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Monday, March 30, 2009

Henry Hudson?

On Sunday, the New York Times published an article about the events in Amsterdam and New York surrounding the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's voyage of discovery.

The article is accompanied by a drawing of Henry Hudson that was captioned, "An illustration thought to be that of English explorer Henry Hudson."

However, as Thomas Janvier noted in Henry Hudson: A Brief Statement of His Aims and Achievements:

“No portrait of Hudson is known to be in existence. What has passed with the uncritical for his portrait — a dapper-looking man wearing a ruffed collar — frequently has been, and continues to be, reproduced. Who that man was is unknown. That he was not Hudson is certain.”


Which begs the question: Who is that man in the ruffed collar?


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Much more about Henry Hudson and his famous voyage can be found in Inside the Apple, now available online or at bookstore near you!


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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Today, March 25, marks the 98th anniversary of the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that claimed the lives of 148 young women and ushered in an era of renewed efforts to unionize New York's garment industry and protect the lives of its workers.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
On the day of the fire, a Saturday, only about half of the factory’s 500 employees had come to work. Just as the afternoon shift was ending, a fire broke out on the eighth floor. Typical of garment centers of the day, the factory floor was a virtual tinderbox, with clothes, scraps of cloth, and unswept trimmings everywhere. When the fire started, the majority of the workers on the eighth and tenth floors were able to escape, but those on the ninth floor had been locked in. This was done, some speculated, to cut down on unauthorized breaks, though it is also likely that it kept union organizers off the factory floor. Soon the elevators stopped working, which meant that the only remaining exit was the fire escape. Tragically, the fire escape had been poorly installed and maintained, and when too many young women began to climb down, it collapsed beneath their weight, sending them plunging to their death. The rest of the women on the ninth floor were then faced with jumping out of windows or waiting to burn to death. Many chose the former, raining down on the assembled crowd from above. The fire department did arrive, but as their ladders reached no higher than the sixth floor, it did little to save the women. In the end, 148 women died, most of them at the scene. Almost entirely immigrants from Little Italy and the Lower East Side, some were only thirteen years old.

Though the fire forced the Triangle's owners to abandon the factory, the building still stands at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street. Then known as the Asch Building, it was renovated and reopened the next year. However, a New York Times article from 1913 noted that the building's tenants hadn't learned many lessons from the fire -- "they were, in fact, heaping its floors with scraps of clothing and flimsy material... and permitting smokers to stand near these heaps--(revealing) once more the singular carelessness of humanity."

The building was purchased by NYU in 1929 and renamed the Brown Building; today, it houses university classrooms.

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Much more about the Triangle fire and other Greenwich Village people, events, and landmarks can be found in Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City, which is now officially out! You can buy it from online retailers, check out whether it is carried in-store at your local Barnes & Noble or Borders, or look for it at your neighborhood independent retailer.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Flatiron District Walking Tour and Book Signing

As part of the celebration of the release of Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City*, please join us on Sunday, March 29, 2009, at 4:00PM, for a Walking Tour of the Flatiron District followed by a book signing at Idlewild Books.

The cost of the event is $25 per person, and this includes the tour, a copy of Inside the Apple, and a reception following the event.

We will examine the history and mythology of such well-known landmarks as the Flatiron Building and the Empire State Building. Was the Flatiron New York's first skyscraper? Did they really try to moor dirigibles to the Empire State Building? We will also look at lesser known figures, like politico Roscoe Conkling and General William Jenkins Worth, sharing stories unknown to many native New Yorkers.

We will end the tour at Idlewild Books, an independent travel bookstore on West 19th Street for a signing and reception.

Advance reservations and payment are required.

To reserve, please visit Idlewild Books in person at 12 West 19th Street (near Fifth Avenue), call 212-414-8888, or email

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* The book has also received a couple of early reviews—a great write-up in last Sunday’s New York Post, which calls the book a “tour de force”—and praise from Publishers Weekly.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

West Side Story

Opening on Broadway tonight is the eagerly anticipated revival of the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim/Jerome Robbins musical West Side Story. (For a good analysis from one of the preview performances, check out Rob Snyder’s commentary over at the blog Greater New York.)

A couple of interesting facts about the musical:

  •   When Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins first began discussing an adaption of Romeo and Juliet in the early 1950s, their first thought was to examine the tensions between Catholics and Jews on the Lower East Side. Early drafts were titled East Side Story and the action took place around Easter and Passover.

