 1906.  Among their colorfully named competition in those years were the Brooklyn Longfellows, the New York Caledonians, New York Nonpareils and the Williamsburg Shamrocks.

New York Hakoah -- The original Hakoah (Hebrew for 'strength') played in New York during in the 1920s, derived from a Jewish Austrian sports club of the same name.  (It eventually derived many of its players from the Austrian team too.)  Several players inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame played for the Hakoah at one point.  There is presently a team by this name keeping up the tradition in New Jersey.

New York Americans -- This patriotic team formed by Hungarian player Emo Schwarz entertained audiences during the Great Depression, along with the New York Brookhattan.  In the 1950s, they actually merged with another team to form a second incarnation of the New York Hakoah.

New York Skyliners -- Playing all their games at Yankee Stadium, the New York Skyliners were a curious aberration that lasted only a single season (1967), giving New York two professional soccer teams (the other being the New York Generals).  Nobody on the team was from New York; they were simply the (briefly) rebranded Cerro team from Montevideo, Uruguay.  By the end of 1968, both the Generals and the Skyliners had folded.

New York Cosmos -- Soccer made a serious push to rival baseball and football in the United States in the 1970s, and New York's entrant into this new spotlight were the Cosmos, who played from 1971 to 1984.  In late 1970s, at the height of their popularity, they were packing 40,000 people per game into Giants Stadium, thanks in part to their star player PelĂ© (pictured above).  Sadly, the excitement for soccer waned in the 1980s. The North American Soccer League folded, as did the Cosmos.

But everything is new again. A new of the NASL started up again in 2011, as is a new edition of the New York Cosmos, starting this seas.  So, for now, this name is off-limits.

There's also a host of one-shot names that cropped up in old "soccer" football records between 1860 and 1880s.  From that list, I'd like to offer up the following names --  New York Married & Singles, New York Dauntless, New York Gentlemen, New York Pilgrims and the New York Westside Rovers.

Of course, if there is a new name, it will probably be a product of some sort. But at least make it a New York-based product please! The New York Snapples? The New York Katzs'?  The New York Shake Shacks?

NOTE: If any New York soccer fans have any corrections to the information above, please send them along. Thanks!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

History in the Making: Gangster's Funeral Edition

Mary Help of Christian Church pictured in the 1920s (Courtesy NYPL)

Hail Mary:  There's a rally tomorrow evening at 6pm to save Mary Help of Christian Church in the East Village.  This unique building from 1917, once serving the area's Italian immigrant population, has been bought by a developer and is slated for demolition. The rally is in front of the church at East 12th Street and Avenue A. [GVSHP]

And here's a brief history of Mary Help of Christians Church. It's where they had the funeral of a few noted gangster, including that of Giuseppe Masseria in his solid silver coffin.  And Sara Delano Roosevelt, granddaughter of FDR, got married here. But, sure, let's rip it down and put an ordinary condo please.  [Daytonian In Manhattan]

Let the music play: And is Tin Pan Alley in danger too? [Lost City]

What's that ringing?: Riverside Church is in no danger, thank goodness, nor is the musical secret it holds: the 100-ton carillon in the bell tower. [Narratively]

Wild on wheels: And since we're on some creative Narratively content, I think you'll like this interactive tale of Annie Londonderry, the woman who attempted to bike around the world in 1894. [Narratively]

Unconventional: In our latest podcast on the history of the Limelight, I made mention of the number of convents in New York City over the year. Well, Forgotten NY goes one further and does a tour of the street actually named for one -- Convent Avenue -- featuring the beautiful neo-Gothic architecture of City College. [Forgotten New York]

And are you signed up yet for the Bowery Boys weekly newsletter Five Points?  We're recommending out-of-the-way, oddball, historical themed events for your weekend.  Last week was Humphrey Bogart, sheep shearing, a book sale, Miss Subways and a tea party with Aaron Burr's wives. What's happening for Memorial Day weekend? [Sign up here]

Friday, May 17, 2013

Close shave: A century ago, barbers riot through New York, leaving half-shaved men in vacated barber shops

A barber shop at the Hotel de Gink on the Bowery, circa 1910-15 [LOC]

The fight for worker's rights swept through a variety of occupations over a century ago as New York City laborers rebelled against unfair corporate practices and unsafe working conditions.

