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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Postcard Thursday Redux: Happy Birthday, Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Birthday, Edgar Allan Poe! Born on January 19, 1809, in Boston, Poe would, in his short life, become one of the most important American writers of all time. He invented the modern detective story, was an early champion of not just horror but science fiction, was a brilliant poet, and a cunning hoaxster.

Below are some highlights from posts we've done about Poe over the years. Of course, he also has an entire chapter in Footprints in New Yorkso pick up a copy today!

Edgar Allan Poe didn't live in New York City all that long, but he left an indelible stamp. Of all the places he lived, only one still survives, Poe Cottage in the Bronx. The postcard above depicts what is considered by many to be Poe's most important NYC residence -- the place where he wrote "The Raven."

As we write in Footprints in New York:
As [Poe's wife] Virginia’s tuberculosis worsened in 1844, the Poes took the only advice most doctors could give: move out of the city and get her into cleaner air.... [T]hey rented rooms from Patrick and Mary Brennan in “an old-fashioned, double-framed” farmhouse on the west side on what would eventually be 84th Street. The house was surrounded by 216 acres of woods. According to one of Poe’s earliest biographers, the family “received no visitors, and took their meals in their room by themselves.” Mrs. Brennan recalled Poe as a “shy, solitary, taciturn person, fond of rambling alone through the woods or of sitting on a favorite stump of a tree near the banks of the Hudson River.” In Poe’s era, Riverside Park had not been created, and the waterfront was not yet developed this far north. This meant Poe probably didn’t actually scramble all the way down the Hudson’s banks for his reveries; he watched the river drift by from the top of [a nearby outcropping of rock known as] Mount Tom.
courtesy of The Museum of the City of New York

The Poes’ room—unaltered until the house was torn down in 1888— was small but filled with light, having windows that faced the river on one side and the Brennans’ forest on the other. Years later, people who knew the house recollected that the Poes’ room was exactly like the chamber in “The Raven,” complete with the “pallid bust of Pallas” above the door. This may have been wishful thinking, but the house does seem, from photos and drawings, to have been a pleasant place. Pleasant enough, in retrospect, to make one almost forget the Poes’ straitened circumstances. Poe had difficulty making the rent. For much of his marriage, he had trouble putting food on the table. When Poe won a $225 judgment in a libel lawsuit, he used the money to buy some furnishings and a new suit; he could never afford to own more than one suit at a time, and the previous one was probably beyond repair.
Most inconveniently, the Brennan house’s distance from the city may have provided fresh air, but it also meant that any time Poe needed to meet with a publisher, he either had to take a stagecoach down the Bloomingdale Road—a costly inconvenience—or walk the ten miles round-trip.

* * * *
Poe Cottage in the Fordham section of the Bronx; courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Poe Cottage, the third-oldest building in the Bronx, is open for visitors on weekends. If you want to travel farther afield, you can actually stay in a full-sized replica (above) of the house at the Dearborn Inn in Michigan.

* * * *

The morning of April 13, 1844, New Yorkers awoke to find an astonishing headline in the New York Sun:
The article went on to detail how Monck Mason and his traveling companions had set off from England in the gas-filled balloon Victoria and landed in Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, three days later. An amazing triumph, Monck's flight promised to revolutionize transportation and communication.

Of course, it wasn't true. Two days later, the Sun had to publish the following retraction:
The mails from the South last Saturday night not having brought a confirmation of the arrival of the Balloon from England, the particulars of which from our correspondent we detailed in our Extra, we are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous. The description of the Balloon and the voyage was written with a minuteness and scientific ability calculated to obtain credit everywhere, and was read with great pleasure and satisfaction. We by no means think such a project impossible. 
The hoax was the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Nine years earlier, the Sun had perpetrated the "Great Moon Hoax," and, as Matthew Goodman argues in his book The Sun and the Moon, Poe was annoyed at the newspaper for, in his mind, appropriating an idea from one of his own short stories for that series. The balloon hoax may have been Poe's way of getting back at the newspaper. If Poe is to be believed, the balloon hoax brought on a surge in sales for the Sun--and thus would have caused them great embarrassment when the story had to be retracted. (There's some thought that it was Poe who wrote the retraction, as well.)

The complete balloon hoax can be read online at

(If this post seems familiar, it is; it is largely a repeat of our post from last year on Poe's birthday.)

