Monday, August 31, 2009

History in the Making: Au Revoir Cafe des Artistes


French sailors in Central Park, June 1943 (Pic courtesy Library of Congress)

Tres tragique! The Café des Artistes, a 92 year old staple of the Upper West Side, originally opened as a haven for literally starving artists, closed for good over the weekend. [Eater]

Meanwhile, in Central Park, Tavern On The Green isn't going away, but the name might be changing. [Newsday]

Grave anniversary: The Battle of Brooklyn is reenacted at Green-Wood Cemetery on its 233rd anniversary. [Ny1]

On the Waterfront: The Museum of City of New York opens The Edge of New York: Waterfront Photographs next Monday. Art Daily presents a preview. [Art Daily]

Forgotten New York complete their survey of Bedford Avenue, one of Brooklyn's most fascination and architecturally varied thoroughfares. Grant Gore, Studebakers, medieval castles and mythical dragons! [Forgotten NY]

The 42nd Annual West Indian Carnival Festival begins this Thursday. The parade is next Monday. Visit their official website for more info. (West Indian American Day Festival]

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Creation of Central Park: Redux



Currier and Ives' flamboyant and unnatural depiction of an afternoon in Central Park in 1869. The building with the flag is the Arsenal, years before it became part of the Central Park Zoo.


We don't have any regular podcast this week; however I am reposting our first Central Park episode called 'The Creation of Central Park, re-launching it in our secondary feed NYC History: Bowery Boys Archive. Images of some of the things we talk about now pop up on your media player while you listen. So if you've heard this one already, you might want to give it another go.

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

PODCAST Download this show it for FREE on iTunes or other podcasting services. Click this link to download it directly from our satellite site. You can also still download the old, non-imaged version here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

City of Cities: Nine neighborhoods with ambitious names



ABOVE Co-op City: the housing development most likely to be seen from space

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

Why are there so many cities in the city of New York City?

New York neighborhoods are often products of their geographic and even geometric environments. They are made of Heights and Estates, Terraces, Channels and Ports, Parks, Hills and Kills, Beaches and Points, Villages and Towers and Gardens, Circles and Squares, not to mention Islands. Some of these name are reflections of the natural environment, others are artificial titles given to real estate properties hoping to lure residents with more natural sounding, civilized names.

But there's actually quite a number of neighborhoods within the metropolitan area with loftier intentions -- neighborhoods that have 'city' in their name. Many of them are only cities in the sense of being self-contained housing units. Others are virtual cities, unofficial collections of streets cut off from the main circulation of the city.

But a couple of these places, believe it or not, were once actually self-governing places, their names reminiscent of pre-consolidation days:

Alphabet City, Manhattan
By virtue of starting only at 14th Street, the avenues A through D feel segregated from the flow of the city. Almost from the moment they were carved into the city's grid in 1811, the avenues were home to middle and lower classes. The heart of German culture thrived here in the 19th century, with Eastern Europeans taking it over the 20th. Where calling it a city might once have been derogatory, today as the anchor of the East Village, it underscores its individuality.


Battery Park City, Manhattan
Like Alphabet City, this lower Manhattan planned community, nearby Battery Park, is removed by geography from the regular patterns of the city; unlike Alphabet, every structure is meticulously aligned with the rest. Created on a bed of World Trade Center landfill, most of BPC is younger than its average tenants, with the first structures only started in 1980. It doesn't feel like New York, which is a benefit for some.


City Island, Bronx
For much of its pre-revolutionary European occupancy, this most New England-y of New York islands was owned by the Thomas Pell family (also owners of what would become Pelham Bay Park and Westchester County, among other things). In 1761, speculator Benjamin Palmer bought the property and renamed it New City Island in a bout of wishful thinking; by calling it a 'new city', he hoped to turn property into a thriving upriver port. Its future residents -- mostly oyster farmers -- dropped the 'new' from the name.

