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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Times Square Ball Drop

Tomorrow night, an estimated billion people around the world will watch the illuminated ball drop in Times Square to ring in the new year. This New Year’s tradition dates back 101 years—the dropping ball replaced an earlier fireworks display—but the notion of dropping a ball as a way of keeping time is an older tradition.

In 1877, a ball was added to the top of the Western Union Building on Lower Broadway. Each day at noon, a telegraph signal from Western Union’s main office in Washington, DC, would trip a switch in New York and the ball would descend from the flagpole. Visible throughout the Financial District—and, more importantly, from all the ships in the harbor—it allowed people to reset their watches and ship chronometers. For the first time, New York ran on a standard time.

As the New York Times noted in 1877, this idea of a ball dropping to keep the time wasn’t new. For many years prior to the Civil War, the New York custom house had signaled the time with a ball drop and in the 1870s it was common to find time balls in major European ports. However, when it began operation in April 1877, the Western Union ball was the only one in a North American port and quickly became a fixture of the Manhattan skyline.

(Western Union, afraid that it wasn’t always going to work, set up a system whereby a red flag would be flown from 12:01 to 12:10 p.m. on days that the ball refused to drop. Further, information would be sent to the press each day informing them whether the ball actually dropped at noon or had fallen at the wrong time!)

In 1907, the New York Times—then owners of the skyscraper from which the ball drops on New Year’s Eve—adopted the time ball as their symbol for ushering in the new year. That original Times Square ball, made of iron and wood and lit by 25 incandescent lights, weighed 700 pounds!

In 1911, the original Western Union Building was demolished by the company’s new owners, 

AT&T, so they could erect a larger structure. (That impressive marble building, known as 195 Broadway, still stands.) Plans called for a new time ball, but by the time the new AT&T headquarters was finished, the ball had been replaced by a giant, gilded statue by Evelyn Beatrice Longman called The Genius of Elecricity. (The statue remained on the building until 1980, when it was removed, restored, and installed in lobby of the AT&T headquarters in Midtown. It now resides in Basking Ridge, NJ.)

This year, not only is the Times Square ball lit by energy-efficient LED diodes,  for the first time the city plans to keep the ball atop the old Times Tower year round so that everyone who visits New York can see the actual ball that drops on New Year’s Eve.

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More information about the Times Square ball drop—along with the history of the square, the Broadway theater district, and the Times Tower—can be found in Inside the Apple, which is available for pre-order today.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Yes, Virginia (Redux)


In honor of Christmas Day, we are re-runinng a post (below) that we ran back in September about the famous "Yes, Virginia," letter from the old New York Sun.

Enjoy and Happy Holidays!

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9/14/2008

The 
New York Sun has been in the news a lot recently; editor Seth Lipsky announced at the beginning of the month that the paper would cease operations at the end of September unless new investors could be found.*

However, Lipsky's current incarnation of the Sun has only been published since 2002. The original sun, which published from 1833 to 1950, was famous for many things, but none more than the editorial that ran 111 years ago this week under the headline: "Is There a Santa Claus?"

The editorial was prompted by a letter from eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon, who wrote:
DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, "If you see it in THE SUN it's so." Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
The unsigned response (written by the Sun's Francis Pharcellus Church), has become the mostreprinted newspaper editorial of all time. It is almost universally known by the opening of its second paragraph, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." (And, thus, is perhaps wisely not known by its opening sentence: "Virginia, your little friends are wrong.")

In it, Church admonished Virginia's little friends and urges her to not to fall into the trap of being a skeptic in a skeptical world. On the editorial's centennial in 1997, the New York Times printed a nice summary of its influence over the years and its importance when it was first printed.

(The former home of the Sun, on Broadway and Chambers Street in Lower Manhattan, was originally built to be a department store run by mogul A.T. Stewart. Stewart's rise--and the bizarre circumstances surrounding his burial--are covered in our book, Inside the Apple.)

Alas, when we first posted, Seth Lipsky's revamp of the Sun was struggling but still in business. Today, it is no more.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Stone Street and the Great Fire of 1835

As New Yorkers enjoy the first real snow of the year, it’s appropriate to think back 173 years to the night of December 16, 1835, when a fire broke out in Hanover Square in the Financial District. Within a day the fire had destroyed 600 buildings over 50 acres earning the name the “Great Fire of 1835.” And the fire was so terrible because of the weather.

Mayor Philip Hone, one of the great diarists of New York in the 19th century, wrote:

“December 17—How shall I record the events of last night, or how attempt to describe the most awful calamity which has ever visited these United States? The greatest loss by fire that has ever been known…. I am fatigued in body, disturbed in mind, and my fancy filled with images of horror which my pen is inadequate to describe.”

When the fire broke out (evidently because of a gas leak), New York’s volunteer fire department was at the ready; most shops and houses had fire buckets available and bucket brigades stretched to the city’s wells and cisterns. There were no fire hydrants yet because the city didn’t have running water – that wouldn’t come for another 10 years and the building of the Croton Aqueduct System.

