Friday, November 28, 2008

Pilgrims progress in Central Park

For one Pilgrim, Thanksgiving never ends. Standing near the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park is Manhattan's tribute to the original European settlers, a solitary pilgrim upon a hill (Pilgrim's Hill, to be exact) looking as though he's made a wrong turn.

The Pilgrim made its debut in Central Park in 1885, long after Frederick Law Olmstead's original vision of a monument-free park had gone unheeded. (The statue of Shakepeare was the first violator, in 1875.) The Pilgrim was a gift of the New England Society of New York, a charity organization that formed in 1805 to honor the events of Plymouth Rock and whose members are all directly related to Mayflower passengers.

As it seems with any type of unveiling in the late 19th century, the new addition was greeted with great fanfare, an ostentatious procession that marched up Madison Avenue, stopped to salute ex-president General Ulysses S. Grant at his residence on 66th Street, before turning into the park and greeting a group of 2,500 spectators and officiators, including Brooklyn mayor Seth Low and another ex-president Chester A. Arthur.

A choir sang a pilgrim-related hymn before the statue's designer John Quincy Adams Ward, the 'hottest' monument maker in town, pulled the cord and unveiled his masterpiece for all to see. Now forgotten orator George William Curtis then mounted the stage to talk about the virtues of Puritanism, a meandering speech that the New York Times felt the need to reprint in its entirety.

Today, the statue holds a special place in the park, being the first monument to receive restoration, in 1979, at the beginning of Central Park's dramatic transformation. It also shares a very lofty distinction; like the Statue of Liberty, it stands on a pedestal designed by Richard Morris Hunt.

If you're in the least bit adventurous this winter, you'll have plenty of times to see this charming fellow. The hill named after him is the go-to place for sledding in Central Park.

Picture courtesy of

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Macy's Strangest Thanksgiving Day Balloons Ever

Above: The parade in the 1930s was a veritable freakshow of oddball balloon creatures

Not every balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade latches on to your memories like Underdog, Charlie Brown and Snoopy do. Below are a few examples of Macy's stranger offerings over the years:

This Thing (Turkey?) 1932
I swear, if I saw that coming at me and I was eight years old, I would never celebrate Thanksgiving again. Clearly, the art of massive balloon making was still being perfected. Balloons had only been in the parade at this time for only five years and were still being released into the air at the end of the parade, for people to capture and return for reward money. This dangerous practice was stopped in 1933.

Pinocchio 1935
This depiction of the wooden puppet, with his 44-foot nose, is just illconceived on many levels.

Uncle Sam 1939
Today's Uncle Sam balloon is made of sterner material to fly upright, so I applaud their efforts to keep this older one standing along the parade route. This version of Sam flew from 1938-40.

Eddie Cantor 1940
Few living human beings are immortalized in balloonery -- the Marx Brothers also come to mind, but the balloon celebrating Broadway and radio star Cantor is distinctive for being completely misshapen and almost horrifying.

Fish Balloon 1941
This is actually one of the most beautiful pictures I've ever seen of a Thanksgiving Day balloon. The balloon was artistic and graceful, and for 1941, that definitely makes it strange. (Courtesy of Google Life stock photos)

Mighty Mouse 1954
Do kids know Mighty Mouse anymore? Anyway, the flexing pose of the balloon always made the strangest images on television. From the picture above, he looks to be on steroids

Rex the Dinosaur 1993
It wasn't that Rex was a bad balloon. It was the fact that, halfway through, his head popped off and they kept the behemoth floating down the street, the camera uncomfortably cutting away.

By this way, the above picture is from this website, which relays every excrusiating detail of the 1993 parade, apparently one of the worst in Macy's history (thanks to crazy winds and bad Katie Couric fashions). The descriptions are hilarious

Ask Jeeves 2001
What could be more sad than seeing a discarded mascot for a floating down the street? A mascot that happens to be in the shape of a middle-age butler.