Garment workers marched the avenues in protest following the tragic Triangle Factory fire of 1911, as did underpaid street cleaners and ashcart men, leaving heaps of un-retrieved rubbish on the street in protest.  The following year, the waiters and staff of dozens of New York's finest hotels took to the streets for better pay. Why, by 1913, even some players on the Brooklyn Dodgers were unionizing!

And one hundred years ago this month, it was the barbers turn to march.

Many of the same leaders from other occupational strikes were at the center of the barber strike, which got its footing in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville.  Soon, barbers across the city had dropped their razors and foaming brushes and left work in consolidation for better hours.

A letter-writer to a wonderfully named 1913 journal called Journeyman Barber, Hairdresser, Cosmetologist and Proprietor wrote, "I will say that on a certain bright morning in the month of May, I found that the entire barber industry was paralyzed.  Nearly 13,000 workingmen were out on strike. Isn't that a miracle?  Thirteen thousand barbers on strike!"

Mayhem reigned upon the craggy, unshaven faces of Brooklyn men.  "From Bushwick to Bay Ridge haggard men go about with the telltale blemish encroaching upon their visages like a noxious fungus.  Half-shaved men slink about the alleys, avoiding the light of day." [source]

Scenes of violence did erupt throughout the city, as strike-breakers were attacked and angry mobs filled the street.  A mob of 5,000 strikers -- "singing socialistic songs," noted the New York Tribune -- clashed with police in Brownsville on May 7th, customers fleeing barber shops in "a shower of vegetables" and the occasional flying rock.

Below: a cheeky editorial cartoon from the May 8th 1913 Evening World

A couple days later, thousands of barbers marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to Union Square, gathering up working men along the way, emptying barber shops of employees and leaving stunned customers in their chairs.  In Union Square the strikers heard speeches from organizers including Joseph James Ettor (pictured below), who had helped organize the waiter's strike just a few months before.

The Evening World makes curious note of one exception to this striking throng. "ONLY LADY BARBERS WORK IN BROOKLYN WHILE MEN STRIKE" went the headline.  "Such a business as the feminine barber shops did!"

Manhattan barbers joined their Brooklyn brothers by mid-month, setting up a Manhattan strike headquarters at 140 Second Avenue.  (Today, that the address of the Ukrainian East Village restaurant.)  Arlington Hall at nearby St. Mark's Place was the scene of several union gatherings for striking barbers.

Descriptions of rioting barbers sound a bit like scenes from the Civil War draft riots, although much of that description was the newspaper flourish of the day.

Below: Thousands of barber shop workers and their supporters gather in Union Square in 1913. I believe this is the northwest corner of the park. (LOC)

But it does sound like a violent few days in Manhattan.  Shop windows were smashed by rioters in the Ladies Mile shopping district, and altercations with store owners put many in the hospital.  The Sun noted: "Window smashing and attacks on workers, common all day, culminated in dozens of small riots all over the city, so many and so rapid that police headquarters heard of them in bunches."

Eventually, the strike proved a success, as barbershop owners agreed to worker's demands.  According to one source, instead of working up to 92 hours a week, employers now agreed to the relatively mild 62 hours a week for their workers, with one entire day off on Sunday! [source]

"2,300 Boss Barbers Capitulate," declared the Evening World on May 30th. "Brooklyn Strike Over." By the first of June, it was safe again to go to a barber shop.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Green-Wood Cemetery, Katz's Deli and The Cloisters: Three great New York institutions, three big anniversaries

Green-Wood Cemetery celebrates its 175th year as Brooklyn's oldest greenspace, populated with deceased politicians, writers and actors.  It's the final resting place for some of New York's most famous and notorious characters -- Henry Ward Beecher, Horace Greeley, DeWitt Clinton and Boss Tweed among them.

The Museum of the City of New York debuts its new exhibit "A Beautiful Way To Go: New York's Green-wood Cemetery" this week, while the cemetery itself is planning a host of events, including trolley tours, concerts and their popular twilight tours. (The nighttime tour this weekend is sold out, but you can visit their website for future events.)

