Thursday, July 31, 2008

The oddest bridge in New York City

I've never quite understood the Ward's Island Footbridge which sits at the mouth of the Harlem River like a half-finished child-sized model of an actual bridge. It's intriguing, mystifying and quaint, rather like some rusting antique in a flea market.

This bridge, with its entrance at 103rd street, connects Manhattan to Ward's Island. Why would you wish to go to Ward's Island, you ask? Well, it's attached to Randall Island via landfill and there's lots to do there, if you're inclined to sports. Ward's also offers a wastewater treatment plant! (There's actually a nice little park nearby, but it may still be closed for renovations. The island's actually riddled with construction work, so it's not exactly an advisable walk.)

There's actually a bit to explore on the two islands. But my point is -- the joy of the Ward's Island Footbridge isn't where it takes you to necessarily. Given the island's rather dissheveled state at the moment, just go for the appreciation of standing on the oddest and most under appreciated bridge in New York.

This is the only permanent bridge that serves only pedestrians and bicycles, a throwback from 1951 that seems to have some poignancy in this day and age of reducing traffic. In modern lingo, it has a very low carbon footprint.

A slender bridge at only 12 foot wide and 857 feet long, its middle section lifts to allow passing ships by it. The footbridge's concrete and metal gratings and puke green color are typical of the city's unfriendly pedestrian overpass designs. However its a nice feeling to walk across a bridge without the roar and vibrations of traffic nearby.

It was designed by master bridge builder Othmar Ammann, better known for, well, every other bridge he's ever built or helped build (notably the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the George Washington Bridge and San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge).

It's even a movie star, delivering a convincing performance in the Diana Ross musical The Wiz.

New York Daily Photo has a striking view of it here. Below is one from Flickr....

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Soylent Green: New Yorkers taste the best!

BOWERY BOYS RECOMMEND is an occasional feature where we find an unusual movie or TV show that -- whether by accident or design -- uniquely captures an era of New York City better than any reference or history book. Other entrants in this particular film festival can be found HERE.

Thirty-five years ago, the future of New York City was bleak indeed.

"Soylent Green" is a noir mystery like so many staged on Manhattan city streets, but its nuances are clearly reflections of its time. The 70s would see a catastrophic financial crisis for the city, with energy shortages and surges of crime and pollution. This film, back in 1973, seems a bit like a dour prediction, albeit overdramatic and cheesy.

The film estimates that by the year 2022, the population of New York City will reach 40 million, which is five times our current population. At least "20 million are outta work," according to grizzled man's-man detective Scotch (Charlton Heston), who takes to the streets to solve the murder of a wealthy businessman. (Ugh, is that really Joseph Cotten?)

As Jeremiah's Vanishing New York has noted, this schlock Charlton Heston vehicle manages to nail one prediction, the naming of "Chelsea West" as an exclusive high-rise-clogged neighborhood for those remaining few with money. Of course, in the film's vision, the High Line is nowhere to be seen and the unrecognizable buildings are surrounded by what looks like some kind of moat or canal.

What these new condos lack in neighborhood charm, they make up for with a rather beguiling feature -- free women. Apparently over the next decade, women will revert back to a pre-19th century notion of becoming the property of men, to be installed in a condominium unit like an appliance, even when the prior owner dies. One night, the women decide to have a party, draping themselves over bear-skin rugs, brushing each others hair. When the building manager/pimp finds out, he gets so mad.

This high-rise brothel condo, an unrealized dream of Eliot Spitzer's, also comes furnished by an East Village vintage store, high-tech Asteroids video game included.

In stark contrast, Scotch visits his buddy Sol in a walk-up tenement straight out some Five Points nightmare, with dozens of people sleeping in the stairwells. Sol is played by that most New York of actors Edward G. Robinson, who might have been familiar with such snug living environment as a young Romanian immigrant who arrived at Ellis Island in 1903. (Said Robinson: “At Ellis Island I was born again. Life for me began when I was 10 years old.”)

This schlock Charlton Heston vehicle and moralistic clarion call actually foretells our current state of rampant over-development, as well as environmental concerns (lamented here as 'the greenhouse effect') and a worldwide food shortage.

Sol waxes poetic for the days of excess and cries when he sees a real celery stick and a slab of beef. New York's supply of artificial foodstuff called 'Soylent' -- the least attractive food ever to be associated with New York City -- is particularly taxed on Tuesday, when there's a shortage of the most popular supplement, Soylent Green. Looking at bit like a Post-it Note, Soylent Green is, well, you probably know what it is. But it's a gas to watch Sol and Scotch uncover the mystery.

