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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Thurgood Marshall's Harlem

Forty-five years ago today, on August 30, 1967, Thurgood Marshall was confirmed as the first African American Supreme Court justice. Prior to serving on the Supreme Court, Marshall was most famous as chief counsel of the NAACP, based primarily in New York City. As the NAACP's attorney, Marshall argued 32 cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court (winning 29 of them), most notably Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down the notion of "separate but equal" in public school education and beyond.

For many years, the NAACP was headquartered at 224 West 135th Street, near Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd.  In many ways, 135th Street was the most important street in the neighborhood. In addition to the NAACP, it was home to the YMCA, where many Harlemites stayed when they first arrived in New York, and was the epicenter of theaters and clubs where the Harlem Renaissance flowered. At the corner of 135th and Adam Clayton Powell was once a nightclub called Small's Paradise, famous for its rolling skating wait staff. Small's is long gone -- today the building houses an IHOP -- but above it is the Thurgood Marshall Academy, one of the best high schools in the area.

Around the corner on 134th Street is St. Philip's Episcopal Church, built in 1911 by the firm of Tandy & Foster, New York's first licensed African American architects. This was Thurgood Marshall's parish during his time in Harlem in the 1940s and 50s.

Many prominent African Americans (including the church's architect, Vertner Tandy) lived on nearby Striver's Row, considered by many to be the nicest development in the area. Marshall, however, opted to live further north in Sugar Hill, at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, a large apartment building built by Schwarz and Gross in 1917. Perhaps the single best address in Harlem, the building also housed W.E.B. DuBois, singer Julius Bledsoe, New York judge Eunice Carter, painter Aaron Douglas, and Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP.

Today, a one-bedroom apartment at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, which has gone coop, runs about $300,000. But back in the 1970s the building had fallen into such disrepair that the city seized it for nonpayment of taxes. In 1994, the New York Times reported that the city was preparing to sell the building back to its tenants for $250 per apartment. (That's not a typo.)

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Keith Moon, The Who, and the Hotel Navarro

Today would have been the sixty-sixth birthday of the Who's drummer, Keith Moon. Moon was born in England -- and died in London when he was just 32 -- but like many rock stars, he spent a good deal of time in New York City, much of it at the Hotel Navarro at 110 Central Park South.

Built in 1928, the Navarro became the go-to stop for rock bands in residence in New York. In the 1970s, it was home base for the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who, and many others.

As Tony Fletcher writes in Moon: The Life and Death of a Rock Legend, at the Navarro "the group had finally found a New York hotel that would not just put them up, but would actually put up with them. The Navarro, on Central Park South, had as its manager a genial Irishman by the name of Mr. Russell who seemed, almost impossibly, quite content to let the Who stay on his premises for as long as they desired."

Rumors later circulated that the Who actually owned a one-third share of the hotel, but this seems unlikely. What's more likely is that it was the sort of thing Moon might have boasted in his drug-fueled mania. According to Fletcher, when the group was staying at the hotel during the abortive attempts to record Lifehouse (the follow-up to Tommy that ultimately gave rise to Who's Next), Moon was frustrated by his inability to get into sound engineer Bob Pridden's room to hear some tapes. Since the rooms were adjoining, Moon simply started carving a hole in the wall with a "hotel paperknife" until he could loosen a brick and eventually -- covered head to toe in dust -- appeared in Pridden's room to retrieve the tape.

Other versions of the story are not so tame; in Rock Scully's Living with the Dead, Moon was on a quest for drugs. Having already done a prodigious amount of cocaine, Moon decided to go to Studio 54. But he'd locked himself out of his room without his drugs. As Scully recalls:
He's a man possessed. He's stripping the plaster off the wall with a buck knife. He's got that mad Jack-Nicholson-with-the-ax look-here's Johnny! He's a miracle of enthusiasm. Now he's got the plaster off and he's down to the lathe and bricks. 
"Won't be a moment," he says and splits. Am I being too optimistic to think he's abandoned the project? Gone to raid Pete Townsend's stash, most probably? But no, it's too good to be true. He goes downstairs to the basement and comes back up with a chisel and a hammer. He's taking the bricks out one by one. 
"I own a third of this hotel, y'know," he says by way of explanation. He's going, "God, I'm gonna get in so much trouble for this!" But he doesn't care, he's pounding away at it! He's determined to get back into his room and get his drugs....Finally the hole is big enough. Moon wriggles through it, gets his stash and crawls back through the hole, once again forgetting to open his door. He's now covered with dust from head to toe, like a ghoul recently exumed from from a graveyard.

