Friday, February 28, 2014

Meryl Streep, New York City and theater of the 1970s

It's Meryl in the rain, 1979! From the tumbler ingridsbergman (If anybody knows the name of the photographer, please let me know!)

Meryl Streep is one of New Jersey's greatest natural resources.  She was born in Summit, NJ, also the hometown of Ice-T, and grew up nearby in the town of Bernardsville.  You may not otherwise associate Streep with New Jersey (at least, not in the same way we look at Bruce Springsteen) because, in 1975, after graduating from Vassar and developing her dramatic skills at Yale, she moved to New York City to begin her career in theater.  The Meryl we know, the movie star and acting icon, grew up here.

Almost forty years later, Streep is considered one of the world's greatest and most accomplished living actresses.  She's been nominated for more Academy Awards than any other actor.  In fact, she's considered a benchmark for many thespians to aspire to.  She's so revered that she's occasionally a punchline. (The Onion: "Court Rules Meryl Streep Unable To Be Tried By Jury As She Has No Peers.")

But her early work on the New York stage -- much of it with The Public Theater -- cemented her reputation as a performer of uncommon ability. She became a fixture of both Broadway and off-Broadway at the moment when the creative revolutions of the 1960s were beginning to sink into mainstream productions.

She often worked in classical drama, retooled with unconventional direction.  Her formal training mixed with the spirit of off-Broadway innovators such as Joseph Papp.  It's hard to imagine Streep in a world parallel to that of A Chorus Line (which debuted the summer of her arrival in New York), hoofing it to Midtown auditions, cramming onto crowded subways to get to her performances in Shakespeare plays at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

Below: Meryl on the subway, 1981 (Courtesy Google Life images)

"For those who believe that stars are born overnight only in old movies like Stage Door on the late, late show, let me present Meryl Streep.  She is on the threshold of stardom," wrote the prescient Syracuse Herald-Journal in 1976.

Here is a look at some of her early New York stage successes from the 1970s, both off and on Broadway, accompanied by a few quotes from her first reviews:

Trelawny of the Wells (October-November 1975)
Vivian Beaumont Theatre/Lincoln Center
Playing: Miss Imogen Parrott (at left)

In her professional stage debut, Streep was praised by the New York Times: "tart, level headed, stunningly decked out in salmon gown and white plumes."  The play itself was only modestly received.  "A Chorus Line soars, Trelawny falls flat." [source]

(The Times didn't see the appeal in her early years.  Her first mention there, for a play by the Yale Repertory Theater, described her performance as "perhaps too giddy and high strung.")

27 Wagons Full of Cotton by Tennessee Williams (January-March 1976)
performed with A Memory of Two Mondays by Arthur Miller
The Phoenix Theatre in the East Village (today the Village East Cinemas)
Playing Flora (pictured below)

Writes Walter Kerr: "We can settle down now, locked in the girl's dilemma, to let actress Meryl Streep studiously slap away most believable mosquitoes, splay her legs like a rag doll, twist an evasive but sinuous toe to keep the porch swing rocking rhythmically, count her thoughts on her fingers, clutch her oversize white purse as she weighs inadvertent betrayal against what is happening to her flesh." [source]

This was her breakthrough, and the very first of thousands of awards and nominations that would come her way for her work.  When it transferred to Broadway, she received a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actress In A Play. (She was nominated up against Mary Beth Hurt, her co-star from Trelawny.  They both lost to Shirley Knight.)

Secret Service (April-May 1976)
The Playhouse Theater
Playing Edith Varnay
"Streep was all heaving anguish, startled eyes and passionate stances." [review]

Henry V (June-July 1976)
Shakespeare In The Park
Playing French princess Catharine, pictured below ("I cannot tell vat is dat.")

This is her first appearance in the New York Shakespeare Festival and the way she spent America's Bicentennial.  New Yorkers also got to hear her first non-English accent.  "[T]hough Meryl Streep tends to be stiff in her first scene --the English lesson -- she displays lovely bite and timing when Mr. [Paul Ryan] Rudd courts her." (Picture courtesy Public Theater)

Measure for Measure (August 1977)
Shakespeare In The Park
Playing: Isabella ("And have you nuns no farther privledge.")

This is her for first nun role. She would return to the habit in the Oscar-nominated film Doubt.  Reviews were mixed, the Times questioning the chemistry between Streep and her co-star John Cazale.  The reviewer Kerr suggests her timing is off.

She took a break from the theater to star in her first work for television and film.

From an interview in the New York Times: "Miss Streep, who was drinking a Heineken at the Algonquin, gestured with her hand.... 'Last summer I did all those things in the Park ... and then I went and made a movie in London -- Julia.  I were a red dress in every scene and I look bizarre."

