Thursday, November 26, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Greetings from Plymouth (UK)

A week ago we were in Plymouth, Massachusetts -- today we're across the pond in Plymouth, Devonshire, to help kick off the countdown to the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower.

We've posted a few pictures of our trip on Instagram ( and more will be forthcoming as we sort through them. Have a look!

We hope everyone is having a wonderful Thanksgiving.

-- James & Michelle

Friday, November 20, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Greetings from Plymouth!

Greetings from Massachusetts. As some of you may know, we are off on an adventure tracing the path of the Pilgrims and the reverse, from Plymouth (Mass.) to Plymouth (UK) to Leiden in Holland. This is primary research for what James hopes will be a new book about the intersections of history, memory, genealogy, and more.

We'll be posting updates on James's various social media accounts if you'd like to follow along:
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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Postcard Thursday: The Morris-Jumel Mansion and Aaron Burr

Today's card shows the so-called "Council Chamber" -- really the parlor -- of the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights. The country house, built in 1765 by Roger Morris, served briefly as George Washington's headquarters during the Revolutionary War. Later, after the British re-took New York, it was used by British general Henry Clinton. The postcard was issued when the site was run by the Washington Headquarters Association, which placed great emphasis on the home's limited role in the Revolution.

The Morrises, staunch loyalists, had the house taken from them by the fledgling American government after the war. It served as a tavern before being purchased by Stephen and Eliza Jumel in 1806.

After Stephen's death, Eliza Jumel married the former vice president, Aaron Burr. Ironically, there are only two great country homes left in this part of Manhattan: Burr's and that of his rival, Alexander Hamilton, whose home "The Grange" is now run by the National Park Service.

Hamilton is, of course, the subject of a blockbuster Broadway musical.

This month in New Jersey Monthly magazine, James ponders what an Aaron Burr musical might look like. You can read the story at:

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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Central Park's Lost Spur Rock Arch

This lovely view of the Bridle Path in Central Park, mailed in 1908, shows one of the few bridges and arches in the park that has been demolished. Called the Spur Rock Arch, it stood where today's Hecksher Playground was later built.

When Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted were planning the park's roadways, they incorporated an innovative series of bridges and arches to separate traffic. As we write in Footprints in New York:
Vaux and Olmsted came up with three categories of roadway that they simply called the “Walk” (for pedestrians), the “Ride” (for horseback riding), and the “Drive” (for carriages). All together, there are today about seventy miles of Walk, Ride, and Drive wending through the park. In the master plan, none of these paths ever touched. If the Drive crossed the Walk, a bridge was constructed to pass pedestrian traffic below the carriages. Similarly, the Ride was kept separate from the other paths so that horseback riders would never have to rear up suddenly when confronted with an obstacle.... 
On its face, Vaux and Olmsted’s traffic plan seems eminently practical, but there was more than simple engineering afoot. Since only the wealthiest New Yorkers could afford a carriage or the luxury of horseback riding, the Drive and the Ride were de facto upper-class thoroughfares. In most places, they were kept at a safe remove from the working-class Walk, though some- times the Drive was paralleled by walking paths, presumably so that poorer New Yorkers could see what they were missing—and so that the rich could set a good example.
Alas, the handsome Spur Rock Arch is no more. According to the book Bridges of Central Park,
Spur Rock Arch, sometimes called Oval Arch, was located on the longitude of Seventh Avenue and the latitude of 61st Street.... It was 25 feet long and rose 12-and-a-half feet above the bridle path.... 
The distinctive oval outline of its archway and the S-curve sides were repeated later with different dimensions for Gothic Bridge. The ornament of the spandrels was altogether different although both designs stemmed from the Gothic, with Spur Rock's spandrels filled and braced by large wheels with interior cusping, not unlike some church windows. The supporting members were wrought iron; the more finely drawn decorative members were cast iron.
Spur Rock was demolished because it got in the way of the expansion of the Heckscher Playground. Instead of being incorporated into the playground, Spur Rock, probably looking old-fashioned, rundown and unimportant in 1934, was destroyed.

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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Postcard Thursday: The Crash of '29

October 29, 1929, was "Black Tuesday," the culmination of events that led the stock market to crash and plunge the United States—and the world—into the Great Depression.

