Saturday, August 30, 2008

PODCAST: The Fate of Five Points

Part two of our "Five Points" podcast. Join us as we explore the "wicked" neighborhood's clean up, fall from grace, and eventual destruction.

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

Sleeping quarters

An Italian family newly arrived in New York.

An Italian woman, employed as a 'rag picker'

Jacob Riis, who helped define the early days of investigative journalism with his exposes on life in New York City slums

A Riis photograph of a typical residence that would have been found in Five Points

Inside the House of Industry in 1888

A look at the neighborhood after portions of Five Points was cleared away in 1895

Mulberry Bend Park, designed by Calvert Vaux, and opened in 1897

Jacob Riis' most famous photograph of Bandits Roost. Gang members stare menacingly at the camera. By the stairwell is a stale beer hall.
Greetings from Mulberry Bend Park. Who would have ever imagined this area as being perfect for a postcard a few years before this?

Not much remains of the once infamous Five Points intersection

The pavilion in Columbus Park, erected in 1897 when the park was called Mulberry Bend Park

Columbus Park today: the FIve Points tenements replaced with playgrounds

Some other great resources about Five Points: An archaeological look at the area, and "Urbanography" which feature some great original source articles

Friday, August 29, 2008

We're sleepy! (Podcast up later today)

"Street Arabs," as they called them, as photographed by Jacob Riis

Sorry, it's been a crazy week! Our second-part podcast on the history of Five Points will be up by this evening or early tomorrow morning.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Where New York's Chinese food addiction begins

I know that the native cuisine of New York City is officially pizza or hot dogs, but on a daily basis, perhaps nothing is consumed more in this city than Chinese food. There are hundreds of Chinese restaurants in this city; I've got four within a block of my apartment.

Its probably impossible to identify the first Chinese restaurant in New York, but we can take a reasonable guess at its time and place. Chinese men began settling in New York in significant numbers in the 1870s; although population numbers vary widely, conservative estimates list from 200 to 1,100 in 1880. (Luc Sante says 700.) I've also seen numbers as high as 10,000 Chinese by this period, underscoring the difficulty of counting a tight knit, cloistered community.

(I should note that there is evidence that some Chinese men have lived in New York as early as the 1830s, although not in significant numbers to have operated a sustainable eating establishment.)

Most of these men had worked the California gold rush or helped built the transcontinental railroad, later settling in the cities of the East Coast. I specifically say "men" because there were almost no women. One account says there was literally not a single Chinese woman in New York in 1880. That could be accurate; another source says there were only 40-150 Chinese women in 1900.

The first Chinese enclaves sprouted up in Five Points, on Doyers Street between Mott and Pell streets, and another just south of there, on Oliver Street. The first Chinese restaurant, in whatever form, must have opened up here, a variation of the chow chows that had originated in railroad towns and in burgeoning West Coast Chinatowns in Los Angeles and San Francisco. (The first documented Chinese restaurant in America, called Canton, opened in San Francisco in 1849.)

The odd ingredients and strange smells jolted the infamous New York slum. Originally conceived merely for the Chinese community, soon adventurous New Yorkers -- progressive-minded "bohemians" -- ventured down to try out these exotic flavors of these foreign dishes. Some of the dishes they encountered, like chop suey, were invented here in what would become Chinatown.

Addiction quickly set in. By 1900, there were enough Chinese restaurants for one, Mon Lay Won, to refer to itself as the "Chinese Demonico's."

Given that New York's first Italian restaurants probably also sprung up within just a few blocks, we can thank the slums of Five Points for giving New Yorkers its two most popular and beloved cuisines.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Roughs: New York's mangy, murderous heritage

An excerpt from "Lights And Shadows of New York Life; or, the Sights and Sensations of the Great City" by James D McCabe Jr, published in 1872, quantifying the gang element of New York under the quaint sobriquet 'the Roughs':

"Another class of those who live in open defiance of the law consists of the “Roughs.” The New York Rough is simply a ruffian. He is usually of foreign parentage, though born in America, and in personal appearance is as near like a huge English bull-dog as it is possible for a human being to resemble p. 544a brute. Of the two, the dog is the nobler animal. The Rough is not usually a professional thief, though he will steal if he has a chance, and often does steal in order to procure the means of raising money. He is familiar with crime of all kinds, for he was born in the slums and has never known anything better.

