Friday, May 28, 2010

CBGB & OMFUG: Punk music history on the Bowery

Photo courtesy araceli.g, Flickr

PODCAST Modern American rock music would have been a whole lot different without the rundown dive mecca CBGB's, a beat-up former flophouse bar that made stars out of young musicians and helped shape the musical edge of downtown Manhattan. Owner Hilly Kristal may have initially envisioned a place for 'Country Blue Grass and Blues', but the music spawned by this little hole in the wall would define the contours of American punk and new wave.

The Ramones, Blondie, the Talking Heads and hundreds of others bands would never have been the same without this dank little club with the most notorious bathroom stalls in New York. Tune in to hear a tale of the club's rather inauspicious start and find out why, even as a venerated music icon, it was forced to close its doors.

You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or get it straight from our satellite site.

Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys: CBGB & OMFUG

Hilly Kristal, back in the day. CBGB's was originally Hilly's On The Bowery, a spin-off of a far more successful West Village venue that frequently hosted performers like Bette Midler and Jerry Stiller. Hoping to draw a more music oriented crowd, Kristal changed the name to reflect broad tastes: Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers.

Initially unimpressive by any metric of musical quality, the scraggly group of guys from Forest Hills, Queens who formed The Ramones soon become a staple of the CBGB stage and the one of the most influential acts of the American punk style. If there's a voice to 315 Bowery, most likely it's that of Joey Ramone. (Photo by Allan Tannenbaum, from here)

(Photo from here)

Deborah Harry and Chris Stein debuted on the CBGB stage as members of the Stilettos used the club to make their transformation into Blondie, the most successful group borne of Hilly's Bowery club. Chris and Debbie are seen below with Arturo Vega, 1978. (Photo by Lisa J Kristal, photo from here)

Hilly in later years. The club become a high-profile victim of Bowery gentrification and had to shut its doors in 2006. It lived on briefly as a St. Mark's clothing shop, even as its old location become home to a John Varvatos menswear boutique. Photo by Peter Sutherland (here)

Check out the official CBGB blog for lots of great stuff associated with the club, including lots of old photos and that full color 'walk-through of the club. You might want to take a shower after viewing it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

History in the Making: Fleet Week Edition

Above: New York's westside, 1945, by Andreas Feininger (Courtesy Google Life images)

No, that's not a touring revival of 'On The Town.' Those are actual sailors. [Fleet Week schedule]

It's the 60th anniversary of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. Enjoy one of Robert Moses's more controversial creations and be thankful it's not a Brooklyn-Battery bridge. [Gothamist]

Were there ever height regulations placed on buildings in New York City? The Tenement Museum Blog has the answer.

A tale of two wives in 1901 somehow manages to tie to the construction of the Williamsburg Bridge. Truly, "complications of a peculiar character"! [Virtual Dime Museum]

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Antoni Gaudi's grand New York hotel -- built by sci-fi

Joshua Jackson, looking down at Gaudi in an alternate universe. Courtesy Fringe Files

I promise, this is my last post on fake New York City history for awhile, but I couldn't let the season finale of the FOX sci-fi series Fringe pass without comment.

A running scientific theory running through the series is the notion of a parallel universe co-existing with ours, with some not so subtle differences. We discovered this alternate universe last season when a character popped inside the still-standing World Trade Center. In the harbor sits the Statue of Liberty, in her original copper sheen, assumably off-limits to tourists and since 1989, home of the nation's Department of Defense.

In this universe, it appears the grave threat comes from within its very fabric, not terrorists. Madison Square Garden -- and the 10,000 people within it -- fall victim to an expanding wormhole in 1999 and are contained in ghastly amber cocoon. And if you think that's bad, you should see Boston!

Silhouetted above this frightening fantasy skyline, however, is a work of art straight out of a New York City dream -- the Grand Hotel, built in 1908, and designed by one of the world's most eccentric architects, Antoni Gaudi. A spacecraft like mound of rounded forms, zeppelin-like curves shooting in the sky, mocking the Beaux-Arts and seeming like something that could be built in the city today (or tomorrow). Unlike the city's space-time mishaps however, the Grand Hotel, believe it or not, was really planned by Gaudi to be an actual skyscraper.