The New York Stock Exchange, which had surged throughout the 1920s to a new high, lost close to 18% of its value in September 1929, but this had not been enough to truly shake investors’ confidence. Financial prognosticator Irving Fisher, who believed the market was still on its way up, shrugged off the market’s volatility as simply its way of “shaking out of the lunatic fringe.” The first sign of trouble came on Thursday, October 24—later called “Black Thursday”—when 12.9 million shares traded hands. (A normal trading day in the 1920s saw about 3 million shares traded.) The stock ticker, unable to keep up with the volume, fell 90 minutes behind and panic set in. 
A group of bankers hurriedly assembled at Morgan’s Bank and pooled $130 million to bail out the market (in a move similar to Morgan’s intervention during the Panic of 1907. The market settled down when Stock Exchange Vice President Richard Whitney strode onto the trading floor in the afternoon and placed an order for 10,000 shares of U.S. Steel. He proceeded to use the $130 million to prop up other stocks and the market closed on a note of confidence. Trading was mixed over the next two days (there was still Saturday morning trading in those days), allaying some fears, but on Monday the slide began. Nervous investors began selling at the start of the trading day and by the close, the market had lost 13% of its value—[at the time] the worst one-day decline in the market’s history....
On “Black Tuesday” the bottom fell out. A record 16.4 million shares traded that day and the market declined an additional 12%—the total losses for the week surpassed the annual federal budget. No pool of investors stepped in to prop up the market this time. By the end of the day, the “Roaring Twenties” were over and though the country wouldn’t realize it yet, it had been plunged into the worst economic downturn in its history, the Great Depression.

The stock market would continue to fall until November 13 when it hit a “false” bottom. General Electric, which had been trading at 396-1/4 in September, was now trading at 168-1/8. However, despite a temporary recovery over the next few months, the market soon began to decline again and by the time it hit its real bottom in 1932, G.E. was trading at just 8-1/2, a staggering loss of 98% of its value. It would take the Dow Jones Industrial Average 22 years to climb back to its September 1929 levels.
Today's postcard dates to sometime around 1910 and shows the facade of the New York Stock Exchange. Notice the building originally had a set of uneven steps up to the trading floor, which were subsequently removed.

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Postcard Thursday: The St. Denis Hotel

Today's postcard, mailed in 1908, shows one of the most famous old hotels in New York, the St. Denis, at Broadway and 11th Street.

Run by hotelier William Taylor, the St. Denis was opened in 1853, just across from Grace Church. Both buildings had been designed by James Renwick, who would later go on to build St. Patrick's Cathedral. Billed as the "most centrally located hotel in the city," the hotel was within walking distance of most of New York's prime theaters, restaurants, and department stores, many of which lined Broadway south of Union Square. The hotel quickly developed a celebrity clientele, including first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who stayed there during one of her frequent trips to the city. Ulysses S. Grant worked on his memoirs at the hotel and, when he was stuck with writer's block, his publisher, Mark Twain, moved in for three months to get him over the hump.

The St. Denis was also the spot where Alexander Graham Bell showcased his telephone for the first time in New York. As we write in Inside the Apple:
Though he had already patented the device and made public demonstrations of its efficacy—a week earlier in Boston, he’d made a connection to Providence, Rhode Island, 43 miles away—he hadn’t yet found a market for it. At the St. Denis a crowd of about 50 filled the drawing room on the second floor where Bell made telephone calls to the A&P Telegraph office in Brooklyn, using wire strung across the not-yet-completed Brooklyn Bridge. In the audience were potential financial backers, such as Cyrus Field, the president of the company that 11 years earlier had successfully laid the first transatlantic telegraph cable. 
At least one observer at the St. Denis, telegraph pioneer Walter P. Phillips, derided the invention as “a toy, if not an absolute humbug.” But it is clear that others were impressed. Later that year, the first telephone was installed—connecting J.H. Haigh’s home on John Street to his factory in Brooklyn. By 1878, the first telephone directory was published: it contained 252 listings: 235 businesses and 17 people who had telephones installed at home.
Most people don't realize that the St. Denis is still standing. Though it has been converted into offices and has a rather drab exterior, it is still Renwick's 1853 building.

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Columbus Circle

Monday marked the annual celebration of Columbus Day in the United States and the 123rd anniversary of the Columbus statue in the middle of Columbus Circle.

As we write in Inside the Apple:

In the years leading up to 1892, Carlo Barsotti, the publisher of the Italian-language paper Il Progresso Italo Americano diligently promoted the idea that Columbus be honored in New York, which was fast becoming one of the largest centers of Italians in the world. Through public subscription, Il Progresso raised the money for a statue to be erected at the Great Circle, and hired Sicilian artist Gaetano Russo to create a monument to be ready for October 12, 1892. It was unveiled in the newly named Columbus Circle as part of the celebrations for Columbus Day.

Of course, today Columbus is not exactly the revered figure he once was. In fact, on Monday, James wrote an opinion piece for the U.S. edition of The Guardian suggesting that it is time that we ditch the holiday in favor of Indigenous Peoples' Day. You can read the article here:
In NYC, Columbus Day is primarily a holiday celebrating Italian-American culture. We are all in favor of that, too. If we get rid of Columbus, what Italian would you suggest we honor in his place? Let us know in the comments.

