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Thursday, May 24, 2018

Postcard Thursday: Bob Dylan's Birthday

Image result for bob dylan 1960

Happy 77th Birthday to Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, who was born May 24, 1941, in Duluth Minnesota. His birth name was Robert Zimmerman, and, as we write in Footprints in New York:
he grew up in the tight-knit Jewish community in Hibbing, his mother’s hometown. After graduating high school in 1959, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota but only lasted one year. While he was there, he tapped into the burgeoning folk scene and began consistently using the stage name Bob Dylan. Having been a rock and roller, Dylan’s musical trajectory changed around this time when he was introduced to the music of Woody Guthrie, which, in Dylan’s words, “made my head spin.” 
In January 1961, he 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?’” 
Singer-songwriter Fred Neil presided over the bar’s eclectic all-day lineup. Dylan showed his chops by backing up Neil and singer Karen Dalton on the harmonica and was hired to “blow my lungs out for a dollar a day.” 
Immersing himself in the music scene, Dylan soaked up everything he heard, from live acts in the bars and coffee houses south of Washington Square to the records he’d spin at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center down the street from Cafe Wha?. In the meantime he continued to embellish his back story. In No Direction Home, Izzy Young recalls Dylan telling him, “I was born in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1941, moved to Gallup, New Mexico; then until now lived in Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, North Dakota (for a little bit). Started playing in carnivals when I was fourteen, with guitar and piano. . . .” 
Later, newspapers picked up the fake biography, writing about the cowboy singer from Gallup. Stretching all the way back to the city’s Dutch pioneers, people have come to New York to reinvent themselves, to cast off their old identities and strike out in new directions. Dylan’s fanciful back story may have been an extreme case, but it was effective.
Today, Dylan's career shows no sign of slowing down. In 2016, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first musician to be given the honor. In 2017, he released Triplicate, a triple album of standards, many of which had been recorded by Frank Sinatra. And he continues to tour regularly, with a swing through Asia, Australia, and New Zealand coming up this summer.

This summer we'll conduct a tour of Bob Dylan's New York -- watch this blog for details.

In other news, our blog recently had its millionth visitor. Thank you all so much for your support!




Thursday, May 17, 2018

Postcard Thursday: The Buttonwood Agreement


On May 17, 1792 (226 years ago today), the New York Stock Exchange was founded by a group of twenty four individuals and firms under a buttonwood tree near 68 Wall Street (just west of Pearl Street).

The short document read:
We the Subscribers, Brokers for the Purchase and Sale of the Public Stock, do hereby solemnly promise and pledge ourselves to each other, that we will not buy or sell from this day for any person whatsoever, any kind of Public Stock, at a less rate than one quarter percent Commission on the Specie value and that we will give preference to each other in our Negotiations. In Testimony whereof we have set our hands this 17th day of May at New York, 1792.
Among those who were members of that original exchange were Leonard Bleecker, whose brother Anthony was namesake of Bleecker Street, Isaac M. Gomez, whose father's home in Marlboro, New York, built ca. 1714, is the oldest Jewish home in America, Benjamin Seixas, a president of Congregation Shearith Israel and former privateer, and Samuel Beebe, in whose offices in 1817, the stock exchange would be reorganized and receive the name "New York Stock and Exchange Board."

Image result for tontine's wall

The exchange may have actually met under the tree in good weather, but in the early years they mostly convened inside the Tontine Coffee House (above, with the balcony) on Wall Street near the corner of Water Street. Later, they rented an office on the second floor of the Bank of New York for $200 a year (which included heat) before moving into the Merchant's Exchange at 55 Wall Street and, finally, two successive buildings on the current spot on Broad Street. Today, a scraggly buttonwood stands in front of the exchange to mark this event.

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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Postcard Thursday: The Astor Place Riots

On May 10, 1849, New York was the scene of a deadly riot that centered around...an acting dispute.


While there were many conflicts in 19th-century New York between rich and poor, immigrant and native-born, this riot stands out. After all, how often do troops fire on citizens who are fighting over rival Shakespearean actors?

As we write in Inside the Apple:
In 1849, [the Astor Place Opera House] invited acclaimed British tragedian William Macready to perform Macbeth during his tour of the United States. This annoyed the patrons of the Bowery Theater, who were champions of American actor Edwin Forrest. Forrest had recently returned from a disappointing European tour (where he’d been hissed and booed in London by Macready’s fans), so to tweak Macready, Forrest had embarked on a tour of the same cities Macready was playing doing his rival version of Macbeth. Thus, when Macready was scheduled to appear at the Astor Place Opera House, the Bowery Theater downtown would mount Forrest’s production of Macbeth. 
Had this been nothing more than two rival Shakespeareans treading the boards, things might have remained calm. However, the audience at the Bowery Theater, led the rowdy Bowery B’hoys (a quasi-gang), turned it into a violent clash over class and values. Was Macready, an imported British actor, better than Forrest, his American rival? They set out to prove he was not.... 