Gaudi's original sketch:

Gaudi's talents lived apart from the styles of his contemporaries at the turn of the century, appreciated daily by the citizens of Barcelona in many otherworldly buildings he created, most famously La Pedrera, and growing spires of the Sagrada Família. In 1906, it appears Gaudi was approached by two businessmen with property in New York, asking him to design a luxury hotel in the style of the Waldorf-Astoria on 34th Street.

This being Gaudi, of course, the resultant sketches (for a structure he called Hotel Attraction) were nothing like the rectangular and domed objects currently rising above New York. At 1,016 feet, the monstrous hotel would have towered over the plans of F.W. Woolworth, whose own skyscraper was still in the planning stages in 1908.

This odd shape would have glistened with alabaster and bits of glass and tile. The interior would have included an immense hall ringed with circumferal galleries above it and decorated with sculptures of every American president. Below this, guests would enjoy a cavernous restaurant decorated with cosmic murals and a concert hall with ceilings 100 feet overhead. This alien masterpiece was slated to sit in the exact area where the World Trade Center would later be built.

The Hotel Attraction never made it off the drawing boards, but there were some efforts by ardent Gaudi fans championing it as the ideal replacement for the Twin Towers after 9/11. Could you imagine if they'd actually decided to build it today? It's not so strange an idea. Gaudi's cathedral is still being built in Barcelona. And in our alternate universe, the Gaudi's grand hotel looks just spiffy.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Podcast Rewind: The Fate of Five Points

How did the city's worst neighborhood become this park?

A special illustrated version of our podcast 'Five Points Part 2: The Fate of Five Points" is now available on our NYC History Archive feed.

In our second podcast on the notorious Five Points neighborhood, we see how the district changed with the influx of new immigrants and the valiant attempts to reform the seedier elements. With the new Italian and Chinese residents, the culture changed drastically, critical shifts that are still reflected in the neighborhoods of Chinatown and Little Italy today.

Who was the man who helped to clear Five Points from the landscape forever, and what famous park designer is associated with its replacement in the streets of downtown Manhattan?

Original show released August 30, 2008

You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, You can listen to the cleaned up audio version right here: The Fate of Five Points

Or view the enhanced version here:
The Bowery Boys: The Fate of Five Points

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Why enjoy your childhood when you can shine shoes?

Another day older (seven or eight years old, to be exact) and deeper in debt: the daily grind of the young bootblack at City Hall Park, photos by Lewis Wickes Hine, dated July 25, 1924. (Courtesy LOC)

Hine was a social reformer, similar to Jacob Riis, who used photography to illustrate the reality of poverty in the city. He would go on to produce some of the greatest photos ever taken.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Where the subway ends: neighborhood stations

Above: Outside the Greenpoint Avenue station, Brooklyn

I'm giving a shout out to my old dear friend Lisa Gidley, an accomplished photographer currently living in Portland, OR, who has recently re-introduced her fascinating photography series entitled Station to Station. Since it was a collection done between 2002-2004, it's now technically an intriguing window into recent changes in the city.

She went to every subway station in the city -- all five boroughs -- and the results display the subtle flavors of New York's varied neighborhoods. According to Lisa: "Each photograph was made within a square block of one of the station's entrances or exits, generally less than two minutes' walk away. No photo could include the subway station itself. (Elevated outdoor tracks were fair game, though.) All photos were made with a medium-format camera on negative film and printed in a color darkroom."

Since they were taken between 2002 and 2004, it's especially fun to see how many things are exactly the same -- and others radically different. She's still in the process of putting up the entire series -- one a day! -- but quite a lot of them are already up now. You can go to Station To Station to check them out.

Can you guess where these places are?