Directed by Richard Fleischer (of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" fame), "Soylent Green" won't remind you of New York at all, but its fun when they try and shock you with recognizable things. For instance, Gramercy Park has now become the city's only haven for trees -- and wan, sad looking trees at that. And I'm sure you'll never look at trucks from the Department of Sanitation the same way again.

Monday, July 28, 2008

McGown's Pass: the original tavern on the green

McGown's Pass Tavern (date unknown, but possibly around 1913

We're finally moving on from Central Park, but not before observing perhaps its most historically significant area -- McGown's Pass and the Block House.

Located on the northern portion of the park, next to the charming Harlem Meer, are a collection of hills and bluffs left over from its original topography. Not surprisingly, these higher altitudes played a pivotal role during the American Revolution.

A narrow passage between the hills was named McGown's Pass after Andrew McGown, owner of a popular tavern that sat alongside here. Kept in the McGown family, the tavern was torn down early in the century but rebuilt in the 1880s. In 1895, McGown's was strangely granted its own election district as, being inside the park, it lay outside normal district boundaries. "There were four voters in this territory last year," declared the New York Times. "They are four men employed at McGown's Pass Tavern." The tavern was eventually torn down in 1917.

It was through McGown's Pass that George Washington traveled on September 15, 1776. He and a portion of the Continental Army had escaped up to today's Washington Heights area; when hearing that part of his army had been stopped by the British, Washington rode down the pass and led the remaining troops back up to their fortification in the Heights. He rode back through the pass again seven years later, this time as the victor.

The British and their Hessian mercenaries built forts here to cut Manhattan off from the mainland. Later New Yorkers would seize upon this idea during the early days of the War of 1812. Not willing to become property of the British once again, Manhattan mobilized for any potential battles, building forts all over the island and throughout the harbor. It was here at McGown's pass that the erected a few fortifications, including Fort Clinton (not to be confused with the fort in Battery Park, although both were named for DeWitt Clinton) and Fort Fish, named after Major Nicholas Fish, father of the New York senator Hamilton Fish.

Nothing much remains of these two old forts, which were never used as the War of 1812 never made its way to the city. There are, however, two remaining structures from the early days. A stone ledge overlooking the meer is all that remains of Nutter's Battery, named after a farmer who owned the property. And nearby stands the Block House, its stone face still fairly solid, once armed with cannons and used to hold ammunition -- that was, of course, never needed. The Block House was fairly intact when Olmstead and Vaux included it in their plans for the park, using the building as a 'picturesque ruin' covered in vines.

Here's an illustration of how the Block House looked in 1860:

For a short while, this military site was even used as a convent and hospital. In 1847 the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul opened a 'motherhouse' and school called the Academy of St. Vincent. The nuns left when the area was incorportated into the park, however the building stood until the 1870s, when it burned down and was replaced with the refurbished new McGown's Pass Tavern mentioned above. (This site has some great pictures of where the convent once stood.)

This is a bit tangental, but I love this story. A plaque was erected at the old site of Fort Clinton in 1906 and unveiled in a publicized community event for children. It was apparently difficult for some people to find the location and "several chivalrous lads" guided people through the park to the unveiling.

However, the Times reports an incident that might be the only real battle that ever occured at this storied historical spot:

"Among the boys interested in the tablet unveiling were several whose spirit of mischief overcame their sense of the proprieties. These made misleading arrow signs .... and caused a number of persons to go far afield and arrive at the exercises late and angry. These mischievous youngsters were caught at their annoying trick by boys who were more sober and serious. Then there was a short scrimmage, and the mischievous lads scurried away through the Park."

Finally, from a 19th century book on the War of 1812 comes this spectacular map of the various fortifications built in anticipation of battle. Its dimensions are greatly distorted of course, but it lists the forts and blockhouses that stood in this area as well as those such as Fort Gansevoort and Fort Greene (click on the image to look at it more closely):

Friday, July 25, 2008

PODCAST: The Evolution of Central Park

When last we left the Park, it was the embodiment of Olmstead and Vaux's naturalistic Greensward Plan. Then the skyscrapers came. Also, how did all those playgrounds, a swanky nightclub, a theater troupe and all those hippies get here?

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

NOTE: Please forgive my butcher pronounciation of the word Jagiello in today's podcast!

