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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Why Does a Ball Drop in Times Square on New Year's Eve?

Greetings faithful blog readers!

We hope that where ever you are you are ramping up to celebrate (or if you are in Asia, have already celebrated) a wonderful end to 2009 and start to 2010.

One of the most frequently asked questions we get when we are leading tours in Midtown is: "Why does a ball drop in Times Square on New Year's Eve?" So, in honor of that imminent event, we thought we'd re-run last year's New Year's Eve blog post (below, brought slightly up to date), which answers the question.

Enjoy your holiday, stay safe, and we'll blog again in 2010!

Michelle & James Nevius

* * *

Tonight, 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 102 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 Electricity. (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 Dallas, Texas.)

For the past year, the Times Square ball has not only been lit by energy-efficient LED diodes, for the first time it stayed atop the old Times Building year round so that everyone who visited New York in 2009 could see the actual ball that drops on New Year’s Eve. Presumably it will stay atop its pole again in 2010.

* * *

Read more about the history of Times Square in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Santa Flashback: F.A.O. Schwarz 1947

If you've seen Bad Santa or read David Sedaris, you've probably thought twice about sitting down on Santa's lap to ask for presents. Well, F.A.O. Schwarz was way ahead of you. Digging through the LIFE archive on Google images, we came across these photos of little kids phoning Santa in 1947. After some more research, we found the December 1947 issue of LIFE, which showcased F.A.O. Schwarz's innovative way of getting around having a department-store Santa.

The article began: "This little girl is talking to Santa Claus and so may any other girl or boy who telephones MUrray Hill 8-2xxx in New York between now and Christmas. This number connects with F.A.O. Schwarz's famous toy store, where a 29-year-old Santa, a Mrs. Claus and two assistant Santas for after-hour calls have been assigned by the store to discuss important aspects of Christmas with the younger generation."

Santa and Mrs. Claus dressed in character to answer calls.

"Dressed-up, department-store Santas have always been anathema to Schwarz's. Even the best actor, they felt, would disappoint children's expectation. But at the insistence of customers, Schwarz's unbent to the extent of an audible Santa this year."

This kid has to call from a pay phone.

The article goes on to mention that in previous years, F.A.O. Schwarz's president, Philip Kirkham, would play Santa for "special customers' children" by shouting up the dumbwaiter. It also notes that the store's staff thought he was "a little daft."

Today, of course, Santa is all high-tech. You can visit the North Pole via webcam, track his progress on NORAD, or download this app that will phone your children and have Santa admonish them for being bad (or something like that).

No matter what you celebrate, we hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday season!

Michelle & James Nevius

* * *

Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Charging Bull turns 20

If you worked on Wall Street twenty years ago, you would have showed up to work the morning of December 16th to find a surprise: Arturo DiModica's massive Charging Bull statue nestled underneath the Stock Exchange's massive Christmas tree.

As we write in Inside the Apple:

The 7,000-pound statue was finished in late 1989. Having scoped out Wall Street to discover when the night guards at the New York Stock Exchange would be scarce, DiModica pulled onto the street in a flatbed truck on the evening of December 15, 1989, lowered the bull into place, and took off, leaving behind a sheaf of flyers telling people about his gift. To DiModica’s surprise, a Christmas tree had been put up in front of the Exchange since he’d done his reconnaissance, and so he was able to tuck the bull underneath the tree as a Christmas present. The flyer announced that the work attested “to the vitality, energy and life of the American people in adversity” and that it was “offered honorably”—and free—”in acknowledgment of American dynamics.” *

The statue lasted a day in front of the exchange before Dick Grasso had it hauled away--presumably to be melted down for scrap. It was rescued by Parks Commissioner Henry Stern who unveiled it in its new "temporary" home in Bowling Green Park on December 21st, where it has remained ever since.

It seems that for its first few years in Bowling Green, the statue was paid little notice--it appears rarely in the press or guidebooks from the early 1990s. Today it is one of the most visited--and photographed--spots in Lower Manhattan. Just don't try publishing those photos without DiModica's permission: it may be in a city park, but DiModica owns the statue and the copyright on its image. Just ask the folks at Random House.

* Thanks to Inside the Apple friend Matthew Henry
for sharing DiModica's flyer with us.

* * *

Read more about Charging Bull in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

>>> It makes a great Holiday Present! <<<

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Happy Birthday, Fiorello!

courtesy of the LIFE magazine archive at Google.

