Friday, January 30, 2009

PODCAST: Williamsburg(h), Brooklyn



Williamsburg used to have an H at the end of its name, not to mention dozens of major industries that once made it the tenth wealthiest place in the world. How did Williamsburgh become a haven for New York's most well-known factories and then become Williamsburg, home to such wildly diverse communities -- Hispanic, Hasidic and hipster? Find out how its history connects with whalebones, baseball, beer, and medicine for intestinal worms.

Listen to it for FREE on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or click this link to listen to the show or download it directly from our satellite site.

A modern map of the townships of Kings County. Cripplebush is listed here as a settlement in Brooklyn. The dense undergrowth that gave Cripplebush its name stretched well into the jurisdiction of Bushwick, which the Dutch actually called Boswijck.



The esteemed Lt Col. Jonathan Williams, who surveyed the land along the Bushwick shore and eventually gave Williamsburg its name. You can also find his handywork at Castle Clinton and Castle Williams (also named after him).


Another father of Williamsburg, David Dunham, can still be found today on a very tiny street near the bridge called Dunham Place. (Forgotten New York has a great look at this odd little side street.)

A detail from this mid-19th century map of New York and Brooklyn indicates the two ferry paths across the East River from the Grand Street dock in Williamsburg.


The Williamsburg waterfront during the 1880s. Havemeyer's sugar refinery became one of the most profitable businesses along the East River. It became Domino Sugar in 1900.


While Havemeyer's factory, closed in 2004, has been landmarked, its future could include a vast complex of condominiums -- but with community opposition and a $1.3 billion dollar price tag, is it viable?


These fancy guys are relaxing after a vigorous game of baseball at the Union Grounds, the first to fence in the playing field and charge spectators. Check out our previous article on this historic place and where you can find its location today.


There are no more breweries along Brewer's Row, but the once grand boulevard of beer makers that stretched from Williamsburg to Bushwick is still recognized on street signs.


The East River Bridge (today the Williamsburg Bridge) in 1902. It would be opened a year later, opening the neighborhood to thousands of new residents fleeing overcrowded Lower East Side (pic courtesy Shorpy)


Williamsburg in 1954, not the sunniest place ever. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt (LIFE archives)



Look really closely at this dedication found at the pedestrian fork on the Williamsburg Bridge. If you scrape away the graffiti, you'll see Williamsburg with an H on the end. (Click it to get a closer look.)


Continental Army Plaza, now overlooking the entrance and exit ramps of the Williamsburg Bridge. An engraving in the sidewalk points towards Valley Forge. The statue and the plaza were installed shortly after the opening of the bridge. So, in fact, this has pretty much always been George's view.


Two gorgeous examples of Williamsburg's opulent past -- the Kings County Savings Bank (built in 1868!) in the foreground, and the George Post's domed Williamsburgh Savings Bank in the distance. (pic courtesy Flickr)


A mural just north of the bridge. Don't smoke, kids!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Winter fashion for the Williamsburg hipster

One ingenious Brooklyn inventor came up with this rather fashion-forward way of beating the cold weather, in an article which ran in a 1876 issue of Scientific American magazine. This "patented...neck, ear, and throat protector" will keep those extremities toasty while allowing "free use of a hat or cap." Oh, to have seen an actual picture of this thing.

Somebody call American Apparel or Brooklyn Industries; I think this idea could really fly today. (Click on the picture for a larger view.)



Image courtesy the New York Public Library

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bowery Boys Recommend: Sex and death in 1970s Soho


Laura is disturbed "I'm completely out of control!"

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.

The New York Times had an intriguing piece last Sunday on modern "fetishizing" of New York in the 1970s, as popularly depicted in the TV show "Life on Mars." This blog is probably as guilty as any at looking at this crime-riddled, bankrupt period of New York's history and seeing only a glossier rendition. The article suggests people may fear this view as the economic crisis begins to transform the city; I personally suggest it appeals to people as a flipside to New York's current crawl towards homogeny and total gentrification.

Two vastly different 1970s movies I recently re-watched suggest that the city's combination of grit and glamour were already being analyzed and parodied before the decade was even finished.