The problem was that it had been such a cold winter already that the water in the wells was frozen solid. The fire department’s new hand-pump was taken to the East River, but to no avail—the river was frozen solid, too. When the firefighters were finally able to hack through the ice, they couldn’t get any water into the hoses before it froze—it was that cold.

In the end, the fire had to burn itself out and, in the process, it destroyed much of the area between Broadway and Pearl Street in the financial district. If you happen to be down in that neighborhood and the weather’s not too lousy, take a walk down the block of Stone Street that connects Hanover Square to Coenties Slip. This is the area known today for its string of restaurants and pubs, such as Ulysses, Financier, and Brouwer’s of Stone Street. The buildings themselves, however, form a sort of memorial to the fire. Almost all of them were built within a 12-month period in 1836-37 to replace countinghouses and warehouses destroyed in the Great Fire. Notice how many of the buildings have extra wide doors (to haul in cargo) and strong, granite curbs to keep goods from accidentally plunging in to the basement.

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More about Stone Street and the Great Fire of 1835 can be found in our forthcoming book, Inside the Apple, which, as always, is available for pre-order. Get your copy today!

 

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Minetta Tavern and the Reader's Digest

As per Eater, Keith McNally’s refit of the Minetta Tavern (at the corner of MacDougal Street and Minetta Lane) will be finished in early 2009 with at least some of the original d├ęcor intact.

The tavern was the hangout over the years for a host of literary lights, including e.e. cummings, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was also a favorite of Joe Gould—whose life was chronicled by the New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell—who claimed to be working on his Oral History of Our Time at the bar.

Also, when the Minetta Tavern was still a speakeasy (called the Black Rabbit), it rented out its basement to Dewitt and Lila Bell Acheson Wallace who published the first issues of the Reader’s Digest there. The magazine’s entrance was rumored to be through a trapdoor in the tavern. Does that mean they shared space with the Black Rabbit’s illicit booze supply?

The first print run of the digest—limited to 5,000 copies—came out in February 1922. By 1923, the Wallaces had moved to Pleasantville, New York, which is still the magazine’s corporate home. Today, the magazine prints over 10 million copies in the U.S. alone and has scores of foreign language versions.

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Photo courtesy of the new Life magazine photo archive over at Google.

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Monday, December 8, 2008

John Lennon in Greenwich Village

Today (December 8, 2008) marks the 28th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon. Lennon was killed in front of the Dakota on Central Park West, which had been his home for many years. But when he and Yoko Ono first moved to the city in 1971, they lived first at the St. Regis Hotel and then in Greenwich Village at 105 Bank Street, which they rented from the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Joe Butler.

The Bank Street apartment became a magnet for the Lennon’s political and social scene and their friends included Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, Alan Ginsberg, actor Peter Boyle, and a host of musicians. While their life in the West Village afforded them the relative anonymity that most New York celebrities enjoy, life was not without its hairy moments. According to Jon Wiener’s book Come Together, a former tenant in the apartment burst in one night with his henchmen and robbed the place, taking the Lennons’ art, color television (which John begged them to leave behind), wallet, and address book. It was the address book that was most valuable to John and word was put out on the street that it better be returned or “Bobby Seale’s people” (aka the Black Panthers) would exact revenge. The address book was ultimately returned and Lennon evidently was delighted by the whole incident.

In 1973, John and Yoko moved to the Dakota where, coming home from the studio in 1980, Lennon was murdered by Mark David Chapman, a deranged fan. ABC has some good archival footage online of the day after the murder.

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More about John Lennon and Strawberry Fields, his memorial in Central Park, can be found in Inside the Apple.

105 Bank Street is also a stop on our Rock and Roll tour, produced by Citylisten.com and narrated by DJ Ken Dashow. It is available for download today.

 

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Prohibition Repealed! (75 Years Ago)

Today (December 5, 2008) marks the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition.

The 18th amendment was never popular in New York City, but it surprised even the wettest foes of Prohibition that the city voted in May 1933 by an overwhelming ratio of 44 to 1 in favor of repeal. When Utah became the 36th State to ratify repeal in November of that year, Congress ordered the law to expire at 2:00 p.m. on December 5. (Just to foil morning drinkers, we suppose.)

So, if you are so inclinded, go out a raise a glass today. The city's best-known speakeasy, Chumley's on Bedford Street, is still undergoing renovations from its well-publicized chimney collapse. But perhaps pay a visit to McSorley's Old Ale House in the East Village. Not only is it the city's oldest pub (having opened in 1854 -- or, if you believe the nay-sayers, as late as 1862), it did not close down during Prohibition. They simply moved the brewing operations to the basement and continued to serve their regular brew, calling it "near beer" (wink, wink).

McSorley's only serves its own brew--in light and dark varieties--so don't go in looking for a scotch on the rocks. For years its motto was "Good beer, raw onions, and no ladies." However, since 1970, it has allowed women to patronize the establishment and its new motto is "Be good or be gone."