Co-Op City, Bronx
Still largely considered New York's greatest 'city within a city'. This super-massive housing community, still the largest co-op development in the world, rose from the ashes of failed amusement venture Freedomland U.S.A. (we have a podcast on that ) and opened in 1971. Like a regular city, Co-op City has its history of near bankruptcy, corrupt mismanagement and transportation woes.


Grant City, Staten Island
This eastern neighborhood of SI is actually one of New York's oldest 'cities', starting off with the rather fancy names of Frenchtown, then Red Lane, before being renamed during the Civil War after the Union's most famous general Ulysses S. Grant. Far from being secluded like other New York 'cities', Grant City sits nearby the borough's most historical communities New Dorp and Richmondtown, as well as Staten Island's highest point, at Todt Hill. (Above, St. Christopher's Roman Catholic Church in Grant City, pic courtesy NYPL)


LeFrak City, Queens
"Live a Little Better" is the slogan of this well-known housing development, started in 1960 and completed in 1969, from real estate mogul and "master of mass housing" Samuel LeFrak, the largest of several residential projects bearing the LeFrak name. The Lefrak Organization began over a hundred years ago with Aaron LeFrak. Samuel's son Richard was recently a judge on the Miss Universe pageant. (Pic above courtesy Life)

Long Island City, Queens
This is one of the only 'city' neighborhoods to actually have, in fact, started as a city. The official Long Island City was cobbled together via charter in 1870 from a cluster of surrounding villages, including Astoria, Steinway, Hunter's Point and others. It had a run of almost 30 years before being absorbed into the newly formed borough of Queens -- and the newly consolidated city -- in 1898. Among its many colorful mayors during this time of self-rule was one Paddy Gleason, nicknamed 'Battle Axe' for once personally chopping down an objectionable fence owned by the Long Island Railroad.

Starrett City, Brooklyn
Just west of JFK, this large housing development with almost 6,000 apartments sprang up in 1974 and by the 1980s became a controversial model of 'racial quota' rentals. It's recently shed its city status, changing its name to Spring Creek Towers in 2002.

Starrett, by the way, was the name of the development company and, like LeFrak, has nothing to do with the area its built on. The Starrett brothers Theodore and Paul were apprentices of Chicago architect (and creator of the Flatiron Building) Daniel Burnham in the 1890s; much later, their construction company tore down the original Waldorf-Astoria to make room for the Empire State Building.



Tudor City, Manhattan
Tudor City is just like LeFrak and Starrett, but with the virtue of being far older and more aesthetically pleasing. Developer Fred F. French swept away a rather dingy set of tenements in the 1920s -- the nearby slaughterhouses had yet to be cleared away to build the United Nations headquarters -- and hoped to lure middle-class families with the promise of a "human residential enclave".

His risky venture worked, partially because he elevated the buildings 30 feet above First Avenue and creating two 15,000-square foot private parks. Truly a 'city above a city'.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Pre-Trump Columbus Circle: 1933

Before Time Warner, before Trump International Hotel, before the Museum of Art and Design (click on photo for much greater detail)




And even further back (1921) ...

Monday, August 24, 2009

History in the Making: TGI Monday Edition



ABOVE Queens Castle: the Bodine Castle once stood in Long Island City at 4316 Vernon Boulevard, a private villa owned by a wealthy banker. The building was unfortunately demolished in 1966. Read more about it here

Uptown flair: An interview with Alan Stillman, who opened the world's very first TGI Friday's in 1965 -- in the Upper East Side (First Avenue and 63rd Street). He's also responsible for Smith & Wollensky, strangely enough. [City File]

Legends reunited: The 1969 Mets, World Series winners, were honored last night at Citi Field. Showing up for the ceremony: Yogi Berra, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan [Queens Crap]

A bad dream: Lockdown in Coney Island, as 'Dreamland Park' is shuttered by developer. [Brooklyn Paper]

Flash point: Looking back at the images of En Foco, a photography collective captured the forgotten bright spots of 1970s Bronx. [New York Times]

Dibs on Henry Hudson: Did the famous explorer land in Staten Island first? [SI Live]

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Mayor Charles Godfrey Gunther, Coney Island-bound



KNOW YOUR MAYORS 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.

