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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The New York Times Great Children's Read

On Sunday, October 5, the New York Times is once again hosting its "Great Children's Read" on the campus of Columbia University.

This all-day event features celebrities (well, mostly demi-celebrities) reading from a slew of great children's books set in New York City. A full schedule is available on their site, but one highlight will be the well-eyebrowed George Whipple reading oneof James's all time-favorite kids books: The House on East 88th Street.

Also appearing will be They Might Be Giants, whose most recent children's album is Here Come the 123s.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

"Super City: New York" on the History Channel

On Monday, September 22, at 9:00pm (and repeated later in the week), the History Channel is showing a special called Super City: New York. It's been a little tough finding out information, but the blurb states (with some touch-and-go grammar) that the show:

"Peeling back layers of time shows Manhattan Island as it looked when it was discovered by Henry Hudson in 1609, then examines how people and nature have changed the landscape and speculates on the city's future."
We are intrigued.

Now that we've seen the show both in September and its recent December re-airing, we thought a little review was in order.

According to the show, to be a "Super City," a place must be "a marvel of engineering, infrastructure, and commerce." New York is certainly all those things, though the program gave pretty short shrift to the commercial aspects of the Big Apple.  (Perhaps they are saving that for the sequel.)

At two hours, the special seemed to drag a little--especially during the sections about skyscraper building, which didn't seem to offer anything new. But on the whole, this is an enjoyable foray into the city's natural history and its incredible infrastructure.

Some interesting tidbits we gleaned:

  • When most of the world's landmass was just one continent, dinosaurs walked from New Jersey to Africa, and the Jersey side of the Hudson is teeming with dinosaur footprints.

  • The palisades are the edge of a lake that formed when Africa ripped away from North America.

  • A beaver pond once stood in the area that is now Times Square. (This, and many other good facts, are courtesy of Eric Sanderson and the Mannahatta Project at the Wildlife Conservation Society.)

  • Rebuen Rose-Redwood, a geographer at Texas A&M and an expert on the 1811 survey that mapped Manhattan's grid, has found at least one original survey pin in Central Park. (We are going to search for the pin when the weather gets warmer and--if feasible--add it to one of our tours.)

    You can also read this article about Rose-Redwood and how his discovery of the pin was recreated for the TV cameras.

  • A 55-mile long pneumatic tube system that once delivered 200,000 pieces of mail per hour between the post office and downtown office buildings.

Many of these aspects of New York's history, including the city's geology, geography, and infrastracture, all appear in  our book, Inside the Apple, which is coming out in March. To pre-order a copy at Amazon, follow this link -- or go to our home page to find other online merchants.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Whales in New York - Past and Present

As was heavily reported this week in the local news (see the Times, Post, and US News & World Report), the waters just outside New York harbor are teeming with whales.

Scientists, led by Dr. Christopher Clark, director of bioacoustics research at Cornell's ornithology lab, placed a series of underwater microphones in the waters surrounding New York, thinking that they would find evidence of a few migratory whales. Instead, they found hundreds, including right whales, humpbacks, blue whales, and minke whales.

In its earliest years, New York City was well known for its whale population. In March 1647, Adriaen van der Donck, New Amsterdam's resident lawyer (and the man whose farm gave rise to the city of Yonkers), reported that he'd seen several whales swim all the way up the Hudson River to Troy, New York (almost 160 miles from the harbor). There the poor creatures beached themselves. This made the Hudson "oily for three weeks" and produced a stench that could be smelled for miles.

In 1697, Trinity Church, Wall Street, received its official royal charter, which gave it title not only to a significant amount of land in Lower Manhattan, but also to the profit from any whales or shipwrecks along the banks of the Hudson. As the charter noted, the church was permitted to:

"seize upon and secure all Weifts Wrecks Drift Whales and whatsoever else Drives from the high sea and is then  lost below high water mark and not having a lawful Owner within bounds and limits of his Majesties Province of New York."

After securing the whales, the parish could then

"tow [them] ashore and then to cutt up the said Whales and try into Oyle and secure the Whalebone [to sell to raise cash for] the building of the Church aforesaid and to no other use whatsoever until the same be perfectly finished."