The Park in a wintry day in 1906:

Children celebrate May Day in the park, circa 1912:

The southwestern entrance of Central Park, punctuated by Columbus Circle:

By the early 30s, the original dream of Central Park as 'oasis' was effectively destroyed by skyscrapers

Balto to 1934, looking pretty much the same as he does today:

The skyline changes the horizon of Central Park. Here, in 1935:


And today:

Ice skating, circa 1936

The Casino, which went from restaurant to nightclub during the 1920s. Demolished by Robert Moses, it became Rumsay Playfield and home of Summerstage

Ah, life was much simpler back in 1942 (well, in Central Park, anyway). The luxury San Remo apartments peeks from the background

By the 1950s, most of the Park's modern features and lawns were built. It's getting more difficult, of course, to find a corner of the park all your own.

Joseph Papp brought Shakespeare to the park in the 1950s, but didn't make a home of Delacorte Theatre until 1962

Park 'happenings' in the 1960s attracted thousands of people to partake in activities unheard of in the Olmstead days.

Central Park was a popular model for photographer Lee Friedlander, turning its natural beauty into striking patterns of abstraction

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Naumburg's Bandshell: a gift that won't go away

Don't accept a gift unless you're pretty sure you're going to use it.

That's the lesson the city learned after the fiasco involving the jazz-age Naumburg bandshell, which sits proud and empty overlooking the Central Park mall thanks to some tenacious descendants of the man who donated it, Elkan Naumburg.

Proper sorts of concerts were always envisioned for this area of the park. Given to the notion that a beautiful park promoted moral and intellectual sanctity, Vaux and Olmstead believed "the effect of good music in the park is to aid the mind in freeing itself from the irritating effect of urban conditions."

The area where the bandshell stands today was coined the Concert Ground in their early plans, and a cast-iron shell designed by Jacob Wrey Mould (Vaux's collaborator on both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum) was erected west of today's bandshell and surrounded with fountains, benches and metal bird cages (!), all the better to enjoy the proper music of the day.

As the park attracted more people outside the upper classes, such elegant surroundings seemed out of place. Enter music lover, banker and philanthropist Elkan Naumburg, who stepped in with a healthy donation of $100,000 to build a dynamic new bandshell.

Naumburg's name had been associated with classical music since 1905 with the debut of Naumburg Orchestral Concerts throughout the city. But by the time the new bandshell was built in 1923 (and designed by his nephew) this little slice of Romanesque architecture made way to host other kinds of music, namely jazz and big band.

Imagine strolling down Literary Walk or along the lake with the air filled with the jaunty chords of Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin. Space in front of the bandshell was reserved for dancing, partners sweeping across the asphalt under the full moon. (The picture above is from 1942.) Keeping it in the family, Elkan's son Walter hosted concerts by the Naumburg Orchestra.

The bandshell also hosted speeches and protests throughout the years, hosting everybody from Martin Luther King Jr. to Fidel Castro. In the 60s and 70s, the bandshell also played host to rock artists like the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane (below).

But the music eventually went elsewhere (more often, just up the hill to Rumsey Playfield) and by the 1980s the bandshell took on a new use -- a haven for the homeless. In the comprehensive 1985 survey by the Central Park Conservancy, it was recommended that the bandshell, never part of the original plan, be demolished or at least moved. Everyone generally agreed that it had become an outdated eyesore.

Everyone, that is, but the Naumberg family. They took the city to court and, in a landmark 1993 decision by the court, successfully blocked the demolition. The court determined that "its administrative code prohibited destruction of a gift" and that all gifts "shall be forever properly protected." Essentially, because the city agreed to accept the bandshell as a gift, it couldn't then turn around and destroy it.

Since then, the city has "make the best of a bad situation" (in then-parks commissioner Betsy Gotbaum's words) and kept the bandshell in business with regular summer concerts and dance performances. It's the gift that keeps on giving.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Jones Woods: ghosts, graves and an 'amusement park'

Over 15,000 Irish Americans gathered in Jones Wood in 1856, to greet countryman James Stephen

Once upon a time, back when Fifth Avenue was a dirt path and Bloomingdale was literally a blooming dale, there stood a haunted and most mysterious forest located on bluffs overlooking the East River, far east of the area today known as Lenox Hill in the Upper East Side. (Basically between 66th-88th streets to 75th-77th street.)

Back in the 1700s this was one of the most densely forested areas of the island, miles from the city of New York. Prominent families moved here, settling in secluded homes overlooking the crashing waters of Hells Gate below. And not surprising, ghost stories and legends took root here as well.

