Wednesday, January 30, 2013

John and Yoko's Nutopia


Yesterday, it was reported that the townhouse at 1 White Street in Tribeca, which sold three years ago for $3.25 million, is back on the market--gutted--for $4.25 million. The structure's claim to fame is that it was dubbed the "Nutopian Embassy" by John Lennon and Yoko Ono on April 1, 1973, when they declared themselves ambassadors of the newly formed "conceptual country" of Nutopia.

A week earlier, on March 23, Lennon had been given an order to leave the United States within 60 days. Though Yoko Ono had a green card from her earlier marriage, the American government refused to grant one to Lennon because of a marijuana conviction in the UK. Due to their "radical" politics, Lennon and Ono were also being hounded by the FBI, who followed them and tapped their phones. In an effort to bring attention to the ridiculousness of their plight, Lennon and Ono created Nutopia, declaring:

We announce the birth of a conceptual country, NUTOPIA.
Citizenship of the country can be obtained by declaration of your awareness of NUTOPIA.
NUTOPIA has no land, no boundaries, no passports, only people.
NUTOPIA has no laws other than cosmic.
All people of NUTOPIA are ambassadors of the country.
As two ambassadors of NUTOPIA, we ask for diplomatic immunity and recognition in the United Nations of our country and our people.
Nutopian Embassy
One White Street
New York, New York 10012
April 1, 1973
Why, exactly, they chose 1 White Street as the fictional Nutopian Embassy is unclear. They had no personal connection to the building. At the time, they were still living on Bank Street in Greenwich Village (they would soon move to the Dakota), about a twenty-five minute from White Street. Perhaps it was just a building they'd walked by. Or maybe they liked the symbolism of the street's name. The flag of Nutopia (pictured above) was simply a white handkerchief, which symbolized surrender.

As Lennon would write in the title track to Mind Games a few months later: "Love is surrender -- you got to let it go." Mind Games would also include the "Nutopian International Anthem" (a few seconds of silence at the end of side one) and the printed "Declaration of Nutopia" in the liner notes.

Yoko Ono noted on last year's anniversary of the birth of Nutopia:
Nutopia is a country that exists in all of us.
John and I created this imaginary world.
We called a press conference and produced a white handkerchief from our pockets
and said "This is a flag to Surrender to Peace."
Not Fight for Peace, but "Surrender" to Peace was the important bit.
All of us represent Nutopia.
On this day of the birth of Nutopia,
Let’s all wave the white flag or handkerchief in our minds
And say "I love all of me" and have lots of fun.
Because we deserve it.
Each one of us.
For many years, the former residents of 1 White Street received mail for Lennon and Ono, though it waned after Lennon's murder in 1980.


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Friday, January 25, 2013

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets

The Bowery as it looked in 1896, three years after the publication of Maggie.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-56731)
This year marks the 120th anniversary of the publication of Stephen Crane's first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, a boldly realistic look at the life of young girl from the Bowery who is ultimately forced into a life of prostitution.

Crane was born in 1871 in Newark, NJ, the youngest of fourteen children. His father, a Methodist Episcopal minister, died when he was just eight years old. Young Stephen bounced between the homes of various relatives before ending up with his brother Townley in Asbury Park. (That house still stands and is open for various literary events.)

After two semesters at two different colleges, Crane dropped out to try his luck as a writer. He continued to live in New Jersey, but spent much of his time on the Bowery, gathering material for freelance articles while also writing about Asbury Park for the New York Tribune. In 1892, Crane relocated to Manhattan and finished work on Maggie. He attempted to sell the work to the Century Magazine for serialization, but they rejected it as "too cruel."

On January 16, 1893, Crane submitted a copyright application for the work--at this point simply called A Girl of the Streets--and sometime in late February he had 1,100 copies privately printed under the pseudonym Johnston Smith. According to Richard Weatherford's Stephen Crane: The Critical Heritage, Crane paid 79 cents a copy for the books but attached a cover price of only 50 cents. Crane had little luck getting New York bookstores to carry the title; only twenty-three original copies remain, probably all sent to friends and relatives. What happened to the rest is unknown, but there's a chance Crane burned them to stay warm. After Red Badge of Courage made Crane a literary star two years later, he had only one copy of Maggie left from which to work on revisions for republication.

Though Red Badge of Courage made Crane famous, it didn't make him rich, and he struggled financially the rest of his life. He left New York after an incident where he testified on behalf of a prostitute named Dora Clark in her criminal and civil trials. Clark was exonerated, but it ruined Crane's reputation. He worked as a correspondent during the Spanish-American War and eventually settled in England. In his late twenties, he contracted tuberculosis and he died at a health spa in Germany at age 29.