In the silly thriller The Eyes of Laura Mars, Faye Dunaway stars as a downtown fashion photographer who can somehow see through the eyes of a serial killer who wrecks havoc among New York's stylistas. The plot is preposterous, aching for some legitimacy, either a setting at the Mudd Club or a cameo from Halston or Bianca Jagger maybe. Or Andy Warhol: the idea of framing death for pop photography was nothing new to him.

As such, it seems a thin but playful satire of downtown New York decadence. Manhattan looks unusually great for such a commonplace horror flick. The best set is easily Mars' studio, in one of the Chelsea warehouses piers overlooking the Hudson River, just steps from the West Side elevated highway. The most notable -- and campy scene -- erupts at Columbus Circle, at a ridiculous fashion shoot involving burning cars and models in lingerie and fur coats. Oh Columbus Circle! Were you ever so fun?

You get a taste of Hell's Kitchen in a brisk chase scene involving Tommy Lee Jones' cop character, his feathered hair flapping in the wind. But seeing Soho was more striking to me, devoid of shopfronts, mysterious flat warehouses during the day that open to become large, disco-thumping galleries at night. There are still galleries in Soho, of course, but the one in 'Laura Mars' is a big, hokey circus. (The director even condescendingly throws in a dwarf, to get the point across.)



The secrets of late 70s Soho art and fashion worlds are expanded and distorted in Martin Scorsese's masterpiece After Hours, one of my absolute favorite New York movies ever. The director doesn't intend reality, but his movie shaped the perspective of Soho culture for those of us who weren't in it.

Like 'Laura Mars', but far more intentional, the plot conceit involves absurd artwork -- in this case a "Plaster of Paris bagel and cream cheese" sought out by hapless computer geek Paul (Griffin Dunne). He is an uptown exaggeration, even though he works at the not-too-uptown Metropolitan Life Tower. No matter; he descends into Soho and its late-night collection of kooks almost get him killed.

Did New Yorkers really see Soho as otherworldly like this? Despite the surreal plot and vast, empty streets, 'After Hours' is filled with identifiable places, including the Emerald Pub (subbing as the 'Terminal Bar') and the Spring Street subway station. But the Moondance Diner (seen below) is long gone. From Scorsese to Wyoming.

Both are on DVD, both are must-sees for New York lovers. I wouldn't exactly call 'Laura Mars' a conventional 'classic' unless you love thrillers you can also laugh unintentionally at.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Know Your Mayors: David Dinkins



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.

As we cap a historical week for our nation, it seems appropriate to take a brief look at New York City's own first African-American leader, David Dinkins, mayor of the city from 1990 to 1993, and the last Democrat to hold the office. My only hesitation in bringing this up is that I hope Obama has far better luck than Dinkins, whose tenure was most notable for at least appearing to make almost everything worse. (Appearances, however, can be deceiving.)

Dinkins is one of the most successful products of a Harlem political machine that has been slowly churning since the 1920s, when a huge population influx into the neighborhood bestowed political influence to community leaders and business owners.

Not surprisingly, many of today's political organizations are spinoffs of Tammany Hall from its last waning days of power, and so came J. Raymond Jones, Tammany Hall's first black leader in the 1960s.  Jones developed his own political coterie here -- known as the 'Harlem Clubhouse' -- and proceeded to foster some of New York's saaviest political talents, including New York congressman Charlie Rangel and former deputy New York mayor Basil Patterson, father of our current governor.

Dinkins became a core member of this influential political group. (Rangel actually calls himself, Dinkins, Patterson and Percy Sutton the "Gang of Four.") Although born in Trenton, New Jersey, David's family moved to Harlem during the 1930s, just as the neighborhood, once flourishing under a cultural renaissance, begin feeling the pinch of economic depression. After a stint in the Marines, Dinkins returned to New York, became a lawyer and slowly began his ascent into Harlem's growing political scene.

His close political connections with the Clubhouse granted him access to real opportunity -- first in the state assembly in 1966, then City Clerk in 1975 -- but it was his work with the city's lower class that endeared him to constituents. In 1985 he was elected Manhattan Borough President, often a springboard to the mayoralty.