(and here)

All photography by Lisa Gidley

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

First officer down: Highbinder riots at St Peter's Church

Broadway and City Hall, in 1809. The mobs of the so-called 'Augustus Street Riot' would have scuffled just to the west of this illustration. (Courtesy NYPL)

According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, there have been 778 New York law enforcement officers who have died in the course of duty. Fourteen of the last fifteen were those men and women who succumbed to 9/11-related illnesses. The last firearm-related death, Omar J. Edwards, came almost a year ago, in a strange, tragic case of mistaken identity.

The official count considers all officers from as far back as 1802 and the days of the New York City watch under the supervision of its renown High Constable Jacob Hays. (See our podcast below for more information.) Hays would be the sole administrator of this early form of law enforcement and would lead the group until the formation of the New York Municipal Police in 1845.

The watch's first casualty came in 1806. The man's name was Christian Luswanger, murdered in the line of duty during a very curious riot.

This was still a city shaking off its colonial trappings and still finding its identity. The mayor of New York that year was 37-year-old DeWitt Clinton, the well connected nephew to the former governor of New York and a man with great things in his future. The British had been gone for over two decades, and the city and its port were rapidly growing. But the real jump starts to the city's economy and expansion -- the Erie Canal, the debut of the steamboat, the Commissioners Plan -- would come in the next decade.

New York was small but restless. When mayor Edward Livingston formed the night watch in 1801, it required only a handful of men, overseen by a Watch Committee on the city council (or Common Council). By 1806, all watchmen reported to Hays, and the constable reported to the council, who often directly advised on priorities. "The Captains of Watch in the first district [should] be particularly attentive to the neighborhood of Burling Slip," according to the minutes of one council meeting.

Hays supervised a couple captains for each of New York's wards -- captains with such sturdy names as Magnus Beekman, Nicholas Lawrence, Gad Dumbolton and William Van Wart. Those captains had other men reporting to them, including Christian Luswanger, of which almost nothing is known -- regular watchmen didn't appear in the council payrolls, only the captains -- nothing at all, except for the event which took his life. An event sometimes referred to as the Augustus Street Riots*.

In 1806, St Peter's Church was the only parish in town if you were a practicing Catholic. (The current building, sometimes called Old St. Peter's, a simple, neo-classical gem near the WTC site, was built over the old structure in 1840.) It's most famous congregant would be Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American to be declared a saint.

Built in 1785, the church (at right) was a perpetual target of anti-Catholic sentiment, and violence would erupt here on Christmas morning, 1806. As worshippers gathered for midnight mass, a group of rowdies gathered outside, prepared to disrupt services.

One source, perhaps drawing from a contemporary New York Evening Post article, calls the group of about fifty a 'gang' called the Highbinders. However I'm not exactly sure it was any kind of an organized gang. The word 'highbinder' would eventually come to mean any kind of gangster and would even be slang for a corrupt politician. The first 'gang' of New York is commonly thought to be the Forty Thieves, who wouldn't surface for at least another twenty years.

Simply consider them a massive of drunken, anti-Catholic thugs -- sailors according to one source, "a nativist gang of apprentices and propertyless journeyman butchers" according to Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace -- all looking to cause trouble. Parishioners ran to get their alderman who eventually broke up the crowd. However they returned the next night -- Christmas night -- far more incensed, only this time the churchgoers were ready, armed with weapons. Certainly the defenders were not merely parishioners than other Irish immigrants who had heard about the prior evening's altercation and came looking for a fight.

They got one. The two groups clashed through the street, a few dozen men on each side, travelling from the church's doorsteps up to the Irish neighborhood in the Sixth Ward -- many, many years before it would be called Five Points.

In this melee, the watch were called to quell the violence and arrest the rioters. Jacob Hays may have been there; several of his captains certainly were. Watchman Luswanger was called to join them. Somewhere along the way, a rioter stabbed Luswanger, and the watchman died of his injuries. Apparently, this did nothing but bring more rioters into the chaos.

Diarist William Otter presents a vivid recollection of these events, although he does not mention Luswanger: "The church was surrounded with a motley crew of Irish and sailors...engaged in deadly conflict.....The mob fought from the door of the church to Irish town, being the distance of about a fourth of a mile....A great deal of property was destroyed by the mob and a great deal of human blood shed."

