Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Know Your Mayors: John F. Hylan

Our modest little series about some of the greatest, notorious, most important, even most useless, mayors of New York City. Other entrants in our mayoral survey can be found here.

Fiorello Laguardia has his airport. James Duane has a drug store. Abram Hewitt is immortalized by the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. Robert Van Wyck has an expressway named after him.

But the former mayors of New York City are not always lionized in monuments or objects they would necessarily be proud of. Take John F. Hylan, the mayor of New York from 1918—1925. He may be the only mayor on planet Earth to have a gigantic hole named after him. Two holes, actually.

When Hylan stepped into the mayors seat in 1918, he brought the Democratic machine Tammany Hall back into city government after four years of Tammany-free leadership by idealistic 'boy mayor' John Purroy Mitchel. But Hylan would surprise many by devoting his two terms in office with a single-minded goal -- the New York subway.

Hylan was a product of New York locomotive culture. Moving to Brooklyn from upstate New York at an early age, he became a train conductor with the Brooklyn Union Elevated Railroad (later the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, or BRT) which operated streetcars trains in Brooklyn and Queens, including the storied Coney Island trains, carrying thousands of passengers out to the beach each summer. Later the BRT would team with the early subway system of Manhattan's Interborough Rapid Transit System to create a "dual contract" system of unregulated, privately-controlled transportation.

It should be noted that Hylan was fired from the train company after almost accidentally running down his supervisor. His bitterness towards the privately-owned BRT clearly fueled his later actions.

Hylan then became a lawyer and, after initially fighting the advances of Tammany Hall, eventually became one of their loyal candidates. His victory over Mitchel in the 1918 election was partially helped by the powerful William Randolph Hearst.

In the first year of Hylan's term, a BRT train on the Brighton Beach line derailed at Malbone Street (today's Empire Boulevard) near Prospect Park. The horrific accident (seen below) left 93 passengers dead and virtually destroyed the BRT system overnight.

Meanwhile, the IRT was planning on raising its fares. Uniting the city required miles of more tracks, and it was leasing land from the city. So they decided it needed to bump up the astronomical five cents that customers currently paid.

Hylan had quite enough. Already an advocate against private interests, he often decried organized private power. Here's an example of his wrath against private banking, a crusade that went unfulfilled: "The real menace of our Republic is the invisible government which like a giant octopus sprawls its slimy legs over our cities states and nation. At the head is a small group of banking houses generally referred to as 'international bankers.'"

Of course, Hylan is one to speak; he was in Hearst's back pocket throughout his entire tenure and never swayed from the calls of dear ole Tammany.

Hylan battled the train companies for most of his two terms. He was re-elected in 1921 by effectively thwarting the fare increase and creating a transit commission to refigure a transportation system under city control. By the end Hylan had effectively retooled New York's transportation industry by creating his own city-run operation, christening the new Independent Subway System (ISS), in his last year of office, on March 14, 1925.

That November however he was swept out of office by Jimmy Walker, who would guide New York as one of its most powerful and influential leaders, leaving Hylan's legacy virtually forgotten. Hylan died eleven years later of a heart attack. Four years after that, his dream was fully realized; the ISS merged with the other subway lines to create one complete city-run subway system.

But what about that hole? Well, Hylan had another bright idea: a tunnel between Brooklyn and Staten Island. The project began in 1923, with holes began on both sides of the Narrows, at Fort Wadsworth on the Staten side, and Bay Ridge on the Brooklyn side. The project, however, was abandoned. What remains on both sides is affectionately known as 'Hylan's Holes'.

The whereabouts of these abandoned holes, as far as I can tell however, remains a mystery.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

When Jupiter aligned with Mars: Hair on Broadway

Forty years ago today, April 29, 1968, the musical Hair debuted on Broadway and basically changed New York's theater industry -- where shows come from, how they're staged, what you can even doon stage.

Here's ten reasons why Broadway's first rock musical is so important, and why today you should probably fish out your Fifth Dimension CD or original cast album in tribute to this one of a kind groovy show:

1) Hair made the Public Theater. The show made its debut on October 17, 1967 at the Public, which was itself making its debut. In fact, the theater in which is was being performed -- in the former Astor Library -- wasn't even finished yet! The Public Theater would have course to go on to become off-Broadway's leading theatrical producer.

