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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Times Square, Western Union, and the Time Ball

Tonight, it is estimated that more than 1 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 in Times Square dates back to 1907—the dropping ball replaced an earlier fireworks display—but the notion of dropping a ball as a way of keeping time is a much older tradition.

In 1877, a ball was added to the top of the Western Union Building on Lower Broadway. (We couldn't find a postcard of this building in our collection; the above stereo slide from the Library of Congress will have to do.) 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.

Telegraph wires run on Broadway outside the Western Union Building. After the Blizzard of 1888, these would all be buried underground.
Western Union, afraid that the time ball 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!

When the Times ushered in New Year's from their brand-new skyscraper in Times Square in 1904, they did so with fireworks shot from the building's rooftop. However, the police soon began to fear that fireworks might be a hazard in the rapidly developing neighborhood.

Instead, in 1907, the Times adopted the time ball as their symbol for ushering in the new year and placed a giant ball atop their skyscraper. That original Times Square ball, made of iron and wood and lit by 25 incandescent lights, weighed 700 pounds. We've been dropping a ball from the top of that building ever since. The current time ball, lit by energy-efficient LED diodes, now stays atop the old Times Building year round so that everyone who visits New York can see the actual ball that drops on New Year’s Eve.

Happy New Year everyone!
Michelle & James

[This article was adopted from an earlier post from 2009.]

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Postcard Thursday: 'Twas the Night Before Christmas...

'Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
Not even a mouse.

Those immortal words, first published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel in 1823, have become a central part of the American Christmas story. They were penned by Clement Clarke Moore, a prominent New Yorker, and together with Thomas Nast's depictions of Santa later in the century (such as the 1881 version above) helped shaped our modern ideas of Santa Claus.

We write about both men in Footprints in New York and Inside the Apple, though in neither case about their contributions to Christmas.

Moore was a major landowner and important to the growth of both Greenwich Village and Chelsea. As we write in Footprints:
To his contemporaries, Moore was best known as a Greek language scholar at the Episcopal Church’s General Seminary, and for his vast farm, Chelsea, which gave rise to the neighborhood of the same name. Today, people recognize him as the author of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (aka “Twas the Night Before Christmas”), the well-known poem that imbued the American Santa Claus with a healthy dose of his mother’s family’s Dutch traditions. 
In Inside the Apple, we note that
Moore was descended from distinguished New York families: his large family estate, Chelsea, which gave rise to the modern-day neighborhood, had originally been owned by his grandfather, Major Thomas Clarke, a veteran of the French and Indian War. Moore’s father, Bishop Benjamin Moore, was the head of the Episcopal Diocese of New York and twice president of Columbia College. 
In 1817, soon after Bishop Moore’s death, the Episcopal Church convened in New York to establish the General Theological Seminary. Jacob Sherred, a member of the Trinity Church vestry, donated $70,000 and Clement Clarke Moore agreed to donate 66 lots from his Chelsea estate to house the school. (The seminary met elsewhere until construction could begin in the 1820s.) Moore, already the author of a well-regarded Hebrew lexicon, was also hired to serve on its faculty, teaching Biblical languages until 1850.
Moore is also the person responsible for building the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in Greenwich Village.
Even for someone of Moore’s social station and wealth, commuting from Chelsea to [go to church all the way down in] the city was difficult. The best route was via the Hudson River by sloop, but this wasn’t always possible or practical. Overland, there were two options: the longer route via the Albany Post Road on the east side of the island, which connected to the Bowery and then to Lower Broadway or the shorter “Road to Greenwich,” which ran up the Hudson side of the island to the vicinity of 14th Street. However, this road (today called Greenwich Street), was so close to the river—and had to go through at least one swamp—that it was rutted, muddy, and frequently impassable.
Moore’s solution to this quandary was to ally with residents of the nearby village of Greenwich and convince Trinity Church to sell off part of the northern section of their land so that an independent Episcopal church could be established. The cornerstone for the church was laid in 1821 at a site on the corner of Hudson and Burrows [now Grove] Streets. The name of St. Luke, the healing evangelist, was chosen to reflect Greenwich’s role as a place of refuge for New Yorkers during summer outbreaks of yellow fever and other pestilence. Due to its rural location, the parish was soon dubbed St. Luke in the Fields and it became the center of religious life for the residents of Greenwich, Chelsea, and other outlying areas.
Thomas Nast, meanwhile, is probably best remembered today for his role in bringing down William "Boss" Tweed through his political cartoons in The New York Times and Harper's Weekly. Nast's poison pen was so famous, in fact, that there's a folk etymology that the word "nasty" comes from his name. That's not true, but it gives a sense of how damning his pictures could be.

