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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Postcard Thursday: The Battle of Washington Heights

Should you find yourself in Washington Heights, stop by Fort Tryon Park (home to the Cloisters); today marks the 241st anniversary of the battle of Fort Washington, where 3,000 Hessian troops and 5,000 British regulars overwhelmed the American troops. 

In the fall of 1776, the Americans were on the run. They'd abandoned Lower Manhattan in September and despite a minor American victory in Harlem Heights on September 16, George Washington's troops were then routed at White Plains on October 28. In the wake of that loss, Washington ordered General Nathanael Greene to abandon Fort Washington in Upper Manhattan and head to New Jersey. However, Greene and the post's commanding officer, Colonel Robert Magaw, convinced Washington that the fort was defensible. That turned out to be a grave miscalculation, in part because one of Magaw's soldiers, William Demont, turned out to be a traitor, and had already given the British details of the fort's defenses.

By the end of the battle, 59 Americans had been killed and nearly 3,000 taken as prisoners of war. Many of these prisoners would subsequently die in the fetid conditions of British prison ships in Wallabout Bay, Brooklyn.

One American killed was John Corbin. His wife Margaret, a nurse who been allowed to join the soldiers in the fort, took his place at his cannon and continued firing until she was gravely injured. She never fully recovered from the wounds she received that day and later became the first woman to receive a military pension.

Fort Washington itself stood where Bennett Park sits in Washington Heights. After the British victory, the fortifications were renamed after Sir William Tryon, the British governor; today, the main road in Fort Tryon Park honors Margaret Corbin.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Armistice Day and Sgt. York

This Saturday marks the 99th anniversary of the end of World War I. In 1919, America created a new holiday, Armistice Day, to mark the fact that the peace treaty was signed on November 11, 1918. In 1954, that holiday became Veterans Day, honoring all those who have served in the armed forces.

The photo above shows Wall Street in 1918 celebrating the end of the war with a spontaneous barrage of ticker-tape.

After the war, Avenue A on the Upper East Side was named York Avenue after one of the heroes of the war, Sgt. Alvin C. York. Below is the text from one of our most popular posts (slightly modified) about York and his eponymous street.

* * *

Most New Yorkers probably haven’t given a second thought to York Avenue, the thoroughfare that runs from 59th Street to 91st Street just east of First Avenue. And if they have thought much about its name, they probably ascribed it to the Duke of York, for whom the city was named back in 1664.

However, York Avenue is actually a much more recent appellation: it was named in 1928 to honor Sergeant Alvin C. York, America’s most renowned World War I hero. Alvin York (1887-1964) was drafted in 1917. Though a conscientious objector (his application for CO status was denied), York became a hero during the Battle of the Argonne Forest. In an improbable feat of courage, York found himself in charge of his unit after many of his compatriots were killed and he managed to kill over 20 Germans soldiers and capture 132 more.

York was awarded the Medal of Honor and upon his return to the United States was feted in New York with a ticker tape parade. York regularly stayed in the news over the next decade, both for his efforts to help the rural poor of Tennessee (his home state) by building a school as well as for his aversion to accepting charity. When offered a free honeymoon, he turned it down stating it would just be a “vainglorious call of the world and the devil.”

In April 1928, York had the honor of having Avenue A from 59th Street northward named for him. The move was sponsored by the First Avenue Association in an effort to revive the fortunes of the east side, which was better known for its German enclave (later dubbed “Yorkville”) and Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert’s brewery. Back in 1807, when the city deployed surveyor John Randal, Jr., to map out the new Cartesian grid plan, he and his team chose to create twelve wide avenues that ran the length of the island from Houston Street north. However, this left the problem of the area of the Lower East Side and Upper East Side where there was enough room east of the grid plan for more streets. Randal solved this problem by naming these eastern avenues “A,” “B,” etc. and on the original 1811 map of Manhattan, there is both an Avenue A in today’s East Village and one on the Upper East Side. (East End Avenue was originally designated Avenue B.)

This idea of renaming a street after a war hero to bolster its real estate values was not new. Anthony and Orange streets—two of the worst streets leading into the old Five Points neighborhood—were renamed Worth and Baxter in the early 1850s after two of New York’s two great heroes from the Mexican-American War, General William Jenkins Worth and Colonel Charles Baxter.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Martin Luther

In the midst of Halloween and the terrorist attack in Lower Manhattan, it may have slipped by that October 31 was also the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, perhaps the most important moment in western culture in the last millennium.