2) After six weeks, Hair would foreshadow Studio 54's own transformation into a Broadway house by moving the remainder of its off-Broadway run into the Cheetah discotheque.

3) Hair is the very first musical to be transferred from off-Broadway. At the time an extremely risky proposition, it's today considered a logical move for the most critically popular of shows. Rent, Avenue Q and Spring Awakening -- like Hair, all off-center shows with sexuality and rebellion at their core -- also made the jump to the big stage and all won Tonys for Best Musical.

4) Hair brings Tom O'Horgan to Broadway. A regular at the off-off-Broadway La Mama -- the East Village's most venerated experimental theater -- O'Horgan brought an uncompromising edge to his staging that was entirely shocking to mainstream theatrical audiences. O'Horgan would stay on Broadway throughout the 70s with pivotal work in Jesus Christ Superstar, Futz!, and Lenny.

5) Hair doubles the number of songs 'allowed' in a musical. The sheer number of songs in Broadway restaging made it unique, over thirty. The big musical from the previous year, Cabaret, barely featured half that number

6) O'Horgan also brings the nudity. The uptown redux features one of the most influential scenes in all of Broadway history -- at the end of the first act, when the entire cast, in low lights, appear completely unclothed, the first stage nudity to hit the Great White Way.

7) A New York icon debuts. Diane Keaton (above, in the middle) becomes an understudy in the show but refuses to do the nude scenes. After several months with the cast, Keaton goes on to her next show -- Play It Again, Sam -- where she makes the acquaintance of a young director, Woody Allen.

8) Up for two awards (Best Director and Best Musical) at the 1969 Tony Awards, it lost both to the musical 1776. Interestingly, Diane Keaton is up for her Tony that year for Play It Again Sam and also lost.

9) Hair closes July 1, 1972 after 1,750 performances. It is the 38th longest running musical in Broadway history, between La Cage Au Folles (at 37) and The Wiz (at 39).

10) An unbelievable one-night revival of Hair, in 2004, for an Actors Fund benefit, mounted at the New Amsterdam and featured the following cast: JM J. Bullock, Harvey Fierstein, Ana Gasteyer, Annie Golden, Jai Rodriguez, RuPaul, Michael McKean, Laura Benanti, Adam Pascal and future Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson

Here's about a comprehensive list of some of Hair 's original review. Both the New York Post and the New York Times gives the original off-Broadway production a condescendingly mixed review.

The Village Voice? Hated it. "As for Hair, I loathed and despised it. Described as 'an American tribal love-rock musical' it turned out to be all phony." Wow, some things never change!

We'll see how the critics like it this summer when the Public Theatre restages Hair for its Shakespeare In The Park program at Delacorte Theatre, from July 22 to August 17. Diane Keaton won't be in it, but will there be nudity?

Monday, April 28, 2008

Prisoners of the Lower East Side

Kurt Russell had it easy

Despite being in sight of two boroughs and a very large airport, Rikers Island lulls us with psychological assurance of feeling remote and entirely sequestered from our regular world. But never fear, New Yorkers; there are prisons all over the damn city.

Take the Bayview Correctional Facility, a former Seaman's YMCA turned medium security prison for women. It's in Chelsea, 20th street and 12 Avenue, not far the Chelsea Piers sporting facilities. Or the modern day version of the Tombs, officially the Manhattan Detention Complex and once called the Bernard Kerik Complex. (Poor Kerik. Imagine being so disgraced from misdemeanor charges that they strip your name off of a jail.)

But our current correction system benefits from increased security advancements, better run facilities, and relatively humane treatment of inmates. Quite unlike the world which greeted Rikers Island when its first jail opened in 1932.

The prisons of New York City were notorious for atrocious conditions, disease, frequent escapes, corruption and disorganization. The most notorious of these jails, the original Tombs, sat in the festering shadow of a drained Collect Pond, creating a leaky, damp world, or as James Baldwin once described, "a place of sorrow and tears and dread forebodings." The original Tombs, which opened in 1838, with its ostentatious Egyptian facade, sat close between Five Points and City Hall and often filled its cells with residents of both.

The prisons and workhouses on Blackwell's Island (later Welfare Island, then Roosevelt Island) were equally as moribund when paired with the island's wretched asylum, smallpox hospital and other places one wouldn't wish to throw a birthday party.