Nast is also the person who gave us the elephant as the symbol of the Republican Party and the donkey for the Democrats. In an 1870 issue of Harper's Weekly, Nast launched the donkey as a symbol of the Democratic party. In the cartoon, Nast was lambasting the Copperhead faction of the party -- which had opposed the Civil War -- and those Democratic papers that continued to criticize Lincoln's recently deceased Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. Nast's critique is not terribly subtle: Stanton is "lionized" by the cartoonist and the Democrats are branded jackasses.

In fact, the donkey had an association with the party dating back to President Andrew Jackson, who had been openly called a jackass by his opponents. But it was Nast's ongoing use of the symbol in the 1870s that brought it lasting popularity. In 1874, he introduced the elephant as his representation of the Republicans, minting the symbols that the parties still use to this day.

But despite Nast's pointed political statements, he had a soft spot for the holidays. Beginning in 1863, he would draw pictures of Santa Claus or families celebrating together for Harper's, culminating in 1881 with the image at the top of this post, which is still seen by many as the iconic depiction of St. Nick.

Have a safe and happy holiday!
Michelle & James

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Friday, December 18, 2015

Postcard Thursday: The Great Fire of 1835

The image in today's postcard (which is actually a commemorative print) depicts an event that took place over three days, December 16-18, 1835. So, technically, Postcard Thursday isn't one day late.

This year marks the 180th anniversary of the Great Fire of 1835, the most devastating fire in the Western Hemisphere since London's near-total destruction in 1666.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
On the night of December 16, 1835, a gas line broke in a dry goods store near Hanover Square in the Financial District; the gas, ignited by a coal stove, caused the store to explode and the ensuing fire quickly fanned southward along Stone Street and northeast toward Wall Street. Not only was it the worst fire in New York’s history, it wiped away almost all of the remaining traces of the old Dutch and British colonial city. 
New York had some of the nation’s strictest fire codes; buildings were never erected with common walls, and brick and stone were favored over cheaper wood (though this was as much about status as safety). Every home was required to have a leather fire bucket affixed to a hook by the door and every business had to have at least two. At the sound of the first alarm, the city’s volunteer fire companies turned out in force. As per instructions, every fire bucket was made ready, and bucket brigades formed to nearby wells and cisterns. Unfortunately, it had been so cold for so many nights that the wells were frozen solid. 
When the firefighters changed tack and headed for the East River instead, they found to their chagrin that the river was frozen, too. With no other source of running water, they were forced to improvise. At the ends of the piers, holes were hacked in the ice and fire engines lowered down to pump water. However, by the time they were able to get any water flowing, the hoses had frozen, and when they did manage to get water up, most of it was blown back as frozen ice into the faces of the firemen. In some places, the only way to stop the fire’s spread was to blow up buildings in its path to create a makeshift firebreak.

Mayor Philip Hone, one of the great diarists of New York in the 19th century, wrote:

“December 17—How shall I record the events of last night, or how attempt to describe the most awful calamity which has ever visited these United States? The greatest loss by fire that has ever been known…. I am fatigued in body, disturbed in mind, and my fancy filled with images of horror which my pen is inadequate to describe.”

In the end, the fire had to burn itself out and, in the process, it destroyed much of the area between Broadway and Pearl Street in the financial district. If you happen to be down in that neighborhood, take a walk down the block of Stone Street that connects Hanover Square to Coenties Slip. This is the area known today for its string of restaurants and pubs; the buildings themselves, however, form a sort of memorial to the fire. Almost all of them were built within a 12-month period in 1836-37 to replace countinghouses and warehouses destroyed in the Great Fire. Notice how many of the buildings have extra wide doors (to haul in cargo) and strong, granite curbs to keep goods from accidentally plunging in to the basement.