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Much more about the "noble experiment," Chumley's, McSorley's, and other city bars can be found, as always, in Inside the Apple.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

New York Earthquake

If you are the sort of person who, in these uncertain economic times, might be comforted to know that things could get much worse, tune in to the Discovery Channel tonight at 10:00 p.m.* to see New York Earthquake. This hour-long documentary examines just how bad things would be if a big quake hit New York. (The city's last big one was an earthquake measuring 5 on the Richter scale that hit back in the 1880s.) 

Among the topics discussed in the program is the liquefaction of Battery Park City and other landfill, which would promptly shimmy back into the sea.

Also of interest: The History Channel is re-airing Super City: New York on Sunday, December 14. While not every segment of this program was equally good, it is still well worth watching if you are interested in the history of the city.

* Check local listings; it's on at different times in different markets.

UPDATE
Now that we've watched the show, a mini review:

It was a little disappointing--though not terribly surprising--that the show focused almost exclusively on the doom-and-gloom aspects of a major quake hitting the city. If you want advice as to what to do to prepare for the big one (or any major disaster), visit http://www.nyc.gov/html/oem/html/get_prepared/ready.shtml

It was interesting to hear about the fault that runs along 125th Street and is responsible for the deep valley there. It was also fascinating to think that those skyscrapers most badly damaged in an earthquake will be as a result, in part, of the exact size of the seismic wave that cascades under the city. Many skyscrapers' steel skeletons are built to withstand the shock of a quake (the good news). Their facades, however, are not (the bad news) and will peel off into the street.


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Saturday, November 29, 2008

"Keep the Faith, Baby!": Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Turns 100

Today (Saturday, November 29) marks the 100th birthday of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who was pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church (which is turning 200 years old this year) and Harlem’s congressional representative from 1945 until 1971. (Powell died in 1972.)

Powell’s father, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., was pastor at Abyssinian Baptist from 1909 to 1936, during which time the church moved to Harlem and became the largest protestant parish in the world with over 12,000 members. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.—at that time the assistant pastor of the church—rose to fame by leading a boycott of shops along 125th Street that would sell to African-American shoppers but would not hire them to work at the stores. This “Don’t Shop Where You Can’t Work” movement boosted Powell’s political prominence; in 1937, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., took over the pulpit at Abyssinian Baptist, and in 1941 he became New York’s first black city council member. In 1944, he was elected to the House of Representatives—the first African-American from New York—and served until 1970, when he was replaced by Charlie Rangel. (Together, that means that Harlem has been represented by only two men for the past 63 years!) In congress, Powell was integral to the Civil Rights movement and as chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor saw to it that legislation on school lunches, student loans, and the minimum wage got passed.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is hosting an all-day event beginning at 11:00AM celebrating Powell’s life and accomplishments. (Birthday cake will be served at 4:00PM.)

Two interesting side notes about Powell:

·         The mammoth building at 125th Street that now bears his name was one of the last things he adamantly opposed as Harlem’s representative. He at one point threatened to leave New York and settle permanently in his second home in Bimini should the building be constructed. When it first opened in 1974, it was simply the “State Office Building in Harlem”—Powell’s name was not attached until 1983.

·         In 1960, he slandered a constituent, Esther James, claiming she was a “bag woman” for the Mafia. James sued and was awarded $46,000 that Powell refused to pay. When charged with contempt, Powell would only come back to Harlem on Sundays—when civil contempt subpoenas could not be served—to preach at Abyssinian Baptist. A judge eventually gave Powell more time to come up with the money and one way he attempted to raise funds was by issuing a spoken word LP, Keep the Faith, Baby!, containing some of his most famous speeches.

 

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As always,  more information about Powell and the history of Harlem can be found in our book, Inside the Apple, which is coming out in March but is available for pre-order today.

                      

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: New York vs. Cleveland

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's New York annex opened Tuesday at 76 Mercer Street. As the New York Times pointed out in their preview, the museum will have a New York focus, beginning with an exhibit about the Clash, who recorded extensively in the city. (Fun fact: while making Sandanista! they lived at the pre-Ian Schrager Gramercy Park Hotel.) 

The Times article also points out that while the museum will only take about 90 minutes to tour, it costs $26 as opposed to the full museum in Cleveland, which takes hours to explore yet only costs $22. Which once again just proves Liz Lemon right: Cleveland rocks!

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If you are interested in doing a Rock and Roll tour of the city, we wrote the script for a tour of famous music spots in the East and West Village. The tour, narrated by DJ Ken Dashow, is available for download at www.citylisten.com.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade: The Early Years

Like millions of people across the country, we’ll be watching the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (from the comfort of our living room, courtesy of dueling parade coverage on NBC and CBS).

Some fun facts about the parade’s early years:

·         When it launched on Thanksgiving Day in 1924, the parade began at 145th Street and Convent Avenue in Harlem. The parade wended its way almost six-and-a-half miles down Convent, Morningside, and Manhattan Avenues to 110th Street where it jogged over to Broadway and turned south. At Columbus Circle the parade moved over to the Eighth Avenue as far south as 40th Street before heading back over to Broadway to finish at Herald Square. (The parade was inaugurated to celebrate the expansion of Macy’s into the 12-story Herald Square store, which had opened just three months earlier.) They moved the start of the parade route to 110th Street a few years later and to the Museum of Natural History in the 1940s. The parade now covers about 2.4 miles.