They are the patrons and supporters of dog and rat pits, and every brutal sport. Their boon companions are the keepers of the low-class bar rooms and dance houses, prize fighters, thieves, and fallen women. There is scarcely a Rough in the city but has a mistress among the lost sisterhood....The Rough, on his part, beats and robs the woman, but protects her from violence or wrong at the hands of others.

Often gangs of Roughs will enter the pleasure grounds in the upper part of the city, in which a pic-nic or social gathering is going on, for the sole purpose of breaking up the meeting. They fall upon the unoffending pleasure-seekers, beat the men unmercifully, maltreat, insult, and sometimes outrage the women, rob all parties who have valuables to be taken, and then make their escape.

The Rough does not hesitate to commit murder, or to outrage a woman. He is capable of any crime. He is a sort of human hyena who lives only to prey upon the better portions of the community. Crime-stained and worthy of punishment as he is, he walks the streets with a sense of security equal to that of the most innocent man.

This feeling of security is caused by the conviction on his part that he will not be punished for his misdeeds. The reason is simple: He is a voter, and he has influence with others of his class. He is necessary to the performance of the dirty work of the city politicians, and as soon as he gets into trouble, the politicians exert themselves to secure his discharge. They are usually successful, and consequently but few Roughs are ever punished in New York, no matter how revolting their crime.

This is not all, however. There are well authenticated instances in which men of this class have been carried by their fellows, oftentimes by ballot-box stuffing and fraudulent voting, into high and responsible offices under the city."

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Dead Rabbits -- Were they ever alive?

The Bowery Boys-Dead Rabbits kerfluffle: it definitely happened, but not how you think it did

In one of the sources we used for this week's podcast -- Tyler Anbinder's wonderful and sober history on Five Points -- the author throws out a theory that's truly devastating for lovers of New York history, one that flies in the face of many hallmark histories, including Gangs Of New York. According to Anbinder, the Dead Rabbits, one of Five Points most legendary gangs, wasn't even a gang at all.

More famous New York accounts claim very dramatically that there was a Dead Rabbit gang, composed of Irish Five Pointers, who trolled the streets looking for trouble, particularly adroit in robbery and pickpocketing. They were a splinter group of another early gang that formed in the saloon of Walter Roche* at 19 Mulberry Street. A dispute broke out within this 'Roche Guard', and, as the legend goes, somebody threw a rabbit corpse onto the floor, giving the splinter group its new name. It apparently went well with the slang of the day --"dead" meaning "extremely," "rabbit" meaning "fearful".

The Roche Guard and the Dead Rabbits were mortal enemies, dodging each other through the Five Points streets even as they performed their illicit misdeeds. But as they say, the enemy or your enemy is your friend, and when the Dead Rabbits sparred against the Bowery Boys on July 4, 1857, the Roches and other gangs of the Five Points took the Rabbits side. Given the complicated nature of the day, the gangs fought alongside two sets of New York police forces, the Metropolitan and Municipal police, one a unit of the mayor Fernando Wood, the other formed by the state. (You can read all out it in our old Know Your Mayors segment on Wood.)

The skirmish was the subject of legends and folk songs, including this one from 1857:

"The new Police did join the Bowery boys in line,
With orders strict and right accordin ;
Bullets, clubs and bricks did fly, and many groan and die,
Hard road to travel over Jordan.

When the new police did interfere, this made the Rabbits sneer,
And very much enraged them accordin ;
With bricks they did go in, determined for to win,
And drive them on the other side of Jordan."

The story plays like an Arthurian legend, even in respected historical texts. Corrupting matters worse are their depiction in the Martin Scorsese movie "Gangs of New York," which warps their chronology for dramatic purposes.