courtesy of the New York Public Library
There are supposedly no other, official memorials to the Great Fire, despite the fact that it was the largest urban fire since London’s Great Fire in 1661. But when we were writing Inside the Apple, we found one. During the worst of the fire,
a valiant attempt was made to rescue a 15-foot statue of Alexander Hamilton from the floor of the exchange, but just as the statue reached the doorway the roof collapsed, destroying it. The statue, by Robert Ball Hughes, was the first marble statue created in the United States and had only been installed eight months earlier. Though it took 45 years, the statue was ultimately replaced by Hamilton’s youngest son, John C. Hamilton, and it stands in Central Park behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This statue in the park is remarkable in that it is made entirely of granite—not the easiest stone to carve—and it has long been thought that John C. Hamilton commissioned the work out of this durable stone so that no matter what calamities might befall Central Park, his father’s statue would endure.
courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Postcard Thursday: West Broadway Walk

Today's image shows the elevated trains running in front of Ralph Walker's 1930 Western Union Building on West Broadway. The building, which was the telegraph company's headquarters until 1973, is just one of the many marvelous places we'll be visiting on our walking tour this Sunday, December 13, at Noon that explores the history of West Broadway.

We still have a few spaces available. The tours lasts about 2 hours and costs $15 per person.... or pay $25 and get a copy of Footprints in New York included in your ticket price.

To reserve:

Send an email to with your
  • Name
  • Number of people in your party
  • How many are paying $15 (tour only) and how many are paying $25 (tour plus book).
  • A cell number where we can reach you on the day of the tour in case of complications.The meeting place for the tour will be in your confirmation.

Please note: we try to send email confirmations within 24 hours.

Looking forward to seeing you!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Central Park "Improvements"

Many readers of this blog and of Inside the Apple and Footprints in New York will know that Central Park's Tavern on the Green was originally a sheepfold.

But what many people don't know is that it wasn't supposed to be in the park at all -- it was an addition made during the era that William "Boss" Tweed ran the park.

James has a story on Curbed that details many of the "mutilations, intrusions and perversions" that have been proposed over the years for the park. Most have never made it off the drawing board, but some -- like Tavern -- are now integral parts of the park.

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We still have room on our tour of West Broadway on

Sunday, December 13, at Noon.

Read all about it at

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Thursday, November 26, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Greetings from Plymouth (UK)

A week ago we were in Plymouth, Massachusetts -- today we're across the pond in Plymouth, Devonshire, to help kick off the countdown to the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower.

We've posted a few pictures of our trip on Instagram ( and more will be forthcoming as we sort through them. Have a look!

We hope everyone is having a wonderful Thanksgiving.

-- James & Michelle

Friday, November 20, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Greetings from Plymouth!

Greetings from Massachusetts. As some of you may know, we are off on an adventure tracing the path of the Pilgrims and the reverse, from Plymouth (Mass.) to Plymouth (UK) to Leiden in Holland. This is primary research for what James hopes will be a new book about the intersections of history, memory, genealogy, and more.

We'll be posting updates on James's various social media accounts if you'd like to follow along:
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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Postcard Thursday: The Morris-Jumel Mansion and Aaron Burr

Today's card shows the so-called "Council Chamber" -- really the parlor -- of the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights. The country house, built in 1765 by Roger Morris, served briefly as George Washington's headquarters during the Revolutionary War. Later, after the British re-took New York, it was used by British general Henry Clinton. The postcard was issued when the site was run by the Washington Headquarters Association, which placed great emphasis on the home's limited role in the Revolution.

The Morrises, staunch loyalists, had the house taken from them by the fledgling American government after the war. It served as a tavern before being purchased by Stephen and Eliza Jumel in 1806.

After Stephen's death, Eliza Jumel married the former vice president, Aaron Burr. Ironically, there are only two great country homes left in this part of Manhattan: Burr's and that of his rival, Alexander Hamilton, whose home "The Grange" is now run by the National Park Service.

Hamilton is, of course, the subject of a blockbuster Broadway musical.

This month in New Jersey Monthly magazine, James ponders what an Aaron Burr musical might look like. You can read the story at:

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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Central Park's Lost Spur Rock Arch

This lovely view of the Bridle Path in Central Park, mailed in 1908, shows one of the few bridges and arches in the park that has been demolished. Called the Spur Rock Arch, it stood where today's Hecksher Playground was later built.

When Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted were planning the park's roadways, they incorporated an innovative series of bridges and arches to separate traffic. As we write in Footprints in New York:
Vaux and Olmsted came up with three categories of roadway that they simply called the “Walk” (for pedestrians), the “Ride” (for horseback riding), and the “Drive” (for carriages). All together, there are today about seventy miles of Walk, Ride, and Drive wending through the park. In the master plan, none of these paths ever touched. If the Drive crossed the Walk, a bridge was constructed to pass pedestrian traffic below the carriages. Similarly, the Ride was kept separate from the other paths so that horseback riders would never have to rear up suddenly when confronted with an obstacle.... 
On its face, Vaux and Olmsted’s traffic plan seems eminently practical, but there was more than simple engineering afoot. Since only the wealthiest New Yorkers could afford a carriage or the luxury of horseback riding, the Drive and the Ride were de facto upper-class thoroughfares. In most places, they were kept at a safe remove from the working-class Walk, though some- times the Drive was paralleled by walking paths, presumably so that poorer New Yorkers could see what they were missing—and so that the rich could set a good example.
Alas, the handsome Spur Rock Arch is no more. According to the book Bridges of Central Park,
Spur Rock Arch, sometimes called Oval Arch, was located on the longitude of Seventh Avenue and the latitude of 61st Street.... It was 25 feet long and rose 12-and-a-half feet above the bridle path.... 
The distinctive oval outline of its archway and the S-curve sides were repeated later with different dimensions for Gothic Bridge. The ornament of the spandrels was altogether different although both designs stemmed from the Gothic, with Spur Rock's spandrels filled and braced by large wheels with interior cusping, not unlike some church windows. The supporting members were wrought iron; the more finely drawn decorative members were cast iron.
Spur Rock was demolished because it got in the way of the expansion of the Heckscher Playground. Instead of being incorporated into the playground, Spur Rock, probably looking old-fashioned, rundown and unimportant in 1934, was destroyed.

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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Postcard Thursday: The Crash of '29

October 29, 1929, was "Black Tuesday," the culmination of events that led the stock market to crash and plunge the United States—and the world—into the Great Depression.

The New York Stock Exchange, which had surged throughout the 1920s to a new high, lost close to 18% of its value in September 1929, but this had not been enough to truly shake investors’ confidence. Financial prognosticator Irving Fisher, who believed the market was still on its way up, shrugged off the market’s volatility as simply its way of “shaking out of the lunatic fringe.” The first sign of trouble came on Thursday, October 24—later called “Black Thursday”—when 12.9 million shares traded hands. (A normal trading day in the 1920s saw about 3 million shares traded.) The stock ticker, unable to keep up with the volume, fell 90 minutes behind and panic set in. 
A group of bankers hurriedly assembled at Morgan’s Bank and pooled $130 million to bail out the market (in a move similar to Morgan’s intervention during the Panic of 1907. The market settled down when Stock Exchange Vice President Richard Whitney strode onto the trading floor in the afternoon and placed an order for 10,000 shares of U.S. Steel. He proceeded to use the $130 million to prop up other stocks and the market closed on a note of confidence. Trading was mixed over the next two days (there was still Saturday morning trading in those days), allaying some fears, but on Monday the slide began. Nervous investors began selling at the start of the trading day and by the close, the market had lost 13% of its value—[at the time] the worst one-day decline in the market’s history....
On “Black Tuesday” the bottom fell out. A record 16.4 million shares traded that day and the market declined an additional 12%—the total losses for the week surpassed the annual federal budget. No pool of investors stepped in to prop up the market this time. By the end of the day, the “Roaring Twenties” were over and though the country wouldn’t realize it yet, it had been plunged into the worst economic downturn in its history, the Great Depression.

The stock market would continue to fall until November 13 when it hit a “false” bottom. General Electric, which had been trading at 396-1/4 in September, was now trading at 168-1/8. However, despite a temporary recovery over the next few months, the market soon began to decline again and by the time it hit its real bottom in 1932, G.E. was trading at just 8-1/2, a staggering loss of 98% of its value. It would take the Dow Jones Industrial Average 22 years to climb back to its September 1929 levels.
Today's postcard dates to sometime around 1910 and shows the facade of the New York Stock Exchange. Notice the building originally had a set of uneven steps up to the trading floor, which were subsequently removed.

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Postcard Thursday: The St. Denis Hotel

Today's postcard, mailed in 1908, shows one of the most famous old hotels in New York, the St. Denis, at Broadway and 11th Street.

Run by hotelier William Taylor, the St. Denis was opened in 1853, just across from Grace Church. Both buildings had been designed by James Renwick, who would later go on to build St. Patrick's Cathedral. Billed as the "most centrally located hotel in the city," the hotel was within walking distance of most of New York's prime theaters, restaurants, and department stores, many of which lined Broadway south of Union Square. The hotel quickly developed a celebrity clientele, including first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who stayed there during one of her frequent trips to the city. Ulysses S. Grant worked on his memoirs at the hotel and, when he was stuck with writer's block, his publisher, Mark Twain, moved in for three months to get him over the hump.