Mayor C. Godfrey Gunther
In office: 1864-1865

His past glories were built on a mountain of fur pelts, and his future would wash up on the half-developed shores of Coney Island. But in 1961, it was Civil War that nearly derailed the political career of Charles Godfrey Gunther.

The groundwork was laid in 1857 by former mayor Fernando Wood, who rebelled against Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine he formerly led, to form his new political organization called Mozart Hall. This assembledge of working class reformers and Wood devotees elevated him back to City Hall in 1960, returning to the seat of power occupied by German paint mogul Daniel Tiemann, who had unseated Wood back in 1857.

Back in business, Wood heralded a feisty pro-South, anti-abolitionist stance, pitting himself against Albany and threatening to secede Manhattan from the state.

By the election of 1861 however, a swell of national support for the Union cause turned against Wood. The Democrats were in a precarious spot, splintered between rival Democratic groups. It's here in our story where we introduce Charles Godfrey Gunther, Tammany's official candidate for mayor in 1861.

Gunther was born at Maiden Lane and Liberty Street, on Feb 7, 1822 -- into a German family that had made its fortunes in the fur trade, rivals of the city's true fur king John Jacob Astor. Charles spent his youth in his father's tutelage, taking over the family business C.G. Gunther & Co.

Like so many others before him, Charles' business saavy and wealth caught the attentions of Tammany Hall. The furrier worked his way up through the political lodge, eventually becoming sachem in 1856.

He was Tammany's candidate for mayor in 1861, against Wood, and it would have made for a fine contest between them. In fact, Gunther would have won. (He scored all of 600 more votes than Wood.)

But of course, there was another contestant, the Republican George Opdyke. With Wood and Gunther appealing to the same constituencies, they split the traditional Democratic vote, and Opdyke ascended to office.

Perhaps Charles should have been grateful. The years 1862 and 1863 were not gracious times to be mayor of a major city. Opdyke's execution of military conscription upon the city's immigrants and his fumbled handling of the ensuing draft riots permanently damaged his political reputation.

By the fall of 1863, New Yorkers craving a change in leadership were given a strange buffet of choices. The Republicans, shedding Opdyke and at a serious political disadvantage, brought forth alderman and gun-maker Orison Blunt, inventor of the 'pepper box gun'. Tammany meanwhile offered up Francis I. A. Boole, a rather corrupt city official notable for heading the street cleaning department.

With these weak choices at such a pivotal period in history, rebels from both parties -- and heavily peopled with disenfranchised former Wood supporters -- split to form a temporary coalition of working class Irish and Germans.

With the strong support of the city's surging German newspapers, Gunther was chosen as their candidate. That November he swept past Blunt and Boole to become New York's 77th mayor. Boole took it especially hard; he "became insane and died shortly afterwards."

Was the German furrier an effective mayor? I can't quite figure out as original sources seem split. An "honest, pleasant gentleman, with frank and cordial manners," he's praised for his penny pinching tactics, at one time even cancelling a celebration of George Washington's birthday as it was thought to be too extravagant. In 1964, on the verge of a national election, he clamped down on any serious city celebrations of Union victory as being too 'political' in nature.

In a parallel to Bloomberg's recent efforts to relieve traffic congestion, Gunther also strived to clear the streets -- with the removal of slaughterhouses and roaming herds of cattle.

However, he was also seen as a rather weak political figure, with little influence over other city offices. Perhaps this was because he was honest and the bureaucracies of city government dreadfully corrupted. Running for re-election in 1865, he was crushed in the polling, with three other candidates out voting him. The victor that year was true-blue Boss Tweed crony John Hoffman.