It's a good time to chow down at Katz's Delicatessen again on the occasion of its 125th birthday.  It was in the year 1888 that a deli officially opened at the southeast corner of Ludlow and Houston, serving the neighborhood's immigrant community.  It was sold to the Katzs in 1910s, renamed and moved to its present location.

They're throwing a big birthday bash on May 31 with all proceeds going to another great Lower East Side institution, the Henry Street Settlement.  But if you can't make that, you can always go online and buy anniversary souvenirs.

And finally, the Cloisters Museum, the medieval branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at Fort Tryon Park, is celebrating its 75th birthday this month.  This unusual collection of European buildings were shipped over and reassembled upon a famous Revolutionary War site by John D. Rockefeller Jr., and they house one of America's most beautiful collections of medieval artworks, including, of course, the Unicorn Tapestries (another gift from Rockefeller).

Opening this week is 'Search for the Unicorn: An Exhibition in Honor of The Cloisters' 75th Anniversary', a perfect time to revisit these strange, fantastical pieces of art.

If the weather's nice, why not visit all three? There just happen to be Bowery Boys podcasts on all three places! You can find them all for free on iTunes and other podcast aggregates. Or download them from these links:

-- Green-Wood Cemetery
-- Katz Delicatessen
-- The Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park

Green-Wood pic courtesy NYPL; Cloisters courtesy Met Museum

Friday, May 10, 2013

Sign up for "Five Points Weekend," the new Bowery Boys newsletter!

"Five Points" by George Catlin, painted in 1827, when it was Paradise Square and not yet the ramshackle slum of yore.

The Bowery Boys are excited to be embarking on an exciting new project that will bring New York City history closer to you than ever before -- with our "Five Points Weekend" newsletter.

What's in a "Five Points Weekend"?

Starting in next week's debut newsletter, the two of us will recommend five free (or almost free) activities in the city that relate to history happenings that weekend -- from special tours and museum exhibits to commemorations and parties.

Our five choices will be sent to your inbox every Wednesday morning, just in time for the weekend.

We hope to bring a mix of the fascinating, the informative and the zany, from across all five boroughs. What might we choose to include?
  • Ghost tours of a famous cemetery? Check. 
  • An interesting (and overlooked) exhibit in a small museum in the Village? Absolutely. 
  • Actors in period dress? We're there!
Sign up! 

To receive the Bowery Boys "Five Points Weekend" email, please sign up here.

We'll see you there!

Thanks in advance for subscribing. We're so excited to give a little extra love to those New York history events and exhibits that make this city, and its story, so special. We look forward to seeing you there!

Submit an event

Do you have a New York City history-themed event you'd like us to consider for inclusion in the newsletter? Please email Tom about the event. Be sure to include details about location, hours, admission charges and a link for more information. Many thanks!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Corona Ash Dump: Brooklyn's burden on Queens, a vivid literary inspiration and bleak, rat-filled landscape

Ah, take in the horrid reality of the Corona marshes with their ashes, manure and garbage! (Courtesy CUNY)

Outside of probably Hell, there is no literary landscape as forlorn and soul-crushing as the ash dumps of Corona, Queens.

"This is the valley of ashes," writes Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, "a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air."

The Corona ash dump was a stain on Queens every bit as real as Fresh Kills landfill would later be on Staten Island, a repository for the detritus from Brooklyn coal furnace that created crud-caked mountains amid a salty marsh.

The salt marshes sat relatively untouched, along with other large stretches of the newly formed borough. The Brooklyn Ash Removal Company moved here in 1909 after it outgrew its dumping grounds on a small island in Jamaica Bay named Barren Island.  (The island no longer exists per se; landfill connected it to the mainland and Floyd Bennett Field was built there in 1930)

Below: A sanitation worker carting carting away a full barrel of ash. The open cart would be filled, taken to barges, then sent to far-away dumps. In the 1910s, Brooklyn ash went to Corona. {NYPL}

With the increase of coal-burning furnaces in the late 19th century, the city had yet another sanitation crisis sullying the streets.  Even by 1910s, New York was trying to clamp down on the situation -- literally -- attempting to get residents and private businesses to cover their ash carts and containers "as to protect pedestrians from the annoyance of flying ash dust." [source]

In Queens, mountains of choking, awful ash made for poor living conditions for neighboring Corona on one side, Flushing on the other.  It was a constant eyesore for early commuters, as the Long Island Railroad went right past it, as did the main thoroughfares of northern Long Island -- roads taken by many of the wealthy 'Gold Coast' families.