The Cherry Orchard (February-April 1977)
Vivian Beaumont Theatre/Lincoln Center
Playing: Dunyasha ("I must tell you at once, I can't bear to wait a minute.")

Below: Meryl at the Vivian Beaumont, courtesy the Public Theater

Happy End (May-July 1977)
Martin Beck Theater
Playing Lieutenant Lillian Holiday ("Hallelujah Lil")

For this short-lived musical, Streep sang for the first time on the Broadway stage, and looking like a mix of Liza Minnelli and Charlie Chaplin:

Here's an interview she did for that show:

The Taming of the Shrew (August-September 1978)
Shakespeare In The Park
Playing -- who else? -- but Katarina

She's featured in this behind-the-scenes video with her co-star Raul Julia:

Taken In Marriage (February-April 1979)
The Public Theatre/Newman Theatre
Co-starring with Dixie Carter, Colleen Dewhurst, Kathleen Quinlan and Elizabeth Wilson

"Meryl Streep, as Andrea, is a series of prisms, breaking the character's pale light into flashes of misery, remorse, frustrated love and self-hatred.....[S]he is the most wretched member of her family." -- Richard Eder. (Picture courtesy Public Theatre)

Below Meryl Streep in the rather unusual rendition of Alice In Wonderland, originally called 'Alice In Concert' (later retitled 'Alice In The Palace').  According to the Public Theater, this was from an early 1978 showcase which ran for three performances.  She's pictured here with Elizabeth Swados and Joe Papp.

Most pictures here courtesy the Public Theater, unless otherwise noted.  You can already visit their website for information about this season's Shakespeare In The Park.

And thanks to Simply Streep for help on the dates of the productions.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Get Rich Magic: The astral adventures of Madame La Viesta and the Occult School of Science on Lexington Avenue

Above: Famed spiritualists gather in Chicago, 1906. The names weren't listed, but perhaps Mme. La Viesta is pictured here? (Courtesy Chicago Daily News/Library of Congress) 

The Gilded Age brought us human beings of impossibly vast wealth.  It also brought us a mainstream appreciation of spiritualism, an exploration of  magic and the afterlife as a way of understanding a quickly changing world.

And sometimes it brought us both.   Frank W.Woolworth, builder of a retail empire and a legendary skyscraper, was a proponent of Egyptian occult practices, so much so that his mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery is an ode to the Egyptian theories of the afterlife.  The Chicago meat mogul Philip Armour was a rumored spiritualist.  The wives of robber barons frequently attended seances and psychic readings.  Few were immune to the lure of the spiritualism and the possibilities of otherworldly assistance in becoming rich.

Do you want to be rich like Woolworth?  In 1913, the same year as the completion of the Woolworth Building, a series of curious advertisements ran in newspapers across the country:

The ad promoted a free book that revealed the secrets of a "great psychic force which learned men claim rules the destinies of man," produced by the Occult School of Science, located at 2075 (or 2083) Lexington Avenue at 125th Street.**

At this unusual institution, a student could discover a gamut of psychic and magical practices in service of practical life, from finance to marriage.  Among its offerings included divination ("instructions for making a gold vibrator, for locating gold and silver ore"), fortune telling (course name: Methods of Successful Mediums) and the subconscious ("The Egyptian Interpretation of Dreams").

The writer of these curious lectures was none other than Madame Vesta La Viesta (at right), a well-known mystic and traveler of the galaxy.

La Viesta was well known to spiritualism enthusiasts, as well as to those who mocked them.  In 1904, at a place called the Cosmological Center, La Viesta described her recent visit to Mars and Venus via a projection of  her astral self.

Her descriptions predate John Gray's famous book by decades.  Inhabitants of Venus "are associated most happily in soul mated couples, for they have a flexible astral or psychological tubing which invisibly connects their bodies." [source]

In 1907, she revealed to the world the secret of the 'soul kiss', a rapturous and strangely indescribable form of love -- taught to her on a recent astral voyage to Neptune -- involving an aroused nervous system, cellular breathing and 'wireless' transmission of love from miles away.  She was so passionate about this shimmering new form of love that she wrote a song about it called "Description of a Soul Kiss."

Below: Frank Leslie's American Magazine mocked an earlier lecture La Viesta in this 1902 article:

She was known for unusual lectures given from her Upper West Side apartment where she resided over a room of both corporeal and astral students. (Meaning that it looked like a fairly uncrowded room.)  She suggested that both disease and finance were mere "states of mind" that could be controlled using vibrational or astral techniques.  It was possible to let life's many inconveniences "evaporate into the nowhere and melt into the astral ethers." [source]

La Viesta was also a fan of the dew bath, involving women rubbing against morning grass which supposedly contained the secrets of age-defying beauty.