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Thursday, October 8, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Pushcarts

This postcard of Mulberry Street ca. 1900 has become one of the most enduring images of Little Italy. (In fact, it was in the running to be the cover image of Footprints in New York but too many other people had already used it.)

Lining the center of the photo are pushcarts where food vendors could sell their wares without the overhead of a traditional storefront. (Compare this to our earlier postcard of cheese vendors, who sold from baskets.) As you might imagine, there were often turf wars between the brick-and-mortar stores and pushcart vendors, who were seen by some shop owners as bad for business. Under pressure, the city enacted a law that said that pushcart vendors could not sell from the same spot for more than 30 minutes at a time, though this proved hard to enforce.

During the Depression, Mayor La Guardia attempted to ban street vending altogether, claiming it was a safety hazard to have the streets clogged with carts. To accommodate the displaced vendors, the city constructed indoor markets, like the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side and the Arthur Avenue Retail Market in the Bronx, and while these both still exist, they were never popular with the pushcart sellers.

This is just one topic we'll be covering on our Sunday tour of Italian New York City. Read all about it at and sign up!

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Monday, October 5, 2015

REMINDER: Italian NYC Walking Tour | Sunday, October 11 at 3pm

CELEBRATE ITALIAN NEW YORKA Columbus Weekend Walking Tour
with Michelle and James Nevius
authors of Inside the Apple and Footprints in New York
Sunday, October 11, 2015 at 3:00PM

$20 per person; $30 if you'd like a signed copy of Footprints in New York

UPDATE: THANKS TO EVERYONE who has reserved for the tour -- there is still some availability, so if you are interested in attending, please see below for reservation information.

After the Civil War, Italians became the largest single immigrant group in New York, transforming the city. While Columbus Day has fallen out of favor recently in some places, in New York it is still a time to focus on Italian-American history and pride.

We'll walk through two of Manhattan's Little Italys -- the more famous one on Mulberry Street, as well as the Italian area of Greenwich Village.

To reserve email your

* name
* number of people in your party (including how many people are $20 [touronly] or $30 [tour + book])
* a cell number to contact you if there's any last-minute changes

RESERVATIONS are limited and taken on a first-come, first-served basis.

You can pay for the tour by cash or credit card when you check in. Instructions on where to meet will be email within 24 hours of when you reserve.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Postcard Thursday: The Naming of Manhattan

Tomorrow, October 2, marks a little-known anniversary in the New York: the first time the name of the island of Manhattan was written down by a European explorer. The person who did the writing was Robert Juet, first mate on the Halve Maen ("Half Moon"), the ship that had arrived in New York harbor a few weeks earlier in search of a Northwest Passage. While that ship's captain, Henry Hudson, gets rivers and parkways and more named for him, Juet--whose chronicle of the voyage is a fascinating document--is mostly forgotten.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
It’s hard to decide where to place Henry Hudson in the pantheon of early American explorers. Like all of them, he was essentially sailing blindly into terra incognita. Had he missed the entrance to New York harbor and sailed home, he’d be little more than a footnote, perhaps known better for the way he died than the way he lived. (Hudson was a bit of a boor. On a later voyage in 1611, his crew, sick of him, mutinied and sent him overboard in Hudson’s Bay, Canada—but that’s another story.)....
Hudson’s arrival in New York harbor was inauspicious; the ship ran aground at Sandy Hook, just south of Staten Island. On September 11, 1609, the ship headed through the Narrows into the harbor. From there, it entered the Muhheakuntuck, the “Great” River. Hudson sailed as far as present-day Albany before realizing that while he’d found a great river, it was not a passage to the Spice Islands.... 
Today, the best way to get a sense of what Hudson experienced when he arrived, the “very good land to fall in with, and a pleasant land to see” described in the journal of first mate Robert Juet, is to head to Fort Tryon Park in Upper Manhattan and look across at the Palisades in New Jersey. The view here was preserved by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who originally had plans to develop the Fort Tryon site for personal use before ceding it to the city. It was somewhere near here that the Halve Maen anchored during its journey home. Juet, describing the New Jersey Palisades or the cliffs below Fort Tryon, noted in his journal: 
[W]e saw a very good piece of ground; and hard by it there was a cliff that looked of the colour of white green, as though it were either a copper or silver mine; and I think it to be one of them by the trees that grow upon it; for they be all burned, and the other places are green as grass; it is on that side of the river that is called Manna-hata.
Thus, on October 2, 1609, Manna-hata had its name written down by Europeans for the first time and Manhattan was born.
In 1909, New York hosted a giant Hudson-Fulton Festival to honor the city's 300th birthday. The above postcard shows the replica of the Halve Maen that was built for the festivities.

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On Sunday, October 11, at 3PM
join us for a walking tour of Little Italy

for details about the tour and information on how to sign up.

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