Above: the Coney Island terminal for the Brooklyn, Bath and Coney Island Railroad line

Gunther's story doesn't end here. He became a prominent leader in New York volunteer fire department and eventually even a partner in a very lucrative venture -- the Brooklyn, Bath and Coney Island Railroad. It was this rail line that allowed thousands of New Yorkers to escape the city, eventually transforming Coney Island into a popular resort and amusement palace.

The train line, nicknamed Gunther's Road, operated "six steam locomotives and 28 passenger cars" and "carried almost 400,000 passengers" in 1882 alone. Gunther would even own his own resort out on Coney Island, although it burned down a few years later.

And I end with a rather colorful anecdote from a 1906 article about Mr. Gunther and his railroad, from The Third Rail:

"There was one engineer who had served in the war of the rebellion, and who was particularly patriotic, who painted his engine red, white and blue.

Gunther saw it from a distance, on its first trip, tearing across the country, and he was frantic.

"For God's sake, Drummond," he said, when he overtook his engineer, "whatever possessed you to paint that engine red, white and blue?'

"You're a true American, ain't you?" said Drummond.

"Yes, but-but-"

"Well, so am I."

"Yes, but that engine looks like a traveling barber shop."

Gunther could not convince Drummond, however, and the latter quit his job rather than submit to any alterations.

The engine was afterwards painted according to Mr. Gunther's ideas.

It was painted a flaring yellow."


Mr. Gunther died on January 22, 1885 and is buried at Green-Wood Cemetery.

ADDED: One of our Facebook fans reminded me of an even more spectacular fact about Mr. Gunther -- there was actually a short-lived Brooklyn neighborhood named after him. Guntherville was actually part of the pre-consolidation town of Gravesend and naturally featured many properties owned by C. Godfrey. The map below from 1873 illustrates its place along the Gravesend shore. Judging from comparing maps, it appears that part of Guntherville would later comprise the fleeting, beach side amusement venture Ulmer Park.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Picture Perfect: Irving Underhill captures New York style





Top: the Brooklyn Bridge in 1925. Bottom: Underhill on the boardwalk: the photographer captures a seemingly meloncholy day in Coney Island, with Childs Restaurant at right

Nobody in New York's early history captures the romance of early city life more than the first photographers -- the men and women who wiled away with expensive, limited and time-consuming photographic processes, bulky and decidedly unportable cameras, and a medium that was still struggling to find purpose.

New York's first master photographer Matthew Brady, famous for his Civil War battle images and unappreciated in his time, chose the city for the location of his studio but turned his camera over mostly to intimate subjects. Jacob Riis used his lense to expose social disparity in lower Manhattan. And the social fabric of the city was documented by Alice Austen, who balanced intimate images of neighborhood life with candids of big city bustle.

But the real glamour shots of the city most often came from big studio photographers, working not to present any kind of social illumination but for a profit. One of these was Irving Underhill (1872-1960), a successful photographer who also took pictures to be rendered as colored postcards or "souvenir cards".







More of his postcards can be found here. They're certainly pretty, with their saturated color turns regular New York scenes into unusual and cartoonish pastel paintings. The real beauty of New York comes alive in Underhill's regular, clean photographic documentation of basic city structures.

1910: 34th Street and 6th Avenue, shot from the roof of Macy's, looking east


1912: Luna Park along Surf Avenue in Coney Island


1919: Madison Square Park and the Flatiron Building, with the newly erected 'Victory Arch' celebrating the end of World War I


1920: Exchange Court building at 52 Broadway, one of dozens of Underhill subjects either radically revamped or demolished completely


The Hotel St. George in Brooklyn Heights, date of photograph unknown


Underhill opened his studio in 1896, specializing in "artistic portraits, city views and panoramas, group photographs, marine, legal and machinery photography."