From our vantage today, Dinkins is sandwiched between two great forces in New York City politics -- Ed Koch and Rudy Guiliani. Koch however, bore the brunt of New York's pitiful economic downturn during the 1980s and Dinkins handily defeated him in the Democratic primary. Guiliani, on the Republican side, was a far more formidable foe; fresh from defeating the wealthy Ronald Lauder (son of Estee Lauder), Rudy put up a good fight against Dinkins, although a New York Times opinion piece laments: "voters have heard almost as much about Jackie Mason and Jesse Jackson as about David Dinkins and Rudolph Giuliani. So far, the two candidates haven't even managed to debate each other."

Ultimately, in November 1989, Dinkins defeated Guiliani, in the smallest margin of victory in modern times -- 47,080 votes.

Dinkins seems almost immediately carried off by events of the city. Although he was initially seen as a potential salve to the city's uneasy ethnic tensions, he was soon caught up in rocky political scandals, most involving racial violence.



None were as damaging as the Crown Heights riots of 1991. A deadly three days of racially fueled mayhem between West Indian and Jewish residents which left dozens injured, Dinkins was remarkably ineffective in quelling the violence and later was even accused of restraining police and refusing to get involved. It was a political disaster for Dinkins, one he was never able to recover from for the duration of his term.

In fact, the event disguises a surprising fact: Dinkins did successfully lower the city's crime rate and grow the city's police force.  It's widely argued that many of Dinkin's policies laid the ground work for Guiliani's many successes in the late 90s.

However, Rudy successfully lobbed Crown Heights back at Dinkins during an electoral rematch in 1993.  Although Dinkins still had great support in Manhattan, Rudy swept past him to officially end the Democratic hold on the mayor's office.

Dinkins is currently a professor at Columbia University. His term as mayor is still one of the most hotly debated even today.

And because he's a Bowery Boys fave, I thought you might like to know his thoughts on another controversial New York figure, Robert Moses (quote courtesy PBS.org):

"Robert Moses left a legacy. To be sure, we would not have had the kinds of development that we had, had he not behaved as he did. Which incidentally doesn't mean that it was necessarily a good thing to so behave. There was a lot of pain in the wake of some of the things that got accomplished and he fought with mayors and governors along the way, but he did achieve a lot of development that would not have occurred otherwise, and that no way could occur today."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bowery Boys Bookshelf: 'Butchery' and beauties

On January 31 1857, the body of dentist Harvey Burdell was found mangled on the floor of his suite at 31 Bond Street. In Benjamin Feldman's look at the murder and its famous trial, 'Butchery on Bond Street' he uncovers so many potential suspects that entire episodes of 'Murder She Wrote' could be scripted from a single page.

Suspicion, of course, mostly rests on Burdell's former lover Emma Cunningham, an attractive and elusive women suffers the abuses of a misogynistic press while remaining unsympathetic for much of the tale.

Feldman lays out the details of a love affair turned sour, intertwined with jealous family members, seedy bachelors and secret marraige vows. Notably, A. Oakley Hall makes an appearances, years before his scandals with Boss Tweed.

'Butchery' has the ingredients of a delicious gaslight thriller, far more successful a crime novel than period piece. The biographical details of Burdell and Cunningham are indeed rich but the tale's gothic qualities would have benefited from more atmosphere.

My favorite portions were rather tangental to the actual storyline -- solid depictions of Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn, and upstate Saratoga Springs, that "watering hole for the wealth and the aspiring middle class." It's worth getting to the third act, when Cunningham concocts a botched fake baby scheme so outrageous it gets the attention of P.T. Barnum.

Below: a Harpers Weekly of the 1857 Cunningham trial


You might say 'Ziegfeld: the Man Who Invented Showbiz' is a biography with more character than its subject. In fact, I would call this retelling of Florenz Ziegfeld's life by author Ethan Mordden more a performance than a book. But wouldn't Flo approve of that?

Mordden wryly recounts all of Ziegfeld's sexy, zany productions as though he had been backstage and were describing things from a corner booth in a nightclub later that night. One takes away the feeling of crazy possibility in those days, when Ziegfeld could throw any combination of girls, music and dance on stage to see if it would stick. Like a pageant, he parades by the reader every Ziegfeld production -- from Eugen Sandow to the final Follies -- with both reverence and all-knowing.