* * * *

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Postcard Thursday: Skyrise for Harlem

Skyrise for Harlem; Esquire magazine, April 1965
There's a terrific exhibit at the Queens Museum called "Never Built New York," that features dozens of plans for unbuilt architecture that would have remade the city. (The show only runs through February 18, so catch it while you can.)

When we were visiting the show in October, we were struck by the plan from 1965 to tear down much of Harlem and replace it with giant, 100-story towers (seen above). James researched the subject further and his essay on "Skyrise for Harlem" appeared yesterday in Curbed NY. The story not only outlines the plan -- which architect Buckminster Fuller created with writer June Jordan -- but also looks at how Harlem real estate transformed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

You can read the story here:

From the ARCH/CAEHT plan for the East Harlem Triangle redevelopment; from the Louisiana State University archives

Fuller and Jordan weren't the only planners who were trying to figure out how to improve housing conditions in Harlem in the 1960s. The drawing above is from the Architects’ Renewal Committee in Harlem's suggested plan for the rezoning of the East Harlem Triangle. As James notes in his article:
In 1964, the Architects’ Renewal Committee in Harlem (ARCH) was founded to serve, in the words of architectural historian Brian D. Goldstein, as a “community design center” but then transformed—as the influence of black nationalism became more prominent in Harlem’s political life—into a way to “resist and revise official urban development plans".... Take, for example, the ARCH proposal for the East Harlem Triangle redevelopment.... The city’s plan was to turn the area—the triangle bounded by Madison Avenue, 125th Street, and the Harlem River—into an industrial zone. Pushback from the newly formed Community Association of the East Harlem Triangle (CAEHT) convinced the city to consider alternate proposals. Working with CAEHT, the planners at ARCH, led by its director, African-American architect J. Max Bond Jr., produced a plan that would not only radically transform the East Harlem Triangle, but would create a “distinctively black and democratic urban space.” 
As opposed to “Skyrise for Harlem,” the East Harlem Triangle plan advocated the preservation of newer townhouses and tenements, while new construction would preserve “positive features of the present living patterns".... On a reconfigured 125th Street, most of the traffic is eliminated in favor of wide sidewalks and tree-lined medians with bench seating. Typical examples from the urban planning wishlist are present, like a dedicated lane for bus traffic, while very specific symbols of Harlem abound: the bus boasts an ad for Muhammad Speaks, the newspaper of the Nation of Islam. A man in a dashiki stands in the median, while a woman on the sidewalk raises a black power salute.
The Queens Museum panorama, with some of the Fuller/Jordan Skyrise towers superimposed over Harlem

* * *
Speaking of Curbed, three of James's pieces were singled out for the "Best of 2017" lists for both the local and national sites this year:

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Postcard Thursday: The Frozen Hudson

As you hunker down for the "bomb cyclone" bringing snow and cold temperatures to New York City, here's a look back at what the city was suffering through exactly 100 years ago.

The painting above, by American impressionist Eliot Candee Clark, shows the icy Hudson River in January 1918. In fact, the winter was so cold that year that both the Harlem and Hudson Rivers had frozen solid.

As the New York Sun pointed out in its lead story on January 4, 1918, under the headline "COAL FOR CITY NOW TIED UP BY ICE IN HARBOR," the city was facing down a real crisis.

Found on
"The fight to get coal to this city -- just enough coal to supply the bare necessities of industry and the homes -- has become a fight against ice. For the next forty-eight hours at least it will be a grim and grinding struggle, with nature piling up the odds against the coal samaritans."
The story goes on to note that the "Hudson River is solid ice down to 200th Street" and the "Harlem River is a glacier to 140th Street...." Exacerbating the problem was the fact that big tug boats had been requisitioned by the government for the war effort, leaving the city with "ice breaking facilities ridiculously limited for a port of this size and importance...."

The rival New-York Tribune noted that 31 public schools were closed due to the coal shortage and that many people had turned to kerosene as the coal ran out, but that, too, was quickly being depleted. Compounding the problem of no heat was the issue of frozen water pipes. As the Tribune reported, Hoboken, New Jersey's "water supply failed completely" and "not a drop of water came from any hydrant" for hours.