The Navarro was later renovated into the Ritz-Carlton and is now an apartment building.

Here's Moon drumming with the Who at Madison Square Garden during the multi-night appearance in 1974:

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Triburbia -- A Novel by Karl Taro Greenfeld

When we give walking tours that include Tribeca (or TriBeCa, as it's still sometimes known), we often find that our clients are disappointed. Native New Yorkers seem to expect a grit and grime that's no longer there -- DIY loft conversions and the remnants of the old produce warehouses and factories that used to line the streets. Somehow, the gentrification of the neighborhood has passed them by. Visitors, on the other hand, are on the lookout for celebrity sightings, and wonder where the trendy shops and restaurants are hidden. The neighborhood they've visualized is something akin to the Meat Packing District or SoHo. To borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein, the problem with Tribeca is that there appears to be no there there.

Both of these facets of Tribeca are captured in Karl Taro Greenfeld's new novel Triburbia, which HarperCollins was kind enough to send to us. The novel is a set of vaguely interconnected short stories concerning the lives and infidelities of a group of men who live in Tribeca and have coffee together many mornings a week after dropping their children at P.S. 234, the neighborhood's famed public elementary school.

The men have seemingly little in common beyond their children's school, though as the stories progress it becomes clear that their lives overlap in ways that they don't realize. Many of the stories don't actually take place in Tribeca -- one is set entirely in the Mediterranean and others in various parts of Manhattan -- but the constant change downtown is a recurring theme.

The longest-term resident in the neighborhood is a puppeteer who lives in a rent-controlled loft at 47 Lispenard  Street (all of the addresses are fictional). When he moves in, Tribeca still has
"streets...clotted with double-parked panel trucks and idling semis, the drivers asleep inside their cabs, the carbon monoxide fumes wafting up to my loft. There were still a few factories and sweatshops, and suppliers and subcontractors for the small manufacturers who had persevered in their storefronts after the closing down of the West Side piers. There was a store selling radio parts down on Murray, a guy who serviced and sold spare letters for printing presses over on Broadway, and downstairs in my building were three Italians who fixed sewing machines. I could find a full set of rasps or chisels within a block of my new apartment, but if I wanted a bagel I had to walk twenty-five blocks north."
Contrast that to the Tribeca of today, as narrated by the sound engineer -- most of the characters are known by the profession, not their name -- who is also one of the longer-term denizens of the area:
"We are a prosperous community. Our lofts and apartments are worth millions. Our wives vestigially beautiful. Our renovations as vast and grand in scale as the construction of ocean liners, yet we regularly assure ourselves that our affluence does not define us.... Our neighborhood was settled by artists so long ago the story feels apocryphal. For almost as soon as the larger world became aware of Tribeca, in rushed developers and syndicators and builders and realtors and the name turned into a synonym for a kind of [safe] urban living.... A certain type of family arrived, drawn by that safety and the faux-bohemianism of Downtown, driving out the actual bohemians. And now, we faux-bohemians find ourselves facing the onslaught of those who don't even pretend to give a shit about books or theater."
Each of Greenfeld's stories is compelling, but in the end, the whole of the novel seems less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps that's a good thing, for it is an accurate reflection of Tribeca, too. There are certainly some outstanding pieces of architecture and interesting stories laced among its streets, but the area never seems to cohere the way Greenwich Village or SoHo does. Greenfeld also makes Tribeca and its residents seem isolated -- as the title of the books suggests, this is a suburban enclave in New York, not the city itself -- and maybe that's also a truth about the neighborhood, a disconnect from the vibrancy of the city at large, that Greenfeld has perfectly captured.