·         The parade, which has featured Santa since its inception, was known as the Macy’s Christmas Parade until 1935.

·         Prior to the first parade, the New York Times reported that Santa would be accompanied by “a retinue of clowns, and prominent personages in toyland, such as Mother Goose, Little Red Riding Hood, Little Miss Muffet and the Three Men in the Tub.” In its post-parade coverage, the Times notably changed that to a “retinue of clowns, freaks, animals and floats.” The animals, according to Macy’s own website, came from the Central Park Zoo. No mention is made of where the freaks came from.

·         The parade was condemned in certain circles for interfering with Thanksgiving morning worship services and, as a result, Macy’s moved it to the late afternoon in the late 1920s. It slowly inched its way back to being a morning parade by the outbreak of World War II. (The parade went on hiatus for three years during the war, with the money that would have been spent on the parade sent to the war effort instead.)

·         The first helium balloons were introduced in 1927. The Times referred to one as a “human behemoth” and another as a 60-foot “dinosaur” (both in quotes). There were also balloons of “lions, tigers, monkeys, giraffes and occasional cannibals.” The cannibals were evidently part of a Robinson Crusoe float.

·         The next year, the store released five balloons into the air at the end of the parade. Those who found them could return them to the store for a $100 prize. Three of the balloons came down in Queens; a fourth landed in the East River and was pursued by tugboats; the fifth—a ghost—was last seen heading out to sea over the Rockaways. After a couple of near misses with airplanes, Macy’s stopped releasing balloons in 1933.

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Photo courtesy of the new Life magazine photo archive over at Google.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Happy Evacuation Day!

Before we get to Thanksgiving (which will be the subject of a future post), we have another holiday coming up next week: Evacuation Day. So, break out the red, white, and blue, because Tuesday marks the 225th anniversary of the end of the Revolutionary War.

Even if you’re a bit fuzzy on your dates, you probably remember that the war ended with the Battle of Yorktown, which took place in Virginia in October 1781. However, despite the British surrender and the subsequent ratification of the Peace of Paris, British troops refused to leave their headquarters in New York City. (The British commander, Guy Carelton, was reluctant to leave due to the large number of Loyalist refugees that had come to the city following the British surrender. Many of those refugees eventually ended up settling in New Brunswick, Canada.)

To end the occupation once and for all, George Washington returned to New York on November 25, 1783, for the first time since he had lost Manhattan to the British in 1776. That morning the British troops pulled out of the city, sailing from the Battery through the Narrows. (Supposedly the last shot of the Revolutionary War was fired in anger at the shore of Staten Island.) Once the British had gone, Washington and his commanders marched into the city.

However, the British had left at least one insult behind. Someone had run a Union Jack up a flagpole, cut the halyard, and greased the pole so that when Washington arrived he’d still see the British colors flying over the city. It was up to a young sailor named John van Arsdale to rectify the situation. Using nails, he created cleats on the side of the flagpole and managed to carry a Stars-and-Stripes up to the top of the pole and replace the Union Jack before Washington’s arrival. (The somewhat fanciful depiction above is a later commemoration of the scene. Notice the fort directly behind the flagpole; that appears to be Castle Clinton in Battery Park, which wasn’t built until 1807 for service in the War of 1812.)

In the early part of the 19th century, Evacuation Day was celebrated with some fervor in New York City, but as the war passed into memory and many of its veterans died, the holiday lost its following. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be a day of Thanksgiving and the modern tradition of Thanksgiving was born. With this holiday following on or near Evacuation Day, New York’s local holiday fell by the wayside. (Compare this to Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts, which commemorates the start of the Revolution and is still going strong.)

There are couple of places you can go to celebrate Evacuation Day. The first is Fraunces Tavern on Pearl Street. This is the reconstructed version of the tavern where Washington had his final headquarters after his triumphant Evacuation Day return to the city. The tavern still operates a bar and restaurant as well as a fascinating small museum.

Nearby on Wall Street, a statue of Washington graces the front of Federal Hall National Memorial. Though the statue is there to commemorate a later event (Washington’s inaugural in 1789), it was erected on Evacuation Day.

In Union Square, take a look at the magnificent equestrian statue of Washington that stands at the 14th Street end of the square. This statue, by Henry Kirke Brown, is meant to depict Washington riding into the city on Evacuation Day.

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To read more about New York’s role in the Revolution, feel free to go ahead and pre-order a copy of Inside the Apple, which will be published in March 2009.

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Read more about Evacuation Day in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

The Coney Island Carousel in Central Park

In case you missed the brand-new issue of Carousel News and Trader magazine, the merry-go-round in Central Park is turning 100 years old this year.

