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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Brooklyn: City of Rubber Plants

Katia over at Pardon Me for Asking, published the above photo of the Williamsburg Savings Bank, the caption of which notes that Brooklyn was "long known as 'the city of homes, churches, and rubber plants.'" 

Rubber plants?

Turns out to be true. Rubber trees were a favorite of city dwellers who lacked the available light for growing flowering plants. In 1907, the New York Times noted a scourge that was hitting the borough's rubber trees (which the story referred to repeatedly as "family pets"). At the end, the short article noted:

Nowhere in the world are there so many rubber plants in captivity as in Brooklyn, and nowhere is so much affection and care lavished on these docile and harmless household pets as in the borough at the drowsy end of the bridge.

Anyone have experience with Brooklyn's famous "family pets"?

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Monday, January 26, 2009

"The Chinese All Agog": Chinese New Year in the 19th Century

Happy Year of the Ox! As Chinatown gets ready to usher in the New Year (see Explore Chinatown for a comprehensive list of events), we thought it would interesting to turn to the archives and look at how the New York Times reported coverage of Chinese New Year’s back when Chinatown was limited to Mott, Pell, and Doyers streets.

The Times first year of coverage was 1883. Despite its Victorian racism (the celebrating Chinese are “agitated,” the young men wear “Melican” clothes), the Times’s coverage seemed to be trying to demystify Chinese culture and show that New York’s Asian residents weren’t as strange or foreign as most people thought.

Two interesting observation from that article:

  • The reporter assumed the young Chinese residents were less interested in traditional New Year’s Day calling because there were “only three or four Chinese women in the City.”
  • Also, New York’s Chinatown evidently had no temples (or “joss parlors” in the parlance of the day), thus forcing worshippers to head to Belleville, New Jersey, if they wanted to partake in traditional temple prayers.

It is also worth noting that interest in Chinese New Year coincided with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act--originally set to run for ten years--which severely curtailed Chinese immigration into the United States.

The next year, 1884, under the banner “The Chinese All Agog,” the Times reported that the Chinese were once again “agitated”—indeed, the article was essentially a rehash of the previous year’s report, though it did get in the jab that Chinese New Year fell on an odd date because the “Chinese year is shorter than the law allows to civilized countries.” In a separate feature, a Times reporter was invited by a Chinese merchant to observe a traditional New Year’s feast, replete with “browned hog,” “a chicken, complete except the feathers,” and “a bowl of beche de mer and shark’s fins.” (That could describe most Chinatown restaurants today, but then was a rarity for a Westerner to see.)

As anti-Asian sentiment in New York increased over the next few years, coverage of New Year’s Day grew more hostile. By the time the Chinese Exclusion Act was extended in 1893—essentially banning Chinese immigration for the next 50 years—the Times was reduced to calling the celebrants “heathens” and the entire celebration “shifty.” And soon thereafter coverage of the event was dropped by the paper altogether, not to return with any regularity until after World War II.

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You can read more about Chinatown and the Chinese Exclusion Act in Inside the Apple, available for pre-order today.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Bob Dylan Arrives in Greenwich Village: January 24, 1961

Ramblin' outa the wild West,
Leavin' the towns I love the best.
Thought I'd seen some ups and down,
‘Til I come into New York town.
People goin' down to the ground,
Buildings goin' up to the sky.

--Bob Dylan, Talkin’ New York

Though specific dates are hard to pin down in the early life of Bob Dylan, it seems likely that tomorrow, January 24, marks the 48th anniversary of the singer’s arrival in New York City. Though he would often tell people he’d hopped a freight train, the truth is that he’d arrived from Minnesota in a 1957 Impala.

Knowing that Greenwich Village was the center of the burgeoning folk scene, he immediately headed to MacDougal Street and sometime on January 24, 1961, or one of the next few days, ended up on stage at Café Wha?, which is one of the few clubs from Dylan’s earliest period that still remains in operation.

In those days, the afternoon sets at Café Wha were presided over by Fred Neil—best known today as the author of the Harry Nilsson’s hit song Everybody’s Talkin’—who both performed his own material and booked other acts. On his first day performing, Dylan accompanied Neil and Karen Dalton on harmonica. One early set—perhaps even that first day—was captured by Village Voice photographer Fred McDarrah:

(Karen Dalton—even less remembered today than Fred Neil—was a popular presence on the Greenwich Village folk scene. She released two albums in the late ’60s and early ’70s before fading from public view. Dalton died in 1993 and Neil in 2001. You can hear Dalton performing It Hurts Me, Too, on YouTube.)