James wrote a travel story for The New York Post about visiting sites in Germany associated with Luther and his circle. You can read it at:

(James was also interviewed for this story about haunted New York, also in the Post

Friday, October 27, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Dodging Trolleys

While some New Yorkers may have tuned out after the Yankees were eliminated from contention, there's a World Series going on between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles (née Brooklyn) Dodgers. Tied at one game apiece, the series now moves to Houston.

The Dodgers were founded in Brooklyn in 1883 as the Brooklyn Grays, but by 1895 had acquired the nickname "Trolley Dodgers" after the increasing need for residents of Brooklyn to speed across streets to avoid oncoming trolleys. Not everyone was successful, and news reports of the era are filled with trolley accidents, such as the one in Newark (above) that killed ten children. 

For years the team went by many names, including the Brooklyn Bridgegrooms and Hanlon's Superbas and did not officially adopt the Dodgers moniker until 1933.

To get some sense of what trolley dodging was like, watch this film from the early 1900s taken from the front of a trolley making its way around Manhattan.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Seward's Folly

This past Wednesday was Alaska Day, the holiday when the denizens of our 49th state commemorate the finalization of the purchase of Alaska from the Russians. This took place on October 18, 1867 -- 150 years ago -- in Sitka, Alaska, then known as New Archangel, which was the capital city of Russian America.

We visited Sitka in March for the kickoff of the town's 150th events and James wrote a piece for The New York Post which was published this week. Read all about it here:

William Seward, the Secretary of State who oversaw the transfer (dubbed by some "Seward's Folly"), was governor of New York and very nearly the 1860 Republican candidate for president. As Lincoln's Secretary of State,Seward was attacked on the same night that the president was killed as part of John Wilkes Booth's attempt to throw the Union into chaos. Today, a handsome statue of Seward sits in Madison Square Park.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Androboros at Fraunces Tavern

Three hundred years after it was written, America's first published play, Androboros: Villain of the State, has just had its world premiere at Fraunces Tavern in Lower Manhattan.

The play was written by Governor Robert Hunter as a commentary on the fractious political climate of New York in the early 1700s. Following the English takeover of New Amsterdam in 1664, a succession of governors were appointed by the crown, each of whom had his own conflicts with the local populace. At the heart of Androboros lies the fact that three factions were constantly vying for power in the colony: the appointed governor (always an outsider), the colonial assembly (made up of locals, but fractured from within by its own disagreements), and the church. The rector of Trinity Church, William Vesey, had a particular dislike for Hunter. When someone befouled the vestments in the church sacristy in 1714, Vesey blamed Hunter, while Hunter -- as evidenced in this only lightly veiled satire -- clearly thought it was an inside job designed to make Hunter look bad.

If you are a student of early American drama or fascinated by the real-life drama that was New York in the English colonial era, then this play is for you. An able cast under the direction of the Peculiar Works Project's co-artistic director Ralph Lewis inhabits these roles with glee. In keeping with the commedia dell'arte origins of the play, the characters are all given ridiculous names (Vesey is Fizzle, Hunter is the Keeper, and the pompous man meant to save them all is Androboros ("man eater")), and the actors live up to their monikers, particularly Matt Roper as Androboros and Caiti Lattimer as Aesop, who is always quick with a story -- whether anyone wants to hear it or not.

The company also does a good job keeping the 80-minute play moving at the brisk clip that farce necessitates. While Fraunces Tavern is mostly a 1907 recreation of a colonial building, it is nice to see the work staged in a building that at least has its origins in Hunter's era.

The play runs on weekends through the end of October; tickets are $20 each and are available at

Monday, October 9, 2017

The History of the Bowery; The Fall of a Slumlord

In case you missed it, James had a wonderful story in Curbed this week tracing the history of New York's oldest street, The Bowery. Originally a deer path, the trail was used by subsequent generations of Native Americans and then widened by the Dutch settlers into a road to their farms, or bouwerij. The English corrupted the name to "Bowery" and the street became -- and remains -- a crucial thoroughfare in New York.

