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Thursday, January 31, 2019

Happy 100th Birthday, Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson rookie card, 1947

100 years ago today Jackie Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia. On April 15, 1947, he broke baseball's color line went he was sent out start at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. As a Dodger, he lived at 5224 Tilden Ave in East Flatbush (now a national historic landmark), and later at 112-40 177th St in Queens.

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.

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.

Robinson spent his entire Major League career with the Dodgers, retiring in January 1957. That year, he took a job as vice president for personnel at Chock Full O' Nuts coffee, becoming the first black person to serve as vice president of a major American corporation.

Robinson died in 1972. His funeral was held at Riverside Church in Morningside Heights. That year, the Dodgers retired his number, 42, and in 1997, all other Major League Baseball teams followed suit, making his number the first to be retired by every team.

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and don't forget our first book

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Thought I'd Seen Some Ups and Downs: Bob Dylan Arrives in Greenwich Village

Ramblin' outa the wild West,
Leavin' the towns I love the best.
Thought I'd seen some ups and down,
‘Til I come into New York town.
People goin' down to the ground,
Buildings goin' up to the sky.

-- Bob Dylan, Talkin’ New York

As we've blogged about before, Bob Dylan -- Nobel Laureate and towering figure in American popular music -- arrived in Greenwich Village either on January 23 or 24, 1961.

As we write in Footprints in New York, Dylan
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?’” 
Dylan joins Karen Dalton and Fred Neil onstage at Cafe Wha? in 1961

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.


and don't forget our first book

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Curious Case of Benjamin Franklin's Birthday

Benjamin Franklin on the facade of the Brooklyn Historical Society

On January 17, 1706, Benjamin Franklin -- printer, author, inventor, statesman, Postmaster General, and ladies' man -- was born.

Or was it January 6, 1705?

While it is not unusual to have people shave off a few years to appear younger -- or add a year or two when they are young to give themselves more gravitas (see also: Alexander Hamilton) -- the discrepancy in Franklin's birth date isn't vanity.

Franklin was, in fact, born on January 6, 1705, according to what is now termed the "old style" calendar. When Franklin was born, Great Britain and its colonies still followed the Julian calendar. In 1752, when the British finally moved to the Gregorian system, everything was bumped forward by eleven days. Many people born prior to the shift kept their old birthdays, but Franklin happily shifted his forward as a sign that he was in favor of the move. (Most of the rest of Europe had been on the Gregorian calendar since the 16th century; Protestant England's distaste for all things "popish" was one reason they stayed behind.)

However, the switch in 1752 from January 6 to January 17 doesn't explain the discrepancy in Franklin's birth year.

That, too, is a result of the calendar change. Prior to the adoption of the Gregorian system, New Year's Day in Britain was March 25, which roughly coincides with the first day of Spring (and which is also the date of the Feast of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she was going to give birth to Jesus Christ).

With the switch to new calendar, the first day of the year was moved back to January 1. Thus anyone born in the period January 1-March 25 under the Julian system also had the year of their birth retroactively bumped forward a year, and Franklin's January 6, 1705, birth date was transformed to January 17, 1706.

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Postcard Thursday: Rear Views

James has a story in today's New York Post that examines many of the hidden homes in New York City that were once carriage houses, rear tenements, or -- as is the case in the photo above -- an artist's studio and theater.

"Washington Square, New York" (1910) courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The artist was Everett Shinn, a member of the Ashcan School, who lived and painted in New York starting in the late 1890s. Like many Greenwich Village bohemians of the era, Shinn wasn't content to merely paint and founded a small theatrical company to perform plays he'd written. These melodramas had
titles like “Lucy Moore, the Prune Hater’s Daughter.” Though not home to high art — the New York Times called one participant “the worst actor in the New World” — Shinn’s theater is credited with paving the way for the Off-Off-Broadway theaters of today.
You can read the entire story at

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Thursday, January 3, 2019

Postcard Thursday: Alaska Admitted to the Union

On January 3, 1959--sixty years ago today--Alaska was admitted to the union as the forty-ninth state.

There had been some jockeying in congress to decide whether Alaska or Hawaii would become a state first. Alaska--then predominantly home to Democrats--was championed by Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson as it would add two Democratic Senators to the chamber. To counter this, the GOP pushed hard for Hawaii to be admitted, which would add two Republican Senators and restore the status quo.

Today, those roles are largely reversed. Hawaii is a reliably blue state, and while Alaska's politics are harder to pigeon-hole, it is mostly represented nationally by the GOP.

Alaska became a territory in 1867 when Secretary of State William Seward purchased the land from the Russians for $7.2 million. Known as "Seward's Folly" or "Seward's Icebox," the acquisition of such a large swath of mostly uninhabited land was seen as a waste to many Americans. A couple of years ago, we traveled to Sitka, Alaska, the former Russian capital, for the 150th anniversary of the handover. You can read more about those commemorations in James's story for The New York Post.

Alaska is both the largest and least densely populated state, with a mere 1.1 people per square mile. By contrast, at its peak in the early 20th century, parts of New York City's Lower East Side were home to 1,000 people per acre--that's 640,000 people per square mile--which some historians estimate made it the most densely populated place on the planet earth ever.

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