Crane made significant changes between his 1893 private printing and the edition published in 1896 after the success of Red Badge of Courage. The most significant change was making the end of the novel--and thus Maggie's fate--more ambiguous. Though the 1893 edition can be found in various facsimile editions, if you're a real Stephen Crane fan and want to own a piece of literary history, there's an original on the market right now for $8500.


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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Fate of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

images courtesy of The Lo-Down
If you don't regularly follow the news on the Lower East Side, you might not have seen that Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, who own the synagogue on Norfolk Street that we visit on tours and talk about in Inside the Apple, has formally requested that its landmark designation be revoked so that it can be torn down and replaced by a 45,000-square foot condo tower that would also include a small shul for the congregation.

The complete story is available at The Lo-Down (your best source for ongoing Lower East Side news), but it doesn't really talk about the factors that made this synagogue so important in the first place. Built in 1850, as the Norfolk Street Baptist Church, a plain-front Gothic Revival structure, this was one of the last vestiges of the area as an upper-middle-class, mostly Protestant neighborhood.

After the American Revolution, most of this land--which had been owned by the Delancey family, who were Tories--was seized by the government and sold off in lots. Because the Delanceys had already improved the area, it was ripe to become a suburban (when the city really stopped at Chambers Street) enclave. A few houses from this period still linger in the area, especially along East Broadway and Henry Street.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
Within ten years, the middle-class Baptists had moved uptown (eventually becoming the basis for Riverside Church), and the building became a Methodist Episcopal parish before being sold to Beth Hamedrash in 1885. The new owners added a Jewish star to the roof and reconfigured the altar area to become a bima, but otherwise left the plain Gothic church intact.

The congregation’s controversial rabbi, Abraham Ash, died a couple of years after the move, prompting the search not only for a replacement, but for a man who might serve as Chief Rabbi for the Orthodox in New York. A Union of Congregations was formed to search for someone who could oversee kosher supervision, help enforce stricter observation of the Sabbath, and—perhaps most importantly—help organize a more permanent beth din (a rabbinical court) to adjudicate on religious matters. In 1888, the congregation hired Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Vilnius, Lithuania—apparently the only candidate who was interested in the job. Thousands showed up for his first sermon at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, only to be disappointed when it was preached in Lithuanian, which many of them could not understand. Things only grew worse when the Union of Congregations agreed to a one-cent tax on kosher meat. (It turns out this was because the Union had promised to pay off the rabbi’s outstanding debts in Vilnius.) Within two years, Joseph had so thoroughly disappointed people that a handful of congregations independently selected a competing Chief Rabbi. Soon after, Rabbi Joseph had a stroke and while he was still able to perform his duties at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, he withdrew from public view.

However, when Rabbi Joseph died in July 1902, thousands of mourners poured into the streets to lament his passing and a heated argument broke out as to which congregation would have the honor of burying him. Ultimately, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol prevailed, and his funeral procession was followed by as many as 30,000 mourners. (Finding so many Eastern European Jews in one place was too tempting for some hotheaded Irish New Yorkers, causing riots to break out along the route.)
As The Lo-Down notes, there have only been 18 hardship applications to the Landmarks Preservation Commission since 1965, but thirteen of those have resulted in demolitions, most recently St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village. Could Beth Hamedrash be next? If you are interested in it and its history, you'd best check it out while you can. The building has been vacant for years and you can't get inside, but it is well worth seeing the exterior if you are in the area.

UPDATE: You can also read more about the fate of the synagogue--and efforts to prevent its demolition--in Allison Siegel's excellent post at Bowery Boogie.


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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Circus and the City at the Bard Graduate Center

All images courtesy of the Bard Graduate Center


You only have a few more weeks to catch the excellent show "Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010" at the Bard Graduate Center.



Using over 200 objects, the exhibition tells the story of the evolution of the modern circus from John Bill Ricketts's equestrian theater on Greenwich Street to the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey spectaculars of today. Because so much of that evolution took place in New York, the show is filled with wonderful posters, paintings, and photographs of New York through the ages. Of particular interest are the sections dealing with P.T. Barnum. Today, Barnum's name is best known through the circus, but he was an impresario long before the modern circus was born and his American Museum near City Hall was one of the city's top attractions.

As the show's press release also notes, the "exhibition also features a series of thematic displays about parades, music, toys, elephants, posters, and other aspects of the circus business. These displays include wonderful prints and photographs of circuses parading through the city in different eras, as well as impressive wooden carvings by Samuel A. Robb, New York’s preeminent manufacturer of show and shop figures."

The exhibition runs through February 3, 2013, Tuesday-Sunday. Thursday nights the gallery stays open late and is free after 5pm.


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