Read the entire story at

* * *
Last week, notorious slumlord Steve Croman was sentenced to a year in jail for his shady dealings. James highlighted Croman in his exploration of Hans Haacke's conceptual artwork in a piece he wrote for Curbed back in 2015. You can read that interesting walk through the Lower East Side at

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Postcard Thursday: The 1973 ITT Bombing

In the early morning hours of September 28, 1973, a bomb exploded at the ITT (International Telephone and Telegraph) Building at 437 Madison Avenue. A few minutes before the explosion, a caller who identified himself as a member of the Weather Underground phoned to warn the company of the bomb and to let them know it was a protest against ITT's role in the coup earlier that year in Chile.

No one was injured, though that was not normally the case with Weather Underground bombings. Since 1969, a series of robberies, bombings, and "National Actions" by the Weathermen, as they came to be known, had targeted what the members saw as corrupt government practices. In 1970 alone, there had been over 25 bombings or attempted attacks, many of them in New York City. Perhaps most famously, on March 6, 1970, the townhouse on West 11th Street that Weathermen were using as a bomb factory blew up, killing three of the bomb makers. (Kathy Boudin and Cathy Wilkerson would escape, becoming fugitives.)

That Greenwich Village explosion did not set the Weather Underground back; in fact, bombings increased. On June 9, 1970, the New York City Police Headquarters was bombed; on March 1, 1971, the Weathermen placed an explosive device in the US Capitol to protest US military action in Laos; on May 19, 1972 (Ho Chi Minh's birthday), the Pentagon was attacked -- and these were just the most high-profile cases.

ITT had been founded in 1920 after the purchase of telephone interests in Puerto Rico and Cuba. The company expanded greatly over the next fifty years, but continued to have a strong Latin and South American presence, including owning 70% of the Chilean telephone company. Alarmed at Salvador Allende's government (and likely facing the loss of the monopoly on Chilean communications), the company helped finance Pinochet's military coup. In retaliation, the Weather Underground bombed both 437 Madison (a 1967 skyscraper by Emory Roth and Sons) and ITT's headquarters in Rome, Italy.

You can read more about the bombing at

By 1976, the Weather Underground had reorganized and most violent actions stopped, though Kathy Boudin -- who had fled the 1970 Greenwich Village townhouse explosion -- was part of the 1981 Brinks truck robbery at the Nanuet Mall near Nyack, New York in which two police officers and a security guard were murdered. Paroled in 2003, Boudin now teaches at Columbia University's School of Social Work.

Read more about NYC history in


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Walking Tour of Riverside Park | Sunday, October 8 | 10am

Another Walk in the Park with James Nevius

author of "Inside the Apple" and "Footprints in New York"

For our autumn public walking tour, we are going to explore the monuments of Riverside Park. From the largest presidential mausoleum in the United States to statues of patriots, politicians, and fallen soldiers, Riverside Park has a little of everything.

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 8, at 10:00 AM (the tour will be approximately two hours)

$20 per person for those who reserve on or before Monday, October 2, 2017

PLEASE NOTE: This tour covers a lot of ground and not all of it is paved, so please be prepared! There are some stairs and a lot of undulating terrain.


Email with
  • Your name
  • The number in your party
  • A cell number where we can contact you in case of last-minute changes
  • The tour's meeting place will be emailed to you within 24 hours of receiving your reservation.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Frank Lloyd Wright in NYC

In today's New York Post, reporter Lauren Steussy takes a peek inside Crimson Beech, the only home in New York City designed by celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

To accompany that article, James has written a piece about other ways to explore Wright's legacy in New York. You can read it at

And to read more of James's work on Wright check out:

Read more about NYC history in


Thursday, September 7, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Last Chance to Sign Up for Central Park

We still have a few more spots left for our tour of the northern sections of Central Park this Sunday, at 10:00 am. All the details are below.

Join us for Walk in the Park -- Central Park, that is....

On Sunday, September 10, at 10:00 AM, join us a walking tour of the northernmost -- and often least-visited -- section of Central Park.

Some potential highlights (though the itinerary is still in flux):
  • The block house from the War of 1812 (above)
  • The Harlem Meer
  • The memorial the "Father of Greater NYC"
  • The loch
  • The Conservatory
The tour costs $25 per person.

PLEASE NOTE: This tour involved many stairs and a certain amount of uphill climbing and uneven terrain. While not exactly a strenuous hike, this isn't the best outing for those who aren't as nimble as they used to be.