Said La Viesta:  "I have removed my clothing and have stood in the yard at the rear of my home in the darkness of the night and allowed the dew drops to collect over me until I was happy." [You can read more on the curious dew-bath craze here.] At right: Illustration of a woman luxuriating in a dew bath, from 1902 NY Evening World

By 1912, at age 50, La Viesta became associated with the Occult School of Science, founded by Frederic Nugent.  Had she been clairvoyant, she might have known to stay away from Nugent, a notorious grifter.

Nugent, also known as Professor John D'Astro, seemed to approach spiritualism from a more cynical place; in short, he wanted to get rich himself.   Through his advertisements, he coerced people into 'free' spiritual guidance, then sent them catalogs full of useless and costly items.

The trickster specifically targeted poor people, placing hundreds of advertisements throughout the United States with trumped-up or falsified testimonials.  He also joined Madame La Viesta at the podium of the Occult School, offering courses of palmistry and phrenology that could cost up to $12.50 (or almost $300 today).

The Occult School wasn't Nugent's only scam.  He was apparently the mastermind behind at least six other mystical ruses, including the Iridescent Order of Iris, which purported to have over a thousand members, and a separate mail-order lodestone business, the Magnetic Mineral Company, which claimed to share the secrets of 18th century Haitian leader Toussaint Louverture.

Nugent's lodestones granted good luck to their bearers, or so claimed his advertisements.  He bought the rocks from an unknown source at 12 cents a pound (today about $3), then re-sold the magic stones for up to $25 a pound (or about $570).

It was this scam that brought Nugent to the attention of U.S. Post Office inspectors who arrested him for using the mail system to defraud.  They seized "hundreds of pamphlets advertising Nugent's schemes and thousands of testimonials."  After spending a time in the Tombs, Nugent was indicted and sent to prison.

But whatever became of Vesta La Viesta, Nugent's prized instructor?  Since that was not her real name (are you surprised?), it's been difficult to track her later antics down.  It does appear she continued to share spiritual guidance, sometimes with people of some renown, such as the aviator Stanley Yale Beach.  In 1923, she wrote up her experiences in the book People Of Other Worlds.  Perhaps she finally left for the orbiting planets?

**They have several addresses listed, most of them on or around this intersection.  I also found 147 East 125th Street as a possible address.  Most likely, the mystics moved around!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Lord & Taylor's splashy move to Fifth Avenue in 1914, to the "very centre of the sphere of fashionable activity"

Lord & Taylor's at Fifth Avenue and 38th Street, in the 1920s, photo by the Wurts Brothers (courtesy NYPL)

Loehmann's, the once-great Brooklyn-based department store, closes all their locations for good tomorrow, another causality of the changing economy and people's changing tastes in shopping.

But let's not dwell on the decline of the department store. Let's revisit the heyday, shall we?

Lord and Taylor Department Store opened the doors to their tony Fifth Avenue address one hundred years ago yesterday, on February 24, 1914.

"Half way between Madison Square and Central Park on the west side of Fifth Avenue, is the new Lord & Taylor store in the very centre of the sphere of fashionable activity of the city and is convenient to all the transportation lines, to the hotels and restaurants and to the theatres."

The store traces its lineage to a three-story women's clothing store on 47 Catherine Street, which was opened in 1826 by Samuel Lord and George Washington Taylor.  Nearby, men could find equally fine fashions at the clothier of H & D.H.. Brooks (today Brooks Brothers) at Catherine and Cherry Streets.  Catherine Street is hardly a place where you would look for high-end brands today, located between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges.

Lord & Taylor had subsequent locations in Manhattan at Broadway and Grand Street and, later, at Broadway and 20th Street on Ladies Mile.

Flash forward to 1914 -- the new store was an automated wonder, according to the New York Sun, equipped with a system of conveyor belts.  "[T]he human equation has been eliminated wherever possible and machinery performs its part quietly and out of sight."

Shoppers could also escape to the tenth floor for "a dainty luncheon" or some afternoon tea:

The building is in the go-to architectural style for department stores -- Italian Renaissance Revival -- and, apparently, the go-to architectural firm for such places, Starrett and Van Vleck, also known for Bloomingdale's and Saks Fifth Avenue.

The new store made a unique appeal to the male shopper with its tailored men's department, "a realm of complete masculinity".  There was a men's-only entrance on the 38th Street side where gentlemen could access the Manicuring Parlor.  "[M]ake your purchases, be shaved and manicured, change your clothing, if you like, and leave without passing through any of the departments where women's goods are sold."  In addition, the entire fourth floor was "devoted to men's apparel and accessories for motoring."