  •  When the decision was made to concentrate instead on conflicts between the Puerto Rican immigrants who were coming to New York in great numbers, the action shifted to the west side neighborhood of San Juan Hill and West Side Story was born. Most of San Juan Hill was leveled to create the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, but prior to demolition some shots were taken for the opening of the 1961 film version of the musical.

  • West Side Story was being written at the same time as Candide and Bernstein ended up swapping tunes between the two. According to, the melodies for “One Hand, One Heart” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” were both lifted from Candide while a duet originally planned for Tony and Maria ended up in Candide as “Oh, Happy We.”

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Bowling Green's Fence Posts

Yesterday, Sewell Chan blogged at the New York Times about the 276th birthday of Bowling Green, New York's first park. (The post includes a nifty 360-degree panorama of the park.)

As one commenter noted, the post mentioned the famous felling of the statue of George III on July 9, 1776, but not the subsequent removal of the finials from the park's wrought-iron fence.

This is a topic we deal with in Inside the Apple, where we note:

The fence that surrounds the Bowling Green today is the original one erected ca. 1771. It is a New York City Landmark and one of the city’s most significant pieces of pre-Revolutionary architecture. If you walk around the outside of the park, you can easily see that the larger fence posts are uneven and that each is rough-hewn in a slightly different way. It is clear that there were once decorative objects at the top of the fence posts, but it remains a mystery what these finials actually looked like, or when they were removed.

Unlike the king’s statue, the fence is not mentioned in any news reports, diaries or letters of the time. Over the years, it has been posited the finials must have been something round (to be used as cannon balls) or something royal and therefore offensive to Americans. According to the New York Times, during the excavations for the foundations of the elevated railroad in 1878, “one of the round knobs struck from the railing” was unearthed. Later that year it was presented to David van Arsdale, the grandson of a Revolutionary soldier who had a direct role in the end of the war in New York. But that is the only time they are mentioned. 

Perhaps one will turn up someday and we’ll see exactly what they looked like. Until then, it’s worth a visit to Bowling Green to see—and feel—this reminder of the American Revolution.

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Inside the Apple comes out in less than two weeks. You can order your copy from an online merchant or ask about it at your local bookstore.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Inside the Apple Update

Two weeks from tomorrow Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City hits stores shelves.

We have a number of links on our website to online merchants where you can pre-order the book. But we are also great supporters of local, brick-and-mortar stores and encourage you to pick up a copy of the book from your friendly, neighborhood bookseller.

A great place to find an independent bookseller is

If your local store hasn't ordered Inside the Apple, ask them to! The ISBN number is 141658997X.

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We have a number of events planned, which we will publicize more in the coming weeks. In the meantime, check out for more information.

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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Charles Dickens and the Five Points

Five Points: for those in the know, the name itself conjures up the worst imaginable New York, a slum of utter poverty and degradation. In recent years, Five Points has had a bit of a renaissance with Kevin Baker’s Paradise Alley, Tyler Anbinder’s masterful history Five Points, and Martin Scorsese’s fantasia on Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York.

But the first—and in some ways still the most influential—chronicler of Five Points was Charles Dickens, who wrote about the neighborhood in his 1842 travelogue American Notes for General Circulation.

Dickens came to America to do research for an American book. Though he was a popular author in America, the lack of international copyright or royalties meant that his book sales netted him little or no cash. Thus, the only way for him to make money off America was to write about America. (In the end, Dickens produced two books based on his American trip—American Notes and the fictional Martin Chuzzlewit.)

Dickens was in New York from February 12 to March 5, during which time he was feted at a “Boz Ball,” had dinner with Washington Irving, and complained “I am sick to death of the life I have been leading here—worn out in mind and body—and quite weary and distressed.”

But in the midst of being wined and dined, he also had time to visit the House of Detention (aka the Tombs), the city penitentiary, the asylum, and Five Points.

In American Notes, Dickens writes about the Tombs:

What is this dismal-fronted pile of bastard Egyptian, like an enchanter’s palace in a melodrama? A famous prison, called The Tombs. Shall we go in?