Anyone have any idea what a "weift" is?

You can read more about the building of the first Trinity Church and about Adriaen van der Donck in Inside the Apple.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Subway That Never Reached Williamsburg

The Times FYI column posted a question we've always wanted to ask:

Q. Most subway stops’ names use only the street number (42nd Street, for example). How come West Fourth Street and a few stops in the Bronx (like East 180th Street and East 149th Street) are given an east/west distinction?

A. Mainly to avoid confusion.

Herb Schonhaut, manager in New York City Transit’s Office of Station Signage, said the Fourth Street station uses the word “West” to distinguish it from the planned but unbuilt “South” Fourth Street Station in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Now, that's the kind of answer that raises more questions--such as, what South Fourth Street Station?

Luckily, the folks over at the Waterfront Preservation Alliance of Greenpoint and Williamsburg have all the answers in an excellent blog post today, which details the IND Second System that was to have opened in the 1930s.

The first New York City subway, the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) opened in 1904 with a line that ran from City Hall to 42nd Street (today's No. 6 train), across 42nd Street to Times Square (now the Shuttle), and up the West Side along Broadway (now the No. 1 train). More on the subway and its impact in the shaping the city can be found, as always, in Inside the Apple, due out in early March 2009.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Yes, Virginia...

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 most reprinted 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.)

Thursday, September 11, 2008


The History Channel has launched a new documentary series called Sandhogs, which premiered last Sunday. As the first episode rightly pointed out, New York is literally built on the foundation laid by these workers: our power and telecommunications grid, subway system, water tunnels, and bridges are all thanks to their hard work.

We're not sure how well this series will sustain its narrative arc after the first episode, but it's worth checking out nonetheless. They are re-showing the first episode a couple of times tonight, or you can just pick it up on Sunday with the second episode.

(The Croton Aqueduct system, a major component of the show, is one of the many topics in Inside the Apple.)

Monday, September 8, 2008

New York's many 9/11 anniversaries: the Staten Island Peace Conference

As we approach the seventh anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, it can be easy to forget that long before 9/11, the date September 11 held an important place in New York City's history.

Probably the most important event is September 11, 1609, when Henry Hudson began his voyage up the Hudson River. While he didn't find what he was looking for (a northwest passage), his exploration led to European migration and, thus, to the founding of New York City. We'll write more about Hudson and his momentous voyage in later posts; this week, we thought we'd concentrate on 9/11/1776 and the Staten Island Peace Conference.

In late August 1776, the first pitched battle of the war--then known as the Battle of Long Island and now mostly known as the Battle of Brooklyn--had taken place. It was a decisive victory for the British under General William Howe. Indeed, if Howe hadn't held back, it could have been a war-ending victory for the British troops. However, the British didn't press their advantage and George Washington was able to evacuate thousands of American troops to Manhattan under the cover of thick fog.

Howe's brother, Admiral Lord Richard Howe, was in charge of the British navy and it was put to him to approach the rebellious American about a peace accord. The British wanted to give the Americans one last chance to come back into the fold as loyal colonists before, presumably, taking harsher measures.

The conference was held on the south shore of Staten Island in a house owned by Colonel Christopher Billopp, a Loyalist. The Americans sent a delegation of three from Philadelphia: Edward Rutledge from South Carolina, the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence; John Adams of Massachusetts; and elder statesman Benjamin Franklin

The meeting lasted less than three hours and accomplished nothing. Howe was shocked that the three Americans rejected out of hand the idea of rejoining the mother country. More to the point, he had no authority to negotiate. For Adams and Rutledge, the diplomatic show must have seemed a waste of time. When Howe told Adams he thought of him as a "gentleman of influence," Adams retorted that Howe could "consider me in what light you please... except as a British subject."

The Billopp house, today known as the Conference House, is open April through mid-December on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. More information about visiting can be found at

(More information on Henry Hudson and the Battle Brooklyn can be found in our forthcoming book, Inside the Apple.)

Sunday, September 7, 2008


Welcome to Inside the Apple, a blog about New York City history, events, and our upcoming book, Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City, which is being published in March 2009 by Free Press.

(For more information on the book, visit our home page at

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