He was so successful that his agency received exclusive commissions to photograph and promote new buildings like the Woolworth Building, which he would capture in timed intervals to track the construction process. Many years later, his name could be seen from blocks away, plastered along the top of his studios at Broadway and Park Place. You can see the words 'Irving Underhill, General Photographer' along the top of the image here, taken in 1922.



Underhill's early portfolio was printed in the 1904 book One Hundred And Sixty Glimpses of Greater New York, an incredible array of black and white images detailing city architecture in the midst of the gilded era. Each page is cleanly labeled and visual detectives will enjoy matching the images to what stands in these places today. You can look at most of the book on Google Books.

Below: the Manhattan Bridge plaza, 1917

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Chelsea's old Opera House: from robber barons to BBQ

In last Friday's podcast on the Hotel Chelsea, I mentioned a building that was located very near by called the Grand Opera House, at the northwest corner of 23rd Street and 8th Avenue. Here it is:




The opera house sprang up in 1868, the project of Samuel N. Pike, who purchased the land directly from Chelsea estate owner Clement Clarke Moore himself. In fact, the original Moore estate was only a block away.

The Pike Opera House, as it was called in those days, was Pike's play for legitimacy in New York. A German immigrant who arrived in the U.S. in 1837, Pike lived in New York for a few years and made his fortunes in wine imports. Aspiring to upper-crust tastes, Pike fell in love with opera music after viewing performances by PT Barnum chanteuse Jenny Lind.

Pike constructed a massive opera house in his adopted home of Cincinnati in 1859 and many years later built a companion here in Manhattan at 23rd Street. Pike's timing was off; theaters would crowd along 23rd Street in the coming years, but in 1860s, the wealthy preferred the Academy of Music down on 14th Street.

So the next year, Pike sold his lavish hall to two rather unlikely investors -- Jim Fisk and Jay Gould, grade-A robber barons, pals of Boss Tweed and the orchestrators of the Black Friday Panic of 1869. Why would these two nefarious characters want an opera house?



The house's upper floors doubled as the offices of their own Erie Railway venture. Fisk's mistress Josie Mansfield was frequently installed into productions at the newly named Grand Opera House; it was even rumoured her next-door apartment was connected to the opera house with an underground tunnel.

However it does seem that Fisk and Gould were legitimately aficionados of the theater, or at very least fans of the elite who would attend them, and the profits that would follow. The Grand Opera House would soon showcase a great number of theater endeavors outside of opera.

Mansfield would prove Fisk's downfall; her other lover Edward Stokes shot him in 1872. Mourners could stream through the lobby of the Opera House and observe Fisk's body laying in state there. Gould would operate the Opera House for several years afterwards, eventually renting it out to vaudeville shows and 'second-run' Broadway productions, its fortunes disintegrating as theater moved uptown and the Chelsea neighborhood became more middle-class.

Like many old stages before it, the Grand Opera House switched to films in the 1920s. RKO tried its best to rehabilitate the space, hiring Thomas Lamb to renovate the theater with modern flourishes, reopening the space as the RKO 23rd Street Theatre. The picture below is actually from the year before the renovation, which stripped away some of the the Grand Opera's frippery:



The site remained a movie house through the 40s and 50s, finally closing on June 15, 1960. In a further indignity, the Opera House was thoroughly gutted in a fire (seen in the picture below (courtesy Cinema Treasures):



And thus it was time -- to put in a strip mall! Today you can visit that very corner and enjoy a rather enduring Chicken Delight location or stop and have a Texas-sized margarita at the corner Dallas Barbecue.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The future of New York history, Twitter style....



The Bowery Boys finally exist in the Twitter world! But how, exactly, do you apply what we do to a medium that's brief, spontaneous and decidedly unhistoric?

On top of updates and previews about our podcasts, we'll also attempt to highlight history-related activities in the city, as well as observations as we walk around researching and exploring. If we find a weird plaque or statue, by God, we'll Tweet about it.