Using actual eyewitness reports from Five Points residents, Anbinder claims that there never was a group specifically called the Dead Rabbits, that it was a mere nickname thrown out by the Bowery Boys to disparage the Roche Guard and other gangs who were attacking them. Accounts from this period would have more likely used members of the Bowery Boys gang as sources for their stories, as the Metropolitan Police (on the side of the Bowery Boys) were the 'legitimate' police force. To confuse matters even further, the police referred to them generally as the 'Mulberry boys', another false name which stuck in some historical accounts.

Was there a gang that wore a red stripe on their pants and hoisted a dead rabbit carcass on a stick through the streets? The romantic notion is irresistible. Most likely some faction of the Roche Guard or some other Five Points gang did perform in this fashion, but they did not call themselves Dead Rabbits.

*To show you just how uncertain any of this is, another tentpole history of this period -- Luc Sante's Low Life -- claims the group was formed by a Ted Roach.

Friday, August 22, 2008

PODCAST - Five Points: Wicked Slum

You've heard the legend of New York's most notorious neighborhood. Now come with us as we hit the streets of Five Points and dig up some of the nitty, gritty details of its birth, its first residents and its most scandalous pastimes.

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

One of the most famous images of Five Points, accentuating its bustle and chaos

A dour living condition in a Baxter Street tenement

People drank their woes away at one of Five Points' hundreds of groceries, rum shops and grog houses

A typical scene down Bottle Alley

Newspapers kept images of Five Points' squalor in the public eye for shock value

The rich would venture into Five Points on guided tours, observing its poverty and sordidness as though at a zoo

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Charles Dickens' guide to New York City low life

Dickens in 1850

What is this dismal-fronted pile of bastard Egyptian, like an enchanter's palace in a melodrama! - a famous prison, called The Tombs. Shall we go in?

And thus in this voice continues the eager, fey, often condescending but spectacularly written account of Charles Dickens' New York excursion as captured in his "American Notes for General Circulation," written in 1842. (Read the entire thing here.)

Dickens' was among the first published travelogues about America for European audiences, and among his travels through the states he devotes an entire chapter to young New York.

How young precisely? Dickens gives us a yardstick to measure it: "The great promenade and thoroughfare, as most people know, is Broadway; a wide and bustling street, which, from the Battery Gardens to its opposite termination in a country road, may be four miles long." During the 1840s, the city would have ended at 42nd street, so this sounds accurate.

Dickens' tone throughout "American Notes" is ebullient but persnickety, as if he's smiling and curling his nose at the same time as the sights and sounds of the city. In real life, Dickens was treated like royalty, feted in sumptuous celebrations at the Park Theatre and Delmonico's, courted by literati such as New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant and aging Washington Irving.

Dickens had an ulterior motive to his American journey: to discuss international copyright laws, presently being violated with American reprints of Dickens novels. Surprisingly he turned most Americans off with what they considered to be ungrateful sniping. A bit of that shared animosity seeps through some of Dickens depictions, especially those in New York, which was doing a bulk of the copyright violation.

The book's most famous descriptions come in his colorful look at Five Points, already a legendary neighborhood of filth and vice by 1842. These passages could have been ripped from any of his most famous novels:

"Ascend these pitch-dark stairs, heedful of a false footing on the trembling boards, and grope your way with me into this wolfish den, where neither ray of light nor breath of air, appears to come...."

"Here too are lanes and alleys, paved with mud knee-deep, underground chambers, where they dance and game; the walls bedecked with rough designs of ships, and forts, and flags, and American eagles out of number: ruined houses, open to the street, whence, through wide gaps in the walls, other ruins loom upon the eye, as though the world of vice and misery had nothing else to show: hideous tenements which take their name from robbery and murder: all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here."

And as if that wasn't enough gothic material for him, he ends his New York piece by touring Blackwell's Island (today's Roosevelt Island), home of the city's various asylums for lunatics and criminals:

"...everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful. The moping idiot, cowering down with long dishevelled hair; the gibbering maniac, with his hideous laugh and pointed finger; the vacant eye, the fierce wild face, the gloomy picking of the hands and lips, and munching of the nails: there they were all, without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror."