The author's vast knowledge of Broadway history is clearly displayed, but the writing is quirky, friendly, open but insider-y. He peers into Ziegfeld's heart and even dares prioritize Flo's true loves in life. (Ann Held, Lillian Lorraine, Billie Burke or Marilyn Miller: who wins?) After racing through the book in a couple days, I felt I had just drank an entire bottle of champagne.

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 boweryboysnyc@earthlink.net.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Shirley Chisholm: Brooklyn's best dressed pioneer



Between Obama's inauguration and Martin Luther King's birthday, it's hard not to look back with appreciation at prior figures in African-American history who got us to this moment. Of all of them, the one I'd like to have dinner with the most, on this eve of American history, would have to be the very first black female U.S. Representative, the belle of Bed-Stuy, and the most energetically attired Congresswoman, perhaps ever -- Shirley Chisholm.

For much of her childhood, Chisholm called Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn home, a restless neighborhood that for most of the last century was considered second only to Harlem as a cultural center for the city's black population.

Chisholm won a seat in the New York state legislature in 1964 but always dreamed to represent Brooklyn on a national level, in the U.S House of Representatives. She finally got her wish to represent her neighborhood when redistricting lines were finally redrawn -- finally allowing a black candidate to run (and win) in a largely black community -- and won her seat in Congress in 1968. Interestingly, one of her opponents was state senator William C. Thompson, father of our current city comptroller.

Politically saavy while remaining outspoken, she announced her candidacy for presidency in 1972: "I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States. I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I am equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political bosses or special interests. I am the candidate of the people."

She didn't stand a chance. Not in 1972. But back then, even that the gesture was taken seriously by some people -- she received 152 delegate votes at the Democratic National Convention -- is something to marvel at today. The days when somebody can be a symbolic 'black candidate' or 'woman candidate' on the national stage are most likely past us. It's impossible to observe Obama and the near-success of his closest Democratic competitor Hillary Clinton and not see the path she carefully tread before them.

One of my favorite Chisholm quotes: "I was the first American citizen to be elected to Congress in spite of the double drawbacks of being female and having skin darkened by melanin. When you put it that way, it sounds like a foolish reason for fame. In a just and free society it would be foolish. That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, black and a woman proves, I think, that our society is not yet either just or free."

You can find a few thorough bios on Chisholm all over the internet, but you should first check out the fabulous 2005 documentary on her, named for one of her books -- Unbought and Unbossed.

Friday, January 16, 2009

PODCAST: Ziegfeld!



Cue the dancing girls, lower the props, raise the curtain -- we're taking on Broadway's most famous producer, Florenz Ziegfeld! We give you a brief overview of the first days of Broadway, then sweep into Ziegfeld's life -- from his early successes (both professional and personal) to his famous Follies. And find out how the current Ziegfeld Theatre, a movie house, relates to the original Ziegfeld Theatre, home of Broadway's first 'real' musical, Show Boat.

Listen to it for FREE on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or click this link to listen to the show or download it directly from our satellite site.

CORRECTION: I mention that the Lion King is playing at the new New Amsterdam Theater. It DID play the New Amsterdam, but another Disney musical, Mary Poppins, resides there today.

The original Ziegfeld Theatre, built by Thomas Lamb and Joseph Urban, one of the glitziest stages and the home of 'Show Boat' (built 1927, demolished 1966)


Three years after the original was torn down, a movie theater bearing the Ziegfeld name was constructed by Emery Roth and Sons. Don't let its bland exterior fool you; this is one of the greatest movie screens in town.


Florenz Ziegfeld, for once not surrounded by actual girls


Anna Held, Ziegfeld's 'common law' wife, became a star in America thanks to Flo's often comically ridiculous press stunts


A New York Sun ad for the Jardin de Paris, the rooftop performance space at the New York Theater, touting the Follies of 1907


Some of the real mystique of the Ziegfeld girls comes from the provocative photography of Alfred Cheney Johnston, whose candid images were often the closest one got to these beautiful women. Below are a few examples of his work:

Marion Davies


Drucilla Strain


Billie Burke


Marilyn Miller


Just how big did all this make Ziegfeld? Cover-of-Time-Magazine big, that's how big. (Courtesy Time)


Klaw and Erlinger's crown jewel the New Amsterdam was the home for the Ziegfeld Follies for most of its years. The stage wouldn't see another hit that size for another 75-80 years, when Disney would renovate and move in the Lion King (now at the Minskoff Theatre).



