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Friday, February 27, 2009

February 27, 1860: Lincoln at Cooper Union

A lot of our posts recently seem to have focused on the East Village and we return there again today to celebrate the 149th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s “Right Makes Might” speech at Cooper Union.
Lincoln had been invited to address the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, but the parish—led by noted abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher*—realized that the crowd would be too large for their Orange Street home and the speech was rebooked for the Great Hall at the Cooper Union. The Great Hall had opened only two years earlier and was one of the largest public gathering spots in the city.
In the speech, which historian Harold Holzer persuasively argues made Lincoln president, the “noted political exhorter and prairie orator” (as the New York Times called him the next day) forcefully laid out his case for barring the spread of slavery into the territories. Afterwards, the New York Tribune wrote: No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience.”
It was a busy day for Lincoln. In addition to the speech, he had his photograph taken by Mathew Brady. Both the speech and the photograph were distributed across the country, significantly raising Lincoln’s profile. According to McSorley’s lore, Peter Cooper brought Lincoln around for beer after the speech. This is unlikely. Instead, Lincoln went to the Athenaeum Club with some members of the Young Men's Central Republican Union for dinner.
The complete text of Lincoln’s speech can be read at

* We’ll visit the Plymouth Church in a future post.

For more about Abraham Lincoln, Cooper Union, and the city during the Civil War, be sure to pick up a copy of our book Inside the Apple.
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Friday, February 20, 2009

Malcolm X and the Audubon Ballroom

Saturday, February 21, 2009, marks an unfortunate anniversary—it has been 44 years since the murder of Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights. You may remember from back in the early 1990s that Columbia University made headlines with its plans to demolish the Audubon Ballroom to build a biomedical research lab. This angered the African-American community and while the lab got built, then-Borough President Ruth Messinger was able to broker a compromise in which parts of the fa├žade (pictured) and the ballroom where Malcolm X was assassinated would be preserved.

The original building was erected in 1912 and was designed by renowned theater architect Thomas W. Lamb. Planned as a multiuse building, with twenty-five stores and a mixed vaudeville/movie theater, the original budget of $1 million soon doubled to $2 million. The theater opened in November 1912 with a seating capacity of 3,400. An additional 2,800 people could be accommodated in the roof garden and an unspecified number in the ballroom.

In the 1930s, the theater was the target of at least two bombings, both of which were apparently part of a labor dispute between the Motion Picture Operators Association and the United Motion Picture Operators Union (which kind of sounds like Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea) and soon thereafter, the space was leased to Temple Emes Wozedek. By the 1950s, Washington Heights was one of the largest German –Jewish neighborhoods in the city and in 1951 the synagogue had over 1,000 families as members.

By the 1960s, the demographics of the neighborhood were changing again and the ballroom was mostly being hired out for events. On February 21, 1965, while addressing the Organization of Afro-American Unity, Malcolm X was shot in a well-coordinated attack. His home had been fire-bombed just a week earlier and he knew his life was in danger, but chose to speak anyway. A statue to the slain Civil Rights leader now stands in the lobby of the Audubon. You can visit by taking the A, C, or 1 train to 168th Street and walking three blocks south on Broadway.

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More about the life and tragic death of Malcolm X can be found in our book, Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Happy Birthday, McSorley's

I was sitting in mcsorley's. outside it was New York and beautifully snowing.

Inside snug and evil.

—ee cummings

Photo by DoctorWho on flickr.

McSorley’s, the venerable old Irish saloon on East 7th Street, gets a little older today as it turns 155.

Over the years there has been great debate as to whether McSorley’s should hold the title of New York’s oldest bar. Historian Richard McDermott has tenaciously searched out insurance maps and municipal tax registers that push the date of McSorley’s forward to 1862. The bar, in answer, points to a photograph from February 17, 1904, of founder John McSorley celebrating the tavern’s 50th birthday. But more important than the actual date is the fact that McSorley’s is a living testament to its own past. The bar still only serves one thing—its own ale—and has on the walls an eclectic assortment of memorabilia from the famous John Wilkes Booth wanted poster to newspaper headlines detailing the bar’s losing battle in 1970 to keep women out. (The bar’s former motto, “Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies,” was replaced with “Be Good or Be Gone.”)

If you are in the East Village, head over for a round. If you are somewhere else raise a glass—or, to be historically accurate, two half-pint glasses—to John McSorley and his tavern.

For more about the saloon, one good place to start is Joseph Mitchell’s classic, McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon.

We also have a chapter on McSorley’s—as well as entries on other venerable drinking establishments—in Inside the Apple.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Happy Presidents Day

In honor of the holiday formerly known as Washington's Birthday, we thought we'd re-run a post we wrote last November about the presidency and New York City. Now, of course, we have one more New York president: Barack Obama, Columbia College class of 1983.