On May 7, 1849, Macready took the stage at the Astor Place Opera House and was greeted with rotten eggs, old shoes, and other objects smuggled into the theater by Five Pointers who’d infiltrated the audience. Macready refused to go on the next two nights, but on May 10, he agreed to continue. All the day before, Bowery B’hoys and Isaiah Rynders—a political heavyweight in the Five Points and personal fan of Edward Forrest—had posted flyers around town encouraging people to come to Astor Place. As the flyer announced in all capital letters: Shall Americans or English rule in this city
By the time the performance began, a crowd of between 10,000 and 20,000 people surrounded the theater, pelting it with bricks and paving stones. New York’s elite militia, the Seventh Regiment, was called in to quell the riot—the first time a military unit had been asked to do so in peacetime. When the crowd did not disburse, the soldiers were given the order to fire and by the end of the evening scores had been injured and eighteen people had been killed; four more people would die from their injuries over the next few days.
It's interesting to note that while today New York is filled with theaters, in 1836 (a decade before the riot) the city still only had a total of five theaters. More astonishingly, the New York Mirror complained this was too many. “The resident population would not more than adequately support one” and visitors “might possibly eke out a respectable audience for two more—but for five! that’s too great a supply for the demand.”

The Astor Place Opera House is now gone, replaced by the Mercantile Library (aka Clinton Hall)--the building with Starbucks in it.

[Adapted from a post on May 10, 2011]

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Postcard Thursday: William Jenkins Worth


The dedication of the Worth Monument, November 25, 1857; courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

This week, Tex-Mex restaurants and bars around the country will celebrate Cinco de Mayo, which many people wrongly think is Mexico's independence day. (That anniversary falls on September 16th). Cinco de Mayo also has nothing to do with the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, another common misconception. (What Cinco de Mayo celebrates is the 1862 victory of the Mexicans over the French at the Battle of Puebla.)

New York does, however, have a strange and significant connection to that earlier conflict, and just two days after Cinco de Mayo is the anniversary of the death of General William Jenkins Worth, hero of the Battle of Chapultepec in the Mexican-American War and namesake of Fort Worth, Texas. While Worth died of cholera in Texas in 1849, his remains ended up in New York, a city in which he never lived while he was alive.

A protégé of Winfield (“Old Fuss and Feathers”) Scott, Worth fought in the War of 1812, the Seminole War in Florida, and the Mexican-American War. At the Battle of Chapultepec, Worth’s division took Mexico City’s San Cosme Gate, thus gaining access to the city in what would prove to be a decisive battle in the war. When Mexico City fell to the Americans, it was Worth himself who raised the American flag from the top of the National Palace.

(Though the Mexican-American War is often overlooked these days, it was a major turning point in American history, netting the United States the territories of Arizona, New Mexico, and California. And the Battle of Chapultepec—also known as the “Halls of Montezuma”—is still commemorated in the opening line of the Marine Corps hymn.)

When Worth died in 1849, he was a famous man—but why he didn’t end up buried in Texas or in Hudson, New York (his childhood home) remains a bit of a mystery. Certainly, New York embraced him as a man deserving of all the pomp and circumstance it could muster. He was brought to the city and buried in a temporary tomb in Green-Wood cemetery while a proper monument could be erected at Madison Square. Once the monument was finished, Worth was reburied on November 25, 1857, in an elaborate ceremony after lying in state at City Hall. (November 25 was in those days an important holiday—Evacuation Day—which marked the end of the American Revolution.)


Like an Egyptian pharaoh, Worth had numerous objects entombed with him, and they provide a fascinating insight into the customs of the time. Worth was a Mason and so many Masonic items were included, ranging from The Masonic Manual to a list of the lodges under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge in New York. Other items were particularly New York-centric and provide a time capsule of 1857; they include Valentine’s Manual, the constitution and by-laws of the Metropolitan Social Club, a catalogue of the New York Ophthalmic Hospital, and many documents pertaining to the building of Worth’s tomb. Added for good measure were newspaper stories covering George Washington’s funeral in 1799 and two pennies—perhaps on the general’s eyes—dating from 1787 and 1812.

The Worth Monument, which stands at the junction of Fifth Avenue and Broadway near the Flatiron Building, is one of only two stand-alone military gravesites of its kind in the city. (The other, grander structure is Grant’s Tomb in Riverside Park.)


But the tomb isn’t Worth’s only commemoration in New York. Running through Chinatown and Tribeca is Worth Street, which was named for him in the early 1850s. For many years that thoroughfare had been called Anthony Street and it was known as one of the worst streets in New York. Low-cost brothels clustered in the blocks of Anthony near the intersection of Orange and Cross Street. In 1829, the five-cornered intersection where Anthony, Orange, and Cross met had been dubbed “the Five Points,” and soon that name came to refer to the entire slum that radiated out from that hub.

By the 1850s, with a surge of poor Irish and German immigrants moving into Five Points, the city decided to improve the neighborhood’s fortunes through a little creative street renaming. If Anthony Street was terrible, they would literally wipe it off the map. In its place was Worth Street, named for the great hero of the war, and therefore free of any taint. (Around the same time, Orange Street was renamed Baxter in honor of Colonel Charles Baxter who had commanded the New York Regiment at Chapultepec and was killed. When Cross Street later became Park Street—now called Mosco Street—all three original street names that made up the infamous Five Points intersection were gone.)

[This blog post is adapted from an earlier version that ran on May 7, 2009.]

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