If you have a Twitter account and would like to follow along, just sign up to become a follower @boweryboys.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Chelsea Hotel, the muse of New York counterculture



Berniece Abbott looks up to the Chelsea, 1936

Arguably New York's least conventional hotel, the Chelsea Hotel (or rather, the Hotel Chelsea) is the one of New York's culture centers, a glamorous, art-filled Tower of Babel for both creativity and debauchery. From Mark Twain to Andy Warhol, it's been both inspiration and accommodation for artistic wonder.

We wind back the clock to the beginnings of the Chelsea neighborhood and to the hotel's early years as one of the city's first cooperative apartment buildings. What made the Chelsea so different? And why are people still fighting over this storied structure today?

PODCAST Download this show it for FREE on iTunes or other podcasting services. Click this link to download it directly from our satellite site.

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As always, click on pictures for a bigger view

Standing Tall The Chelsea Hotel, built in 1883, was originally intended as a cooperative apartment building for wealthy tenants. However, by 1905, the building was turned into a hotel. Throughout its history, the Chelsea accommodated residents staying there for a few days ... or a few decades. (Photograph by the the Wurtz brothers)



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Old Chelsea Mansion The neighborhood of Chelsea was carved from the estate of Captain Thomas Clarke and his descendants. Clarke named his large, hilly estate after the still-operating Royal Chelsea Hospital, a respite for retired British soldiers. The Clarke mansion home sat approximately where the intersection of 23rd and 9th Avenue is today -- just down the street from the Hotel Chelsea.



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Absolutely Fireproof Many of the Chelsea's sturdy amenities would come in handy when it began hosting rowdy musicians and artists. The buildings fireproofs claims would be put to the test when certain residents (Edie Sedgwick, Sid Vicious, to name a couple) would set fire to their rooms. And the building's soundproof walls would be of service when rock bands stayed here.



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Bird Of A Feather William Burroughs and Andy Warhol in a room at the Chelsea, from a scene in Abel Ferrera's documentary Chelsea On The Rocks, a film hopefully seeing the light of day very soon.



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Tragedy 1978 No resident of the Chelsea was as infamous as Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, a raucous tragic pair who literally tore up the hotel. Vicious woke from a drug stupor in his room on October 12, 1978 to find his girlfriend stabbed to death. Sid would eventually die of a drug overdose the next year. Below, her body is carried from the hotel.



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Below: A clip from Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls, filmed in various rooms at the hotel.



Wanna Know More? Your one-stop source for Chelsea Hotel history and recollection is Ed Hamilton's very fascinating, very opinionated Living With Legends: Hotel Chelsea blog and companion book Legends of the Chelsea Hotel.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bronx, Queens, Staten Island : we haven't forgotten!


The lovely ladies of Long Island City 1898

CALL FOR SUGGESTIONS! We're planning out our podcast episodes for the remainer of the year and we'd like your suggestions. We are readily aware that most of our shows are very Manhattan and Brooklyn centric. Since our show is very landmark or personality-centric, sometimes the other boroughs fall through the cracks.

However we'd like to touch on some aspects of Queens, Bronx or Staten Island history as well in an upcoming full-length podcast soon. So if you have any suggestions, please email them to both boweryboys@earthlink.net and to tom@boweryboyspodcast.com.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Tune in to the Bronx's Grand Concourse



We didn't have a podcast last week, but to tide you over, please check out a new podcast from Tablet Magazine about the 100th anniversary of the Grand Concourse, the lofty and defining Bronx thoroughfare built as a New York homage to the grand boulevards of Europe.

Tablet presents a conversation with Constance Rosenblum, author of the new book Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope Along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Listen to it here.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Cafe Wha?: the whys, wheres, whos and hows



FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER To get you in the mood for the weekend, every other Friday we'll be featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse clubs of the mid-1990s. Past entries can be found here.