It took most of the night watch and the light of day to dissolve the rioters. Ten men, all Irishmen, were arrested. The mayor offered a reward for any information on Luswanger's demise, but danced around firm condemnation of either group. I'm gathering from the lack of evidence that the case of who stabbed the watchman remains unsolved.

NOTE: One of my prime sources on this article states that the watchman's name was Christopher Newfanger, not Christian Luswanger. I believe the latter is correct, and it is the name officially recognized by the police department.

*According to Forgotten New York, Augustus Street "was later called City Hall Place and in 1941 it was again renamed for Patrick Cardinal Hayes who had died in 1938."

Friday, May 14, 2010

Case Files of the New York Police Department 1800-1915

Uniformly chic: Law enforcement officers of the New York Metropolitan Police from 1871 show off their fancy blue threads. Twenty years previous, they weren't even required to wear standardized apparel. (Courtesy NYPL Digital Library)

PODCAST We're playing Good Cop / Bad Cop this week, as we take a close look at four events from the early history of the New York Police Department. You'll meet shining stars of the force like Jacob Hays, who kept the peace in the early 19th century armed with a mean billyclub -- and the only man to ever hold the title of High Constable of New York. And then you'll encounter Joseph Petrosino, the Italian immigrant turned secret weapon in the early battles against organized crime.

Not all the early men in blue were so recommendable. During the Police Riot of 1857, cop turned against cop while the city burned and "Five Points criminals danced in the streets." And finally there's the lamentable tale of officer Charles Becker, the only member of the New York Police Department to be executed for criminal misdeed.

But did he really commit the crime -- commissioning the murder of a nervous gambler who was prepared to rat him out?

You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or get it straight from our satellite site.

Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys: Case Files of the NYPD

#1 The Saga of High Constable Hays
Imagine encountering this face on a gaslit street at night! Jacob Hays watched over the streets of New York for over 40 years, one of the most dedicated men ever to watch over the city. Hays would become one of New York's best known -- and most feared -- men, thanks to his agility with a billy club and his early skills of detection and crime solving. (NYPL)

This is the corner of Broadway and Grand Street in 1818. A wildly bustling street corner today, but quite a different story back in Hays' day. The constable roamed over a much smaller city -- this was at the northern outskirts -- and a far different range of crimes. By 1818, he would have only had about a couple dozen officers in his employ, all of whom reported directly to him. (NYPL)

#2 The Police Riot of 1857
New York once had two different -- and competing -- police forces and boy they just did NOT get along. It all came to blows one June day in 1857, with state-sponsored Metropolitan police officers attacking the renegade men of the Municipal police force.

And it was because of Fernando Wood, the crafty mayor of New York in the 1850s who refused to comply to the state's authority over city law enforcement. Wood used the police for his own political advantage and hastened its descent into corruption.

#3 Petrosino!
The short Italian immigrant Joseph Petrosino, who become the NYPD's most potent tool against the growing forces of organized crime during the first years of the 20th century.

Petrosino was assassinated in Italy by the mob and his funeral procession through the city drew thousands of mourners. Today, you can visit the freshly refurbished Petrosino Square at Lafayette and Kenmare streets and see many artifacts relating to Petrosino at the New York City Police Museum.

Petrosino's funeral procession passed by the U.S. Custom House, April 9, 1909. (LOC)

#4 Murder At The Metropole
Charles Becker and his wife beaming to the press, although I don't know what they're smiling about. Becker was convicted of authorizing the murder of down-and-out gambler Herman Rosenthal. The disgraced cop was eventually sent to the electric chair.

The prime witness against Becker was the otherworldly looking Bald Jack Rose, who claimed to have intimate details linking the officer to the vicious crime, which took place outside the Metropole Hotel in midtown.

Two of the gunmen in the Rosenthal murder, nicknamed Gyp The Blood and Lefty Louie, pictured here with the men who brought them in.

I wish the first three tales had full-length histories as good as Mike Dash's Satan's Circus, which recounts the excrusiating tale of Herman Rosenthal's murder and Becker's arrest. The Becker story is actually recounted in several books, including a fairly recent one by Rose Keefe called The Starker: Big Jack Zelig, the Becker-Rosenthal Case, and the Advent of the Jewish Gangster.