The New York chapter is reprinted in full here.

Below from the Charles Dickens Page, a list of all the places he visited during his American stay. They also feature a thorough description of his entire journey.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Cherry Hill: the lost Lower East Side neighborhood

Cherry and Catherine streets, looking towards the Manhattan Bridge anchorage, in the once glorious Cherry Hill neighborhood. Pic courtesy Knickerbocker Village, who guesses photo to be from 1920s)

Yesterday I went searching for remnants of the old Cherry Hill neighborhood. There are none, as far as I could tell. It's not the first New York City neighborhood to entirely vanish in the rush of progress -- is it, Robert Moses ? -- however it may be the one that began with the most impressive pedigree.

I'm not referring to the part of Central Park called Cherry Hill or even the upstate farm of Cherry Hill, best known for the prominent New York family the Van Rensselaers and a fabulous murder that occurred there. Downtown Manhattan's Cherry Hill once lay near the waterfront in the area more literally called Two Bridges today, between the Brooklyn Bridge and the area just northeast of the Manhattan Bridge.* Although the Two Bridges Historical District was created in 2003, in fact most of its early history has been eradicated.

In 1890 Jacob Riis, in documenting what the neighborhood had become, referred to its early days as the "proud and fashionable Cherry Hill." Named for a Dutch cherry orchard, Cherry Hill featured a row of homes with a beautiful vista of the East River and hosted no less than George Washington's during his first term as president, at 1 Cherry Street. Although he later moved to 39 Broadway, the neighborhood remained high on the list of the rich and important, including John Hancock (at 5 Cherry Street) and DeWitt Clinton (who moved into Washington's old home).

Even as late as the 1824, the area featured fine homes such as that of Samuel Leggett, founder of the New York Gas Light Company (later Con Edison), who enjoyed New York's first interior gas lighting.

If you're looking for a symbolic date of Cherry Hill's demise, look no further than April 3, 1823, birth date of William 'Boss' Tweed, who was born here and worked at a Cherry Hill chair shop in his early years.

As many well-to-do neighborhoods would later do, Cherry Hill devolved into a slum, paralleling the decline of nearby Five Points. Its well-intentioned tenements soon became the worst in the city. Located in the Fourth Ward, Cherry Hill abutted the saloons, boarding houses and brothels along Water Street, including the legendary Hole In The Wall (today's Bridge Cafe). None of this would assist the neighborhood in escaping its fate.

Cherry Hill is probably most unfortunately known for its most horrific slum -- Gotham Court, "one of the worst tenements along the East River." It would later be made infamous in Jacob Riis' renown 1890 blistering survey of "How The Other Half Lives." (An image from a version of this book is above.) According to Riis:

"It is curious to find that this notorious block, whose name was so long synonymous with all that was desperately bad, was originally built (in 1851) by a benevolent Quaker for the express purpose of rescuing the poor people from the dreadful rookeries they were then living in.

How long it continued a model tenement is not on record. It could not have been very long, for already in 1862, ten years after it was finished, a sanitary official counted 146 cases of sickness in the court, including “all kinds of infectious disease,” from small-pox down."

Gotham Court and the rest of Cherry Hill were not long for this world. In the wake of Riis expose, Gotham Court was demolished in 1897. By that time, efforts were made to construct more amenable tenements, including those built at 340, 342 and 344 Cherry Street in 1888. (See below, courtesy of Maggie Blanck)

By that time, the anchorage to the Brooklyn Bridge -- and in 1909, with the Manhattan Bridge anchorage -- would block in the neighborhood from the circulation of the city. The construction of traffic ramps to the Brooklyn Bridge and the downtown section of the FDR Drive (opened in 1942) obliterated much of what remained.

In its place would be more ambitious housing "super projects," most notably one in the form of the Alfred E. Smith Houses, built in 1953 and named for the governor and saavy politico born very close by, at 25 Oliver Street. His old street and a couple around it may give you the closest idea of what some areas of Cherry Hill may have looked like in earlier years.