LOCATION Cafe Wha?
115 Macdougal St, at Minetta Lane

Occasionally, the usual types actually did pack into Cafe Wha? -- the intellectuals, the progressive, heavy-lidded types. Some of them actually were true beatniks -- Sartre, cigarettes and turtlenecks -- although most were just regular college students, some hippie precursors mixed among them, or uptowners who were looking to see these so-called beatniks in their natural habitat. They all filtered into this plain, dark room on Macdougal Street, where revolutions were hatched nightly from a guitar or a harmonica.

Cafe Wha?, at 115 MacDougal Street, helped create and then outlived New York's pre-Vietnam War folk era, providing a stage for performers who would literally make music history.

Wha? was one in a string of Village 'baskethouses' as they were sometimes called, small music venues where a small wicker basket would be passed around for tips during performances. The music acts didn't get paid much; there were dozons of aspiring Woody Guthries in the Village, much of the talent interchangable. Performers would traipse up and down the street, playing several times in different places, sometimes on the street.

Many would stumble into Cafe Wha?'s unassuming, sometimes dingy doorway. The club was owned by Manny Roth, who would open here in the late 1950s. He would own a few nightclubs and lounges over time, including another folk venue Cock 'N Bull (later to become The Bitter End).

Roth's lineage would create a different source of musical inspiration in the form of his nephew David Lee Roth, to become the flamboyant frontman of Van Halen. Young David would frequently accompany Manny into the club and would often be left with whatever singer happened to be performing at the time (including, a few times, with Richie Havens.) Little David, destined for tight pants, never stood a chance.

Many of folk's most talented stars played the small Wha? stage, entertaining both bohemian and uptown audiences eager for new talent. Hilly Kristal, later the owner of New York's most influential rock club CBGBs, was a burgeoning folk singer who frequently performed here. "Those were fun years, the beatnik era," he said.

But the kernal of Wha?'s reputation lay with a wan, undistinguished looking boy named Bob Dylan. As the story goes, Cafe Wha? was the very first venue Dylan ever played in New York City, arriving there on his very first day in town on January 24, 1961. He auditioned for Roth, who hired Dylan to play behind one of Roth's stars Fred Neil, a folkster who would later write songs for Harry Nilsson.

Dylan would only perform as a solo artist at Cafe Wha? only in the afternoons and would perform for free. He would play for bigger audiences at night, but only as backup for Neil.

"I worked for Manny all afternoons, from twelve to eight," Dylan recalls. "There was constantly something happening on stage. You never really did get popular there, 'cause people never knew who you were....It was just a nonstop flow of people, usually they were tourists who were looking for beatniks in the Village."

Below: Dylan with Neil and singer Karen Dalton


According to a biography by Bob Spitz, the odd, gangly Dylan instantly set himself apart. "That voice! Nobody had ever heard anything like it before....Bob had perfected the tonsilly scranch, a dry, throaty tenor 'with all the husk and bark left on the notes', which, if you weren't actually looking at him, sounded like a middle-age hillbilly with emphysema."

Certainly he was perceived by some as a parody of a folk singer: raggy clothing, offbeat and sincere. He would eventually distinguish himself as a solo star at other venues -- most notably over at Gerde's Folk City, a venue which would launch him to fame.

But in February 1961, he was just second-fiddle to Neil, who wasn't the only notable headliner on the Wha? stage. Noel Stookey had a successful stand-up routine at the club long before he took the stage name Paul which fit nicely between the names Peter and Mary. However the performer that interests me most was another folk singer who would more lucratively abandon music altogether -- Lou Gossett Jr. As in Officer and a Gentleman Lou Gossett Jr., quite a talented and well-known folk musician in the early 1960s.

Like a handful of other Village music spots, Cafe Wha? helped create the soundtrack for New York counterculture, enriched the Village's rich reputation for the different. By the mid-60s, Wha? would diversify its musical acts. For instance, a New York Times article from 1965 a 'Beatles backlash' emanating from the Cafe What basement in the form of 'modern blues'.

