GET UPDATES IN YOUR INBOX! Subscribe to our SPAM-free updates here:

GET UPDATES IN YOUR INBOX! Subscribe to our SPAM-free email here:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Postcard Thursday: City College's Shepard Hall

This postcard, from about 1910, shows Shepard Hall at City College, and its commanding view of Hamilton Heights.

When City College was founded as the Free Academy of the City of New York in 1847, it was located downtown and soon outgrew its home. As we write in Inside the Apple:
Though enrollment increased dramatically in the years following the Civil War, the city did not approve a move by the college until 1895, when a tract of land in Harlem, along Convent Avenue, was purchased and George B. Post (who would soon begin work on the New York Stock Exchange) was commissioned to create a new campus. 
The resulting structures are the city’s best example of Collegiate Gothic architecture. Though there are entrance gates on all four sides, the tall walls of schist make the college an imposing, protective fortress—a true medieval walled city. Post chose Manhattan schist as his main material not only because of its aesthetic qualities, but because it was the right price: much of the bedrock came from the tunneling for the nearby IRT subway, which also provided a convenient station just a block away from campus. 
The grandest of Post’s five original 1908 campus buildings was the Main Hall (today’s Shepard Hall), a soaring cathedral-like space that was the primary classroom building. Other buildings housed academic offices and the college’s power plant, complete with a tall battlement-studded smokestack. (The smokestack still towers over Compton Hall, but is inoperable.)

* * * *
Read more about Hamilton Heights in

Footprints in New York comes out April 15, 2014, but you can pre-order today from AmazonBarnes & Noble, and many more.

And, of course, Inside the Apple is available at fine bookstores everywhere.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Today in history: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire went up in flames—one of the deadliest industrial fires in American history and a turning point for worker’s safety and unionization in America.

The factory was predominantly staffed with young women who lived in Little Italy and the Lower East Side, and when we are giving walking tours of those neighborhoods, our clients are sometimes surprised to discover that the factory was in Greenwich Village. So much of that neighborhood—including the Asch Building, where the fire occurred—is now dominated by NYU that it is easy to forget that the stretch of the Village on both sides of Broadway was once a vital part of New York’s garment industry.

In Inside the Apple we note:
Long before the fire broke out, the factory was infamous for its poor labor practices. In 1909, New York’s largest job action, known as the “Uprising of the 20,000” began when workers walked off the job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. For months, the majority of the city’s shirtwaist factories were crippled by the strike, but the factory owners refused to budge. Though the International Ladies Garment Workers Union brokered a settlement in 1910 that stopped short of forcing the recognition of their union, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, refused to agree to it. The factory’s workers went back to work having gained few concessions.

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, 146 women died, most of them at the scene—some were only thirteen years old.

* Blanck and Harris, the owners, were able to get up to the roof and escape from there.
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.

This post in adapted from an earlier entry in 2009, and one marking the centennial of the fire in 2011.

* * * *
Read more about the Lower East Side home of the Triangle workers

Footprints in New York comes out April 15, 2014, but you can pre-order today from AmazonBarnes & Noble, and many more.

And, of course, Inside the Apple is available at fine bookstores everywhere.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Postcard Thursday: Brooklyn City Hall

Here's a nice shot of Brooklyn Borough Hall—though, as you will notice at the bottom of the postcard it is still labelled "City Hall," even though there was no longer an independent city of Brooklyn when this postcard was issued. (There's no date on the card, but we guess it is from about 1908, a full decade after Brooklyn became a borough.)