We have the beautiful garden of West Village's Jefferson Market as a keepsake to the former New York Women's House of Detention. Its proximity to West Village foot traffic was the bane of the neighborhood until it closed in 1974. Activist Angela Davis was kept here before being acquitted of murder charges in 1972. Florrie Fisher was also a regular here.

But my favorite former prison location, however, has to be the Ludlow Street Jail, formerly at the corner of Ludlow and Broome, opened in 1862 and sat for many years smack in the middle of a stretch of residential tenements. Originally a debtors prison, the red-brick jail complex, with its 87 cells and an open courtyard, later kept county detainees, some of whom could pay to receive slightly better accommodations as though it were a hotel.

From this picture of the Ludlow jail interior, things don't look so awful there. I mean, billiards in top hats?

Victoria Woodhull, the free-love advocate who became the first woman to run for president, spent her 1872 election day in a jail cell here at Ludlow Street for sending obscene materials through the mail, documenting the alleged womanizing of Plymouth Church's Henry Ward Beecher.

Even more notably, the king of Tammany Hall corruption, 'Boss Tweed, died inside a prison cell here on April 12, 1878. Although some accounts claim the Ludlow jail to be better than most -- with wide windows allowing sunlight and "probably not surpassed by any prison in the United States" -- the doctor who pronounced Tweed's death mentions it was brought on by "prolonged confinement in a unhealthful locality."

Curiously, the once-powerful Tweed had partially overseen the construction of Ludlow's jail and, according to his biography by Kenneth D. Ackerman, his former friends remarked, "If Mr. Tweed had known he was going to patronize it, he would have made the rooms more commodious."

By the 1920s, the prison was affectionately referred to as Alimony Jail for the number of deadbeat husbands contained there. In 1929, the block was cleared to make way for what many would consider a new form of incarceration -- the new Seward Park High School. (The original, which actually did sit next to Seward Park, was moved due to subway construction.)

It should be noted that this school was notable for poor performing students and an alarming amount of dropouts and was eventually closed in 2006. Five new smaller high schools now share the building. Former "inmates" of this institution include Tony Curtis, Estelle Getty, and Jerry Stiller.

(Below) Seward Park High School today, a prison for some, built over the site of an actual prison

Saturday, April 26, 2008

History in the making - 4/26

Cheyenne Diner ... saved! [Lost New York]

When developers come calling, even the dead have to move. [Queenscrap]

Sorry I missed this one -- 81 years ago last week, Mae West was imprisoned on Blackwell's Island for her 'obscene' play titled 'Sex' [Roosevelt Islander]

Curtains close on the historic Provincetown Playhouse. Thanks NYU! [Curbed]

Radical students take out Columbia University! "Fascist pigs" cry, "“This is it. Come out now. You made your point. Come out now!” [City Room]

Friday, April 25, 2008

PODCAST: Rikers Island

What do Salvador Dali, John Jacob Astor, Peter Stuyvesant, the Civil War, and a big pile of trash have to do with the world's biggest penal colony? We connect the dots in this history of Rikers Island.

Listen to it for free on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or you can download or listen to it HERE

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Wild Boys: New York's Brother Islands

Above: North Brother island and its lighthouse

The Brother Islands, two almost forgotten islands in the channel between Queens and the Bronx, have finally gotten some respect. Over the years North Brother, the big brother, has been used for a host of unusual purpose, home to the wounded, the drug addicted and the diseased. South, the smaller one, has been virtually unused. They are today a unique example of an area of New York completely giving itself back to nature.

Most East River islands have always had a spotty history of decrepit uses by the mainlanders. Ellis Island took the throngs of millions of immigrants after the city pushed them out of Castle Garden. Rikers was a Civil War training camp before being turned into a penal colony. Staten Island was the city's garbage dump. And don't even get me started about Roosevelt Island -- sanitariums, prisons, poorhouses.

But at least Roosevelt have Al Lewis. The Brothers' defining personality is Typhoid Mary.

North Brother was mostly natural growth until 1885 when Riverside Hospital moved its smallpox quarantine here from Roosevelt (then Blackwell's Island). It was a perfect location, away from the other hospitals and institutions on overcrowded Blackwells, and soon any disease in need of quarantine was soon sent there. Its isolation made it a forlorn place for patients and nurses alike, its only views an uninhabited Bronx shore and smoke from Rikers' burning trash heaps.