The store also had featured an Equestrienne Section, including "a mechanical horse, duplicating the actual motion of walking, trotting, or cantering."

In 2007, the Lord & Taylor building was made an official New York landmark.

Friday, February 21, 2014

On Nina Simone's birthday, a look at her breakout Town Hall performance from September 1959

Nina Simone was born on this date in 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina.  She came to New York as a student of the Julliard School, but her unique blend of genres came from her experiences in the nightclubs and cabarets of Harlem and Greenwich Village.  She wowed audiences with a memorable New York debut at the Village Vanguard on July 20, 1959.  "Miss Simone is a real talent who can go far," said Billboard of her performance.

Less than three months later, she made a more formal debut to audiences on September 12, 1959, at Town Hall, an elegant stage in the heart of the theater district.  The ironic thing about this show was that the regal, classically trained performer was used to singing in places where the patrons were drinking and smoking, venues with a bit of commotion and energy.

She brought a bit of everything to her performance that evening, confounding those who pegged her as a simple classical artist.

From Simone's autobiography:  "[C]ritics started to talk about what sort of music I was playing and tried to find a neat slot to file it away in.  It was difficult for them because I was playing popular songs in a classical style with a classical piano technique influenced by cocktail jazz.  On top of that I included spirituals and children's songs in my performances, and those sorts of songs were automatically identified with the folk movement."

At right: Nina from that same evening with Redd Foxx (Photo courtesy Ebony Magazine, G Marshall Wilson photographer)

The New York Times review was hesitant in its praise, but concluded "both her singing and playing are carried off with such consummate assurance, skillful pacing and attractive good nature that she proved an extremely winning performance."

Although she had recorded two previous albums by this time (and a third was cobbled together without her knowledge), the Town Hall live album released in 1959 is notable as being the first to include one of her signature masterpieces -- "Black Is The Color Of My True Love's Hair."

Simone would release three more live albums recorded in New York venues -- one at Village Gate and two at Carnegie Hall.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

No sheep in Sheepshead Bay, but lots of fish with human teeth

The sheepshead is a common variety marine fish known for its distinctive black stripes and a very scary looking set of teeth.  If you look too long at it, you will have nightmares tonight.  Some believe the fish's unusual name comes from the notion that its teeth actually look like those of adult sheep.  I personally don't see it, but you can compare here and here.

What we do know, however, is that the Sheepshead lends its name to one of Brooklyn's loveliest places -- Sheepshead Bay and the adjoining neighborhood.of the same name.

Below: Sheepshead Bay in 1905 (courtesy George Eastman House)

But who thought to name the area after one of its common aquatic residents?  We can probably bestow that honor onto Benjamin Freeman, who owned much of the land around the bay and became one of the first entrepreneurs to open a hotel here in 1844.  He called his establishment The Sheepshead, adorning the front with a large picture of a sheepshead.  This decision by Freeman would forever give the area its unusual name.

During the mid and late 19th century, the bay area would never hold the same luxurious reputation as Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach to the south.  Its hotels and recreation spots had a less respectable appeal, though not without certain charms.

 A 1870 roundup in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of Sheepshead Bay offering sings the praises of  the Union, "the largest hotel in the bay," owned by a Brooklyn congressman Patrick Burns, a place of rambunctious entertainments.  From an 1873 report in the New York Tribune:  "[N]umerous roughs from New York and the Fifth Ward of Brooklyn were leaving in coaches to Burns Hotel in Sheepshead Bay to witness a prize-fight."

Below: The Sheepshead Bay racetrack, taken by George Bradford Brainard, courtesy the Brooklyn Museum

Sports would always define the early recreations of Sheepshead Bay, and not just fishing and boating pleasures.  In 1880, one of America's great horse-racing tracks was constructed here, a popular draw due to the Gilded Age moguls who funded the venture, including the godfather of horse racing August Belmont Jr.  When racetrack betting became illegal in the 1910s, the track was refitted for auto racing.

And, as you can see below, sometimes stunt airplane acrobatics!  This image, from the Library of Congress, shows a Sheepshead Bay 'race' between two very modern devices -- an automobile driven by Italian racing legend Dario Resta and an airplane steered by pioneering pilot Katherine Stinson.

Below: From the June 1880 opening of the Sheepsead Bay Race Track.  Note this disturbing sentence: "A steeplechase, with an unusual number of picturesque accidents and injured horses, ended the days contests."

Fish picture at top from a cigarette card, courtesy NYPL

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

History in the making 2/18: Pennsylvania Station edition

Aging beauty: The entrance of Penn Station, photographed by James Burke in 1957 for Life Magazine.

