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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 Plans called for a new time ball, but by the time the new AT&T headquarters was finished, the ball had been replaced by a giant, gilded statue by Evelyn Beatrice Longman called The Genius of Elecricity.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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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 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.

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

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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