The neighborhood is one of the few staving off gentrification -- by design, as it's mostly public housing. Given its rather uniform appearance, I found it quite impossible to picture Cherry Hill's early days here.

*I would say Cherry Hill ran up along the East River to just a few blocks from Corlear's Hook, which still exists in name as a park. Although that's just a guess on my part!

From whence came Bruni: NY Times' first restaurant review

Delmonico's Restaurant set the standards in fine dining by which future restaurants would be judged. But don't just take my word on it.

In the January 1, 1859 edition of the New York Times, Delmonico's and other eateries of the city were the topic of that paper's very first restaurant review. And the establishment of Lorenzo Delmonico ranked as one of the very best with the Astor House, John Jacob Astor's first hotel venture.

But what I find most interesting about this article are the lesser known eating establishments that those slightly below the 'aristocratic' nature of the article's author, the anonymous "Strong Minded Reporter of the Times."

Taylor's Saloon, at Broadway and Franklin streets and a haunt of one Walt Whitman, gets a not-all-together horrible review, by today's standards, yet it's written in such a condescending manner that it's difficult to tell. "You eat off an elegent little marble table, and the terms are not, as a whole, extravagant."

As a whole, the review is more about the environment and the author's own personal reactions than it is about the food. About Taylor's, Strong-Minded Reporter casually mentioned he had a fine meal but holds a strong objection to the staff. "I do not like to be served by a person in dirty-white habiliments.....I naturally solace myself with the reflection that I am in strictly aristocratic quarters. Why, then, must a waiter, clad like a nightmare, come in and disturb my illusion?"

So you can well assume that his opinion of "mere" eating houses such as Browne's Auction Hotel, on Water Street, would be vitriolic. Instead, the reviewer considers it a worthy but noisy establishment with good food "provided you can eat pastry while you smell pork." His definition of praise? "You will not object to a meal at the Auction Hotel."

The idea of a restaurant review was apparently so novel back in 1859 that the author literally walks his reader though the steps of getting the assignment, including instructions on how he would be reimbursed for his meals. The introduction of the article reads as the start of some fanciful melodrama:

"'I wish you to go and dine, said the Editor-of-Chief to me one day in September last, 'I wish you to go and dine.'"

You can read the whole review here and makes a more enjoyable read if you picture New York's portliest, most ostentatious fop writing it. Kottke also gave this review a closer evaluation last year.

Friday, August 15, 2008

PODCAST: Delmonico's Restaurant Francais

The kitchen staff, 1902

Before Delmonico's, New Yorkers ate in taverns or oyster houses. But the city caught the fine dining bug at this family-owned business, which standardized everything you know about restaurants today. Find out about "menus", "fresh ingredients", "dining rooms for ladies" and other unusual and exotic Delmonico innovations.

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

The Delmonico building today, with alleged Pompeiian column intact. Although the current incarnation has nothing to do with the original, but you can still get a few of the famous Delmonico dishes there.

Lorenzo Delmonico, the inspired and flamboyant owner during the restaurant's heyday

A dinner at Delmonico's from 1876, in this case the "Twelfth Annual Dinner of the Dartmouth College Alumni Association of New York City" Fancy!

The location at 1 E. 14th Street

The 'uptown' location at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street

Inside the 'Palm Garden' dining room, at the Fifth Avenue location, upstairs...

...and downstairs

Alessandro Filippini, head chef of Delmonico's during the 1850s

Chef Charles Ranhofer, in the kitchen of Delmonico's from 1862 to 1896, threw 3,500 of his favorite recipes into his seminal 19th Century cookbook The Epicurean

A heaping plate of Lobster Newberg

The current Delmonico at night

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Jimian? The strange affair of Lillian and Diamond Jim

Had there been a paparazzi in the 1880s, the woman they would have hounded the most would be New York stage singer and actress Lillian Russell. Like a Scarlett, she was always hanging on the arm of a famous, powerful man. Like an Angelina, she did dramatic things in her personal life that often upstaged her work. And like a Britney, she was occasionally caught doing things most unbecoming for a lady.