So. A long narrow lofty building, stove-heated as usual, with four galleries, one above the other, going round it, and communicating by stairs. Between the two sides of each gallery, and in its centre, a bridge, for the greater convenience of crossing. On each of these bridges sits a man, dozing or reading, or talking to an idle companion. On each tier are two opposite rows of small iron doors. They look like furnace doors, but are cold and black, as though the fires within had all gone out….

A man with keys appears, to show us round. A good-looking fellow, and, in his way, civil and obliging.

“Are those black doors the cells?”


“Are they all full?”

“Well, they're pretty nigh full, and that's a fact, and no two ways about it.”

“Those at the bottom are unwholesome, surely?”

“Why, we do only put colored people in ’em. That's the truth.”

But by far the most famous passage from Dickens’s New York stay is his description of Five Points:

Let us go on again, and … plunge into the Five Points….We have seen no beggars in the streets by night or day, but of other kinds of strollers plenty. Poverty, wretchedness, and vice are rife enough where we are going now.

This is the place—these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with, dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here bear the same fruits here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and all the wide world over. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. Many of those pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lien of going on all-fours? And why they talk instead of grunting?

So far nearly every house is a low tavern, and on the bar-room walls are colored prints of Washington, and Queen Victoria of England, and the American eagle. Among the pigeon-holes that hold the bottles are pieces of plate-glass and colored paper, for there is, in some sort, a taste for decoration, even here….

The publication of American Notes at the end of 1842 shone a light on Five Points and many New Yorkers, who had never dared before to visit the area, were spurred by Dickens to go “slumming.” Indeed, Anbinder argues in Five Points that the term originated to describe visits to Five Points.

Dickens returned to New York in 1867 as part of a lecture tour. We will write about that trip in a future post.

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Much more on Five Points can be found in our book, Inside the Apple, which comes out later this month. It can be pre-ordered now from or other online merchants.

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Monday, March 2, 2009

The Blizzard of 1888

Just as thoughts were turning to spring, the snow begins to fall. As of this writing, there’s only a couple of inches on the ground, but if the most dire predictions come true, the city may have more than a foot of snow by the time the storm abates.
Meteorologically, March nor’easters are not that uncommon and, indeed, the worst winter storm ever to hit the city arrived on March 12, 1888. Over the course of three days, the storm dumped 40 inches of snow on the city. By the end of the first day, the city had been brought to a standstill and the city’s miles of telegraph and telephone wires lay in downed heaps along the sides of the roads. (Though New York had already toyed with idea of burying these wires underground, it was the 1888 blizzard that finally forced the city to act, freeing the city of above-ground wires to this day.) Because of snow drifts across the tracks, rail service was suspended in and out of the city for over a week and staples such as bread and coal were quickly in short supply.

By far the most famous victim of the storm was New York Senator Roscoe Conkling. An important post-Civil War Republican, Conkling was part of the Stalwart branch of the party that hoped to draft Ulysses S. Grant into running for a third term. When that didn’t happen, Conkling supported Rutherford B. Hayes and was instrumental in creating the commission that ultimately handed Hayes the presidency in 1877. (The controversy of the 1876 Hayes/Tilden election will be the subject of a future post.)
Conkling’s best-known protégé was Chester A. Arthur, who benefited from Conkling’s patronage when he was New York’s Commissioner of Customs, but as president instituted civil service reforms that enraged his former mentor.
On the first day of 1888 blizzard, Conking was at his law office at 10 Wall Street. Despite the severity of the storm—which made catching a horse-drawn cab impossible—Conkling decided to walk from his office to his club on Madison Square, even though it was 6:00 PM and already dark. He made it up Broadway as far as Union Square where he (as he later put it): “got to the middle of the park and was up to my arms in a drift…. For nearly twenty minutes I was stuck there and I came as near giving right up and sinking down there to die as a man can and not do it.”
But somehow Conkling freed himself and continued up Broadway to Madison Square, where the people at the New York Club could “scarcely believe” he had walked from Wall Street.
However, while Conkling was quick to credit his three-hour walk to his strong constitution, all was not well. He soon developed an ear infection, which in turn became mastoiditis, and by April doctors were draining pus from his skull. He died on April 18, 1888, about a month after the blizzard.
Conkling is memorialized in a statue in Madison Square Park. (Apparently the city fathers balked at commemorating Conkling in Union Square amidst George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.)

To read more about the city's history, pick up a copy of Inside the Apple, which is now available from, other online retailers, or your local brick-and-mortar stores.
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