CORRECTION: In referring to the new components of the Metropolitan Police, I mention the 'city of Richmond' when I meant the 'county of Richmond' -- aka Staten Island.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Detective Mary Shanley, armed and disarming

While perusing through the Library of Congress archive, I found these arresting images from 1937. Caption: "Mary A. Shanley, New York City detective - "pickpockets' captor fears that she might look tough"

"Detective Mary Shanley is a sure shot, as two pickpockets who tried to get away from her know to their sorrow. Here she is with a regulation police revolver, and, below, drawing it from an innocent looking white patent-leather handbag. Miss Shanley can smile with the best of them though and doesn't think cops should look like cops."

Shanley was known for catching pickpockets and 'seat tippers', thieves who specialized in theater crimes. According to authors James Lardner and Thomas Reppetto, the Irish dynamo once tried to stop a felon right in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral by shooting her gun in the air.

Apparently, things don't end well for Miss Shanley. According to a 1941 New York Times article: "WOMAN DETECTIVE IN BRAWL DEMOTED; Mrs. Mary A. Shanley Fires Shot in Barroom After Drink Is Refused." She was apparently off duty when she fired off her revolver.

Let's remember her in more pleasant surroundings. Below, Mary meets Mayor LaGuardia, 1937:

All pictures courtesy Library of Congress

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Did Iron Man 2 rewrite the legacy of Robert Moses?

The movies spawned by Marvel Comics creations always give a thankful nod to the city, whether it be the hostage drama at the Roosevelt Island tram or epic battles on the Brooklyn Bridge. But in the new Iron Man 2 film, a forlorn Queens landmark is reinvented by a private corporaton, becoming the most wondrous, technologically sophisticated place in the city. Something the park's creator, Robert Moses, would have wanted.

In 1939, the ambitious city parks commissioner cleared a dreary ash landfill and transformed it into the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, site of the 1939-40 World's Fair. But it's the ruins of another fair -- the space-age observation towers and Philip Johnson-designed New York State Pavilion of Moses' less successful 1964-65 World's Fair -- that get rescued by the Stark Corporation, aka the multi-billion dollar company of Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man.

But in re-writing history and paying tribute to the strange archaelogy of the past still standing in Queens' most famous park, did they also re-write Robert Moses?

Certainly Moses would have been thrilled to have private sponsorship of public fair pavilions. In this alternate New York past, perhaps Moses was even more ambitious than the one we know of and love/hate today. For according to a 'letter from Tony Stark' on the official Stark Expo 2010 website , there was another world's fair -- in 1941. Probably a rude thing to do as the country was going to major world war, but I'm sure they were very discreet.

In this alternate timeline (sorry, I do watch Lost), the World's Fair of 1939-40 was apparently NOT a financial disappointment, because its doors remained open for future expositions, possibly even yearly ones. I assume that Moses decided to dispense with governing body of the World's Fair (the Bureau of International Expositions) altogether, something he would do when orchestrating the 1964 fair.

Below: Queens -- revitalized by a comic book film!

Imagine how Queens would have developed with perpetual events at Flushing Meadows.  There would have been more highways and a greater expansion of the park grounds.  LaGuardia Airport would have been twice as large, and Idlewild (JFK) Airport would have sprouted into being a decade before it actually did.  The borough's entire reason for being might have been in service of these all-encompassing year-round events. As a result, neighborhoods surrounding Flushing Meadows would have most likely fallen to expansion. Farewell, Kew Gardens!

The tolls gathered by Moses' Triborough Authority would have been double the bounty they were in real life.  He might have arguably had even more power within the city.  So much, in fact, that he would have out-going mayor Vincent Impellitteri to simply give the yearly expo over to its greatest contributor, Howard Stark and Stark Enterprises.  As it appears he did in 1954, the first year of the 'Stark Expo', according to the same memo as mentioned above.