If you wish to go to the Village to celebrate Dylan and his impact on American music, you can stop by Café Wha (which is across the street from Minetta Tavern), but most of the other haunts where Dylan fine-tuned his act are gone. The Gaslight (where Dylan recorded the recently released Live at the Gaslight 1962) was at 114 MacDougal—in the basement—below the space now occupied by Esperanto Café. Across the street where Panchito’s now serves what they claim to be “one of the six best margaritas” in New York was once the Fat Black Pussycat. And perhaps the most famous Dylan venue, Gerde’s Folk City at the corner of West 4th Street and Mercer, was torn down in the early 1970s to make room for the Hebrew Union College.

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If you are interested in doing a Rock and Roll tour of the city that includes some of these Dylan spots—and many more—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

You can also read about Dylan and New York in the 1960s in Inside the Apple, available for pre-order today.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Edgar Allan Poe at 200

Today, Edgar Allan Poe turns 200 years old. While he was born in Boston and died (under somewhat mysterious circumstances) in Baltimore, it should really be New York that has the greatest claim on the man. In his short life, Poe produced poetry, criticism, invented detective fiction, and mastered the horror story.

Celebrate his life in New York with a trip up to Edgar's Cafe at 255 West 84th Street, which sits on the site of what was once the author's Upper West Side farm. If it's not too cold, take a detour from the cafe over to Riverside Park. The large rock outcropping you see in the park between 82nd and 83rd Streets is Mount Tom, which is said to have been one of the places Poe went for inspiration. (The cafe has plenty of warm beverages to combat a cold visit to Mount Tom.)

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More about Poe in New York City will be featured in a future blog post--as well as in Inside the Apple.

Also, check out this link from the New York Times's Paper Cuts blog about Poe's work.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

December 16, 1960: Plane Crashes into Park Slope

Today’s dramatic Hudson River plunge by US Airways flight 1549—with no loss of life—brought to mind a number of other airplane crashes over the years, from the 2001 American Airlines crash in the Rockaways to the B-25 that flew into the Empire State Building in 1945.

However, perhaps the worst aviation disaster in New York history was the midair collision of a United Airlines DC-8 and a TWA Super Constellation propeller plane on December 16, 1960. The United plane, en route to Idlewild (as JFK was then called), was put into a holding pattern. However, due to poor visibility, a breakdown in the plane’s communications system, and pilot error, the United plane was flying too high and off course, setting it directly in the path of the TWA flight that had been cleared to land at La Guardia.

The two planes struck each other over New Dorp, Staten Island. The TWA plane immediately fell, crashing at Miller Field, a military airstrip. However, the United Flight was still airborne (despite being shorn of its right engine and part of the wing) and began descending toward Brooklyn. Some have guessed that the pilot may have been trying to make an emergency landing in Prospect Park. However, the plane slammed down at the corner of Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, destroying a funeral home and the aptly named Pillar of Fire Church.  Tragically, all 128 passengers and crew on the two planes along with six people on the ground died, making it the worst aeronautical disaster up to that time. Among the people on the ground were a caretaker of the church and a man selling Christmas trees. It is the only time such an in-air collision has taken place over a metropolitan area and—despite criticisms of how the federal government handled the investigation—ultimately led to better training for pilots and safer planes.

Though the scars have faded over the last 48 years, if you go to the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place today, you can still see some faint reminders from the crash.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Chester Arthur: The President from Murray Hill

With the media coverage ramping up for next Tuesday’s inauguration of President Barack Obama, we thought we’d take this opportunity to look back at one of the presidential inaugurations that took place in New York City.

There have actually been two presidents who have taken the oath of office in New York. The famous one was George Washington, who was sworn in on April 30, 1789, on the balcony of the old City Hall on Wall Street. (Federal Hall National Memorial stands on the spot today.) The other was one of America’s least remembered chief executives, Chester A. Arthur, who took the oath in his home at 123 Lexington Avenue in Murray Hill.

A lawyer by training, Chester Arthur had risen through the ranks of the Republican Party to become the Collector of the Port of New York, a job secured for him by powerful Senator Roscoe Conkling. When Rutherford B. Hayes (who’ll talk more about in a future post) became president in 1877, Arthur lost his patronage job—in part so that Hayes could show that he was cracking down on patronage positions. But in 1880, Arthur was tapped to be James A. Garfield’s running mate, and in March 1881, was sworn in as Vice President. (The presidential and vice presidential inauguration was still in March back then.)

Just four months after the inauguration, Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled civil servant. Garfield lingered until September 19, when he finally succumbed to his wounds.

Word was immediately sent to Chester Arthur, who was at home in Murray Hill. In the middle of night, New York Supreme Court Justice John R. Brady was fetched to come to the Arthurs’ home and administer the oath of office. (A second, more formal inauguration took place two days later in Washington, DC.)*

After his one term in office—marked by distinct efforts at civil service reform—Arthur retired to his Lexington Avenue home where he died on November 18, 1886. The house at 123 Lexington still stands, but the only part you can visit is the ground-floor retail section, which is the Indian grocery store Kaluystan’s.