As we write in Inside the Apple:
Through the seventeenth century, Brooklyn remained a predominantly rural area—by 1800, the entire county had only 4,495 residents.... However, in the first years of the 19th century, Brooklyn's waterfront began to emerge as a commercial hub to rival Manhattan.
In 1836, many of the waterfront communities of Brooklyn incorporated into a city of their own, in part to regularize and oversee the port. The new city held a design contest for a grand city hall to stand just up the hill from the ferry. However, the contest’s winner, Calvin Pollard, got no further than laying the foundations before Brooklyn had to quit the project due to lack of funds. By 1845 funds had been secured and builder Gamaliel King (who’d been the runner-up in the contest) was brought on to finish the job as long as he could make his building fit into Pollard’s foundations. The resulting City Hall, opened in 1848, is one of the most impressive Greek Revival buildings of its era.
We pick up the story in Footprints in New York:
The desire to unite Brooklyn and Manhattan predated the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge by decades. It was first suggested in the 1820s, and by the time of the Civil War, New York had already seriously considered annexing Brooklyn, if only to bolster its revenues. In 1868, Central Park commissioner Andrew Haswell Green proposed a consolidation of “New York and Kings County [Brooklyn], a part of Westchester County [the Bronx], and a part of Queens and Richmond [Staten Island], including the various suburbs of the city. . . .”
As Green noted in his proposal, the more than 1.5 million people in New York’s environs were “all drawing sustenance from the commerce of New York” while “contributing but little toward the support of its government.” It’s a problem that still vexes the city to this day—thousands of people come into New York to earn money, then retreat to the suburbs to spend that money and contribute to another municipality’s tax base. In the nineteenth century, the primary suburb was Brooklyn, and New York wanted its piece of the pie.
On January 1, 1898, the two cities finally merged, and Brooklyn's City Hall was demoted to being Borough Hall. The fancy Beaxu-Arts cupola was added that same year, perhaps as a consolation prize.

In the foreground of the postcard, notice the statue of Henry Ward Beecher. During the creation of Cadman Plaza, Beecher's statue was moved to the other end of the plaza, and now faces Borough Hall.

* * * *
Read more about Brooklyn and five borough consolidation in

Footprints in New York comes out April 15, 2014, but you can pre-order today from AmazonBarnes & Noble, and many more.

And, of course, Inside the Apple is available at fine bookstores everywhere.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Bob Dylan's Recording Debut

Fifty-two years ago today, the young Bob Dylan--who'd taken the Greenwich Village folk scene by storm a year earlier--released his debut on Columbia Records.

As we write in our new book, Footprints in New York, Dylan
arrived in New York City determined to do two things: perform in Greenwich Village, the center of America’s folk music revival, and meet Woody Guthrie. By the end of his first week, he’d done both. Dylan probably got to the city January 23, the day the front page of the New York Times proclaimed it the “coldest winter in seventeen years,” a line Dylan would borrow for one of his earliest compositions, “Talkin’ New York.” In No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s documentary on Dylan’s early career, the singer remembers that first day: “I took the subway down to the Village. I went to the Cafe Wha?, I looked out at the crowd, and I most likely asked from the stage ‘Does anybody know where a couple of people could stay tonight?’”
From that cold January morning, it was a rapid trajectory to Dylan's first album, simply titled Bob Dylan. The album features thirteen tracks, most of them traditional folk and blues numbers except the sardonic autobiography of “Talkin’ New York,” and “Song to Woody,” an elegy to his hero. The tune to “Song to Woody” is borrowed from Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre,” and the words were written one afternoon at the Mills Bar on Bleecker Street, a local hangout.

One original Dylan composition that didn't make it onto the album (or any album until 1991's Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3) was "Hard Times in New York Town." Written very much in the same vein as "Talkin' New York," the songs encapsulates the joys--and troubles--of Dylan's first year.


This version of the song, performed on Cynthia Gooding's radio show Folksinger's Choice, is the best version we've heard. (We particularly like the reference to Peter Minuit--who we talk about a lot in the first chapter of Footprints in New York.)

As a bonus, here's Dylan's "Song to Woody," with some video at the beginning of Guthrie himself performing.


* * * *
Dylan's New York is the subject of an entire chapter in

Footprints in New York comes out April 15, 2014, but you can pre-order today from AmazonBarnes & Noble, and many more.

And, of course, Inside the Apple is available at fine bookstores everywhere.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Postcard Thursday: Twenty-Three Skidoo

From the Inside the Apple archives:

This postcard was made in 1908 and shows two birds ("Bird's eye view"--get it?) outside the Flatiron building at Fifth Avenue and Twenty-third Street. Because of the Flatiron's unique shape and its location along a broad crosstown thoroughfare, strong winds swirl near its base. When the building first opened, men used to flock to Madison Square to watch women walking by in the hope that the air currents would sweep up their skirts and reveal a glimpse of stocking.