The next day, the Sun reported that railroad tugs had broken through the ice, liberating 50,000 tons of fuel that was waiting outside the harbor. As the temperature ticked up a few degrees on January 6, coal was being distributed throughout the city, alleviating the immediate crisis.

Still, they weren't out of the woods: the winter of 1917-18 would go down as one of the coldest on books in many parts of the northeast, remaining unchallenged.... until this year, which could unseat the century-old record.


Thursday, December 21, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Plymouth Rock

Today, December 21, marks the date the Pilgrims left the Mayflower and landed in the town they'd call Plymouth (or "Plimoth"). According to legend, the first boulder they encountered was what we now call Plymouth Rock, which sits on the shore of Plymouth Harbor inside a classical pavilion.

Plymouth Rock today
The story of the Pilgrims is extremely relevant to the history of New York City, because Manhattan was their intended destination.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
The Pilgrims’ voyage to the New World, which started out from the Dutch city of Leiden where they’d lived in exile, worried the fur traders. In the common Thanksgiving story, it’s usually left out that the Pilgrims weren’t en route to Massachusetts at all (which lay outside English territory) but instead had been granted the island at the northern limit of the Virginia colony: Manhattan. (Virginia’s claim to Manhattan was long-standing. When John Smith wrote to Henry Hudson about a Northwest Passage, it was because the river he was describing was part of Virginia.) 
After a rocky start, where the Pilgrims were forced to abandon one of their two ships—perhaps because of sabotage by Dutch merchants—they continued on to the New World on the Mayflower, disembarking in Plymouth after a half-hearted attempt to sail further south. When it became clear that the English settlers were not going to move to Manhattan, Dutch traders hurriedly began staking a firmer claim to their territory.

By 1820 — the 200th anniversary of their arrival —  the Pilgrims had long been an important part of the cultural DNA of New England, a section of the country that saw itself as separate from (and inherently better than) both the south and the Mid Atlantic states. As an anonymous contributor to the second volume of the New England Quarterly wrote in 1802: “If the inhabitants of New-England are superior to the people of other countries, their superiority is to be attributed to their moral habits.”

In the 1740s, a 94-year-old man named Thomas Faunce had first identified Plymouth Rock as the spot where the Pilgrims had come ashore; on the eve of the Revolution, the boulder was dragged by a team of twenty oxen to Plymouth’s town square to be placed at the foot of a liberty pole. During the move the rock broke in two — a sign of America’s impending war with Britain, some thought — which only served to endow it with greater meaning.

At the December 1776 Pilgrim anniversary, Sylvanus Conant, a descendant of Plymouth resident Roger Conant (who’d gone on to found the town of Salem), preached a sermon in “grateful memory of the first landing of our worthy ancestors” where he laid out the case for the Pilgrims as God’s chosen people. Conant compared the Pilgrims to the Israelites exiled to the wilderness, a “little persecuted flock,” and noted that despite their many afflictions, God “set their feet upon a rock, and established them so firmly that none of the powers or machinations formed against them have been able to pluck them up; but the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew.”

Conant also compared the persecution of the Pilgrims to the impending war. In the same way the Mayflower’s passengers had fled oppression under King James I, so, too, would the American Revolution throw off the shackles of King George III. Though Conant wasn’t explicit, his meaning was clear: the Pilgrims had come to America as a place of exile; their descendants — by overthrowing the British monarchy of Old England and completing the journey — would truly make New England the Promised Land.

On Forefathers' Day — December 22, 1820 — John Quincy Adams gave a speech in Plymouth where he outlined the Pilgrims as America's true founders. After first dismissing older settlements like the 1607 colony in Jamestown, Virginia (“avarice and ambition had tuned their souls to that pitch of exaltation. Selfish passions were the parents of their heroism”), Adams noted that it was “reserved for the first settlers of New trample down obstructions equally formidable, to dispel dangers equally terrific, under the single inspiration of conscience.” Indeed, most remarkable to Adams were not the religious struggles of these Pilgrims — a term he helped popularize with this speech — but their civic-mindedness. In drawing up and signing the Mayflower Compact while at anchor off the coast of the Massachusetts, Adams argued that the Pilgrims created
the only instance in human history of [an] original social compact, which speculative philosophers have imagined as the only legitimate source of government. Here was a unanimous and personal assent, by all the individuals of the community, to the association by which they became a nation.
Of course, by the end of the 19th century, the story of the Pilgrims would have grown far beyond the confines of New England and become an integral part of the new Thanksgiving Holiday.