In 1948, some Ziegfeld girls who had married well (and most of them did) put together a reunion to raise money for their sister chorines who weren't quite living it up so well.


For more information, I highly recommend you check out Musicals101's great coverage of the Ziegfeld phenomenon. If that's not enough, there's a new biography on Flo Ziegfeld by Ethan Mordden that's an absolute blast to read.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ultimate Flair: T.G.I.Friday's four Broadway goddesses


Imagine a Steve Madden shoe store in Times Square erecting a grand new palace to footwear, and atop its banner they decided to welcome its patrons and the throngs of Broadway theater goers passing by with sculptural likenesses of Angela Lansbury, Audra McDonald, Idina Menzel, and Julia Roberts.

That absurd theater dream actually happened -- eighty-three years ago. Polish-born Israel Miller was a successful importer of women's shoes from the 1920s well into the late 1960s, an early fashionista who learned his trade fitting ladies of Broadway during its formative years. It was an adroit way of self-promotion; the glamorous Ziegfeld girls wore his shoes home, and what lady doesn't want to look like a glamorous Ziegfeld girl?

By 1911, Israel opened his first shoe store at 1552 Broadway, the heart of the new theater world. Business boomed -- echoing the fortunes of Broadway itself -- and by 1926 absorbed the storefront next door, 1554 Broadway, to create a midtown footwear oasis for trendy women.

Today, Israel's former shrine to shoes is a TGI Friday's. But the gaudy striped signs of this chain restaurant fail to mask a remarkable glimmer of the building's glory days.

You can still see Miller's slogan etched into the marble -- The Show Folks Shoe Shop Dedicated to Beauty in Footwear. Sitting into the walls below are four statues of Broadway muses, four major stars of the stage when they were carved in 1929 -- drama icon Ethyl Barrymore, musical muse Marilyn Miller, operetta diva Rosa Ponselle and film's biggest female star Mary Pickford (yes, that's really her, in drag as Little Lord Fauntleroy).

But the building is as much a monument to 20th Century art as it is to the early days of Broadway. The first remarkable fact comes with the man who sculpted these stone beauties: Alexander Sterling Calder, father of the iconic mobile designer.

The second involves Miller, who in the 1950s commissioned a young graphic artist to invent whimsical, fresh shoe designs, radically dusting off his store's by-then dusty reputation. That illustrator, Andy Warhol, would later uses his assembly-line acumen and eye for product design to revolutionize the art world.

For more information about this remarkable landmarked building, check out this string of posted articles.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The First Inauguration: New York's big party for George


Obama's inauguration next Tuesday will closely adhere to the traditions of many presidents past, but with some serious leanings towards that other Illinois president Abraham Lincoln. But as ostentasious as some his plans seem -- even eating foods that Abe might have noshed on -- it can't possibly top the 'hope and change' of the original celebration for George Washington, America's first president and the only inauguration ceremony to take place in New York City, on April 30, 1789.

It took George seven entire days to get to New York from his home in Mount Vernon as his procession was met every step of the way with throngs of patriotic crowds and flamboyant celebratory displays. Meanwhile, on Tuesday April 21, Washington's vice president John Adams arrived in the city, two days ahead of the president-elect.

The building which greeted him, the former City Hall building on Wall Street, had been the center of city's government since 1699, when the British used materials from the city's demolished north defense wall to construct it. The heavily remodeled building which now stood in its place, later to be called Federal Hall, was designed by successful city contractor and former Continental Army engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant. According to David McCullough, "it was the first building in America designed to exalt the national spirit, in what would come to be known as the Federal style." (Sadly, this building was ripped down in 1812; the 'Federal Hall' which stands in the same spot today was built as a customs house in 1842) L'Enfant would later work on the creation of Washington DC from Maryland swampland and be fired from that project -- by George Washington.

Below: a look at 'old City Hall' well before the thorough developments up and down Wall Street


George finally arrived in New York two days later, April 23, via a barge from Elizabeth, New Jersey, and was met at the Wall Street pier by the current mayor of New York James Duane and the state's governor and DeWitt Clinton's uncle George Clinton. From there, he was taken to his new home on Cherry Street (long demolished, around near the Brooklyn Bridge anchorage today) and spent the day greeting dozens of well-wishers. That night, Clinton hosted an elaborate dinner in his honor; the pomp and extravagance by this time were probably getting tiresome to the stately Virginian farmer.