Harold the Fireman 2007
Way before Joe the Plumber, Harold's been with the parade since 1958, an old perennial. He makes the list because after all these years, you'd think a man in his profession would have lost some weight. Believe it or not, Harold has been in the parade in different garb -- as a clown in 1945, baseball player in 1946 and a cop in 1947 -- before finally settling on a job he liked.

Rabbit 2007
Pop artist Jeff Koons took a 1986 work -- a table-top stainless-steel bunny -- and literally blew it up for the parade last year, perhaps the only floating object that could conceivably be displayed at the Museum of Modern Art (if they had room for it.

And just for fun, some Macy's excitement from 1984: Tom Turkey and Dionne Warwick!

And finally -- last year we did a podcast on the history of Macy's and the Thanksgiving Day Parade. You can listen to it on this page, download it for free on iTunes or other podcasting services, or directly download it from here.

I also wrote a specific history last year on the Underdog balloon.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Evacuation Day: Don't let the door hit you, Brits!

George dusts his shoulders off and re-enters New York

Today, November 25th, is the anniversary of the day when the British officially fled New York City after occupying the city for years during the Revolutionary War. For years after, New Yorkers celebrating this day by shimmying up a greased flagpole in Battery Park. I have always said that the city of New York should bring back this fantastic tradition.

NYC to mark Evacuation Day [Star Tribune]

Happy Evacuation Day! [Gawker]

225th Anniversary of Evacuation Day [Gothamist]

ALSO: Celebrate by listening to our podcast on Life In British New York. It'll be available next week for download on iTunes in our "New York History: Bowery Boys Archives" feed. Evacuation Day is also talked about in our Battery Park podcast, which is already available on the archives feed.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Name That Neighborhood: TriBeCa not so triangular

Some New York neighborhoods are simply named for their location on a map (East Village, Midtown). Others are given prefabricated real-estate designations (SoHo, DUMBO). But a few retain names that link them intimately with their pasts. Other entries in this series can be found here.

For all the New York City neighborhoods with wonderful old names hearkening back to Lenape, Dutch and British settlers, we have a small number crafted by other, more venerable tribes -- real estate brokers and community organizers. Dumbo is not a city in the Netherlands; NoLiTa is not Lenape for 'neighborhood'. And at least one --TriBeCa, that fashionable neighborhood northwest of City Hall -- is made of comprised of a complex portmanteau that isn't even technically accurate.

The area bounded on the north by Canal, south by Vesey Street, east by Broadway and west by the Hudson River is calm and quirky compared to other neighborhoods, owing to its shape, sculpted by a cross work of diagonal streets braced against the grid-like blocks between Church and Broadway. While the Lower West Side, as it was earlier known, began as a residential district in the late 18th century, its proximity to the docks and to the Hudson River Railroad's St. John's Park Depot transformed the neighborhood into a center of industry, primarily textiles by the 1850s.

Like the Meatpacking District further north, the western edge of the area also became a grocery center for New Yorkers, with fresh produce, dairy and meat. The streets of Washington Market, as it was known then, were clogged with buyers and sellers with vendors even set up along the Hudson River docks. A chaotic mess to be sure, to contrast with many of the gorgeous Italianate and Romanesque Revival buildings built by wealthy companies to house their offices and factories.

Below: You can easily find remnants of TriBeCa's 'material' past

Flash forward to the 1960s. The factories long abandoned and the western warehouses cleared away to construct the West Side Highway, the large now-empty spaces attracted artists, musicians and "bohemians", slowly returning the neighborhood to its original residential leanings. Similar, in fact, to the phenomenon of SoHo just north, also a locus for artists, whose tenacious effort to turn industrial space residential led to the creation of its made-up name (SOuth of HOuston) and historical landmark designation in 1973.

The residents of Washington Market followed suit. Or rather, those centered around an actual triangular block -- the one with Canal to its north, Lispenard to its south and Church to its west. (It narrows pointing to Broadway on its eastern edge.) They formed a block association called the Triangle Below Canal to rally behind a similar designation for their area. Although they too are technically south of Houston -- and Washington Market has a cleaner, historical ring to it -- the organization's name was truncated, and TriBeCa was soon born.