Today, December 11, marks the 127th birthday of Fiorello La Guardia, who some argue was New York City's greatest mayor.*

The future mayor was born Fiorello Raffaele Enrico La Guardia on December 11, 1882, at 7 Varick Place.** His father, Achille, was a Protestant musician from Southern Italy and his mother, Irene, hailed from a Jewish family in Trieste. La Guardia was raised as an Episcopalian -- did he attend the Italian-Episcopal Church of San Salvatore on Broome Street as a child? We'll have to research this and find out.

When La Guardia was three years old, his father took the position of bandmaster for the Eleventh Infantry Regiment and the family moved to Fort Sully, South Dakota. At age 18, La Guardia entered the foreign service and returned to New York in 1907 to study law at New York University. A gifted linguist (he knew at least eight languages), La Guardia worked as a translator at Ellis Island before entering politics, first as a Deputy Attorney General for the State of New York, then as a U.S. Congressman. He first ran for mayor in 1929, but was defeated by the incumbent, "Gentleman" Jimmy Walker. By 1933, Walker had resigned in disgrace and La Guardia won easily, serving as the city's mayor until 1945.

La Guardia died in 1947 at his home in the Bronx. That same year, the New York Municipal Airport that La Guardia had championed -- and which was already known to many as LaGuardia field -- was officially renamed LaGuardia Airport. In 1959, La Guardia became to only former mayor to get his own Broadway musical, Fiorello!, which starred Tom Bosley of Happy Days fame as the mayor. The show went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, a rare feat for a musical.

In 1967, then-council member Edward I. Koch introduced a bill to rename a section of West Broadway near the former mayor's Sullivan Street birthplace and on September 25th of that year, Mayor Lindsay created La Guardia Place. If you are in the Village today, go pay a visit to the statue of La Guardia by Neil Estern that was erected there in 1994 and wish him a happy birthday!

* Readers of Inside the Apple will note that our vote goes to DeWitt Clinton -- you can read more about him in the book and we'll blog about him in the future.

** Varick Place was the name for a stretch of Sullivan Street south of Washington Square Park. When the entire street was renamed Sullivan in the 1916, the La Guardia family's residence was renumbered 177 Sullivan; the building collapsed in 1987 during a renovation.

* * *

Read more about Fiorello La Guardia, Jimmy Walker,
and New York during the Depression and World War II in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Boss Tweed Escapes!

Today, December 4, marks the anniversary of William M. "Boss" Tweed's escape in 1875 from the Ludlow Street Jail on the Lower East Side. (The jail stood on the site now occupied by Seward Park High School.)

To recap the story up to this point: in 1871 Tweed had been arrested for embezzling from New York City; he was accused of lining his pockets with everything from the rental of the city's armories to fake carpenter's contracts at the New York County Courthouse on Chambers Street. As we point out in Inisde the Apple, the projected final costs of the courthouse--now known universally as the Tweed Courthouse--made it twice as expensive as William Seward's purchase of Alaska.

Tweed was successfully prosecuted by Samuel J. Tilden, who would go on to be New York's governor and the 1876 Democratic nominee for the presidency. Tweed was convicted of multiple misdemeanor counts and sentenced to twelve years in prison. However, in doing so, the sentencing judge had violated New York State law, which stipulates a maximum one-year incarceration for misdemeanors. Tweed was freed in 1875, but Tilden, now governor, immediately had him re-arrested. The state had civil charges pending against Tweed and didn't want him to flee the jurisdiction.

Tweed was transferred to the Ludlow Street Jail, but on most days his sympathetic jailers allowed him out to enjoy carriage rides in Central Park or visit with his family. On December 4, after a long day out, Tweed asked to visit his wife, who he claimed was ill. Soon after arriving at his home on Madison Avenue, Tweed excused himself to go upstairs. A few minutes later Tweed's two minders asked someone to fetch the Boss as it was getting late and they needed to get back to Ludlow Street. Moments later, Tweed's son Richard came down the stairs and announced: "Father's gone."

The embarrassed sheriff, William C. Conner, immediately issued a $10,000 reward for Tweed's return. However, the police had few leads and though the newspapers filled their pages over the next few days with speculation as to his whereabouts and erroneous Tweed sightings, it soon seemed that Tweed was gone for good.

He wasn't, of course, but that's a story for another day....

* * *

Read more about Boss Tweed in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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