The Tent of Tomorrow, the Unisphere and other touches were constructed by this fictional corporation to display the greatest advances in technology and science.  In this world, we can only assume that the Mets did debut in Shea Stadium in 1964, except it was most likely called Stark Stadium.

Queens, in actuality (World's Fair 1964)

The 'Stark Expos' ran for two decades, until 1974.  I can only imagine that New York City's dire financial fortunes still played out in this fictional world, closing the annual display of progress for good. After its closure, the borough would have been decimated.  Perhaps we can assume Moses was involved until the bitter end, for 1974 happens to be the year his own reputation takes a beating with the publication of Robert Caro's The Power Broker.

The promotional video for the 1974 Stark Expo offers no new insights outside of an introduction by Howard Stark (who looks an awful lot like another New York city power player, Madison Avenue advertising king Roger Sterling.)

The great downturn of New York City's fortunes in this alternate timeline must have spawned a massive crime wave, urban blight, and a flight of much of its population.  It is fortunate then that the city would have then benefited from a completely coincidental spike in costumed crime fighters in the city around the late 1990s.

Howard's progenitor Tony Stark would bring the Stark Expo back to Flushing Meadows in 2010.  However it appears its return will be shortlived.  I'm sure the next film will highlight the aftermath of the attack on the Queens park by dozens of flying armored super robots -- an enraged Mayor Bloomberg demanding retribution from Stark Industries, dozens of lawsuits against the private firm, reverberations of corruption through Stark's association with the federal government. (Hopefully, the Mets weren't having a home game that night!)  That will be in the sequel, right?

I should note that the character of Iron Man debuted on March 1963 in the comic book Tales of Suspense #39. Had this been an actual creation, it would most likely have been displayed at the real 1964 World's Fair -- with its focus on 'A Millennium of Progress' -- alongside other wonders of the day like the computer, atomic power and new space technology.

You can listen to our older podcast on the history of a superhero-less World's Fair of 1964-65 below:

The Bowery Boys: World's Fair 1964-65

Above movie art courtesy Marvel Studios

Monday, May 10, 2010

Don't know why there's no sun up in the sky....

Above: Lena Horne at the Copacabana, October 1948

Lena Horne, the Brooklyn-born entertainer who broke color barriers in the New York nightclub scene as well as in Hollywood, died in a New York hospital yesterday at age 92. She would make history in Harlem, in segregated hotspots like The Cotton Club, where the entertainment was black, the clientele white. And would become the first African-American performer at the legendary Copacabana, shattering the club's attendance records and playing off and on there for years.

If you're looking for a pilgramage here in the city, Lena's childhood home is still standing in Bed-Stuy. Horne was raised by her grandparents in the late 1920s/early 1930s in an iron-gated brownstone at 189 Chauncey Street, part of a small upper-class black community. According to author James Gavin: "An iron fence with sharp black spikes protected 189 Chauncey Street on three sides. That barrier told passersby to keep their distance ... it shut out the neighborhood's seamier elements."

Among the many great venues of old that Lena performed in was the original Cafe Society at 1 Sheridan Square. Calling it the 'sweetest job I ever had' and probably her most important gig in terms of connections made, Horne sang there for over a year starting in 1941. Probably the most integrated club in New York, Lena performed for a largely progressive, largely mixed audience. Two years later, she wowed audiences at the long-gone Savoy-Plaza Hotel. A year later was her debut at the nearby Copacabana.

By 1947, she had become famous enough to warrant her own municipal celebration, Lena Horne Homecoming Day in Brooklyn, on August 21, 1947, accepting a key to the city from Brooklyn's borough president on the steps of Borough Hall.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Limelight - a church, then a nightclub, now a mall!

The sanguine days of the Holy Communion, pictured here over 150 years before it would be reconfigured as a shopping mall (from Booth's History of New York, mid 19th century, courtesy NYPL)

On Friday afternoon, yet another completely implausible transformation will overtake Holy Communion Episcopal Church when it reopens as the Limelight Marketplace, a spacious mall with 60 retailers sitting aside Gothic church features and the ghosts of strung-out club kids.