Although TriBeCa represents the entire area, in fact the neighborhood (outside of a few individual blocks) is not actually triangular at all. But as the true sign of the neighborhood's drastic transformation, the area's unofficial king is an Oscar-winning celebrity -- Robert De Niro. The actor, who moved here in the '90s, brought two restaurants and a film festival here, which allowed other celebrities to follow suit.

You can find more indepth information on the history of TriBeCa at its official website.

Below: Where once crowds of produce cellars clogged the streets, now filmgoers enjoy cocktails and watch film premieres

Friday, November 21, 2008

PODCAST: The Bowery Files

The Bowery of 1923, its livelihood segregated from the street by elevated railways.

This is our "potpourri" episode with a little bit of everything in it.

We open up some of our favorite readers mail, we take you behind the scenes of how we put together an episode, and we describe three of our very favorite history-related websites that you should check out.

But it wouldn't be a podcast without some history, right? So we take a brief stroll down the Bowery, with over 200 years of history along this famous street. But has anything really changed?
Listen to it for free on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or you can download or listen to it HERE

Since we're in listeners and readers appreciation mode, here's a few odds and ends that people have emailed us about that you might be interested in:

The New York Public Library just recently uploaded a new video featuring great footage from the 1939-40 World's Fair. Organizers from the fair donated all documentation to the library and is the first place to start for anybody fascinated in its history.

Last year on the blog I spotlighted that massive Douglas Leigh-designed snowflake that hung over Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. One of those who helped Leigh with the design, Hans Clausen, sent me a link to his website with more information. The snowflake will be going up soon!

Jacques Pasilalinic-Sympathetic Compass(quite a name!) sent me a New York centric link from his blog, featuring some great pictures from the little-seen south side of Ellis Island, mostly off-limits and hauntingly abandoned. Including this shot:

And not that I need to plug that little old paper called the New York Times, but did you see that remarkable before-after sliding thingy they did with Grand Central Terminal, contrasting a 1978 picture of the Concourse with a view of it today?

And finally, thanks once again to Amid and Cartoon Brew for sending us this tale about one of the strangest tombstones in New York City:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

REVIEW: The Almanac of New York

If you're one of those history geeks that get a joyous chill from raw data, charts and lists, then the Almanac of New York, by Kenneth T. Jackson and Fred Kameny, will enthrall you for hours. It's a strange collection of information on New Yorkers, outlining their livelihood, cultural predilections and electoral choices in a dry but addictive format.

Jackson, a former president of the New York Historical Society, delights in defusing the city into reference material, previously editing The Encyclopedia of New York City, a volume that indiscriminately sifted the city's history alphabetically. This time the sorting mechanism is via statistical data, an often taxing but investigative way to look at the city.

The categories range from the intriguing (Causes of Death by Borough) to the truly banal (Employment in Selected Administrative and Support Services and Waste Management and Remediation Services, by Borough). Many of the data is from current census, but history plays a huge role in the almanac, with such entries as the results from presidential elections results from as far back as 1836, and columns of sports stats and Tony winners earnestly placed side by side.

Not every list provides the material for serious insight; for instance, a look of best selling books in New York reveals that the tastes of New Yorkers are sometimes as uninspired as those of the entire nation. (Although, I suppose, maybe that's the insight!)

Here's a sampling of some facts of interest that jumped out of me. The best part about a book like this is that it offers these kinds of factoids each time you pick it up and randomly flip to a page:

-- Of elected and appointed city officials, the highest salary goes, not to the mayor, but to the Chancellor of City University

-- In 1901, New Yorkers spent twice as much money on alcohol per household ($24) as the rest of the United States ($12)

-- Mount Sinai has the most beds of any New York City hospital

-- The most dangerous intersection in Manhattan is at Park Avenue and East 33rd street (118 injuries reported between 1995-2001)

-- There are more Rottweiler dogs in Soundview, Bronx, than in any other area in New York

As with any almanac, there seems to be dozens of pages of seemingly useless information -- useless until, one day, you open it up and suddenly find a use for it. (Obviously, it's that kind of resource.) I know one day I'll have need to know how many labor unions locals have more than one hundred members, or what's the breakdown of physical and chemical parameters in New York city drinking water in 2006. For now, I'll content myself with the lists of parks by acreages, the results of mayoral elections for the past 170 years, and its especially fascinating list of celebrity gravesites.