The St. Denis was also the spot where Alexander Graham Bell showcased his telephone for the first time in New York. As we write in Inside the Apple:
Though he had already patented the device and made public demonstrations of its efficacy—a week earlier in Boston, he’d made a connection to Providence, Rhode Island, 43 miles away—he hadn’t yet found a market for it. At the St. Denis a crowd of about 50 filled the drawing room on the second floor where Bell made telephone calls to the A&P Telegraph office in Brooklyn, using wire strung across the not-yet-completed Brooklyn Bridge. In the audience were potential financial backers, such as Cyrus Field, the president of the company that 11 years earlier had successfully laid the first transatlantic telegraph cable. 
At least one observer at the St. Denis, telegraph pioneer Walter P. Phillips, derided the invention as “a toy, if not an absolute humbug.” But it is clear that others were impressed. Later that year, the first telephone was installed—connecting J.H. Haigh’s home on John Street to his factory in Brooklyn. By 1878, the first telephone directory was published: it contained 252 listings: 235 businesses and 17 people who had telephones installed at home.
Most people don't realize that the St. Denis is still standing. Though it has been converted into offices and has a rather drab exterior, it is still Renwick's 1853 building.

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Columbus Circle

Monday marked the annual celebration of Columbus Day in the United States and the 123rd anniversary of the Columbus statue in the middle of Columbus Circle.

As we write in Inside the Apple:

In the years leading up to 1892, Carlo Barsotti, the publisher of the Italian-language paper Il Progresso Italo Americano diligently promoted the idea that Columbus be honored in New York, which was fast becoming one of the largest centers of Italians in the world. Through public subscription, Il Progresso raised the money for a statue to be erected at the Great Circle, and hired Sicilian artist Gaetano Russo to create a monument to be ready for October 12, 1892. It was unveiled in the newly named Columbus Circle as part of the celebrations for Columbus Day.

Of course, today Columbus is not exactly the revered figure he once was. In fact, on Monday, James wrote an opinion piece for the U.S. edition of The Guardian suggesting that it is time that we ditch the holiday in favor of Indigenous Peoples' Day. You can read the article here:
In NYC, Columbus Day is primarily a holiday celebrating Italian-American culture. We are all in favor of that, too. If we get rid of Columbus, what Italian would you suggest we honor in his place? Let us know in the comments.

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Thursday, October 8, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Pushcarts

This postcard of Mulberry Street ca. 1900 has become one of the most enduring images of Little Italy. (In fact, it was in the running to be the cover image of Footprints in New York but too many other people had already used it.)

Lining the center of the photo are pushcarts where food vendors could sell their wares without the overhead of a traditional storefront. (Compare this to our earlier postcard of cheese vendors, who sold from baskets.) As you might imagine, there were often turf wars between the brick-and-mortar stores and pushcart vendors, who were seen by some shop owners as bad for business. Under pressure, the city enacted a law that said that pushcart vendors could not sell from the same spot for more than 30 minutes at a time, though this proved hard to enforce.

During the Depression, Mayor La Guardia attempted to ban street vending altogether, claiming it was a safety hazard to have the streets clogged with carts. To accommodate the displaced vendors, the city constructed indoor markets, like the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side and the Arthur Avenue Retail Market in the Bronx, and while these both still exist, they were never popular with the pushcart sellers.

This is just one topic we'll be covering on our Sunday tour of Italian New York City. Read all about it at and sign up!

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Monday, October 5, 2015

REMINDER: Italian NYC Walking Tour | Sunday, October 11 at 3pm

CELEBRATE ITALIAN NEW YORKA Columbus Weekend Walking Tour
with Michelle and James Nevius
authors of Inside the Apple and Footprints in New York
Sunday, October 11, 2015 at 3:00PM

$20 per person; $30 if you'd like a signed copy of Footprints in New York

UPDATE: THANKS TO EVERYONE who has reserved for the tour -- there is still some availability, so if you are interested in attending, please see below for reservation information.

After the Civil War, Italians became the largest single immigrant group in New York, transforming the city. While Columbus Day has fallen out of favor recently in some places, in New York it is still a time to focus on Italian-American history and pride.