Happy Forefathers' (and Foremothers') Day!


Thursday, December 14, 2017

Postcard Thursday: The Death of George Washington

"First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in humble and enduring scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding; his example was as edifying to all around him.... [V]ice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues. ... Such was the man for whom our nation mourns." -- Henry ("Light Horse Harry") Lee

On December 14, 1799, former president George Washington breathed his last at Mount Vernon. Washington was not the first Founding Father to pass away -- Benjamin Franklin had died nine years earlier -- but he was already widely acknowledged as the "Father" of his country and quickly transformed into a symbol of America. Dozens of cities, towns, parks, lakes, and boulevards are named from him across the country, and he is memorialized with countless statues and other monuments.

One of the most famous of these statues, by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, was completed during Washington's lifetime. Houdon was hired by the Virginia General Assembly in 1784 and traveled from France to Mount Vernon in the summer of 1785. He stayed at Mount Vernon that fall, measuring Washington limbs and taking a life mask (below) from which he could work once he was back in France. The statue was completed around 1792 and installed in 1796 in the rotunda of the Virginia state capitol.

Starting in the 1850s numerous casts of the Houdon statue were made, including a bronze copy that now stands in the rotunda of New York's City Hall. Prior to that (from 1883 to 1907), the work stood in Riverside Park between 88th and 89th Street near the Soldiers and Sailors monument. According to Peter Salwen's Upper West Side Story, the statue had been unearthed in the arsenal in Central Park by parks commissioner Egbert Viele. According to a contemporary guide to the city, "children of the public schools of the city" raised the funds to have the statue erected in the park, very near Viele's home. By 1907, it had been moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to a 1908 edition of the New-York Tribune, because the statue was only life size and not "heroic size, as statues have to be to look well out of doors," it was taken to the Met to be put on display. When, precisely, it then migrated to City Hall is unclear, though it seems to be sometime in the 1960s.

Of course, New York has many other Washington monuments, including Henry Kirke Brown's equestrian statue in Union Square, JQA Ward's standing figure on the steps of Federal Hall National Memorial, and the Washington Square Arch, erected to honor the centennial of Washington's inauguration.


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Postcard Thursday: St. John the Divine, 1941

On November 30, 1941—76 years ago today—a celebration kicked off at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights to mark the completion of its massive nave.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
The cornerstone for the cathedral was laid on December 27, 1892—the feast of St. John the Divine—but work proceeded slowly. The sheer size of the project was daunting, and despite the rocky nature of the heights, it took workers a full two years—and 72 feet—before hitting solid bedrock. Once construction began, the architects’ grandiose plans were difficult to execute, in particular...[the] apse, which called for the world’s largest granite columns.
In 1907, before even the apse and choir were finished, [chief architect] George Heins died, which freed the cathedral from their contract with [his] firm. Once the apse was completed in 1911, the cathedral...hired Gothic aficionado Ralph Adams Cram to finish the church. Cram promised he could build the church faster and bigger.... Cram’s work began at the crossing in 1916 and over the next twenty-five years his team completed the massive nave. On November 30, 1941, the church kicked off an eight-day festival to celebrate the nave’s completion. On the final day of the festivities, December 7, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and, for all intents, work on the cathedral stopped.
Though some additional construction work on the cathedral has taken place in the intervening decades, most of the development on cathedral property today involves apartment buildings.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Happy Thanksgiving

Last year, James wrote a brief history of Thanksgiving for the Guardian US. Our national holiday has less to do with the Pilgrims (shown above landing on Plymouth Rock in December 1620) and more with northern abolitionism and a writer named Sarah Josepha Hale, who launched the celebration we know it today.

Not everyone was on board. As James writes in the piece, one critic complained that "Thanksgiving was an attempt to replace the 'legitimate Christian holiday' of Christmas with a secular day where 'an astonishing quantity of execrable liquor will be guzzled.'"

Here's hoping that you guzzle an astonishing quantity of the beverage of your choice today while remembering Hale's call for this to be a charitable day of “benevolence of action” and that “every American home” should be a “place of plenty and of rejoicing."