One ash pile was so large -- almost 100 feet -- that it was christened Mount Corona.  And of course it wasn't just ash; barges filled with animal manure docked here as well, awaiting local farmers who used the waste as fertilizer.

And new menace was introduced in 1920  -- an infestation of rats. "War Declared Upon Rats," declared the New York Times. An army of exterminators were sent to wipe out the colony of rats that lived among the ashen meadow dumps.

Below: From 1897, loading a scow full of ash to be taken to the local dump (NYPL)

Believe it or not, the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company tried to convince residents that presence of the grim, brimstone terrain next to their homes was getting rid of pests. When they were taken to court in 1923, "charged with permitting dense smoke to issue from the dumps," they claimed the dumping grounds were good for the salt marshes, as they helped rid the neighborhood of mosquitoes!

With the population of Queens almost doubling during the 1920s, it seemed the days of the Corona Ash Dump were numbered. Enter Robert Moses, with his dreams of a large and spectacular park for the growing borough.  He swiftly moved in, bought all the marshland, all the mountains of ash, and filled in wetlands and the dark hills to create Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.  If you've been to Citi Field or the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, then you have sat upon land that was once the Corona ash dumps.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Great Gatsby's New York City, in ten different scenes, from the Queensboro Bridge to the Plaza Hotel

Times Square at night, 1921 (NYPL)

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 uniquely unconventional 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 Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I re-read The Great Gatsby a few weeks ago on purpose, not because I had a school assignment. Unlike my first experience with Gatsby at age 14, I actually read it, without the signposts of a Cliff's Notes to tell me what I was supposed to be getting from it.

Of course the impetus for re-discovering F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece is the flashy new Baz Luhrmann film coming out this weekend, which uses the text as an excuse to throw an expensive 3-D party, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Beyonce, large champagne bottles, fifty shades of pink, the ghost of Mae West and a whole host of other drunk guests.

Few works of American literature have been as comprehensively analyzed as The Great Gatsby, by which I mean, of course, over-analyzed.  One reason I'm excited about the film, with all its superficial decadence on display, is that it seems to discard several decades of nine-dimensional analyses that have settled upon the book like a thick shroud of dust.  Maybe that's wearing white to a funeral, so to speak, but true masterpieces can weather an occasional glare.

The Great Gatsby deserves to be savored for many reasons that I had forgotten or never noticed through the filter of creating a B+ term paper in my teenage years.  It's one of the most economic stories of the 20th century, an exercise of graceful control, an epic with powerful restraint.  In comparison, try reading Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and the Damned -- an embittered New York book twice as long with half as much to say-- to appreciate the brevity of Gatsby.

Fitzgerald uses the locales of 1922 New York City so precisely -- jetting around Long Island and over the bridge to Manhattan -- that it seems almost possible to map the characters' every move.

There are three principal types of locations in The Great Gatsby.  About half the novel's actions take place on either East Egg or West Egg, fictional northern Long Island villages still graced with the mansions of Gilded Age millionaires.  Characters escape to Manhattan, big and glittering, either to entertain their mistresses or to dine with gentlemen of suspicious occupation.  And then, of course, there's the wasteland in between, where secrets are laid bare and burnt to ash.  Welcome to Queens!

Fitzgerald paints a very lush, cockeyed view of New York City in the early 1920s.  Here's some of the more interesting city locations you'll visit as you read along, and some of the words he used to describe them:

Queensboro Bridge
"The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty of the world."

'Anything can happen now that we've slid over this bridge,' I thought; 'anything at all....'  

Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder."

The 1920s were more than just a decade of speakeasies and spendthrifts. It was the decade of immense growth for Manhattan's outer boroughs, none more so than Queens, thanks mostly to the opening of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909 and a connection to New York's new subway system.