The original Central Park carousel was installed in 1871 and was, according Sara Cedar Miller’s excellent park history, hand cranked! Manual labor was soon replaced by a blind horse or mule that was hitched to a crank in the building’s basement. In 1924, an electrified carousel was installed, but this burned down the night of November 7, 1950, in what was perhaps an electrical fire, and the carousel we have today was opened soon thereafter.

The current Central Park carousel originally opened at Coney Island in 1908 during the heyday of the boardwalk as a leisure destination. Known as the BMT Trolley Carousel, it was built by the firm of Stein & Goldstein, one of America’s premier carousel manufacturers. Many of the early amusement parks at Coney Island were run by the trolley companies—as an incentive to ride a certain line, your ticket to Coney Island would also include admission to that company’s rides. However, by the 1940s the subway had displaced the old trolley companies and the BMT carousel was in a warehouse gathering dust. Luckily, when the Central Park carousel burned down, someone remembered that this old Stein & Goldstein merry-go-round was in storage and it was moved to Central Park.

If you haven’t checked out the Central Park carousel recently, it’s well worth a visit. Stein & Goldstein’s handiwork is amazing: each horse is unique and the outside horses are 3/4-life size. (According to Carousel News and Trader, the Central Park horses may be largest hand-carved specimens left from the golden age of carousel manufacturing.) The carousel also reaches a top speed of about 12 miles an hour—more than double the speed of a typical modern merry-go-round.

Photo by mvhargan on flickr.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

York Avenue and Sgt. Alvin York

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. And since Tuesday is Veteran’s Day—originally Armistice Day*, a World War I holiday—we thought we’d devote a couple of paragraphs to Sgt. York and his eponymous street.

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 almost single-handedly 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 (who we’ll revisit in a later blog posting) and Colonel Charles Baxter.

And perhaps the most remarkable change in an avenue’s real estate fortunes came when Fourth Avenue—aka “Death Avenue”—was renamed Park Avenue.

More about street names can be found, as always, in Inside the Apple, which is available for pre-order now.

* Armistice Day was created in 1919 to mark the signing of the armistice with the Germans on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. In 1954, the holiday was renamed Veterans Day to honor those who had served in all wars.


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Saturday, November 1, 2008

New York and the Presidency

As you wait around for official election returns on Tuesday, you can take a break from the non-stop television coverage by contemplating the role New York has played in past presidential elections. While Hilary Clinton may have lost her chance to put a New Yorker in the White House this time around, New York's role in presidential politics dates back to the 

beginning of the republic.

 

GEORGE WASHINGTON

Though it didn't last very long, New York was the first capital of the United States, and on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street, George Washington was sworn in as America's first president on April 30, 1789. (The building no longer stands, but a statue of Washington by J.Q.A. Ward graces the front of the building now known as Federal Hall National Memorial). After the inauguration, Washington went to St. Paul's Chapel on Broadway at Fulton Street, where his pew is still preserved. During the 15 months that New York remained the capital after the inauguration, Washington lived in a house on Cherry Street (at roughly the spot where the Brooklyn Bridge anchorage now stands) and then in a home on 

lower Broadway near Bowling Green. His vice president, John Adams, lived in isolated splendor in a mansion in Greenwich Village called Richmond Hill, later home to Vice President Aaron Burr.

 

AARON BURR

In 1800, the incumbent president, John Adams, was faced by his own vice president, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's running mate was New Yorker Aaron Burr; however, due to a flaw in the electoral system (which made no adequate provision for distinguishing between votes cast for president versus vice president), both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received 73 electoral votes and the election was thrown to the House of Representatives. The Federalists, who still controlled congress, tried to elect Burr as president, thus denying the seat to Jefferson, who many considered the nation's leading opponent of Federalism. Notably, it was only though the intervention of Burr's nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, that Jefferson was finally elected president on the 36th ballot. Burr's home in Greenwich Village, Richmond Hill, is no longer standing, but one of the property's stables is now the restaurant One if By Land, Two if By Sea.

 

GEORGE CLINTON

Burr was left off  the Democratic-Republican ticket in 1804 in favor of New York governor George Clinton, who also went on to be James Madison's vice president (thus making him one of only two vice presidents to serve under different presidents; the other was the well-coiffed John C. Calhoun).

 

DEWITT CLINTON

In 1812, New York City fielded its first candidate for president, Mayor DeWitt Clinton. Despite mounting frustration with incumbent James Madison over the War of 1812, Clinton lost the election. Clinton went on to serve as New York's governor and presided over the building of the Erie Canal. (DeWitt Clinton is the person who is honored in the neighborhood Clinton—known to 

most people as Hell's Kitchen.)

 

DANIEL TOMPKINS

The man Clinton replaced as governor, Daniel Tompkins, was vice president  under James Monroe. Tompkins, who gave the land to the city that became Tompkins Square Park, is buried in the churchyard at St. Marks in the Bowery on 10th Street at Second Avenue.

 

MARTIN VAN BUREN

In 1836, New York governor Martin Van Buren (who had been Andrew Jackson's secretary of state and vice president) was elected to the presidency. It would be the last time until George H.W. Bush that a sitting vice president would succeed to the presidency without the president dying in office. Another fun fact about Van Buren: not only was he a descendant of one of the early Dutch settlers of New York, he grew up speaking Dutch.