*UPDATE 1/21/2009
It has come to light in the wake of Barack Obama having to take the oath of office a second time (because of flubbing of his lines) that it was the same sense of wanting to have an "abundance of caution" that caused Chester Arthur to also take his oath twice. Evidently, some in D.C. weren't convinced that Arthur's late-night swearing-in on Lexington Avenue was the real deal, so he was asked to take the oath again once he got to Washington.

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More on the role New York has played in the presidency can be found on our blog post from the weekend before Election Day and—of course—in our new book, Inside the Apple.

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Leon Panetta and New York City Secession

Sam Robert's blog and podcast at The New York Times has a fascinating story this week about Barack Obama's pick to head the CIA, Leon E. Panetta. Turns out that when Panetta worked for Mayor John Lindsay, he wrote a fascinating memorandum to the mayor (you can read it here in PDF), about the advantages of New York seceding and becoming at 51st State. It's well worth a read.

(By the by: that's not Panetta or Mayor Lindsay in the drawing above: it's Mayor Fernando Wood, the fist NYC executive to seriously consider secession. We'll blog more about Wood and his Tammany Hall connections in a future post.)

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More about Fernando Wood can be found, as always, in Inside the Apple.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

O Grab Me! The Embargo Act and NYC Public Works

The ongoing economic downturn and the inauguration of a new president this month have led many commentators to hearken back to FDR and the New Deal. But in New York City, public works projects during times of uncertainty have a much longer history. One of the first times the city made a major effort to employ its citizens came in response to the “Ograbme” protests that happened 201 years ago this week.

A little background: Beginning in 1807, Thomas Jefferson’s administration began instituting a series of laws known as the Embargo Acts that aimed to punish the British for the impressment of American sailors and, later, to keep American merchants from trading with Great Britain and France.

The worst Embargo Act went into effect December 22, 1807, and all ships in New York harbor headed to any foreign port were forbidden from leaving. (Most snuck out before the ban could be imposed.) The effect in New York was devastating. Just as the city was growing into America’s most flourishing port, it was banned from trading with its biggest partners. Those sailors whose ships couldn’t leave port began growing restless and sowing seeds of rebellion. All the people whose lives relied on shipping—from stevedores to countinghouse clerks to the city’s wealthiest merchants—began feeling the economic pinch immediately.

In political cartoons, a snapping turtle named O-grab-me (embargo spelled backwards) quickly came to symbolize the government’s position. And, as one astute observer pointed out, another anagram for embargo was “Mob Rage.”Indeed, on January 9, 1808, the people took to the streets of New York demanding the city do something.

Hastily, the city complied and the civic projects that resulted had a lasting impact on the face of New York. Some people were assigned to help with the building of City Hall; others were sent to begin the draining and filling of the Collect Pond. Mayor DeWitt Clinton, fearing that the Embargo Act would inevitably lead to war, had some workers assigned to build new fortifications in the harbor to protect against a British invasion.

All of these public works projects still stand. City Hall, finished in 1811, continues as the seat of city government and is the oldest such building still in use as a city hall in the United States. Of the many fortifications built for what would ultimately be the War of 1812, the easiest to see is Castle Clinton in Battery Park (where tickets are sold for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island). And the cleared and filled Collect Pond (which will be the subject of a future post), now sits beneath Foley Square, amidst the city’s courthouses.

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The history of Castle Clinton, City Hall, and more about DeWitt Clinton’s impact on the city can all be found in Inside the Apple. Pre-order it from our website today!

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Somewhat off the Subject: Electronics Recycling at Tekserve

This post isn’t so much about New York City history as it is about doing something good about New York City’s future. One of the major polluters in our landfills is used electronic equipment. And, since manufacturers build all our computers, cell phones, etc., with planned or perceived obsolescence, it is a problem that is only getting worse.

On Saturday, January 10, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Tekserve, “the old reliable Mac shop,” is holding its Third Annual Technology Drive at its store at 119 West 23rd Street. Bring in your old computers, monitors, fax machines, copiers, DVD or VCR players, radios, telephones, cell phones, televisions, cameras, and stereo equipment and Tekserve will make sure they end up in the right place and not just dumped in the ground.

For more about the program—and your chance to win a new aluminum MacBook or one of three 16GB iPod nano, go to

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Monday, January 5, 2009

Alltop and Other News

We'd like to send out a thank you to Alltop  for including us in their New York City resources page at

If you are unfamiliar with Alltop, the site is a self-described "online magazine rack" that brings together the best content from around the Internet and slots it all into helpful categories. We have certainly found things at Alltop's New York City page that we wouldn't have stumbled upon elsewhere--it's worth checking out.

On another note -- to those of you who subscribe to the email feed of this blog, our apologies that you are sometimes getting the same entry in two different emails. It is a known issue and we are working to iron out the kinks in the delivery system. Thank you for your patience!

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