If you've read Triburbia, let us know your thoughts about how you think it depicts this neighborhood.

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And if you want to know more about Tribeca (and SoHo) you can take the tour

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Monday, August 13, 2012

New York Thrills to the 6-Day Walk

Every four years when the Olympics take center stage, pundits murmur about the more odd-ball sports: rhythmic gymnastics? synchronized swimming? 50-kilometer race walking?

This last event has a long history -- there's been a race walk in the Olympics since 1908 and the sport grew out of the nineteenth-century obsession with long-distance walking, or pedestrianism, which hits its peak in the late 1870s. In 1878 and 1879 a series of six-day foot races known as the Astley Belt Races were held in London and New York; the ones in New York were the most talked about sporting events of their day, drawing thousands of spectators to Madison Square Garden to see a handful men battle it out to see who was the world's greatest pedestrian.

The craze for long-distance walking is usually traced back to Edward Weston, who in 1861 decided to walk from Boston to Washington, DC, for Abraham Lincoln's inauguration. It took Weston ten days and ten hours -- getting him to Washington four hours after Lincoln was sworn in -- but netted him favorable press. In 1867, Weston decided to walk from Portland, Maine, to Chicago, which took him 26 days, but which earned him a $10,000 prize. (In an era of dollar-a-day wages, this was a significant sum and, during its brief heyday, race walking would go on to become the highest paid sport in the country.)

As the appetite for long-distance walking increased, Weston created the six-day race, which could take place on an indoor track. The goal was simply to see who could walk the most miles over the course of six days and six nights. Unlike modern race walking, which has strict rules against running, six-day racers could combine walking, running, and could rest whenever necessary.

In 1878, Sir John Astley decided to sponsor the Astley Belt races in order to capitalize on the sport's growing popularity. The first Astley Belt race took place in London in 1878. Dan O'Leary, the only American in the contest, easily won by covering 520 miles.

The championship then moved to New York to Madison Square Garden (or Gilmore's Garden as it was then known). Over the course of six days, 30,000 spectators turned out to see local favorite John Hughes fall to O'Leary. Immediately, the city was bitten by the race-walking bug; the third Astley Belt race was quickly scheduled for March 1879 with only four competitors. Three were Americans: O'Leary, Charles Harriman, and John Ennis; the fourth was a young Englisman named Charles Rowell, who'd been sent over to try to capture the race-walking title for the U.K. The race was one of the most closely followed of the era. Hourly updates were posted in saloons across the city and tens of thousands of dollars were wagered on the outcome. (Indeed, the athletes themselves could supplement the race's large purse by getting in on some side-bet action.)

O'Leary, the defending champion, looked weak from the start and dropped out after 215 miles. (Rumors swirled that he'd been drugged, but O'Leary denied them.) Madison Square Garden increased the admission price to $1 to take advantage of the throngs of people trying to get inside -- by some reports, over 70,000 witnessed the race. By the fifth day, it was clear that Rowell, the English challenger (pictured above as a British lion in a Thomas Nast cover for Harper's), would win. He stopped after hitting the 500-mile mark. Neither Ennis nor Harriman could match him, and Rowell captured the title and the $20,000 first prize.

A fourth Astley Belt race, back in London, saw Edward Weston, the sport's pioneer, emerge victorious. This set the stage for a fifth, and final, showdown at Madison Square Garden pitting Weston against Rowell and a pack of other racers. The race began just after midnight on September 22, 1879. Rowell, the heavy favorite, pulled ahead early and Weston settled toward the back of the pack. On the fifth day, Rowell seemed on the verge of dropping out -- he took an uncharacteristically lengthy rest and when he emerged from his sleeping tent, he seemed ill. But the Englishman rallied, eventually covering 530 miles.  Weston, meanwhile, had managed just 455 miles.