-- Tonight on PBS's American Experience: The Rise and Fall of Penn Station, the story of McKim, Mead and White's Midtown masterpiece and how its tragic demolition in the 1960s forced New Yorkers to consider the importance of historic preservation.  [American Experience]

-- Barry Popik brings up an interesting anniversary -- John J Fitz Gerald's newspaper column "Around the Big Apple" began 90 years ago this week.  Fitz Gerald helped popularize New York's nickname 'the Big Apple'.  Read more at Popik's excellent and exhaustive site of urban etymology: [Barry Popik]

-- The secret at 58 Joralemon Street:  The Brooklyn Heights tunnel disaster that forever changed how the city handled destructive construction work.  [Brownstoner]

-- Ghost signage: The remnants of former businesses are all around us, their old signs living long past the establishments themselves.  Photographer Gary Fonville has found some beautiful examples all through the five boroughs, some of which you've probably walked by a thousands times without noticing! [Forgotten New York]

-- East Village monsters: What are those things guarding this home on St. Marks Place? [Ephemeral New York]

-- The Velvet Caps, the Scalpeens and the Jackson Hollow Gang: A fascinating rundown of the oddly named ruffians that ruled the streets of Brooklyn, most in the years before Consolidation. [artofneed]

Friday, February 14, 2014

Who were the Short Tails? The crazy, violent habits of the real Lower East Side gang, the villains of 'Winter's Tale'

One of the few photos ever taken of any New York street gang was this image shot in 1887 by Jacob Riis of the Short Tails  under a pier in Corlears Hook. 

The Short Tails were a particularly nasty gang of criminals who terrorized the Lower East Side and the docks of Corlears Hook roughly during the period of the Gilded Age.  By the 1910s, this sinister assemblage had been absorbed into other street gangs -- some say Monk Eastman's criminal organization is an off-shoot -- and largely disappeared as a physical threat to innocent New Yorkers.

Then Herbert Asbury's Gangs of New York happened, vaulting a number of once-forgotten street gangs into a realm of historic romanticism.  Even here, the Short Tails play second fiddle to more organized and mythic groups of young men such as the Dead Rabbits, the Whyos and, ahem, the Bowery Boys.

Confusingly, there was once a gang called the Shirt Tails who coexisted with other Five Points gangs, but this group of ruffians was long gone by the time the Short Tails terrorized neighborhoods to the east of their turf.**

The Short Tails feature as the principal villains in Mark Helprin's New York fable Winter's Tale, the film version of which opens today in movie theaters.  Their fictional leader, Pearly Soames (played by Russell Crowe), is a maniac with a penchant for gold and dangerous hideaways.  He and his mob pursue the narrative's hero Peter Lake (played by Colin Farrell) through the streets of a tinted-postcard New York that seems to shift like a kaleidoscope.

The original Short Tails were less romantic in nature, and less oppressive. (Helprin's version:  "Pearly and sixty of the Short Tails went marching through the street like a Florentine army.")  Still, their scant appearance in newspapers of the era reveal a most malevolent group of men and boys.  What were some of the traits of this menacing band?

-- They were headquartered at the corner of Rivington and Goerck Street.  That's around the area of Baruch Playground today.  Back then, it was a stone yard.  In 1882, these 'East Side desperadoes' began terrorizing a German-owned saloon in the area, attacking the proprietor with a broken beer glass.  In August, the leader of the Short Tails, Frank Nixon, was seriously injured in a shoot-out here and later arrested. [source]

 Goerck Street from a much later period (1939) at Stanton Street, just a block from the gang's headquarters. (NYPL)

-- They were an outgrowth of another gang called the Border Gang, so named because they were on the border of two police precincts.

-- They loved beer. They loved it so much they were known for their habit of "rushing the growler," filling up buckets of beer from local saloons and taking it back to headquarters.  "The man who went for it would simply march out of the saloon with the filled receptacle [without paying for it], and if the barkeeper attempted to stop him, he would make a few remarks of a maledictory sort, interlarded with profanity and obscenity" and threaten to bring the wrath of the entire gang down on the saloon if he didn't "hold his yawp."  [source]

-- They were unrelenting murderers and thieves.  The gang's loathsome crimes seem especially brutal, even today.  From a report in 1884: "The members of the gang are known to the police as hard drinkers, thieves, pickpockets and highwaymen." [source]

-- They were skilled at boat-related crimes.  The Short Tails, being stationed near the piers along Corlears Hook, often committed crimes upon vessels along the water front.  The unfortunate members of the Young Men's Cathedral Association learned this the hard way during an river outing in 1886.  "Some members of a notorious gang of desperadoes, calling themselves the Short Tails, smuggled themselves on the boat, got drunk and began to fight." [source]

Corlears Hook in the 1870s, right before the era of the Short Tails. (NYPL)

-- Their schemes could sometimes be quite dastardly and clever.  They perfected a naughty little trick in 1896 involving wagons which lined up along the water's edge.  As some Short Tails pushed the wagons into the river, others would run to the owners and offer to rescue their drowning wagons for a fee of $3.  This money would be used almost entirely on buying beer. (I guess saloon owners got a bit more aggressive by the 1890s!)  "When the money was spent they returned and pushed two more trucks into the water."