To register send an email to
  1. Your name
  2. Number of people in party
  3. A cell number where we can reach the day of the tour in case of emergency
The meeting place will be emailed to you within 24 hours of your reservation.

Best wishes,
Michelle and James Nevius | authors of "Inside the Apple" and "Footprints in New York"

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Carriage Houses

Once upon a time, the only wheeled mode of transport around New York City was via horse and carriage. But what happened to all the stables that once housed those four-legged forerunners to the automobile? James looks at that question in the Home section of today's New York Post -- read the whole story at:

(And get caught up on his travel/real estate pieces at

* * * 

Have you signed up for our Walking Tour of the northern section of Central Park on September 10th?

Click on last week's blog post (here: for all the details -- there are a few spots left!

Read more about NYC history in


Thursday, August 24, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Walking Tour in Central Park on September 10

Join us for Walk in the Park -- Central Park, that is....

On Sunday, September 10, at 10:00 AM, join us a walking tour of the northernmost -- and often least-visited -- section of Central Park.

Some potential highlights (though the itinerary is still in flux):
  • The block house from the War of 1812 (above)
  • The Harlem Meer
  • The memorial the "Father of Greater NYC"
  • The loch
  • The Conservatory
The tour will cost $20 per person for early-bird subscribers who sign up between now and Tuesday, September 5.

PLEASE NOTE: This tour involved many stairs and a certain amount of uphill climbing and uneven terrain. While not exactly a strenuous hike, this isn't the best outing for those who aren't as nimble as they used to be.

To register send an email to
  1. Your name
  2. Number of people in party
  3. A cell number where we can reach the day of the tour in case of emergency
The meeting place will be emailed to you within 24 hours of your reservation.

Best wishes,
Michelle and James Nevius | authors of "Inside the Apple" and "Footprints in New York"

Friday, August 11, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Hedy Lamarr and the Invention of Wi-Fi

An actual postcard for "Postcard Thursday"! (OK, so it's Friday, but one step at a time.)

The home above belonged to the woman in the inset, actor Hedy Lamarr, star of such films as Ziegfeld Girl, Tortilla Flat, and Samson and Delilah, the highest-grossing film of 1949.

But on August 11, 1942 -- 75 years ago today -- Lamarr's most lasting contribution to the world happened with little fanfare: she was awarded a patent for a frequency-hopping spread spectrum communication system. The system, which she invented with composer George Antheil, was not the first to use random sequences to create a covert communications system, but the method patented by Lamarr and Antheil was later adopted by the US Navy and became the basis for both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies.

There's a brief article at CultureLab that's worth reading in full about Lamarr's contributions to science, but here's a brief excerpt:
The invention was not her first. Lamarr previously experimented with cola-flavoured bouillon cubes for homemade soft drinks. But her new idea, which officials would only say was "related to remote control of apparatus employed in warfare", would become a signal innovation of the century, the technology now underlying cellphones and Wi-Fi. Expertly explaining the genesis and consequences of Lamarr's invention, in Hedy's Folly, Richard Rhodes transforms a surprising historical anecdote into a fascinating story about the unpredictable development of novel technologies. 
When Lamarr turned her attention to national defence, following the tragic sinking of a ship full of refugees by a German U-boat in 1940, she knew far more about armaments than most movie stars. Before arriving in Hollywood, she had been married to the Austrian munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl, who supplied the Axis powers. Dining with Nazi generals, Lamarr not only learned about the latest submarines and missiles but also the problems with them: notably the challenge of guiding a torpedo by radio, and shielding the signal from enemy interference. 
Her insight was that you could protect wireless communication from jamming by varying the frequency at which radio signals were transmitted: if the channel was switched unpredictably, the enemy wouldn't know which bands to block. But her ingenious "frequency-hopping" idea was just a hunch until Lamarr met fellow amateur inventor George Antheil at a Hollywood dinner.

Notorious in the music world for avant-garde compositions featuring airplane propellers and synchronised player pianos, prior to the war, Antheil had galvanised Paris, and incited riots, with his cacophonous Ballet Mécanique. He had also attempted to invent an open-top pianola with which to teach basic keyboard technique. It flopped, but this background came in handy. To realise Lamarr's idea, Antheil proposed coordinating transmitter and receiver by controlling the switching between channels with two identical piano rolls running at the same speed.
Lamarr died in 2000, but not before being recognized in 1997 with the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award for her contributions to modern technology. In 2014, she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Read more about NYC history in


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Postcard Thursday: "For the Accommodation of the People"

As you sweat through the "summer of hell" (to use Governor Cuomo's term) at Penn Station, here's a look back at what things were like before the Pennsylvania Railroad even had a terminal in Manhattan. We recently ran across this advertisement in the New York Herald from 1909 for all the various ways the Pennsylvania Railroad Company used to be able to get people into and out of Manhattan.