As an early account describes it: "It was the last fastness of the forest primeval that once covered the rocky shores of the East River, and its wildness was almost savage. In the infant days of the colony it was the scene of tradition and fable, having been said to be a favorite re-sort of the pirates who dared the terrors of Hell Gate, and came here to land their treasures and hold their revels."

At the heart of this forest was a small, pioneering 90-acre farm called the Louvre, its owner unknown today, or why it shared its name with a famous French museum. Later, two famous New York families owned manors in this once out-of-town thicket. The Schermerhorns kept the family crypt here until it was nothing but broken tombstones, protruding underfoot when later the area would become better known for picnics and family outings.

The second family was the Provoost clan, who bought the Louvre in 1742 and transformed it into an elegant home. Although prominent, the Provoosts were supporters of the American cause at the time of the Revolutionary War. Samuel Provoost (that dapper man to the right) later became president of King's College, the pre-Revolutionary precursor to Columbia University. His cousin David, who fought with Washington's army, took a more notorious path to fame, become a legendary smuggler nicknamed Ready-Money Provoost.

When Ready-Money died, he too was entombed in the family crypt here. Later, the site of Provoost's grave attracted ghost seekers, who would "gather there and tell each other wonderful stories of the unearthly doings of the old man's ghost. Not one of them could have been persuaded by all the ready money in the city to keep a night's vigil under the trees that overhung the lonely, desolate grave."

Later still the home was sold to a John Jones, who lent the forest his name. By the 19th century, the woods had become a popular destination for nearby city dwellers. The Provoost's family chapel was soon turned into a clubhouse and adjoining manor grounds into places of recreation. Stories of its mysterious past and recent days as a retreat for prominent families drew recreationers of all sorts, until it became an what some have called the 'first major U.S. amusement park', with beer gardens, sporting events and great spaces for large gatherings.

It was still an untamed, wooded area, but now people arrived for "billiards, bowling, and donkey rides," for general outdoor carousing and drinking.

Jones Wood was pegged to become the very first site for 'a great park', the land to be purchased by the state on 1851, to be transformed into an area worthy of the lavish public spaces of Europe. Proponents for an official park here claims the lush riverfront and rich "dense growth of forst trees" made it ideal for immediate conversion to a formal park.

But there was strong opposition by those who maintained that a 'central' park on the island would be preferred, both for its aesthetic symmetry and attractiveness to landowners surrounding it. And at only 150 acres, Jones was also deemed too small. Despite this, in June 1953, the state approved BOTH Jones' Wood and the area that was to become Central Park.

Landowners around the Jones Wood area and merchants benefiting from sporting events and beer gardens had their day a year later, when city plans for Jones Wood were entirely abandoned.

It still remained popular for much of the late 19th century, particularly used by Irish and Germans from nearby Yorkville, although it was chipped away by new properties tenements. In 1894, a devastating fire swept through destroying properties over eleven acres. By this time, more sophisticated amusement parks began appearing out in a distant area of Brooklyn named Coney Island. Meanwhile, developers looked hungrily at the remaining area of Jones' Wood. By the light of 20th century, all traces of this jovial and mysterious forest had vanished.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A ride around New York's remaining merry-go-rounds

Carousels aren't really for kids anymore. Sure, you won't see many adults truly captivated by the process of mounting a wooden animal and twirling in a circle. But well-preserved models of the famous amusements are nostalgia goldmines; tinkling calliope music and a few flashing light bulbs can sometimes capture a by-gone era more than a multi-million dollar restoration can.

New York City used to have dozens of the swirling entertainments. Today, you can only find them in a few places:

Central Park Carousel (above)
This is perhaps the world's most famous carousel, but it's not the original amusement which debuted in 1871. That carousel was controlled by a blind mule that walked around in circle in a dark, underground pit, as upper-class children paid the rather steep ten cent admission for a chance to ride it. It was replaced by an electric carousel in 1924 and was eventually destroyed in fire.

The carousel that whirrs about here today is actually much older, built in 1908 and entertained children during Coney Island's heyday. Still one of the world's largest carousels, it moved to this location in 1950.

La Carrousel
Given to the park's symmetrical French landscape design, they call the one in Bryant Park Le Carrousel (ooo la la). Despite seeming very rustic, this miniature wedding-cake was only installed in 2001. I can only imagine what a carousel would have seemed like had it been here during Bryant Park's days as a hangout for drug addicts.

Battery Park SeaGlass
This glittery, futuristic looking thing recalls Battery Park's past as the home of the New York Aquarium, with horses replaced by creatures of the sea. Oh wait. This carousel's not built yet.