North Brother became of crux of two early century headline-grabbing tragedies. In 1904 the General Slocum steamship, which exploded in the waters of the East River, scuttled on North Brother, with many of the over 1,200 who died washing up on the small island's shore. The notorious Typhoid Mary, an immigrant woman who unbeknown to her spread disease to dozens of people, was sequestered here twice and died here.

South Brother Isand fare a little better, only because it was too small to do much of anything with. (South is seven acres, North thirteen.) Curiously, its most famous owner also owned the New York Yankees and a popular brand of beer -- Jacob Ruppert. He kept what must have been a lovely summer home there, until it burned down in 1909. Again, the 1900s, not a good decade to be a New York island...

North became a dormitory for war veterans, then a rehabilitation center for drug users in the 1950s. Then, nothing. North Brother was basically abandoned, its famous old hospital now overtaken by natural growth. South meanwhile never had much of anything on it since Ruppert left. The city now owned it but, in a perfect example of what it really thought of the place, sold it to a gravel company for a whopping $10 in the 1970s.

South remained one of the last privately owned islands in the New York metro area until 2007, when the city bought it back, for the slightly more expensive cost of $2 million. Now South and its older Brother are undisturbed homes for swans, egrets, seagulls and cormorants and are without a doubt two of the most peaceful places anywhere near Laguardia Airport.

This site gives a wonderful tour of North Brother's abandoned buildings, as of course does Forgotten New York.

Below: Big North Brother and smaller South Brother islands, with Rikers on top Pic courtesy of Correction History

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The history of New York City in video games

Above: Grand Theft Auto IV's version of Times Square

Next Tuesday, the world stops for millions of Americans as they finally clutch copies of the hotly anticipated Grand Theft Auto IV. As in a few other incarnations of this bloody, aggressive adventure, the action takes place in Liberty City, an Earth-2 version of New York City. But forget the rampant crime and streetwalkers that will presumably be haunting every street corner; this one is supposedly the most lifelike New York yet. Manhattan has become Algonquin, Lady Liberty is renamed the Statue of Happiness. Four of the five boroughs are represented (sorry Staten Island). You can even visit Coney Island:

Here's the complete list of comparisons between Liberty City and the real thing.

While I'm sure the designers of this game were too busy rolling up $100 bills and smoking them like cigars, hopefully they recognized their achievement in a long line of New York City themed video games.

It's probably futile to do so, but here's my partial history of New York City in video games. The difficult part is actually figuring out, in fact, if a game takes place in New York. For instance, Frogger could take place in New York, if the West Side Highway straddled a Hudson River full of logs and turtles. Pac-Man is certainly a metaphoric representation of the Financial District. If Donkey Kong is an homage to King Kong, wouldn't that mean he's throwing barrels from the Empire State Building?

As far as I can tell, the first video game to be circumstantially set in New York City is the original Mario Brothers game from Nintendo. Not the Super edition, involving Mario and Luigi in an acid-trip world of fire flowers and dragons, but the regular arcade version.

The Mario Brothers are Brooklyn plumbers who clearly take their jobs seriously, scouring the sewers of the city for pesky critters transformed by an unexplained ooze. When the game debuted in 1983, the plump Mario was already a well known barrel hurdler who could wield a mean hammer in Donkey Kong. In that game, Mario was a carpenter (thus the hammer); apparently he decided to change careers after that death-defying adventure.

Their cartoonish and stereotypical Italian flavor was meant to evoke 'working class Brooklyn men of immigrant descent', certainly an odd choice for hero during the golden age of video games.

The game was only tepidly received and was soon overshadowed by the greater success of Super Mario Brothers, supplanting the Brooklynites into the 'Mushroom Kingdom'.

The next year, in 1984, anxious Atari and Commodore 64 owners got their hands on a more literal tribute to the city -- The Big Apple. In the simple game, a player maneuvers through a traffic free midtown Manhattan, careening through sizable lanes to achieve such goals as going to the store or to the bank. Simple mazes greeted players within poorly animated bodegas. This game looks a bit like a malfunctioning digital watch and was appropriately forgotten. Take a look here to witness the wonder.

By the late 80s, New York City had yet to really break out as the star of a video game. 1984's Punch Out!! presumably used Madison Square Garden as the location of its fights, and many combatants were from New York, like Brooklyn's Kid Quick and 17 year old Little Mac from the Bronx (frequently pummeled by ear-nibbling Mike Tyson in his branded version of Punch Out!! in 1987).