Meanwhile Adams spent the week at Federal Hall in Senate chambers, hashing out such things we take for granted, such as how to even address the new president, until at last they were ready for the ceremony to begin, on April 30. According to Ron Chernow, "Washington rose early, sprinkled powder in his hair, and prepared for his great day." Like some fairy tale detail, Washington left his Cherry Street home at noon in a yellow carriage driven by white horses, legions of soldiers marching proudly behind him. The streets of Manhattan were clogged with people, over ten thousand cramming Broad and Wall streets, as far as the eye could see both ways. Sitting on the balcony of his own home on Wall Street was Washington's closest confidante Alexander Hamilton, certainly reveling in the moment.



After greeting the Congress inside, Adams led Washington to the second floor balcony along with Robert Livingston, the Chancellor of New York (the highest judicial office in the state) who held out the a bible owned by St. John's Lodge freemasons and delivered the oath of office, probably not loud enough for anybody in the street to actually hear.

Washington, possibly even less audible than Livingston, swore to "faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States" and then possibly threw in a 'so help me God' for good measure (although there are some doubts).

New Yorkers went crazy then, firing cannons, screaming and waving flags, playing music and dancing in the streets. After returning inside to address the new Congress -- by this time with tears in his eyes -- Washington and his entourage went up Broadway to receive on invocation at St. Paul's Church, the scrappy survivor of the great fire the destroyed much of the city in 1776. Washington would be a regular here for his entire stay in New York; the pew where he planted himself for two years is still on display there (below).



Martha Washington would not arrive in town for another month, but that didn't stop the parties. The official inauguration ball took place a week later, on May 7th, at the Assembly Rooms at 115 Broadway. Although a bit stiff and silent, George was still popular with the ladies and danced "two cotillions and a minuet," often seen with Alexander Hamilton's young bride Eliza. When Martha arrived on May 17, landing at Peck Slip, she was greeted with similarly grand fanfare, and yet another ball was held in her honor.

Believe it or not, there are some remnants of this unique event still in the city. Starting January 20th, the New York Historical Society will exhibit artifacts from that day, including a balustrade saved from old Federal Hall before it was demolished and George's 'inauguration chair'. And down at Federal Hall you can find other artifacts, including Washington's bible, on permanent loan from St. John's Lodge.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Friday, January 9, 2009

Know Your Mayors: George B. McClellan Jr.



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.

Perhaps no mayor of New York City this side of Fiorello Laguardia has ever overseen so drastic a change to the landscape of the city than George B. McClellan Jr. For six extraordinary years (1904-09) McClellan presided over the openings of the New York Public Library, Chelsea Piers, Grand Central Station, christened the first subway service and licensed the first taxi cab.

But oddly, George is perhaps best remembered today for his half-hearted but successful campaign against motion pictures.

If his name sounds vaguely familiar, thank your high school history teacher. George Jr. was the son of the ultimately disastrous Civil War general of the same name, a Union general first fired by Lincoln, then defeated by him in the presidential election of 1864. Despite this, George McClellan Sr. did become the governor of New Jersey, providing his son with a model of leadership he would implant into his many civic duties.

Below: Papa McClellan


The dashing George Jr -- or you can call him Max, his family did -- is one of New York's few foreign-born mayors, born in 1865 in Dresden, a few years before it was absorbed into Germany. Growing up in New Jersey while father governed, George graduated from Princeton in 1886 and a couple years later ended up as a writer for the revitalized New York World, Joseph Pulitzer's popular scandal sheet, in its brand new office on Newspaper Row -- just across the street from George's future office at City Hall.

Actually, George was mayor before he was really mayor. Name recognition and an inherited interest in public service placed him on the Board of Aldermen (precursor to the City Council) by the 1890s, and he was elected board president in 1893. The next year, due to an absence from the city by sitting mayor Thomas Gilroy, McClellan, age 29, became the acting leader for a month.

His biggest controversy? Raising on Irish flag over City Hall for St. Patricks Day, outraging local schoolboys. No, really. He even received threats of bodily harm, but held firm. Deal with it, he told the boys.