The Almanac of New York, 528 pages, with a forward by Sam Roberts from the New York Times, on sale everywhere

Starting in 2009, we'll be occasionally reviewing new New York history-related books on this site. If you're a publisher and have any upcoming releases, please let us know by emailing

Monday, November 17, 2008

Stopping time: Enrico Caruso's Plaza tantrum

Caruso, wearing the big white turban, during the 1916-17 performance at the Met

The Plaza Hotel might have been built on the fortunes of a barbed-wire magnate, but its continued existence throughout the years partially stems from its popularity amongst the bold-print set. Celebrities, however, come with a drawback. Along with their famous name and the press and attention that comes with it, so too comes the occasional diva behavior, the irrational requests, the vituperative red-faced conniption.

This famous hotel has seen its share, but none more famous than the one thrown by its first superstar guest -- Enrico Caruso.

At the beginning of the century, there were few more famous than Caruso, an internationally-renown Italian tenor and the world's first recording star. He performed with the Metropolitan Opera for 17 years. And at least at the very beginning would stay at the Plaza. (Over time, he would prefer the late Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square instead.)

Caruso was a fabulous, eccentric character, exceptionally gifted, occasionally erratic. In 1906, he was accused of molesting women in the monkey house at the Central Park Zoo, and the details of ensuing -- and highly publicized -- trial stretches far into the realm of the absurd. (It involves trenchcoats with holes in the pockets, an alleged "sexual free-for-all" and a monkey named Knocko.) He was fined $10 for the incident.

One night after a performance at the Met in 1907, Caruso returned to his luxurious corner room at the Plaza to sleep. However, throughout the evening he was kept awake by the sound of ticking electric Magneta clock on the mantel. Tormented by the device's rhythmic tick-tock, he erupted in the middle of the night and attacked the clock, in some accounts with a knife, in others, destroying the timepiece with his own shoe.

The problem with this particular tantrum, however, was that the entire hotel was fitted with these Magneta clocks, and all the clocks were wired to each other. Caruso had not only taken out his own clock, but effectively broke every clock in the hotel.

According to Curtis Gathje, the hotel managers responded with extraordinary restraint, instead sending Caruso complimentary champagne as an apology for inconveniencing him. Certainly, this would not become the model for handling later tempestuous musicians who trash their hotel rooms.

By the way, did you know the Enrico Caruso museum is in Brooklyn?

Friday, November 14, 2008

PODCAST: The Plaza Hotel

It got off to a rocky start, but the Plaza Hotel has become one of the most recognizable landmarks in New York City. We take a look at its kooky history, from its days as an upper class 'transient hotel' to a party place for celebrities. Starring: Henry Hardenberg, Eloise, Truman Capote and of course the unsinkable Mrs. Patrick Campbell.

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

The first "Plaza," as redesigned by McKim, Mead and White, was also a hotel, but it didn't last long. Opened in 1890, it was demolished in 1905 to make way for the far grander vision of Henry Hardenbergh.

Workmen pause to stand in front of the first Plaza in 1889. Eventually the foundation of the building would not support the lofty plans for the new Plaza, so it had to be entirely torn down.

Believe it or not, here's The Plaza in the year it opened, 1907! It looks like it's in the countryside. Note the General Sherman equestrian statue in the foreground.

Two shots of the funeral of John "Bet-a-Million" Gates -- who basically bankrolled the construction of the Plaza -- pulls up to the entrance (on 59th street) of his famous hotel. It's particularly interesting to see the development of buildings further west next to the Plaza. (Photo from Flickr, Library of Congress)

One of the Plaza's immediate appeals was its proximity to both Central Park and the tony residents and luxury hotels of Fifth Avenue. (Picture courtesy of my favorite website Shorpy.)