New York is a literal and metaphorical sewer throughout the 1980s. The 1989 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles features dramatic swordplay with the quartet through New York's apparently endless chasms of empty sewers and warehouses. By 1992, in the game Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project, the island of Manhattan is actually hoisted into the sky, and the Turtles must interrupt their vacation in Key West to save it.

Perhaps the only notable exception -- the only game to really use New York's actual geographical identity in service of a plot -- might be 1986's Amnesia . Like XIII (which I'll mention later) the story involves the lead character awakening in New York with no memory; in Amnesia, the character fumbles through memory haze in midtown Manhattan. The game even came with a nifty map of Manhattan to guide your character through. Fun, right? The only drawback to Amnesia? Its an all text game. (More amusing screenshots here.)

It was technologically impossible to set early video games in real places like New York City. Partially this had to do with the graphic complexity of presenting a big city with distinguishing features.

Backgrounds were little more than two-dimensional assortments of blips which moveable characters danced over. It wouldn't be until the technological advances of the mid-90s that backgrounds could flesh out and breathe with the flow of animation -- and a recognizable New York could emerge.

The first to make a real attempt at a identifiable and visual New York landscape was probably 1989's Manhunter: New York, a clunky and mostly unexciting action game set in the post-apocalyptic future of 2002. However it did manage to depict city landmarks in ways that were at least recognizable, if primitive (see below):

Games based on movies set in New York turn the city into a more realized, if still generic canvas for character adventure. For instance, the 1996 Die Hard Trilogy devotes its third half to a clumsy taxi simulation (below) with a computerized Bruce Willis.

Despite the traffic congestion that most of us are familiar with, New York became a popular setting for driving games. The immensely popular 1989 Turbo Outrun begins in New York City and present a cross-country race across America. However, by 1998, the driving game Driver: You Are The Wheelman, a loosely modeled New York is entirely featured, including some character interaction in Grand Central Terminal. In 2001, a sequel to Crazy Taxi transported a player into the work-a-day life of a clearly frazzled cab driver with the ability to pick up multiple fares:

The shift to New York as a major video-game destination came in 1997, with the original Grand Theft Auto. New York in the GTA series plays the fictional Liberty City, but during the first incarnation, the city had little resemblence to reality and shared the stage with fictional representations of Miami (Vice City) and an amalgam of California cities under the name San Andreas. The geographical make-up of Liberty City would be fleshed out in subsequent GTA sequels.

More importantly, it would be the idea of gritty urban reality, throwbacks to New York City circa the 70s and 80s, with streets choked with guns and gangs, that would be the most influential nature of the series and inspire other game developers to create gaming adventures that used a host of different New Yorks, each more grim and unusual than the next.

Duke Nukem: Zero Hour from 1999 throws the titular ultra-masculine lead character into a New York taken over by time-tripping aliens. The dark techno role-playing adventure Deus Ex, first rolled out in 2000, begins with a Manhattan fifty years in the future, starting at Battery Park before embroiling the player in a shootout in Hell's Kitchen, then escaping to Laguardia Airport.

The successful 2001 series Max Payne (pictured above), often compared to the Matrix, often featured New York's backalleys and underground elements, with one level "New York Minute" a breathless haul to beat the clock. My personal favorite, the beautiful XIII (Thirteen) from 2003, begins with the main character waking up on Brighton Beach with his memory erased.

The tipping point came with True Crime: New York City, released in 2005 by Activision, the most serious attempt yet to create a rich cityscape in service of a gangster style plotline. As critically acclaimed for its visuals as it was denounced for its violence, True Crime gave players a run of fairly accurate Manhattan streets and subways. So accurate, you can even see the Naked Cowboy in daytime scenes of Times Square. Nighttime is below:

Video game film adaptations have followed suit with impressive displays of New York City in game versions of Spiderman, The Warriors and The Godfather.

My expectations are very high with Grand Theft Auto IV. I fully expect to be able to drive by a video-game version of my own apartment building and, given the game's theme, either rob myself or beat up random people walking by.

Below: Video game 'Warriors' come out and play on Coney Island

By the way, some commenters have added some notable New York games I couldn't fit in, including the 80s Activision Ghostbusters game (as opposed to the new one), which I completely blanked on! It even had a cute but entirely inaccurate grid of downtown Manhattan!....