Flushing Meadows-Corona Park 'Carousel In The Park'
Queens' only merry-go-round came here from Coney Island, by way of the New York World's Fair in 1964. Previously, it spent the early part of the century as the official carousel of Stubbman's Beer Garden until the 1950s, where it moved up to the boardwalk next to the parachute jump and became the Steeplechase Carousel. It was transported to the World's Fair Lake Amusement area (pictured above) and was left there, donated to the city, long after the Fair left town.

B & B Carousell
Coney Island was the home of dozens of spectacular carousels and could safely be considered the world's largest assemblage of them. Today there's only one left -- the wonderfully misspelled B & B Carousell, which arrived in 1923. But don't go looking for it. After being purchased by the city, the Carousell is currently being refurbished in Ohio for the fancy new Steeplechase Plaza, the city's costly revamp of the Coney Island amusement sector. However its former home still sits, sad and vacant:

Prospect Park Carousel
Sitting close to the zoo and Leffert's Homestead, this was also acquired from a Coney Island site in 1952, although the park has had merry-go-arounds since its inception. It stopped running altogether in the 1980s due to mechanical failures but was renovated in 1990. The park has a 'horse adoption and grooming' program to keep the carousel in working order.

The Carousel for All Children
This awkwardly named merry-go-round is located at Willowbrook Park in Staten Island's Greenbelt. Nothing too retro about this ride; a modern model built in Ohio, it was installed here at Willowbrook in 1999. However, some of the horses are reproductions of those of Staten Island's very first carousel -- a version that entertained on Midland Beach Boardwalk from the mid 1910s that was dismantled in 1957.

The Bronx Zoo Bug Carousel
The New York area's newest carousel, debuting in 2005, the Bronx Zoo model is certainly the only one of its kind to be comprised entirely of insects.

Jane's Carousel
The strangest carousel in New York is one that unfortunately does not take riders. Jane Walentas, wife of Brooklyn real estate developer David Walentas, keeps a fully restored 1922 carousel (seen below) tucked away in a building on Water Street. Walentas, who purchased the crumbling amusement in 1984 and personally restored it, has been hoping the city would adopt her hobby horse for the expanding Brooklyn Bridge Park. Until then, pop by 56 Water Street to grab a view, if not a ride.

Know of any I might have missed?

Friday, July 18, 2008

PODCAST: The Creation of Central Park

Above: Central Park's first recreation was ice skating, almost as soon as the lake was completed in 1858. The Dakota Apartments look like a ski resort.

Come with us to the beginnings of New York's most popular and most ambitious park -- from the inkling of an idea to the arduous construction. Learn who got uprooted and find out who the park was REALLY intended for. On the 150th year anniversary of the design of Central Park!

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

Frederick Law Olmstead, the brilliant and sometimes testy creator of the Greensward Plan, the basis for Central Park. As America's go-to guy for park creation, Olmstead helped develop thousands of acres of public space in America, including the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, dozens of college campuses, and parks in Atlanta, Boston, Louisville and Detroit.

His British partner Calvert Vaux was a genius landscape architect in his own right. He and Olmstead would go on to also create Brooklyn's Prospect Park. He's particularly noted for personally designing Central Park's more beautiful bridges, as well as the fanciful Belvedere Castle.

The original design of Central Park, circa 1857, informed by the upper and lower reservoirs and a noticable lack of structures. (Click on map for greater detail.)

From an original sketch of the Greensward plan, by Vaux

A brilliantly rendered lithograph of the Greensward plan (From an exhibit last month Celebrating Greensward.)

A sketching of some alledged 'squatters' in the lands that would eventually become the park. The reality of their situation was oftentimes far more complex.

A map of Seneca Village (with Eighth Avenue at top), the small town of African-American property owners that was swept away with the building of the park

A rare photo of some rather unsightly construction in the park, circa July 1863

An illustration from 1864 of the Bethesda Terrace (click on the picture for greater detail)

The original plan for Central Park included no monuments, and Olmstead wanted it that way. Still, by 1864, they were already hoisting up a tribute to William Shakespeare. In the picture below, the cornerstone is being laid on the 300th anniversary of Shakesspeare's birthday, April 23

By 1869, the park had been taken over by elite New Yorkers, who could afford to ride through on their carriages. (Click for details of this rich picture.) In the background is the old Arsenal, which tranformed into the Central Park Zoo in later years.

Check out our older podcast on the Central Park Zoo and accompanying photographs.