This is exactly what is depicted in the postcard above: the gentleman in the background is giving a knowing wink as the lady's skirt and petticoats blow up, revealing her ankles. How risque!

In real life, there were a number of police officers posted to the Flatiron to encourage ogling men to move along. One common phrase they employed was "twenty-three skidoo!" Skidoo is a relative of skedaddle and means "to move along" or "go away." The number 23 was long thought to be a reference to the Twenty-Third Street; thus "23 skidoo" meant "stop hanging out on Twenty-Third Street."

However, it turns out that "23" was already a slang term for "get lost" before there was a Flatiron building, cited at least as early as 1899. What seems plausible is that the police wanted to get rid of men in front of the Flatiron, so combined two already existing phrases that each meant scram--"twenty-three" and "skidoo"--into a phrase that had a double meaning. Soon, "23 skidoo" was one of the most popular phrases in America--it is still sometimes employed today, over a century later.

* * * *
Read more about the dawn of the skyscraper era in

Footprints in New York comes out April 15, 2014, but you can pre-order today from AmazonBarnes & Noble, and many more.

And, of course, Inside the Apple is available at fine bookstores everywhere.

Monday, March 10, 2014

UPDATE on "The Ghetto, New York" from last week

Last Thursday's postcard of the week was this view of the Lower East Side, simply labelled "The Ghetto, New York." While the cross street is clearly labelled as Rivington, we were unable to deduce what other thoroughfare was being depicted. We got a few good guesses in our inbox, but nothing that seemed quite right.

So, we turned to Don Rogerson, author of Manhattan Street Names Past and Present to see if he knew anything--and lo and behold, he was able to almost immediately identify it as Ridge Street, noting that the building on the right side of the postcard is still there.

Here is what that intersection looks like today:

courtesy of Google

At first glance, the building on the right in the Google Street View doesn't look all that much like the one from the postcard, but we did a little more digging and were able to find a black-and-white photograph of the same scene (on which the postcard is based) at the New York Public Library:

courtesy of the New York Public Library

Notice in the closeup that the building on the right, which looks to be limestone in the postcard, is actually brick. And when you compare the architectural details--such as the window lintels--between the old photo and the building today, it's clear that this is the same structure.

According to the New York Public Library, the view in the postcard is looking north toward Houston Street, taken ca. 1905.

Another reader noticed a point that needed clarification in the original post. We referred to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as "alleged" spies. That was merely to indicate that on March 6, 1951 (the date they went on trial, which the post was commemorating) they had only been accused of being spies. Of course, by the time the trial ended they were convicted spies.

* * * *
Read more about the Lower East Side, including the pioneering work of
Jacob Riis and Lillian Wald

Footprints in New York comes out April 15, 2014, but you can pre-order today from AmazonBarnes & Noble, and many more.

And, of course, Inside the Apple is available at fine bookstores everywhere.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Postcard Thursday: "The Ghetto, New York"

On March 6, 1951, the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg began. Both the alleged spies (who were executed for their crimes in 1953), were born on the Lower East Side when it looked a lot like today's postcard. Ethel was born in 1915 and Julius in 1918. This card, simply labelled "The Ghetto, New York," was probably published around 1910.

In the foreground, there's a street sign marking Rivington Street, but the cross street in this image remains a mystery. We've looked at the extant intersections along Rivington and none match this postcard close enough. Of course, that's not surprising--between public parks, housing projects, and new development, the Lower East Side of a century ago has been substantially altered. However, if you have a guess as to what intersection this is, please let us know in the comments.

* * * *
Read more about the Lower East Side, including the pioneering work of
Jacob Riis and Lillian Wald
in our new book

Footprints in New York comes out April 15, 2014, but you can pre-order today from AmazonBarnes & Noble, and many more.

And, of course, Inside the Apple is available at fine bookstores everywhere.

Search This Blog

Blog Archive