Monday, April 21, 2008

Booze and death in Gramercy Park

Ian Schrager's refreshed and modernized Gramercy Park Hotel might seem a respite from the shock and scandals of his early years. But as far as I know, nobody ever jumped to their death from the roof of Studio 54.

It happened in June 2002. The legendary Hotel had been controlled by the Weissberg family for over fifty years, retaining its throwback charms in the face of New York's high-end modernization. A few blocks down, the W Union Square had recently moved into the 1911 Guardian Life building. But the Gramercy Park Hotel was buttressed from change by its location near the private park that lends the Weissberg property its name. Its charm was its refusal to change.

Celebrities like Leonardo Dicaprio and Matt Damon still occasionally haunted the piano bar downstairs, a reminder of the days when the Gramercy Park Hotel was the swank stop for most of the bold-faced set.

Two notable homes once stood on that prime bit of real estate, on the northwest corner of Gramercy Park. Edith Wharton was born in a townhouse on this very spot; later, that was torn down and replaced by the lavish home of flamboyant architect Stanford White. In 1924, that too was torn down -- less than twenty years after his murder at near-by Madison Square Garden -- and replaced with the current occupant, designed by Robert T. Lyons and opened by the brothers Alexander and Leo Bing.

Up at the penthouse, Humphrey Bogart got married to his first wife, Helen Menken, in 1926. Later in the 30s, Babe Ruth spent many an evening at the hotel bar. Although never reaching the notoriety of, say, the Chelsea Hotel, the Gramercy was frequented by rock stars over the years, including Bob Dylan, David Bowie and the Clash.

The Weissbergs had owned the hotel since the 1950s and were in the midst of a post-9/11 slump when in 2002, David Weissberg, the troubled younger brother of the CEO Steven Weissberg, leapt from the hotel roof after an argument with wife. Soon after, the family sold to Schrager, who reopened two years ago after a respectful renovation, hiring Damien Hirst of all people to design many of the interiors.

Friday, April 18, 2008

PODCAST: Studio 54

Join us as we step behind the velvet ropes to explore the history of Studio 54, legendary dance club.

Listen to it for free on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or you can download or listen to it HERE

April 26 marks the 31st anniversary of the opening of Studio 54

Before it was Studio 54, Studio 52 was one of CBS's premier recording studios for a wide variety of programs. It was the home of such shows as Password, To Tell the Truth and the soap Love Of Life.

Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager

A typical scene outside the club

Halston, Bianca Jagger and Liza Minelli at 54

Bianca ... on horseback!

A different Studio 54 as the Roundabout Theatre moves in. Here's Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper from the edgy production of Threepenny Opera
(Photo Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

An entirely different Studio 54, this time in Las Vegas

Disco Disco has a warm look back at the club. New York Magazine did a where-are-they-now? And check out some of Ian Schrager's elegent properties -- the Hudson and the Gramercy Park Hotel

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Pope-fest 2008: The Holy (Sight) See

Pope John Paul greets the crowds at Yankee Stadium

Welcome Benedict! I'm not Catholic, but I do love a good papal visit to New York City. Nothing could be more absurd. The leader of the Catholic Church, a man who traces his spiritual lineage all the way back to the apostles -- delivering mass at Yankee Stadium, traipsing Fifth Avenue in his sacred robes. I hope that person who dresses as Sesame Street's Elmo in front of Rockefeller Center waves to Benedict as he enters St. Patrick's Cathedral on Friday.

Only the Marquis de Lafayette and the Beatles have been treated to more rapturous displays of welcome by New York City residents. The city has been host to three previous papal visits, and in each case, St. Patrick's has naturally been the manic center of activity. In fact each visit is immortalized on a plaque in front of the cathedral. Although with each trip, the pope in question managed to find a couple other unique corners of the city to visit as well.

Perhaps the strangest was the very first -- Pope Paul VI, the controversial leader who presided over the Second Vatican Council and made a name for himself traveling all over the world. Finally in an era were a man could be both pope and jetsetter, Pope Paul arrived in New York in October of 1965 and promptly went to visit his roommate, who was performing in a fair.

That roommate would be Michelangelo's Pieta, on loan from St. Peter's hallways to the Vatican pavilion at the 1964-65 World's Fair. The Pope visited the Fair on Oct 4, 1965, on a busy day that also included mass at Yankee Stadium (the first papal mass ever in the United States), an address to the United Nations, and a meeting in the city with president Lyndon Johnson at the Waldorf=Astoria.