We'll walk through two of Manhattan's Little Italys -- the more famous one on Mulberry Street, as well as the Italian area of Greenwich Village.

To reserve email your

* name
* number of people in your party (including how many people are $20 [touronly] or $30 [tour + book])
* a cell number to contact you if there's any last-minute changes

RESERVATIONS are limited and taken on a first-come, first-served basis.

You can pay for the tour by cash or credit card when you check in. Instructions on where to meet will be email within 24 hours of when you reserve.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Postcard Thursday: The Naming of Manhattan

Tomorrow, October 2, marks a little-known anniversary in the New York: the first time the name of the island of Manhattan was written down by a European explorer. The person who did the writing was Robert Juet, first mate on the Halve Maen ("Half Moon"), the ship that had arrived in New York harbor a few weeks earlier in search of a Northwest Passage. While that ship's captain, Henry Hudson, gets rivers and parkways and more named for him, Juet--whose chronicle of the voyage is a fascinating document--is mostly forgotten.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
It’s hard to decide where to place Henry Hudson in the pantheon of early American explorers. Like all of them, he was essentially sailing blindly into terra incognita. Had he missed the entrance to New York harbor and sailed home, he’d be little more than a footnote, perhaps known better for the way he died than the way he lived. (Hudson was a bit of a boor. On a later voyage in 1611, his crew, sick of him, mutinied and sent him overboard in Hudson’s Bay, Canada—but that’s another story.)....
Hudson’s arrival in New York harbor was inauspicious; the ship ran aground at Sandy Hook, just south of Staten Island. On September 11, 1609, the ship headed through the Narrows into the harbor. From there, it entered the Muhheakuntuck, the “Great” River. Hudson sailed as far as present-day Albany before realizing that while he’d found a great river, it was not a passage to the Spice Islands.... 
Today, the best way to get a sense of what Hudson experienced when he arrived, the “very good land to fall in with, and a pleasant land to see” described in the journal of first mate Robert Juet, is to head to Fort Tryon Park in Upper Manhattan and look across at the Palisades in New Jersey. The view here was preserved by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who originally had plans to develop the Fort Tryon site for personal use before ceding it to the city. It was somewhere near here that the Halve Maen anchored during its journey home. Juet, describing the New Jersey Palisades or the cliffs below Fort Tryon, noted in his journal: 
[W]e saw a very good piece of ground; and hard by it there was a cliff that looked of the colour of white green, as though it were either a copper or silver mine; and I think it to be one of them by the trees that grow upon it; for they be all burned, and the other places are green as grass; it is on that side of the river that is called Manna-hata.
Thus, on October 2, 1609, Manna-hata had its name written down by Europeans for the first time and Manhattan was born.
In 1909, New York hosted a giant Hudson-Fulton Festival to honor the city's 300th birthday. The above postcard shows the replica of the Halve Maen that was built for the festivities.

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On Sunday, October 11, at 3PM
join us for a walking tour of Little Italy

for details about the tour and information on how to sign up.

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Postcard Thursday: The Fall of New Netherland

A postcard reproduction of The Fall of New Amsterdam, from the series "The Pageant of a Nation" by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (ca. 1932)

On September 24, 1664, the colony of New Netherland surrendered to the English, officially becoming New York.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
[Following] the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660...the king’s ministers—notably his brother, James, Duke of York—had great territorial plans for the New World, which included complete English control of the area from Boston to the Carolinas.... Despite having been sheltered in the Netherlands during Cromwell’s interregnum (or, perhaps, because of it), the Duke had a very low opinion of the Dutch. In March 1664, his brother the king granted him a remarkable charter for most of New England, including Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and—most particularly—New Netherland. The Duke not only wanted to annoy the Dutch, he wanted to disrupt Dutch shipping, specifically between New Netherland, the Caribbean, and the African (or “Guinea”) Coast.... 
To conquer New Amsterdam, the Duke dispatched Richard Nicolls, who had fought in the Civil War and had, for his service, been elevated to the role of Groom of the Bedchamber (the knight in charge of dressing the Duke). Nicolls was given four ships, approximately six hundred soldiers, and instructions to keep New Amsterdam as intact as possible.... 
In twenty-three Articles of Capitulation, he extracted concessions from the English, including forbidding them from quartering soldiers in civilian homes, and making them promise to quit the island if word arrived from Europe that the Dutch had won it back. 
On September 8, 1664, with great pomp, Peter Stuyvesant and the Dutch garrison marched out of Fort Amsterdam and the flag of the Dutch West India Company was lowered for the last time. By nightfall, the cross of St. George was in its place and the town had a new name: New York, in honor of the Duke, its new patron.
On September 24, the second-most important town, Fort Orange—today the capital, Albany—surrendered to the English, making the takeover of the colony complete.