-- Some of them loved music.  In fact, the earliest record (from 1881) that I could find of Short Tail-related violence involved an accordion! "Policeman Philip F. Mahoney ... observed a crowd of forty young men last night ... standing at the corner of Delancey and Sheriff Streets.  One of the gang was playing an accordion and Mahoney directed them to move on, as it was 11:30 o'clock.  The accordion player refused to stop playing, whereupon Mahoney attempted to arrest him.  The gang set upon him and took his club away."  The accordion player and other members were later arrested. [source]

-- Delancey Street required extra police duty because of them. Officers of the NYPD wised up after the accordion incident, patrolling the area in pairs of two -- "one to protect the other."  The gang was certainly no match for the most hearty of souls in the police force.  One officer in the 1880s, avenging a friend killed by a Short Tail, stormed right into their headquarters "without club or firearm of any kind" and personally throttled a great number of them, "grab[bing] two of the more notorious by their coat collars" and dragging them to jail.  [source]

** Neither the Short Tails nor the Shirt Tails are related to this group. (Courtesy Rob Starobin on Twitter )

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The origin of snow removal for all New Yorkers, rich and poor

A snow plow at Union Square, circa 1901-1905 (LOC)

For some of New York City's history, snowstorms have been completely paralyzing, and most residents had to clear their own streets, an impossibility in areas of a more rural character.  The notion that it was actually the city's responsibility to remove snow is a product of the early-to-mid 19th century.  The notion that all residents -- not just the wealthiest -- should benefit from this difficult civic task is newer still.

There was no simple method for clearing thoroughfares.  The task was heavily labor intensive, with dozens of men shoveling down roads obscured with newly fallen snow.  As a result, only the most important streets were cleared -- mostly around City Hall, Wall Street and Fifth Avenue -- leaving the rest of the city to fend for itself.  Later on, snow plows were attached to horses, piercing through the snow-covered streets, while wagons would follow along to collect the snow.

The arduous task of clearing the streets with only horses, shovels and carts, 1867 (NYPL)

Civic snow removal was initially a responsibility of the police department up until 1881, when the Department of Street Cleaning became its own separate entity.  New York street-cleaners manned a broom during the spring and a shovel in the winter, working with horse-drawn carts in "piling and loading gangs" to clear gutters and intersections.  Most of the time, snow clearing was not even begun until it was believed the snowstorm was over.  As a result, mountainous piles were even more difficult to tackle.

Obviously, this was slow going and highly prone to the corruption of the era. (Need snow removed from your street, business owner? )  And due to the erratic nature of snowfall, there were hardly enough men on hand at any given moment.

A grim discovery in the snow during the Blizzard of 1888:

The Blizzard of 1888 changed everything in New York City.  The storm was so devastating that certain streets were blocked for days.  More horrifying still, due to the hurricane-force winds, many people had been knocked unconscious and were subsequently buried in the snow.  Not to mention the hundreds of dead animals also found underneath the massive snow drifts.

New York's entire system of street cleaning -- in sun or snow -- radically changed when the Civil War veteran George E. Waring Jr. (pictured at right) became commissioner of the Department of Street Cleaning in 1894.  The brilliant and reform-minded engineer had guided healthy sewage and draining maintenance throughout the country, from the design of Central Park to the streets of Memphis, Tennessee.

Waring transformed his men into a small military unit, garbed in all-white uniforms who occasionally marched in parades with Commissioner Waring out front, on horseback.  This military mindset was a boon for New York; Waring referred to his employees as "soldiers of the public."  Street cleaning was no longer a luxury, but a necessity.

Clearing snow in the Waring era, 1896, photos by Alice Austen (she was riding around in her bike in this weather?) Courtesy NYPL

Waring was part of a large progressive movement in the 1890s, one that would finally, with zeal, tackle the numerous health and livelihood issues associated with the city's overcrowded tenement districts.