At the suggestion of Richie Havens (who also got his start at Wha?), a young guitar player Jimi Hendrix auditioned for Roth and got a three-month gig here in the summer of 1966, performing with a group called the Blue Flames. Hendrix and the Flames performed funkified covers of popular songs, certainly the most dynamic house band one can possibly imagine. Curiously, Hendrix and Dylan, the two great stars of Wha?, met only once, and it was at another Village bar, Kettle of Fish.

Around this time another rock band The Castiles would frequently perform here. The group would dissolve after a couple years, and its lead singer, Bruce Springsteen, would continue his slow climb to fame.

Roth would continue to operate the club for two more decades, presenting a host of entertainers from comedians like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor to definitely-not-folk-acts like Kool and the Gang.

Roth sold Cafe Wha? in 1988 but would go on to own other performance venues like the West End Gate. Cafe Wha? is open today under different management, hosting a roster of rock and soul artists. I'm not sure however if they still pass about a basket.




Thursday, August 6, 2009

Murder unearthed at a condemned Bowery building



Old Hester Street: Could that gentlemen be the murderer*?

Grim news today from the Lower East Side: the residents of 128 Hester Street have been forced to evacuate their home due to the structure being declared 'unsafe' by the Department of Buildings. And boy, is it. The terribly dilapidated tenement suffered "cracks on the wall, holes in the ceiling, termites on the floor, holes in the floor" according to one tenant.

The building, right off the Bowery, was erected in 1910, and looks every bit of it; however the building it replaced at the same address had long before achieved a bit of notoriety itself. Like many buildings in the area, 128 Hester Street housed a former saloon, called The Old Stand, finding itself in the headlines one October 1906.

Across the street was another saloon called The Star. Early one morning, officers discovered a man slumped in the doorway with a knife wound to the heart. The victim, one 'Yaller' Wilson (nicknamed for his yellowish complexion), died of his injuries shortly after.

Who killed Yaller? Inconclusive from the records I've found, but one suspect is a former employee and bartender at the Old Stand, Joseph Coyne, who was taken in for questioning. He claimed he attempted to stop the altercation between Wilson and an unknown man, receiving a "cut across the back of the hand."

Also suspiciously on hand was Wilson's own wife Emma who provides the police with an odd story in which she seems to have entered the Star saloon with the same 'unknown man' and suspected murderer, who then go into an argument with her husband. This is truly a rough and tumble group; the events all seem to take place between the two saloons in the wee hours of the morning.

Enjoy reading the original report in the New York Times to see if you can make sense of this strange, mysterious murder.

Police believe Yaller was extorting money from the stranger, who met the threat by killing Wilson. But is the unknown man the real murderer, or are our two suspects hiding something? The suspect is "45 years old...had a dark complexion and a sandy mustache, and wore a brown suit and a black derby hat."

*No, probably not. This picture was taken a good ten years before the murder took place. Plus, everybody wore black derby hats back then.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Still more Brooklyn Bridge jumpers, attention seekers



Illustration of Brodie's infamous jump, from a 1939-40 World's Fair brochure George Dessel's Old New York, advertising the Old New York section of the fiar created by Messmore and Damon

Apparently, it's still the rage to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge, as a forlorn soul (or misguided daredevil) plunged off the side last night, according to Gothamist.

The most famous man to jump from the Bridge -- tavern owner and theater star Steve Brodie -- actually turned his cheap stunt into a cottage industry. But did he really do it? Read more about Brodie's adventures here.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Louis Armstrong: the real king of Queens



Today's the birthday of music icon Louis Armstrong, a child of New Orleans (born in 1901) but a proud resident of Queens for almost 30 years, until his death in 1971.

Above, Louis luxuriates at his local Queens barber in 1965. Below, Armstrong belts out his latter-day hit song 'Hello Dolly' at a New York club. His home, at the bottom, has been transformed into a museum in his honor. (Photos by John Loengard, taken June 1965, courtesy LIFE images)