 

MILLARD FILLMORE

Generally forgotten in the lists of American presidents is Millard Fillmore, who hailed from the Finger Lakes region upstate. A congressman for over a decade in the 1830s and '40s, Fillmore returned to New York to run an unsuccessful campaign for governor. In 1848, he became the state's comptroller. In that capacity, he oversaw the start of construction on the state militia's arsenal in Central Park. Today, his name is still clearly visible in the plaque over the building's front door. In 1848, Fillmore was also tapped to be General Zachary Taylor's running mate. When Taylor died after only a year in office, Fillmore became president. However, like John Tyler before him (who had succeeded to the presidency upon the death of William Henry Harrison), Fillmore was not picked by his own party to run for a second term.

 

HORATIO SEYMOUR / HORACE GREELEY

In 1868, Governor Horatio Seymour was tapped by the Democrats to face war hero Ulysses S. Grant. Seymour had long been involved in New York State politics—the factionalism of this period is sometimes hard to fathom. Seymour was a "soft-shell hunker," opposed to those in the party who were "hard-shell hunkers" or "barnburners." The hirsute Seymour sported an impressive neck-beard, which was quite the fashion of the time.

 

Newspaper editor Horace Greeley faced Grant in the election of 1872. Greeley, a staunch Republican, had become disillusioned by the party and Grant's mediocre first term and decided to face him as a "Liberal Republican." (The Democrats backed Greeley, as well.) Grant handily won a second term and Greeley died before the Electoral College could convene, meaning that his electoral votes were split between four other Democratic candidates.

 

A handsome statue of Greeley (who, like Seymour, sported a neck-beard—whatever happened to those?) sits in City Hall Park near the entrance of the Brooklyn Bridge.


SAMUEL J. TILDEN

Lawyer Samuel J. Tilden rose to prominence as the man who prosecuted William "Boss" Tweed. His success led to him winning the governor's race in 1874 and then being nominated for president by the Democratic Party in 1876 to face Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. The Tilden/Hayes election continues to be the most disputed in American history. It took four months from Election Day for a special commission to name the winner. Ultimately, they picked Hayes though modern research indicates that Tilden almost certainly would have won the election had there not been electoral shenanigans in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana. Tilden lived in a wonderful double townhouse on Gramercy Park that is now home to The 

National Arts Club.

 

CHESTER A. ARTHUR

Though a native of Vermont (or, as his opponents tried to prove in 1880, of Canada), Chester A. Arthur moved to New York in 1854 to practice law. He was appointed collector of the Port of 

New York in 1871 and was nominated to run as James A. Garfield's vice president in 1880. Garfield was shot in July 1881, only a few months after taking office. He lingered for eighty days before succumbing to his wounds. At the time of the president's death, Arthur was at his home on Lexington Avenue (which still stands) and was sworn in as president there by a justice of the 

New York Supreme Court. He ran in 1885 to become president in his own right, but lost to New York Governor Grover Cleveland.

                                                                      

GROVER CLEVELAND

New York Governor Grover Cleveland was elected president in 1888 and again in 1892, the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. (And the first Democrat to be nominated for 

president three consecutive times.) Cleveland's vice president during his second term was Adlai Stevenson, grandfather of the 20th-century presidential candidate who ran twice against Dwight D. Eisenhower.

 

THEODORE ROOSEVELT

New York City has only produced one born-and-raised president, Teddy Roosevelt, who grew up in a house on East 20th Street near Gramercy Park. (Today, the National Park Service runs the Theodore Roosevelt birthplace in a replica house on the site.) Teddy became president in 1901 after President William 

McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo while attending the Pan-American Exposition. Roosevelt ran for election in his own right in 1904 and won, becoming the first vice president who had been elevated to the presidency who went on to win the office in his own right.

 

Teddy ran again in 1912 on the Progressive or "Bull Moose" ticket, siphoning enough votes away from incumbent Republican William Howard Taft to give the election to Woodrow Wilson.

 


AL SMITH

Lower East Sider Al Smith ("the Happy Warrior") rose to prominence in the state legislature in the early years of the 20th century. He was elected governor in 1918; though he lost the 1920 election, he was governor from 1922 to 1928 when he secured the Democratic nomination for president. The plainspoken Smith lost the election that year to Herbert Hoover, done in by a combination of prejudice (no Roman Catholic had ever sought the nation's highest office) and opposition to his "wet" candidacy during the height of Prohibition. Smith went on to be the head of the Empire State Corporation that erected the Empire State Building. His boyhood home, on Oliver Street, still stands and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT

FDR served longer than any other president, from 1937 to his death in 1945, thus ushering in the era of presidential term limits. (He faced New Yorker Wendell Willkie in the 1940 election and New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey in 1944.)