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On Sunday, October 11, at 3PM
join us for a walking tour of Little Italy

Go to
for details about the tour and information on how to sign up.

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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Constitution Day

Happy Constitution Day! On September 17, 1787, the United States Constitution was signed. That event might have happened in Philadelphia, but it was crucial for New York. As we write in Inside the Apple:
The years between the end of the war and the inaugural were a frenzy of political activity centered on replacing the Articles of Confederation, which had been adopted by the Second Continental Congress in 1781, with a broader federal constitution. Key among the New Yorkers working on this new constitutional government was Alexander Hamilton, who...had risen quickly during the Revolution to become one of Washington’s most trusted advisers. 
In May 1787, the Constitutional Convention began in Philadelphia, which was America’s largest city and had long served as America’s political center. But congress itself had not been meeting in Philadelphia since June 20, 1783, when the State House had been surrounded by mutinous Pennsylvania soldiers looking for their Revolutionary War back pay. Under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government lacked the power to disburse the mob—and Pennsylvania’s executive committee refused to do so—forcing congress to flee to Princeton, New Jersey. Over the next two years, the seat of congress moved a few times until finding a home in New York City.

As part of the new Constitution, the states agreed to have a capital city that was not governed by a state, thus heading off another Pennsylvania debacle, and Alexander Hamilton’s preference was for that city to be his own. Pierre L’Enfant, who would achieve great fame as the master planner of Washington, D.C., remodeled the old British City Hall on Wall Street to serve not only as the meeting place for congress and the new chief executive but also continue to house New York City’s government offices....
It was in this new capitol building that the Bill of Rights was adopted on December 15, 1791. However, what we call Federal Hall National Memorial today (labelled in the postcard above as the US Sub Treasury)
has no connection to the original structure save for its location. When a replacement City Hall for New York was being constructed in the early 19th century, the L’Enfant building was sold at auction, netting only $450. The present structure, by Town & Davis, opened in 1842 as the US Custom House. It served as treasury building until the 1920s and was later converted into a museum, today run by the National Park Service. It holds some fragments of the original building, including parts of the balcony on which Washington was sworn in.

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On Sunday, October 11, at 3PM
join us for a walking tour of Little Italy

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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Little Italy Walking Tour

"New York Street Life: Street Vendors on Mulberry Street" showing Italian immigrants selling cheese from handbaskets.

A Columbus Weekend Walking Tour
with Michelle and James Nevius
authors of Inside the Apple and Footprints in New York
Sunday, October 11, 2015 at 3:00PM

$20 per person; $30 if you'd like a signed copy of Footprints in New York

After the Civil War, Italians became the largest single immigrant group in New York, transforming the city. While Columbus Day has fallen out of favor recently in some places, in New York it is still a time to focus on Italian-American history and pride.

We'll walk through two of Manhattan's Little Italys -- the more famous one on Mulberry Street, as well as the Italian area of Greenwich Village.

To reserve email your

* name
* number of people in your party (including how many people are $20 [tour only] or $30 [tour + book])
* a cell number to contact you if there's any last-minute changes

RESERVATIONS are limited and taken on a first-come, first-served basis.

You can pay for the tour by cash or credit card when you check in. Instructions on where to meet will be email within 24 hours of when you reserve.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Photo Thursday: Hans Haacke and the East Village

Installation view of America Is Hard to See (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 1— September 27, 2015): Hans Haacke, Shapolsky, et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1 1971, 1971, (2007.148a-gg). Photography by Ronald Amstutz.
In 1971, conceptual artist Hans Haacke produced one of his most enduring works, Shapolsky, et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1 1971, a visual critique of Manhattan slumlord Harry Shapolsky.

This summer, James decided to track down the buildings Haacke had photographed to see how the East Village (the main area on which he focused) had changed in the past four decades. The result is "The Artist and the Slumlord: A Photographer's 1970s Quest to Unmask an NYC Real Estate Family," an essay for Curbed's national site that compares buildings in the neighborhood then and now.

538-40 East 11th Street today. Photo by Will Femia.
 Read the full story at

We'd love to know your thoughts! Comment on the story itself or here on the blog.

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