The IRT Astoria line
"[W]e sped along toward Astoria at fifty miles an hour, until, among the spidery girders of the elevated, we came in sight of the easy-going blue coupe."

Astoria's elevated train opened in 1917, at the time servicing only trains of the IRT. (The trains of the BMT a little too wide to use the stations.)  So as Gatsby, Nick Carraway and the gang race underneath it to get onto the Queensboro, they're really experiencing something quite new, a symbol of New York's expansion into Queens.

Corona Ash Dumps
"We passed Port Roosevelt, where there was a glimpse of red-belted ocean-going ships, and sped along a cobbled slum lined with the dark, undeserved saloons of the faded-gilt nineteen-hundreds.  Then the valley of ashes opened out on both sides of us."

Once the place where New York and Brooklyn dumped their ash from coal-burning furnaces, the old ash dumps of Corona turned a bit of Queens into a gloomy and unpleasant landscape.  It would take Robert Moses and dreams of a World's Fair to transform the ashen landscape into Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in the 1930s. (Picture courtesy the Queens Museum)

Fifth Avenue at 66th Street, approx. 1900, from the Albertype Co. (Courtesy LOC)

Upper Fifth Avenue
"We drove over to Fifth Avenue, so warm and soft, almost pastoral, on the summer Sunday afternoon that I wouldn't have been surprised to see a great flock of white sheep turn the corner."

This was not as bizarre as it sounds, for nearby Central Park actually had sheep grazing in it until 1934.  Granted, they would have been on the other side of the park, in today's aptly named Sheep Meadow, of course.

Above 158th Street and Riverside Drive, 1921 (NYPL)

Washington Heights
"We went on, cutting back again over the Park towards the West Hundreds. At 158th Street the cab stopped at one slice in a long white cake of apartment-houses.  Throwing a regal homecoming glance around the neighborhood, Mrs. Wilson gathered up her dog and her other purchases, and went haughtily in."

Once the respite of wealthy manors in the 19th century, the upper reaches of Manhattan gave way to middle class housing at the start of the new century.  Myrtle's perch here in Washington Heights would have been appropriately out of the way in the 1920s.

The Murray Hill Hotel
"After that, if the night was mellow, I strolled down Madison Avenue past the old Murray Hill Hotel and over 33d Street to the Pennsylvania Station....I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove."

Opening in 1884 to serve the needs of those arriving from Grand Central Depot, the Murray Hill Hotel kept its halls fully occupied until its demolition in 1946.  The Daytonian In Manhattan blog has a wonderful tale of the hotel's colorful history.

Above: 42nd Street in 1926 (Courtesy Kings Academy)

Forty-Second Street
"Roaring noon. In a well-fanned Forty-second Street cellar I met Gatsby for lunch.  Blinking away the brightness of the street outside, my eyes picked him out obscurely in the anteroom, talking to another man."

From the July 16, 1912 edition of the New York Evening World

Hotel Metropole
"The old Metropole," brooded Mr. Wolfsheim gloomily.  "Filled with faces dead and gone. Filled with friends gone now forever. I can't forget so long as I live the night they shot Rosy Rosenthal there."

The Hotel Metropole was a swanky Times Square hotspot located at 147 W. 43rd Street.  Mr. Wolfsheim (himself a stand-in for gangster Arnold Rothstein) spends a moment recounting the assassination of Herman Rosenthal, gunned down by the mob.  Charles Becker, who was accused of orchestrating the murder, became the first police officer to ever be given the death penalty.

We talk about the Rosenthal assassination in our podcast Case Files of the New York Police Department.

Above: The southwest corner of Central Park, photo by the Wurts Brothers (NYPL)

Central Park
"When Jordan Baker had finished telling all this we had left the Plaza for half an hour and were driving in a victoria through Central Park.  The sun had gone down behind the tall apartments of the movie stars in the West Fifties, and the clear voices of little girls, already gathered like crickets on the grass, rose through the hot twilight.

We passed a barrier of dark treets, and then the facade of Fifth-ninth Street, a block of delicate pale light, beamed down into the park."

The Plaza, photo by the Wurts Brothers (NYPL)

"And we all took the less explicable step of engaging the parlor of a suite in the Plaza Hotel.

