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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

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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.



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.



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.



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).



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.)



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.



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.



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.



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.


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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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 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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