The elegant Palm Court, site of countless afternoon teas and the smoking rebellion of Mrs. Patrick Campbell. The ornate stained-glass dome would be removed in 1944, replaced with an air conditioning unit.

Mrs. Patrick Campbell, poster child for smokers and women's rights everywhere

The fabulous Oak Room, probably the most unchanged of the Plaza's public room, is festooned with Hardenburgh humor in the form of alcohol-related carvings. It was a popular drinking spot for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, George M. Cohen, Bill Clinton and Harrison Ford.

The Beatles and the Dr. Joyce Brothers enjoy a campy moment during an 1964 press conference at the Plaza.

Truman Capote and Katharine Graham greet guests at the totally outrageous Black and White Ball.

Kay Thompson, later the author of the Eloise books, performs here at the Persian Room:

The Palm Court's stained glass ceiling has returned in the modern renovation.

The Plaza celebrated its 100th anniversary last year with an elaborate ceremony.

Check out the wonderful book At The Plaza: An Illustrated History of the World's Most Famous Hotel by Curtis Gathje with many more details on the Plaza's different and extraordinary rooms. And look below a couple posts for a picture of Barack Obama with the Plaza Hotel in the background!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Paris Theatre: an art house as classic as its films

The Paris Theatre, as eccentric as any film its ever played, has the benefit of having the Plaza Hotel and Central Park to ensure it never goes out of style. But the history of this romantic and occasionally radical movie house, now in its 60th year of screening art house and foreign features, is as cinematic as its more photo-friendly neighbors.

No less than Marlene Dietrich cut the ribbon on opening day of the Paris in September 13, 1948. Opened by the French film distributor Pathe Cinema, the old-style 586 seat theatre with balcony was intended to debut significant achievements in foreign film, an ambition it still mostly retains today, along with re-issues of classic movies. Its first film was La Symphonie Pastorale by the almost-forgotten French director Jean Delannoy and might have continued to enjoy quiet renown among foreign film aficionados if it wasn't for Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini.

In December 1951, the Paris decided to show three films under an umbrella title Ways of Love. One of these was a forty-minute piece entitled The Miracle, directed by Rossellini and starring Anna Magnani as a pregnant woman who's convinced she's carrying the Christ child after meeting a shepherd (played by Fellini) whom she believes is St. Joseph.

Its subject matter enraged the Catholic Church, and the theatre was assaulted with hundreds of protesters for weeks, orchestrated by Cardinal Spellman from his pulpit at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Eventually the Paris was ordered to stop showing the film, a decision Paris manager Lillian Gerard, along with the film's distributor, appealed in court. The case eventually went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court who ruled the banning a violation of free speech.

No other film at the Paris would draw as much international attention, but the theater would affect cinema history in other ways, helping build the reputations of foreign directors on American soil. Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet ran for almost an entire year from 1968-69. Director Claude Lelouch's A Man And A Woman and the Marcello Mastroianni comedy Divorce Italian Style would play for over a year. Merchant and Ivory preferred to debut all their films here; A Room With A View played almost nine months, Howard's End seven.

It's had equally grand success with revival screenings. Allegedly, Harvey Weinstein himself was unhappy with the decision to book the reissue of Luis Buñuel's 1968 drama Belle De Jour starring Catherine Deneuve (below) until it debuted with the highest single-screen gross for a foreign film ever. I saw Lawrence of Arabia for the very first time here in 1997. Anytime the Paris shows a great film like that, I highly recommend you cancel all your plans and go.

Pathe pulled out of the Paris Theatre in 1990 with intentions of opening another screen in New York. (It never did, but Pathe is still in business, and you can find their film on most art-house screens in New York.) Loews operated the theater as the Fine Arts Theatre before the landlord bought them out and renamed it back to the Paris. Given the theatre has gone through few aesthetic alterations since 1948, today the theatre is a popular place for Hollywood movie premieres. Most likely, if Nicole Kidman stars in it, it premiere at the Paris.

You can find a lot of fun personal recollections by former ushers and managers at Cinema Treasures.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Manhatta: Art of the silent city

The Sunday New York Times had an excellent article on the restoration of the film Manhatta, purported to be the 'first avant garde film' ever made and one of silent film's great sightseeing tours of New York City.