As the "bulletin" points out, the railroad had "nine conveniently located gateways" to the city. Four were ferry terminals, at Cortlandt Street, Desbrosses Street, West 23rd Street, and Fulton Street in Brooklyn. The remaining five were what we today know as PATH train stations, though many of these are now defunct. For example, in 1909 there was a PATH station at 19th Street, which closed in 1954, and there was a direct connection (for an additional five-cent fare) between the 23rd Street PATH and Jersey City.

(Today, if you ride in the front car of the PATH from 23rd Street, you can see the remnants of the 19th Street station as you head toward 14th Street.)

The ad mentions that the "wholesale district" (today's Tribeca) is served by the Desbrosses Street station (by which they mean ferry slip), but doesn't point out that you could also pick up a street car here that would whisk you across the island to the Grand Street ferry slip, and thence to Brooklyn. (This is probably omitted because the Pennsylvania Railroad did not have any financial interest in the street car company.)

Also interesting is the information at the end, almost as an aside, about the "largest, handsomest, and most commodious" railroad station that the Pennsylvania Railroad was building at 34th Street. Penn Station, as it came to be known, opened less than a year after this ad ran, and the ability for trains to run directly from Jersey and Long Island into Manhattan made most of the "nine conveniently located gateways" touted in this ad virtually obsolete.

Read more about NYC history in


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Good Will Engine Company, No. 4 Pic-Nic

James was (virtually) thumbing through old copies of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle recently researching a story and realized he was reading papers that were issued in July 1867, a century-and-a-half ago. Too often, history is reduced to big events and the exploits of exceptional individuals, so it can be very refreshing just to peruse a daily paper to see what was newsworthy on an average day.

The above correction from the Eagle from July 27, 1867 -- 150 years ago today -- is typical. Having reported on the Good Will Engine Company picnic (or "pic-nic") the day before, the editors felt the need to rectify the fact that Mr. R. Cowen's lager, soda water, and sarsaparilla had been left out of the original reportage. Egads! Notice, however, that while Cowen is singled out along with Messrs Pearce, Carroll, Goodrich, and Burns, the ice cream department's ladies don't get names.

Ah, well, at least they get a "God bless them."

You can read copies of the Eagle and other Brooklyn papers at

Read more about NYC history in


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Apollo XI

On July 20, 1969, the Apollo XI capsule landed on the moon and humans walked on a celestial body for the first time.

A few days later, the Apollo astronauts--back on terra firma--were feted in New York with a major ticker tape parade.  At the time, many claimed it was the largest ticker tape parade New York had ever seen, but as we were researching Inside the Apple, we found that same claim was made for many parades and it’s almost impossible to verify. (Four million people were said to have attended the Apollo parade—an impressive number, even if it’s not the largest.)

Certainly, it was the longest parade. The city’s traditional parade route runs from Bowling Green Park at the foot of Broadway to City Hall. The Apollo astronauts, however, after receiving the key to the city, continued up Broadway to Herald Square and then on to Times Square. As the New York Times noted, the confetti in Midtown was “made up more of paper towels and pages from telephone directories than tickertape” and that it grew “so dense that the astronauts could hardly see.”

As we write in Inside the Apple:
It was also one of the fastest ticker tape parades. The astronauts started at Bowling Green at 10:17 a.m. (about half an hour ahead of schedule) and arrived on the steps of City Hall just fourteen minutes later! Many people who showed up for the parade were disappointed to discover that the astronauts had already passed them by…. By 1:15 p.m. the astronauts were back at Kennedy airport to go to Chicago. They ended the day with festivities in Los Angeles. Having just been to the moon and back, a quick one-day jaunt across North America must not have seemed like such a big deal.

The astronauts had to go through customs upon their return--follow this link to see the astronauts declaration form ("Departure from: MOON. Arrival at: Honolulu, Hawaii, USA").

Read more about NYC history in


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