 

Born in Hyde Park, New York, in 1882, Roosevelt was the descendant of two of the oldest New York families. His Delano ancestor, Philippe de La Noye, arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on 

the Fortune, the second ship to bring the Pilgrims to the New World. His Roosevelt ancestors had been in New York since the city had been New Amsterdam. Though he was only a distant cousin of Teddy Roosevelt, his wife, Eleanor, was Teddy's niece.

 

THOMAS E. DEWEY

Thomas Dewey was known as the "Gangbuster" for his crusades against bootlegging and 

organized crime as a New York City prosecutor and District Attorney. In 1942, he became governor and was nominated by the Republicans to face FDR in 1944 and then to face Harry Truman in 1948. Almost all pundits and pollsters considered Dewey's election a lock—so much so 

that the Chicago Daily Tribune went to bed on election night with "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN" running across the page. In the end, though Truman only squeaked out a narrow popular victory, the margin in the Electoral College was overwhelming.

 

Dewey's ignominious defeat marked an end to New York's role in presidential (as opposed to vice presidential) electoral politics. A couple of vice presidential hopefuls in recent years have hailed from New York: William Miller, who was Barry Goldwater's pick in 1964, and Geraldine Ferraro, who ran with Walter Mondale in 1984. Also, in 1974, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was appointed to be Gerald Ford’s Vice President, making the two of them the only combination in history of a president and vice president who were not elected.

 

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Much more about many of these New York politicos—including George Washington, Aaron Burr, DeWitt Clinton, Samuel Tilden, and Al Smith—can be found in our forthcoming book, Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

 

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Friday, October 31, 2008

The Ticker Tape Parade

With so many anniversaries this week (the opening of the first subway; the Great Crash of 1929), it was easy to overlook that the city’s most famous statue—Frederic August Bartholdi’s Liberty Enlightening the World, aka the Statue of Libertyturned 122 years old on October 28.

The official grand opening in the harbor was followed by a parade up Broadway from Battery Park. It was during that parade that some enterprising office worker in one of the brokerage houses on Broadway decided to turn his company’s used ticker tape into confetti. Thus was born the ticker tape parade, an enduring New York tradition.

The parades took a while to catch on. The next one was for Admiral Dewey, hero of the Spanish-American War, following his return from Manila. Then ten years went by before the next parade, for Jack Binns, the radio operator of the RMS Republic. (The Republic had struck the SS Florida in January; because the ship was equipped with wireless radio, Binns was able to send a Mayday signal and the passengers and crew were rescued.)

In the 1920s ticker tape parades really started to take off. The parades, under the purview of the mayor’s office, were mostly given to arriving dignitaries, sports heroes, or pioneers in flight. The two busiest years were 1951 and 1962, which each had 9 parades. In 1962, honorees were as diverse as John Glenn, the New York Yankees, and Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus.

The Yankees hold the record for most parades at eight. While a handful of individuals have been feted twice (including Glenn), only one person has been honored three times—Admiral Richard E. Byrd, the polar aviator and explorer.

If you find yourself in Lower Manhattan, take a stroll up Broadway from Battery Park. All the recipients of ticker tape parades are commemorated in plaques in the sidewalk.

More about ticker tape parades—including what was at the time the biggest ever held for the Apollo astronauts in 1969—can be found in Inside the Apple, which is available for pre-order now.

[Photo by StormyDog on flickr.]

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

August Belmont's Private Subway Car

October 27 marks the 104th anniversary of the opening of New York’s first subway, the IRT. On that day, Mayor George “Max” McClellan took hold of the controls at the City Hall station and enjoyed it so much that he kept driving all the way to Broadway and 103rd Street, where the motorman was finally allowed to take over.*

(When the city celebrated the subway’s centennial in 2004, we thought it would have been great for Mayor Bloomberg to reenact McClellan’s joyride, but—alas—no such luck.)

The IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit Company) was created in 1900 to build and operate the first subway and its principal financier was August Belmont, better known today for building Belmont Park, the home of the Belmont Stakes. Part of the IRT’s first complement of rolling stock was a private car for Belmont, named the Mineola (after the family seat on Long Island).

As New York Times columnist Meyer Berger noted in Meyer Berger’s New York, the Mineola was decked out with

Philippine mahogany…, mulberry silk drapes, knee-deep carpeting, sliding leatherette curtains, a kitchenette with kerosene stove and old-fashioned icebox, special subway-pattern china and glassware, overstuffed reclining couch, swivel chair and roll-top desk.
Talk about commuting in style. While it is certain the Belmont used the car for entertaining and showing off the IRT to guests, stories have also persisted for years that the Mineola would whisk Belmont and his guests from a siding under the Belmont Hotel on 42nd Street all the way out to Belmont Park. In theory, this would have been possible (switching from IRT to LIRR tracks at Atlantic Avenue), but there is no evidence that the Mineola ever made that journey.

After Belmont’s death, the car was eventually sold for scrap. However, it never quite managed to end up on the junk heap and in 1973 was acquired by the Shoreline Trolley Museum in East Haven, Connecticut, where it remains to this day.