As quickly as six-day race walking had captured New York's imagination, the sport began to fade. This was, in part, due to the rise of cycling, which became a popular sport at Madison Square Garden. Also, the long-distance walkers set themselves to other, less spectator-friendly pursuits, such as cross-country walks. Daniel O'Leary and Edward Weston each walked across America. Charles Rowell turned his attention to the marathon race, which was also supplanting race walking as a competitive sport.

Six-day racing, however, never faded away. Sri Chimony's followers, based in Queens, continue to host six-day events on a regular basis in New York, and there are competitive events around the world. The current world record, held by Yiannis Kouris, is 644 miles.

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Monday, August 6, 2012

National Arts Club Mansion Shills Potato Chips

The National Arts Club has had a hard time of it recently -- accusations of hoarding, fiscal impropriety, and, most recently, the sacking of the club's longtime dining room manager while he was on vacation.

But it's not all doom and gloom on Gramercy Park. Have you seen that Lay's ad that's been playing during the Olympics?

The ad features celebrity chef Michael Symon and Eva Longoria asking America to help Lay's come up with the next great potato chip flavor. Most of the ad is filmed in the environs of Madison Square Park, but it begins with Symon bounding down the steps of one of the National Arts Club's entrances.* The shot shows off the club's Victorian red sandstone facade to good effect. The facade is the handiwork of Calvert Vaux (co-architect of Central Park) who renovated the mansion in the 1870s when it was the home of New York Governor Samuel Jones Tilden.

Tilden ran for president -- and won -- in 1876 but was denied the presidency. His home languished for years after his death until the National Arts Club bought it in the first decade of the 20th century, renovated it, and built the apartment building on 19th Street that has been the center of much of its recent controversy.

* The National Arts Club is actually two old townhouses, 14 and 15 Gramercy Park, combined into one giant house. Club members use the entrance at 15 Gramercy Park; the ad shows the entrance at 14 Gramercy.

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architect Calvert Vaux in

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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Defining Luxury a Century Ago: 998 Fifth Avenue

Yesterday, Curbed reported that the penthouse at City Spire (150 West 56th Street) has been listed for $100,000,000 (yes, one hundred million dollars). If it sells for the asking price, that would make it the most expensive apartment sale in New York history.

This got us wondering: what was the most expensive apartment in the city a century ago? Not surprisingly, the answer is 998 Fifth Avenue. Erected in 1911, it is still one of the grandest apartment buildings on the Upper East Side.

As the New York Times reported in 1910, the neighborhood was being "invaded" by the 12-story McKim, Mead, and White apartment building. (Up till then, Fifth Avenue had resisted large-scale luxury apartment buildings, those being the domain of the ne'er-do-wells on the Upper West Side.) The building was to have only eighteen apartments, none smaller than 17 rooms. According to a contemporary advertisement, each unit had a separate servants' hall with six servants' bedrooms. The buildings amenities seem rather pedestrian: concealed radiators, a jewel safe, cold storage in the basement. The building did boast refrigeration, but the Ansonia on the Upper West Side had been offering that almost a decade earlier.

Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Rents in the building -- virtually all apartment buildings in the city at the time were rentals -- started at $10,000 and went up to $26,000 per year, which the Times noted was the most expensive in the city. (Other sources note the top rate was $25,000.) It can be challenging to accurately convert 1911 dollars into today's money, but one easy method is to use the consumer price index. Using the CPI, a $25,000 apartment would today rent for approximately $588,000 a year, or $49,000 a month. That seems like a lot of money, but it's a lot less than whatever a 30-year mortgage on $100 million is going to be. Those $25,000 apartments today sell for $20 million and up -- with common charges of over $11,000 monthly -- making 998 Fifth a real bargain in 1911.

By the way, not everyone paid top dollar: the building was listed by Douglas Elliman and Elliman convinced Senator (and former Secretary of State) Elihu Root to move in at the cut rate of $15,000 a year. As Robert A.M. Stern, et al, note in New York 1900, "once Root, who had earlier established the respectability of a Park Avenue address...moved into 998, others immediately followed." Around the time he moved in, Root won the Nobel Peace Prize, which can't have hurt in Elliman's PR campaign for the building.

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