Wherever you are, hope you have a good holiday!

Michelle & James Nevius

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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.


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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Monday, February 9, 2009

What's in a Name?: The Bowery

Last week, Curbed and Racked pointed out that at least one new boutique on the ever-gentrifying Bowery would like to rename the entire neighborhood the “Bowery District.” This is just the most recent in a long line of attempts to change or repurpose the Bowery name over the years.

The original lane that now bears the name Bowery—the English corruption of the Dutch bouwerij or “farm”—led from the city of New Amsterdam into the countryside. The original lane now goes by three different names in its different sections: Park Row, the Bowery, and Fourth Avenue.

The most famous Dutch bouwerij was owned by Peter Stuyvesant, who lies buried in the churchyard of St. Mark’s in the Bowery on 10th Street and Second Avenue. For years, this church was known as St. 

Mark’s in the Bouwerie; its archaic spelling not only hearkened back to the days of the Dutch, but also helped distinguished it from the nearby thoroughfare. By the late 19th century, the Bowery had become synonymous with skid row.

A lot of the Bowery’s reputation was deserved, but at least part of the blame for its near-universal name recognition was the musical A Trip to Chinatown, which featured the song “The Bowery.” Its chorus boasts:

The Bow'ry, the Bow'ry
They say such things and they do strange things,
On the Bow'ry! The Bow'ry!
I'll never go there any more.

By 1916, the street’s reputation had gotten so bad that civic groups battled to come up with a new name for the thoroughfare. One suggestion was “Cooper Avenue” in honor of Cooper Union founder (and Jell-O pioneer)* Peter Cooper.

A rival proposition recommended “Central Broadway.” It’s hard to imagine the chaos this name change might have brought about in a city that already featured Broadway, West Broadway, and East Broadway.

Neither of these suggestions had any real traction, perhaps because there was still nostalgia for the old Bouwerie of Peter Stuyvesant. Indeed, that nostalgia was so strong that in 1956 a group of merchants suggested that Third Avenue be renamed “The Bouwerie,” to invoke the charm and refinement of a bygone age. (That this would have given the city a Bowery and a Bouwerie a block apart seems not to have figured into their calculations.) Plans were underway at the time to remove the last vestiges of the Third Avenue “El,” and it seemed logical to local boosters to get rid of the name Third Avenue—which they saw as intimately connected to the failure of the “El”—and replace it with Bouwerie, which would increase the street’s cachet and, presumably, retail rents.

(See our earlier post about York Avenue for another example of a street renaming in the same era for much the same reasons.)

* Peter Cooper and his gelatin fixation will be the subject of a future post.


You can read more about the Bowery in Inside the Apple; visit our home page

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Buddy Holly in Greenwich Village: The Brevoort

I can’t remember if I cried

When I read about his widowed bride

But something touched me deep inside

The day the music died.

—Don McLean, American Pie


Today, February 3, 2009, marks the 50th anniversary of the “day the music died”—the plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa, that claimed the lives of Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper, and rock and roll pioneer Buddy Holly.

Originally from Lubbock, Texas, Holly was one of the earliest stars to take what was then still being called “race music” and cross over to white audiences. His early hits with the Crickets—including That’ll Be The Day, Peggy Sue, Oh Boy!, and Not Fade Away—had a profound influence on later acts (including the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who were huge fans) and are still some of the greatest rock songs ever written.

Before his untimely death at age 22, Holly had split with the Crickets and moved to New York City to be closer to the New York music scene. He and his new bride, Maria Elena, moved into the Brevoort apartments at 11 Fifth Avenue. What was then a brand-new apartment building had recently replaced the famous Brevoort Hotel, which had at one time been among the city’s finest hostelries. (Among other famous events, the Brevoort Hotel was the place where Charles Lindbergh received the $25,000 Orteig Prize for his solo flight across the Atlantic; Orteig was the hotel’s owner.)

From print and online sources, it seems unclear if Buddy Holly lived in Apartment 4H or Apartment 3B. (Holly fans--feel free to chime in below in the comments section.) Whichever apartment it was, he set up a home tape recorder and in December 1958 made his final recordings, among them Crying, Waiting, Hoping and Peggy Sue Got Married. Posthumously released with overdubs and studio trickery, the original tapes have circulated for decades among collectors. They were recently included on the definitive Holly rarities set, Down the Line.

When Holly moved in to the Brevoort in 1958, he paid $1,000 a month rent for a corner unit with a wraparound terrace. A two-bedroom apartment in the building (which has been a co-op since 1981) now goes for about $1.495 million.

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If you are interested in doing a Rock and Roll tour of the city that includes the Brevoort—and many more famous rock and roll sites—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 New York in the 1960s in Inside the Apple, available for pre-order today.

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