Today a rounded bench, or exedra, sits in Flushing Meadows park honoring the moment Pope Paul visited the Pavilion. (It seems that whenever a Pope hovers in a place for more than a few minutes, a plaque or monument springs up in its place.)

By the way, I found this extraordinary page full of great photos about the Pope-mobile, the superfine limousine used by the Pope during his visit.

But its Pope John Paul who's the real New York favorite; he held the office for so long that he managed two trips to Gotham City -- in 1979 and 1995.

His October 1979 trip was like a rock concert tour, also swinging through Philadelphia, Boston, D.C., Chicago and Des Moines. Part of the enthusiasm was because John Paul, at 58 years old, had just been appointed the year before.

As a cardinal, he had already held mass at Yankee Stadium, so by the time he did it again on October 2, 1979, he was as much a fixture as Reggie Jackson. Rain greeted over 9,000 cheering worshippers -- or fans -- and, according to legend, when the Pope mounted the ballfield to address the crowd, the rain showers stopped. And as a blessing for Mets fans, the next day the Pope also held rapt an audience of 52,000 at Shea Stadium (pictured below).

But like all rock stars, the Pope couldn't complete his New York odyssey without a performance at Madison Square Garden. Although John Paul also addressed the U.N. and a St Patrick's audience during that trip, he's best remembered by many for his inspirational address on October 3rd to 19,000 city children.

St Patrick's honored his Holiness's visit in 1979 by installing a bust (see below). But he would be back. On almost exactly the same day, sixteen years later.

New York City in 1995 was a vastly different city and John Paul returned for a longer visit -- four days in total in the entire New York area -- on October 4th. This time, instead of just delivering messages to the clergy gathered at St. Patrick's, he spontaneously decided he wanted to walk around the block. And why not? You've got shopping, Saks, street vendors selling Pope souvenirs!

Below: the Pope prepares for his light stroll

The Pope also finished off his collection of performing in gigantic venues for mass -- holding court in Giants Stadium, the Aquaduct Racetrack in Ozone Park and eventually to 100,000 people on the great lawn in Central Park.

From there, the elderly leader of the Catholic Church gave the city the ultimate shout-out: "This is New York! The great New York! This is Central Park. The beautiful surroundings of Central Park invite us to reflect on a more sublime beauty: the beauty of every human being, made in the image and likeness of God. Then you can tell the whole world that you gave the pope his Christmas present in October, in New York, in Central Park."

Pope Benedict, here for two days (April 19-20), has broken the apparently holy tradition of visiting New York in the first week in October. But Benedict, as the cardinal formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger, actually visited the city in that lesser role in 1988, where apparently he was met with protest from gay activists and shunned by some prominent Jewish leaders.

This year, he intends to hit all the "usual" Pope spots -- St. Patricks, the United Nations, Yankee Stadium -- but has added a couple surprising detours: Park East Synagogue and Ground Zero. At this rate, he might even stop in to see an off-Broadway show! Is Nunsense still playing?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The boat that keeps on sinking

The Carpathia docks off of Pier 54, emptied of its cargo of Titanic survivors

Ninety-six years ago today, the RMS Titanic sank in the icy waters south of Newfoundland, killing 1,517 people, including three of New York City's most prominent and richest citizens, sending a shock wave through high society and the mercantile elite.

William Waldorf's young cousin John Jacob Astor IV had run to Europe with his mistress Madeleine Talmage Force to avert attention from the fact that Ms. Force, a native Brooklynite, was 18 years old. While in Europe, Astor married Madeleine, and she became pregnant with John Jacob Astor V. Astor placed Madeleine on a lifeboat but stayed behind with his pet terrier Kitty.

Pictured below: Astor with his valet, who also died aboard the Titanic

Mining million Benjamin Guggenheim approached his impending death like any well-groomed gentlemen would -- he slept through most of it, then changed into evening wear and smoked cigars.

He was with his mistress, a French songstress named Madame LĂ©ontine Aubart, who he helped with a lifeboat with her maid. He is noted with the famous line, 'We are dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen.' Guggenheim stayed behind, also with his valet and chauffer. Among the family he left behind was daughter Peggy, patron saint of the Guggenheim Museum.