The film was a collaboration between photographers Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, with a little help from Brooklyn-ite Walt Whitman, long dead but represented with pertinent works of poetry on title cards between the images.

Although the restored movie is a whopping ten minutes long, the program, hosted by the Museum of Modern Art, will feature other archival New York footage from the early days, as well as a chat with the restorer and curator Bruce Posner. More details on the viewings of this and other films in the To Save and Project series can be found on their website.

If you plan to go, you'll probably want to check out what the film looked like pre-restoration:

And since I'm at it, here's a few views of New York City courtesy of the silent era.

Thomas Edison's early experiments with film resulted in several shorts capturing New York at the turn of the century, including this one, Skyscrapers of New York

One of my personal favorites from 1903 gives us a look at 'The Eighth Wonder', a panorama of the Flatiron Building and its surroundings 105 years ago:

Seven years older and just up the street is this brief glimpse of 'Herald Square 1986'

And for a little sappy melodrama, why not try this 1912 Mary Pickford weeper, the New York Hat directed by DW Griffith, showing the soothing powers of New York fashion decades before Carrie Bradshaw

Friday, November 7, 2008

Barack Obama's New York City

Grandpa and Grammy Dunham visit Obama during his stay at Columbia University

Since Barack Obama is the reason we don't have a podcast this week, I thought I might as well spend a few moments looking into Obama's short stay here in New York City, as a Columbia University college student from August 1981 to 1983, and as a community organizer until 1985.

I can hardly think of a better place to get a crash course in race relations and cultural diversity than New York City in the early 80s, and in fact, in "Dreams of My Father," he credits his stay here with permanently shaping his perceptions.

His infamous party days and drug experimentation seems to have taken place at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he spent his first two years. According to Obama, he transferred to the more prestigious Columbia because he "wanted to be in a more vibrant, urban environment." He graduated with a degree in political science.

Interestingly, there's not much to talk about academically about Obama, as Columbia hasn't released his student records. He doesn't talk about particular students by name, and may in fact not known too many of them. According to his book, Barack "spent a lot of time in the library. I didn’t socialize that much. I was like a monk." During this "intense time of study," he also "stopped getting high" and started running.

And it was here in 1982 that he received a phone call one night about the death of his father Barack Obama Jr in a car crash.

If you're interested in tracing the steps of your future president, here's a few sites to check out:

-- Alleyway near 109th Street and Amsterdam Avenue -- according to his book, Obama slept here on his first night in town, unable to find an apartment. His infamous tale of bathing in a fire hydrant with a homeless occurs the next morning.

-- 339 East 94th -- Obama apparently bounced around several apartments in upper Manhattan. In fact, if you live up there, he might have slept on your floor! One place we can definitively pinpoint was on East 94th street, where he befriended his Puerto Rican neighborhood and sat listening to the soothing sounds of nighttime gunfire. Trivial fact: the landlord of the building at the time Jay Weiss, was then married to actress Kathleen Turner!

-- Butler Library, Columbia University -- The foundations for Obama's education into politics occurred here, presumably bent over books until wee hours.

-- Business International Corporation (215 Park Ave S) -- the current headquarters of the company that employed Obama for a few months after he graduated, paying off his student loans. Essentially a financial newsletter firm for companies wishing to expand overseas, it was here that he "would imagine myself as a captain of industry, barking out orders, closing the deal, before I remembered who it was that I had told myself I wanted to be and felt pangs of guilt for my lack of resolve."

-- City College -- Obama's first work as a community organizer started here, under the employ of the New York Public Interest Research Group. According to a New York Times article, the group promoted reform on issues like financial aid and mass transit, although Obama reports trying to "convince minority students at City College about the importance of recycling."

-- Central Park -- See if you can find the exact spot where this picture was taken:

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Know Your Mayors: Philip Hone, the party mayor

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.

Many of our city's early mayors are marginal figures obscured by a lack of personal information in publications of the day. We only know a few by their actions and can only indirectly discern their personalities from their popularity and effectiveness.