You can read more about Belmont and the building of the IRT in Inside the Apple.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Free Admission to the Andrew Carnegie Mansion

In celebration of National Design week, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design museum is free from October 19 to 25.

The museum is housed in the former mansion of steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Built by Cook, Babb & Willard from 1899 to 1901, the home featured 64 rooms including vast public rooms, a conservatory, one of the first passenger elevators in a private home, and a very early version of central air conditioning.

Today, it is one of only two full-block mansions on Fifth Avenue left from the Gilded Age (the other is the former home of Carnegie's crony Henry Clay Frick). It is well worth a visit both for its architecture and to see the collections of its current tenant, the Cooper-Hewitt, which is the Smithsonian's National Design Museum.

Much more about Carnegie and his mansion can be found in Inside the Apple.

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Also in the news: a nice story in the October 20 issue of the New York Observer about the house on West 11th Street that was blown up by the Weather Underground, who have been in the news so much lately vis a vis Bill Ayers and Barack Obama.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Panic of 1907

There was an excellent article in the New York Times about the closed-door meeting in Washington where Treasuty Secretary Henry Paulson dictated the terms of the government's $250 billion investment in 9 large U.S. banks. Seems that Paulson got them all in the room and told them they weren't leaving until they'd signed the one-page agreement he had drafted.

This brought to mind a famous story about the Panic of 1907--at the time one of the most severe economic panics the nation had ever seen. At that time it wasn't the government that Wall Street turned to for a bailout, it was J. Pierpont Morgan, whose famous "House of Morgan" stood opposite the New York Stock Exchange. (The building, still there, is now part of a condo development.)

When the Knickerbocker Trust Company failed in October 1907, Morgan was able to prop up the floundering stock exchange by getting banks to promise $25 million dollars to infuse the market with liquidity. However, a number of other small banks and trusts were on the verge of collapse and Morgan knew there'd be more market uncertainty without a stronger course of action. On the night of November 2, 1907, he invited the leaders of the city's big banks to his new library. Once there, Morgan locked them inside and wouldn't let them go until 5:00 a.m. the next morning having secured an additional $25 million in investment capital to bolster the failing trust companies.

Morgan, who died six years later, was one of America's largest collectors of rare books and fine art. The library--the original section of which was designed by noted Beaux-Arts architect Charles Follen McKim--is now the Morgan Library & Museum, one of New York's finest small museums.

More information about Morgan, his library, and the Panic of 1907 can be found in Inside the Apple. Pre-order you copy today!

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Christopher Columbus in New York City

Monday, October 14, marks the 74th year that Christopher Columbus' "discovery" of America has been celebrated as a national holiday. In New York City, celebrations date back to at least 1792, the 300th anniversary of Columbus' voyage, but didn't really start in earnest until the first waves of Italian immigrants began arriving in the years around the Civil War.

In 1892, the 400th anniversary, New York City went all out in its Columbus celebrations. Three separate statues were planned for Central Park and--since there was already one in the park, donated by a private individual--this would have meant a total of four Columbus monuments in the park alone. In the end, we only have two Columbus commemorations: one in the middle of Columbus Circle (donated by the Italian-American community) and one on the Mall, put up under the auspices of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (NYG&B).

Each is worth a visit. The Italian Columbus stands on a 70-foot pillar in the midst of the traffic circle where 59th Street intersects Broadway and Central Park West. It is sculpted of marble by Gaetano Russo and the base is inset with bas relief images of Columbus' first landing.

To reach the other Columbus, enter the park here and walk north on the West Drive (the ring road) to Tavern on the Green/Sheep Meadow. Turn right and walk east along the bottom of Sheep Meadow; when you get to the other side, follow the path as it curves to the left (don't re-cross the ring road) and you'll get to base of the park's formal promenade, known as the Mall. There you'll find the other Columbus. 

This work, often known as "the Spanish Columbus," is by Jeronimo Sunol, a Spanish artist who had already created a similar sculpture in Barcelona. The statue's champion was James Grant Wilson, a Civil War veteran, New York City historian, Central Park lover, and all-around civic-minded citizen. Through the NYG&B, Wilson raised the funds to place this statue in the park, probably as a counterbalance to the Italian piece in Columbus Circle. With so many Italians immigrating to the United States in the late 19th century, it is likely that the subtext of any so-called "Spanish Columbus" was that it was, in fact, a "non-Italian Columbus."

Meanwhile, the Spanish government was interested in commemorating the explorer with its own statue, but plans fell through and it was never built.

Lastly, there was the privately donated piece. It was sculpted by Emma Stebbins--best known for the park's Angel of the Waters--and ended up living for years in a tavern that once stood in the park near the 102nd Street transverse. Stebbins' Columbus later traveled down to Columbus Park in Chinatown and now stands in Cadman Plaza in front of the Brooklyn Supreme Court building. (To visit, take the 2, 3, 4, or 5 subway to Borough Hall. The Columbus Statue is directly in front of the main Supreme Court entrance.)

Much more about Columbus and his appearances in NYC history, art, and architecture can be found in Inside the Apple.

Happy Columbus Day!

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