Read the full story at The Guardian's website and feel free to share with your friends and family.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Postcard Thursday: The Battle of Washington Heights

Should you find yourself in Washington Heights, stop by Fort Tryon Park (home to the Cloisters); today marks the 241st anniversary of the battle of Fort Washington, where 3,000 Hessian troops and 5,000 British regulars overwhelmed the American troops. 

In the fall of 1776, the Americans were on the run. They'd abandoned Lower Manhattan in September and despite a minor American victory in Harlem Heights on September 16, George Washington's troops were then routed at White Plains on October 28. In the wake of that loss, Washington ordered General Nathanael Greene to abandon Fort Washington in Upper Manhattan and head to New Jersey. However, Greene and the post's commanding officer, Colonel Robert Magaw, convinced Washington that the fort was defensible. That turned out to be a grave miscalculation, in part because one of Magaw's soldiers, William Demont, turned out to be a traitor, and had already given the British details of the fort's defenses.

By the end of the battle, 59 Americans had been killed and nearly 3,000 taken as prisoners of war. Many of these prisoners would subsequently die in the fetid conditions of British prison ships in Wallabout Bay, Brooklyn.

One American killed was John Corbin. His wife Margaret, a nurse who been allowed to join the soldiers in the fort, took his place at his cannon and continued firing until she was gravely injured. She never fully recovered from the wounds she received that day and later became the first woman to receive a military pension.

Fort Washington itself stood where Bennett Park sits in Washington Heights. After the British victory, the fortifications were renamed after Sir William Tryon, the British governor; today, the main road in Fort Tryon Park honors Margaret Corbin.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Armistice Day and Sgt. York

This Saturday marks the 99th anniversary of the end of World War I. In 1919, America created a new holiday, Armistice Day, to mark the fact that the peace treaty was signed on November 11, 1918. In 1954, that holiday became Veterans Day, honoring all those who have served in the armed forces.

The photo above shows Wall Street in 1918 celebrating the end of the war with a spontaneous barrage of ticker-tape.

After the war, Avenue A on the Upper East Side was named York Avenue after one of the heroes of the war, Sgt. Alvin C. York. Below is the text from one of our most popular posts (slightly modified) about York and his eponymous street.

* * *

Most New Yorkers probably haven’t given a second thought to York Avenue, the thoroughfare that runs from 59th Street to 91st Street just east of First Avenue. And if they have thought much about its name, they probably ascribed it to the Duke of York, for whom the city was named back in 1664.

However, York Avenue is actually a much more recent appellation: it was named in 1928 to honor Sergeant Alvin C. York, America’s most renowned World War I hero. Alvin York (1887-1964) was drafted in 1917. Though a conscientious objector (his application for CO status was denied), York became a hero during the Battle of the Argonne Forest. In an improbable feat of courage, York found himself in charge of his unit after many of his compatriots were killed and he managed to kill over 20 Germans soldiers and capture 132 more.

York was awarded the Medal of Honor and upon his return to the United States was feted in New York with a ticker tape parade. York regularly stayed in the news over the next decade, both for his efforts to help the rural poor of Tennessee (his home state) by building a school as well as for his aversion to accepting charity. When offered a free honeymoon, he turned it down stating it would just be a “vainglorious call of the world and the devil.”

In April 1928, York had the honor of having Avenue A from 59th Street northward named for him. The move was sponsored by the First Avenue Association in an effort to revive the fortunes of the east side, which was better known for its German enclave (later dubbed “Yorkville”) and Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert’s brewery. Back in 1807, when the city deployed surveyor John Randal, Jr., to map out the new Cartesian grid plan, he and his team chose to create twelve wide avenues that ran the length of the island from Houston Street north. However, this left the problem of the area of the Lower East Side and Upper East Side where there was enough room east of the grid plan for more streets. Randal solved this problem by naming these eastern avenues “A,” “B,” etc. and on the original 1811 map of Manhattan, there is both an Avenue A in today’s East Village and one on the Upper East Side. (East End Avenue was originally designated Avenue B.)

This idea of renaming a street after a war hero to bolster its real estate values was not new. Anthony and Orange streets—two of the worst streets leading into the old Five Points neighborhood—were renamed Worth and Baxter in the early 1850s after two of New York’s two great heroes from the Mexican-American War, General William Jenkins Worth and Colonel Charles Baxter.

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