Not so with Philip Hone, the Whig mayor of New York City for a single solitary term (1826-27). Thanks to his fascinating and well written diary, we not only know all about him, we have an uncommonly vivid window into the workings of the early city.

Hone was born in 1780 on Dutch Street (between John and Fulton streets) and made his name on the nearby ports as an teenage auctioneer selling goods right off the boat. His auction business became known throughout the ports of the new America, and by age 40, the self-made Hone had amassed such wealth that he effectively retired to the life of a "gentleman".

From his lavish home on 235 Broadway across from City Hall, Hone dined with politicians and celebrities, a good-natured and cultured bon vivant, an old school Knickerbocker who would consider himself good friends with the likes of Daniel Webster, Washington Irving, and John Jacob Astor (whose Astor House would sprout up next door). His parlor hosted a nightly gallery of political and foreign dignitaries mixing it up with New York's social strata.

Naturally, political ambitions also came knocking, and Hone was elected an alderman in 1824 before winning the mayoralty in 1826, a rare representative of the Whig party in a city ever so dominated by Democrats.

It seems that Hone's strengths as mayor came as a direct extension of his role as New York's social network king. He's as known as much for his parties as for his policies. The introduction to his diaries doesn't even bother to disguise this: "Mr. Hone represented the city socially as well as politically. He entertained officially; and visiting strangers during his term enjoyed a hospitality which reflected credit upon the whole community."

Translation: the hottest club in 1826 was City hall.

Constantly distracted, he amassed membership in a variety of clubs and associations, became a trustee in New York's first insane asylum, and dabbled early in canal building as president of the Delaware and Hudson Canal company (later to become the basis of the D&H Railroad).

Perhaps as a result, his tenure as mayor is marked by little of actual substance. His somewhat elitist views and political outsiderness left him stranded in a city where 'Whiggery' often equated only to upper classes. His anti-Irish, anti-Democratic views were fighting against the wind. Later, by the 1830s, the power struggles between Whigs and Democrats would virtually wipe Hone's party from the city's political map.

Mostly, he's remembered as a cultural ambassador, even commissioning artwork for City Hall, approving of a developing theater district in the not-yet-seedy Bowery and encouraging the city's growth as an American capitol of arts and sciences.

Perhaps though it's best that he left office anyway. Moving to the "south-east corner of Broadway and Great Jones street" above Houston Street, where he would remain until his death in 1851, Hone would document in a remarkable diary the everyday, upper-class life of New York, from political shifts to the latest opera. Hone's "graphic pen", as described in a New York Times review in 1896, would become one of the great chronicles of early New York history. Most notable is his description of the terrible Great Fire of 1835, a tragedy which momentarily gutted the high society he had fostered for years.

The diary is indispensible for New York historians. I'm not sure if it's in print, but you can look at pages of it for free here.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Polling New York City's voting history

Historic Vote: Women in New York City participate in their first election in 1922 (pic from Women in Congress)

Sorry, it's been a hectic few days and I haven't gotten to update the blog. However I thought you'd be interested in this little piece from Columbia University Press about the historical voting patterns of New Yorkers. An excerpt:

"In the 43 elections from 1836-1904, the Democratic presidential candidate has won 37 times. Indeed, New York City has proven tough for Republican candidates as even Abraham Lincoln lost the city in his two presidential runs. The last Republican candidate to win New York City was Thomas Dewey, who defeated Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1944 election."

Gotham Gazette has an intriguing story on the history of New York election law, from the way mayors have been chosen to the reign of Tammany Hall.

And did you know? Two hundred years ago, in 1808, the very first American political nomination convention took place in New York City. Unfortunately, the party throwing it were the Federalists, still stinging from the death of party figurehead Alexander Hamilton years earlier and the ascention of Jeffersonian politics.

Emboldened by their political machine the Washington Benevolents, the Federalists met in New York in August 1808 and nominated Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (pictured right) for president. Naturally he lost -- to James Madison -- but the Federalists captured New York's Common Council, one of their last great power grabs before fatally combusting over the war of 1812.