In the spring of 1897, the commissioner produced a lengthy treatise for Mayor William Strong on the thorny subject of clearing snow.  Its opening paragraph lays out the scope of Waring's staunch, progressive vision:

"The question of snow removal has always been one of the most vexatious problems confronting the various administrations.  The removal of 'new fallen snow from leading thoroughfares and such other streets and avenues as may be found practicable' is a duty made obligatory upon the Commissioner by law, and with each year, the moral obligation to the vast traffic interests of congested Manhattan Island becomes more insistent." [source]

Before Waring, never was it considered necessary to remove snow from the entire city, but only from "leading thoroughfares".  However, thanks to the rise of sophisticated urban planning and progressive socialism, it soon became a "moral" responsibility on behalf of the health of the city and its citizens.

From the report:  "[A] delay in the removal of the almost knee deep snow and befouled slush is at the cost of much sickness and, probably, lives each winter."

By the late 1890s, Waring hired private contractors specifically for snow clearance, leaving his regular crew of street cleaners to focus on their regular responsibilities.  With the 20th century came motorized plows and more sophisticated street-cleaning rules to better facilitate the headache of a bad winter.

But after Waring, it would no longer be acceptable in the public's eye to pick and choose which neighborhoods receive the city's attention. (Both our former and current mayors have certainly learned this lesson!)

And let's have some more snow, shall we?

Here are some pictures of the Valentine's Day Blizzard of 1914, one hundred years ago!  The bottom picture is of Union Square, with snow covering the construction site of the new subway station. (per comment at the Library of Congress, who also supplies these images)

I promise, this is my last snow-related post for at least nine months!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Hey new listeners! The Bowery Boys podcast F.A.Q.

Are you a new listener to the Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast? Here are some answers to a few questions you might have:

Where can you listen to the Bowery Boys? You can download us through traditional podcast aggregators like iTunes or you can stream our shows directly from such services as Stitcher, Podbay, Player FM and many others.

How many episodes do you have? There are 161 episodes total but only 159 are available.  In addition, there was a special, non-numbered release during Hurricane Sandy

But your regular feed only goes back to Episode 50. Where are the others?  Our older shows are located in a second podcast feed -- available on iTunes but also here.  Most of those shows have an added component -- illustrations and photos which pop up on your listening device!  They will occasionally update this feed with older episodes upgraded in this new 'illustrative' format.

What's the format? Two guys talking about history, usually focused upon a place, person or event (e.g., Penn Station, the Boy Mayor of New York or the Great Fire of 1835).  Some shows are just Greg expounding upon smaller subjects and are usually 20-25 minutes. And there are occasional guest hosts as well

Do you have audio walking tours? Yes!  You can currently buy the Bowery Boys tour of Washington Square Park (on iTunes or directly at CDBaby).  Episode #136 of the regular podcast is also a walking tour of the High Line.  I plan to have another one available soon

When did the Bowery Boys begin? We started the Bowery Boys podcast in June 2007.

Who where the original Bowery Boys?  The Bowery Boys were an infamous 19th century gang of well-dressed ruffians who often skirmished with their rivals, the Dead Rabbits.  However, before the gang, the name bowery b'hoys was often given to the working class, often Irish young men of the Bowery.

How frequently do you release new shows?  We release new episodes once a month.  When we started the podcast, it was once a week, then twice a month.  Although they come out with less frequency, the shows are longer and more in-depth.

Why should I follow you on Facebook and Twitter?  On Facebook, we often post extra material, like photographs and podcast outtakes.  Over on Twitter, Greg often tweets historical details during television shows with historical themes, from Downton Abbey to Boardwalk Empire.  In April, he plans to follow along with the latest season of Mad Men.

I'm a new listener. Where should I start?  Start with the newest show! In this case, it's the history of the New York City Fire Department.  You might like to try one of our 'summer series', where we cover a particular concept over a series of shows.  Prior series include the history of New York transportation (Episodes #106-#110, including our two-part history of the subway), the Civil War (Episodes #126-128), and New York's history with the medium of television (#153-155).

And of course, there's always our annual Halloween ghost stories podcast. You might like our last one -- Episode #157 Ghost Stories of Old New York

Picture above by William Gottlieb, taken 1948 (courtesy Library of Congress)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- in New York City?

Butch Cassidy and Harry Longabaugh (aka the 'Sundance Kid') were notorious Western outlaws of the 1890s-1900s who were rendered into romantic icons courtesy Robert Redford and Paul Newman.  I did not realize these two scalawags had any connection to New York City until I watched this clip from tonight's PBS American Experience documentary on the adventurous criminals:


Here is the photo of Longabaugh and Etta Place, taken at De Young's photo studio at 815 Broadway:

This is not New York City related in anyway, but I just loved finding this headline in an 1898 issue of the Salt Lake City Herald

The American Experience film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid debuts tonight on PBS, 9 pm EST. Check your local listings.