Macy's owner Isidor Straus actually had his real wife with him, Ida. Even had their been room aboard the lifeboats with all the assorted mistresses and maids, Ida would not have gone. "We lived together, so we shall die together," she is reported to have said, and the two went down with the ship together, embracing each other in deck chairs.

The Titanic was to dock at Chelsea Piers, one of the various busy docks today along the West Side Highway. Instead it was the Carpathia, the passenger liner turned rescue ship, filled with survivors and loaded lifeboats, that first docked at Pier 59 (around 20th Street) to drop off the lifeboats, then Pier 54 (13th street and West Street, today's Meat Packing District) to disembark its own passengers. The Titanic would have originally docked at Pier 59.

By the way, they're still trying to figure out what really sank the Titanic. (I guess that iceberg just wasn't enough.) The latest theory: bad rivets.

Also, get to know Millvina Dean, the last remaining Titanic survivor.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Boycott the Olympic Games!

It's been awhile since America faced the potential of an Olympic Games boycott. The debate about Beijing is still being waged in the press. America withdrew from the Moscow Olympics in 1980. And in 1936, there was an equally emphatic cry to boycott the Olympics in Berlin, Germany -- and New York City led the protest.

This seems logical, as New York was America's center for Jewish culture; many Jewish athletes (most notably, world record hurdler Milton Green) would eventually sit out these Olympics anyway, in protest to Hitler's purging of his Olympic team of Jewish athletes. Hitler had relented in his original dictate to ban all Jewish athletes from all countries, but who could blame any athlete from wishing to avoid such an event fraught with toxic politics?

But in fact it was prominent New York Catholic politicians that headed the effort to convince the New York Olympic committee to pull out of games. Leading the charge was former New York state supreme court justice Jeremiah Titus Mahoney, who also just happened to be the president of Amateur Athletic Union. Mahoney had run for mayor of New York in 1934 but lost to Fiorello LaGuardia.

So imagine the impact of a rally on Dec 3, 1935, where both Mahoney and Laguardia took to the stage, urging Americans to support a boycott of the Berlin Olympics. The rally was held at the former Mecca Temple for Shriners on W. 55th Street.(Today, its the New York City Center concert hall.) Pictured above: announcements of the Mecca rally

According to Jeremy Schaap, a host of political leaders urged on a boycott and read letters from supportive state governors and Senators. But it a speech from the diminutive but charismatic LaGuardia, himself of Jewish descent, that moved the crowd. "Athletic contests imply good sportsmanship and fair play, two qualities which are unknown to the Hitler regime."

But boycotters faced two insurmountable roadblocks. The first was Avery Brundage, president of the United States Olympic Committee, who was firmly in Hitler's pocket after a carefully orchestrated wine-and-dine tour through the country convinced him of above-board German intentions that would "promise ... the greatest sports festival ever staged anywhere." Brundage also happened to be the former president of the Amateur Athletic Union, pitting him directly with Mahoney.

The other was endemic of America itself. Many wondered how America could boycott the games out of political protest, when African-Americans were hardly being treated any better in our own country. Jesse Owens originally signed on to the notion of a boycott, but the general concensus was that a diverse American team could undermine Hitler's racial policies by showing him up at his very doorstep.

So it was no surprise that at a Dec. 8 meeting of the Amateur Athletic Union, held at the Hotel Commodore on Lexington and 42nd Street, Brundage was able to convince the voting body of the organization to vote to stay in the games.

Despite the bad blood with city leaders, New York City hosted the Olympic trials the next year in July on Randalls Island at the former Downing Stadium. (Downing was ripped down in 2004 and replaced with Icahn Stadium.) New Yorkers got to witness firsthand the now-legendary prowess of Jesse Owens who then went on to snatch four gold metals from Hitler's games.

But while Owens was busy showing up the Nazis, a 'protest' Olympics were being held at Downing that same summer. The World Labor Athletic Carnival or 'Counter-Olympics' featured over 400 American athletes in a display more of solidarity than actual competition. Although it was organized by the Jewish Labor Committee, its no surprise to find as co-chairs of the 'counter-Olympics' the two former rivals who had desperately tried to boycott the games in the first place -- Mahoney and LaGuardia.

As for the former Hotel Commodore (pictured at left), now the Grand Hyatt , it holds another place in sports history; it was here on June 6, 1946, that the precursor the the National Basketball Association was formed.