Celebrity fame in those days derived primary from legend and word of mouth; most of the people who idolized Russell had never seen her, in anything. As P.T. Barnum aptly demonstrated with Jenny Lind in the early 1850s, nobody actually needed to hear you sing to become a famous singer; you just had to be desired as one.

Russell (as Helen Louise Leonard) came to New York from Iowa in 1878 to become a opera star, managing to train under no less than Leopold Damrosch, whose son Walter was intimately involved in the creation of Carnegie Hall. The next year, she changed her name to Lillian Russell.

She made her name thanks to Tony Pastor, a vaudeville showman who presented a wide range of acts at his Union Square music hall. Her sweet singing voice and good looks made her perfect for the comic opera circuit, and she quickly became the toast of New York theatre. She eventually toured Europe, hopped from opera company to opera company, and became the first voice in travel over long-distance phone wire in 1890, thanks to admirer Alexander Graham Bell. (She sang the 'Sabre Song' to listeners on the other line in Boston and in D.C.)

But it was her penchant for glitz, and roster of suitors that made her a legend among celebrity seekers. She would breeze through four different tempestuous marriages with an actor, a politician, a composer and a newspapermen, but she would be most famous for the one man she didn't marry -- 'Diamond' Jim Brady.

Brady was a legend of the Gilded Age, a wealthy businessman who embodied indulgence. Enamored of wearing jewels (thus the nickname), Brady painted the town with his money, a frequent and well-known guest at all the hottest restaurants in town, especially Delmonico's and later Luchow's. He was known for his sizable appetite, a usual evening meal at Charles Rector's restaurant involving "two whole ducks, six or seven lobsters, a sirloin steak, two servings of terrapin and a variety of vegetables." And, in the process, growing terribly, unbelievably fat.

He began a public flirtation with Russell that lasted throughout the 1880s and 1890s(throughout her various marriages!) by wooing her with jewels and fancy meals. They made quite a pair. Two celebrities in their thirties, their rubies and diamonds twinkling under gas light in the most exclusive dining room in the world. Oscar Tschirky, later to become the leading chef at the Waldorf-Astoria, got a job at Delmonico's in his early years just to get a closer glimpse of Russell.

He would see quite a lot of Russell's eating habits, keeping up with Brady as the pair shucked down oysters and drank champagne, her gluttonous abandon leaving little of her glamorous image intact. Like any actress today, her weight was closely observed, as during her years with her extravagant paramour, she blossomed to 160 pounds.

It seems clear that Brady was in love with Russell, and that Russell was in love with Brady's attentions. Their public affair crept into the new century as Russell became the defining voice of American operetta. She went on to marry newspaper publisher and later U.S. ambassador Alexander Pollock Moore, and even toured Europe in her later years on behalf of president Warren G Harding. She died in 1922.

Diamond Jim (below) had died five years previous, having never married, with Russell still presumably in his heart, and god knows how many pounds of oysters in his gut.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A historic stroll down Summer Streets

The city tried out its interesting Summer Streets experiment this past Saturday morning, shutting out cars along Lafayette, Fourth Avenue and Park Avenue, from the Brooklyn Bridge up to 72nd Street. The result was a temporary respite from noise and traffic; you literally felt yourself puncturing a wall of sound upon re-entering the world of automobiles.

Beyond a playground for cyclists and runners, Summer Streets offered a couple historical treats. For once you could literally imagine what Park Avenue might have been like before the accepted crush of automobiles.

Here's Park Avenue at around 52nd Street, with St. Bartholomew's to your right

And here's what the exact same area look like before 1922

In addition, pedestrians got to take a closer look at the Grand Central Terminal overpass, normally a traffic only thoroughfare. Sadly, the closest anybody's had to really walking on this recently was Will Smith in I Am Legend

This is the first time most of us will ever be able to walk up to Cornelius Vanderbilt, standly stately at the entrance:

Within the tunnel itself, you can stop and notice (as opposed to whisking by) the withered ornamentation in the portals underneath the Helmsley Building

There are two more Summer Streets events to go, August 16 and 23, from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. More information here.