Friday, February 7, 2014

At The Ready: The History of the New York City Fire Department

The distinguished members of New York's various volunteer fire brigades, posing for the photographer Matthew Brady in 1858

PODCAST  The New York City Fire Department (or FDNY) protects the five boroughs from a host of disasters and mishaps -- five-alarm blazes, a kitchen fire run amok, rescue operations and even those dastardly midtown elevators, always getting stuck!  But today's tightly organized team is a far cry from the chaos and machismo that defined New York's fire apparatus many decades ago.

New York's early firefighters -- Peter Stuyvesant's original ratel-watch -- were all-purpose guardians, from police work to town timepieces.  Volunteer forces assembled in the 18th century just as innovative new engines arrived from London.

By the 19th century, the fire department was the ultimate boys club, with gangs of rival firefighters, with their own volunteer 'runners', raced to fires as though in a sports competition.  Fisticuffs regularly erupted.  From this tradition came Boss Tweed, whose corrupt political ways would forever change New York's fire services -- for better and for worse.

Volunteers were replaced by an official paid division by 1865.  Now using horse power and new technologies, the department fought against the extraordinary challenges of skyscraper and factory fires.  There were internal battles as well as the department struggled to become more inclusive within its ranks.

But the greatest test lay in the modern era -- from a deteriorating infrastructure in the 1970s that left many areas of New York unguarded, and then, the new menace of modern terrorism that continues to test the skill of the FDNY.  From burning chimneys in New Amsterdam to the tragedy of 9/11, this is the story of how they earned the nickname New York's Bravest.

Above:  That's Harry Howard, one of the FDNY's greatest firemen and a former member of the Bowery Boys volunteer fire unit!

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 it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #161 Fire Department of New York (FDNY)


And we would like to again thank our sponsor Squarespace!

Squarespace, the all-in-one platform that makes it fast and easy to create your own professional website or online portfolio. For a free trial and 10% off (your first purchase), go to and use offer code BOWERY.


A poster by Vera Bock from 1936, created for a series by the Federal Art Project, touts the contributions of Peter Stuyvesant to the history of New York firefighting. (LOC)

One of two fire engines first received by New York in 1733 (from an 1872 illustration) Courtesy NYPL

A firefighters' procession at night, marching past Niblo's Garden. 1858   Courtesy NYPL

Eagle insignia from a New York fire truck, 19th century, courtesy the US National Archives

The first official fire boat of the FDNY (although others had been rented before this), named for former mayor William F. Havemeyer.

Volunteer fire divisions were slowly fazed out after the introduction of an official paid company.  This was expanded when the five boroughs were created in 1898.  This postcard commemorates the final run of a volunteer fire department in West Brighton, Staten Island. (NYPL)

Firefighters battled a tenement blaze in this illustration from 1899, one of thousands that occurred in the poorer districts of town.  Improved fire regulations would ensure newer buildings were more fire proof. (Courtesy NYPL)

One of New York's more interesting firehouses -- the one for fireboats at the Battery. Photo by Berenice Abbott (courtesy NYPL)

Horses were a hotly contested inclusion to the fire departments during the 19th century.  They were eventually banished during the volunteer years, but re-introduced after 1870 and soon became essential for getting quickly to fires.

Hook and Ladder Co. No. 8, from 1887

Motorized fire engines and trucks replaced the horse-drawn varieties in the 1910s.  Here's one model that was used by the FDNY in 1913 (Courtesy Shorpy)

The city's growth created new challenges for the FDNY.  With the new subway, there was the potential for dangerous fires underground.  Here a team of firefighters battle a subway fire in midtown in 1915, and a couple firemen who braved the inferno underfoot. (LOC)

The difficult blaze at the Equitable Building in 1912 produced a bizarre aftermath of icy ruins.

Firefighters rescuing people (and paintings!) from a fire at the Museum of Modern Art, 1958. (Courtesy Life)

A sorrowful day:  Thousands come out to mourn the 12 firefighters who died fighting a terrible blaze that erupted across from the Flatiron Building on October 21, 1966. (Picture courtesy FDNY)

Total mayhem erupted in New York City in the 1970s, as whole districts like the South Bronx, Bushwick, Harlem and the Lower East Side saw a massive increase of fire-related disasters due to the city's financial woes. (Photo courtesy New York Post/Vernon Shibla photographer)

Three hundred and forty-three firefighters and FDNY paramedics died in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.  But the force, along with the police and other emergency workers, managed to save tens of thousands of people on that day, making one of the largest rescue operations in American history.  In total, 2,977 people were killed that day, 2,606 of them in New York, on the ground and in the towers.

And finally, a rather amazing film documenting the fire department's emergency response process in 1926, with a breathless dash-cam vantage point!