Snugly in bed with Tammany Hall and a favorite of ole Boss Crocker, McClellan spent the next several years representing New York in the U.S. House of Representatives. He returned to the New York scene in 1903 as a Tammany instrument to oust mayor Seth Low, a reform 'clean-up' mayor who may have irked more than a few tavern owners. McClellan, with Tammany's blind eye towards New York's more lascivious industries, handily won. And would stay in office for six years, making him New York's longest serving mayor since Richard Varick in 1789. (The man he beat for re-election in 1905? William Randolph Hearst.)

New York blossomed under McClellan's reign, with many long boiling projects coming to fruition. One new bridge, the Williamsburg, opened under his watch with another (Manhattan Bridge) well on its way, he unveiled lofty plans to improved the city's water system, and he gave Longacre Square a new name (Times Square). The Battery Maritime Terminal (built in 1906), that jade beauty next to the Staten Island ferry, is even dedicated to McClellan. New York Public Library was nearly completed -- and Grand Central Terminal half-way done -- by the end of his term.

An intrepid tale springs up about McClellan involving the grand opening of the IRT's first subway tunnel in October 27, 1904. Meant only go ceremonially start up the engine of the first train, McClellen requested that he would like to actually go ahead and drive the train all the way up to Harlem! (And Bloomberg brags that he only rides the train.) He deftly steered the new engine up to 103rd Street before handing over the controls.

To me, McClellan's biggest contribution is valuable indeed -- overseeing the construction of the Chelsea Piers (below), which allowed massive steamships to dock in the city, turning New York into a truly international port. By 1907, in fact, the Lusitania was already at dock here, although the terminal wasn't officially completed until 1910.



Yet with all of these remarkable changes, the story which arises the most about McClellan involves his war against a technological threat -- the rise of cinema. By 1905, the city had dozens of 'movie houses', nickelodeons and amusement arcades where patrons could pay a penny to see the birth of the motion picture. A theater owned by Marcus Loews, quickly to become the biggest name in film exhibition, opened in New York in 1904; the city got its own production company, Biograph, in 1906.

This new moving pictures craze was sweeping the United States -- two million patrons in 1907, according to the Saturday Evening Post -- and like everything foreign and new, it was soon seen as a corrupting influence, 'demoralising' children, a bastard offspring of vaudeville and burlesque.

Some accounts have McClellan ardently opposed to this new medium on those grounds. I prefer a more rational theory: by 1908, McClellan had his eye on a new job -- president of Princeton University -- and in order to get that, he had to be seen as sticking up for higher morals. (Something Tammany candidates aren't exactly known for.)

Below: McClellan steps from a newfangled automobile onto the streets of Union Square in 1908 (pic courtesy Shorpy)



And so, on the technicality of being dangerous fire hazards, McClellan tore up the licenses of over 550 motion picture exhibitors -- yes, that's right, 550. (Nickelodeons were in music halls, taverns, even a few restaurants.) Most were not reinstated until the debut of New York's Board of Censorship in 1909, a reviewing board which ended up not censoring much of anything. By the 1910s, movie makers and theatre owners were becoming too powerful to overrule.

By why was McClellan looking for a new job in the first place? In 1908, he was not long for the mayor's office. Like blessed as Tammany Hall golden boys, McClellan got a conscious in his second term, hiring many non-Tammany employees and rooting out a mountain of Tammany related corruption in civic offices. This turncoat did not please new Tammany boss Charlie Murphy, no it didn't. In 1909, Tammany put up their new contestant, the colorful William J. Gaynor. (Incidentally, he also beat William Randolph Hearst, in his second and final unsuccessful run at the office.)

McClellan never became the president of Princeton, but he spent his remaining years teaching there until 1931, when he retired to the good life, writing books about his real passion -- the history of Venice. He died in 1940 in Washington DC and was buried in Arlington Cemetery. But clearly, it's to New York that he belong.

Below: in this 1905 Harpers Weekly cartoon, McClellan is seen as a little boy holding the Tammany tiger, devouring the 'fusion candidate' (Seth Low). President Theodore Roosevelt peeks from the side. (He always did like wildlife.) Within three years, McClellan would be the devoured.



Garden of Murfiz = Tammany Boss Charlie Murphy