The room was large and stifling, and, though it was already four o'clock, opening the windows admitted only a gust of hot shrubbery from the Park."

The Plaza Hotel
The beginning of a string of violent acts in the book begins here at The Plaza, at perhaps the epitome of class in the early 1920s. It was only open about 15 years when the events of the book take place here.

Check out our podcast history of the Plaza Hotel and some more glamorous pictures of the hotel here.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The many lives of the Limelight, aka the facade formerly known as the Church of the Holy Communion

Above: The Church of the Holy Communion -- and once the quite infamous nightclub Limelight -- as the less lauded follow-up, called Avalon.  Within a couple years, the club would be transformed again -- into a high-end retail experience.  Below: Michael Alig, one of its more notorious nightly residents. (source)

PODCAST If you had told 1840s religious leader William Augustus Muhlenberg that his innovative new Church of the Holy Communion, designed by renown architect Richard Upjohn, would become the glittering seat of drugs and debauchery 150 years later, he might have burned it down then and there.

But thankfully, this lovely building is still with us, proving to be one of the most flexible examples of building use in New York City history. 

This unusual tale begins with the captivating relationship between Muhlenberg (the grandson of America's first Speaker of the House) and Anne Ayres, the First Sister in charge of the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion. The two of them helped create one of New York's great hospital centers. But was something else going on between them? 

The Church of the Holy Communion survives the elevated railroad and the fashionable stores of Ladies Mile, and weathers the various fortunes of the neighborhood.  When it is finally sold and deconsecrated, it briefly houses an intellectual collective and a drug rehabilitation center before being bought by Canadian club impresario Peter Gatien, who turns it into the Limelight, an iconic and sacrilegious symbol of New York nightlife.  And in recent years, the old church has morphed into a rather unique retail experience -- shopping mall and department store!

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: The Limelight -- Church, Nightclub and Mall

The Church of the Holy Communion in 1846, from an illustration by TD Booth.  The asymmetrical shape of the church was innovative for the time, as was the irregular position of the brownstone bricks along its walls. It had every indication of being a medieval country church, but for the fact of it being on a street corner at Sixth Avenue and 20th Street! (NYPL)

William Augustus Muhlenberg, grandson of Frederick Muhlenberg (America's first Speaker of the House), was a visionary religious leader.  He opened Church of the Holy Communion as a way to further his progressive religious views.  Pictured below in a carte de visite, probably in the 1860s. (Courtesy NYPL)

Muhlenberg's reputation was greatly bolstered by Anne Ayres, who became the leading sister as the Reverend's  Sisterhood of the Holy Communion, the first Anglican convent of its kind in America.  Ayres helped Muhlenberg with most of the church's major projects and penned an ecstatic biography after his death.  You can read Ayres' biography of Muhlenberg here.

Muhlenberg and Ayres founded a small infirmary near the church, then later expanded it at Fifth Avenue and 54th Street, becoming the first location of St. Luke's Hospital.  As you can tell from the original hospital building, it seems to reflect a bit of the architecture of the Church of the Holy Communion. (Pic courtesy NYPL)

A view from 1895, possibly of a Sunday crowd leaving the church. Vendors like this pretzel seller gathered on the street below, selling treats to shoppers of Ladies Mile.  The church would have been in the heart of New York's major shopping district during the Gilded Age, with grand department stores stretching on either  side of the street. (Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)

The Church of the Holy Communion, enveloped in thick ivy, as it looked in September 1907.  It also appears this photo was taken in the early afternoon, as the shadow of the elevated railroad begins to creep across the street. (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

Peter Gatien, pictured here in a 1993 issue of New York Magazine. The Canadian club owner bought the old church and transformed it into a nightclub in 1983.

The Limelight was a celebrity hotspot from the very opening in 1983.  When William Burroughs had his 70th birthday at the club in 1984, the young new superstar Madonna came by to wish him well. (Photo by Wolfgang Wesener, courtesy here)

But why conjure real celebrities when you could make some yourself!  By the early 1990s, the club kid set the tone for the Limelight, further turning the old church of Muhlenberg into a surreal playground of music and drugs.