In honor of this curious transformation, I'm reprinting (with revisions) my history of this building and its later incarnation as the Limelight, one of the most notorious dance clubs of the 1990s. (Originally posted on Aug 10, 2007)

Holy Communion Episcopal Church was never meant to be the gateway to Hell. This lush Gothic style was designed and completed between 1844-1846 by Richard Upjohn, one of early America's great architects, the master of Gothic Revival style and creator of downtown's Trinity Church. It was built during a grand time for new churches in the city; in addition to Trinity (which opened in 1846), James Renwick was finishing up work that same year on Grace Church.

Upjohn designed the new chapel for its founder, the Reverend William Muhlenberg, a rector from Flushing, Queens, and known today as the founder of the Episcopal religious school movement. Perhaps the architect could foresee the church's future tilting towards the bizarre, as it's the first asymmetrical Gothic church in America. The first! Think of all the uniform symmetry in most churches over 150 years old, and you'll appreciate its uniqueness.

In its prime, the toast of New York filled its pews, including Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Jacob Astor and Jay Gould. A shadow of its altruistic days can still be seen hovering over St Luke's Hospital (now St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center), which the congregation helped found. To tie this into our podcast on the Dakota Apartments, it was in this hospital that John Lennon died of his wounds sustained at the Dakota.

A convent was added in 1854 where the "Guardians of the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion" -- one of the first Anglican orders of nuns -- cared for the sick and infirm, well into the new century.

The church fell upon hard times by the mid-century and was eventually sold to a drug rehabilitation center. According to a bishop at the time, there was an implicit understanding that the house of worship was always meant to help the needy. Then Peter Gatien came along, catering to a different kind of need.

Gatien was a club owner who gobbled up nightclub spaces and transformed them into branded clubs called the Limelight -- first in Hollywood, Florida, then Atlanta, and London. (He would eventually own many clubs in Manhattan, including the Tunnel, the Palladium downtown, and Club USA.) The Gothic church on 6th Ave proved too enticing -- the one in London was also in a former house of worship -- and soon Gatien turned the once reverent spot into a house of decadence, opening on November 1983.

From People Magazine's coverage of the club opening: "Is this consecrated ground?" asked fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo nervously. "Everybody's having a good time, so I'm not putting it down," said supermodel Cheryl Tiegs, there with hubby Peter Beard. "Listen," chimed in Judy Garland's daughter Lorna Luft, "they've been dancing in churches for a long time. Now we've just got a little bass added."

The Limelight distorted Upjohn's Gothic furnishings through a funhouse mirror. Its labyrinthine hallways and stairwells spilled into ornately designed lounges and dancefloors. Old marble crypts sat next to rows of liquor bottles. The chapel became a VIP lounge. Upstairs, surrealist illustrator HR Giger, famous for his designs of the creatures from the Alien films, created a signature dance floor.

However it was its occupants that made the headlines. In the late 80s and 90s, Peter Gatien and the Limelight helped foster its own buffet of self-made celebrities, the club kid, brightly colored freakshows whose only purpose was to shock and make everybody feel smaller.

Ruler among them was Michael Alig, an extravagent promoter of both his club, his lifestyle and himself. A protege of another nightlife maven James St James, Alig's wild parties at the Limelight were the stuff of urban legend.

Actual celebrities who frequented the club, like Eddie Murphy and Michael Douglas, were no match for Alig and his menagerie, which often included a few New York celebrities around today -- Amanda LaPore, Rupaul and the duo Heatherette, now legitimate fashion designers in their own right.

The avarice of the early '90s would lead to the downfalls of the Limelight's main characters. Alig would be charged with murdering fellow club kid Angel Melendez. Gatien was arrested on drug charges in 1996 -- by then, the Limelight was a veritable candy store for ecstacy and 'special k' -- and in 1999 for tax evasion. Alig is in prison, serving a 20-year sentence; Gatien is in Canada, presumably forever.

The Limelight itself? After a dramatic shuttering in 2001, the club was reopened under the name Avalon, and still entertains throngs craving a thumping beat and a really expensive cocktail. The club kids are gone, but ghosts remain, as do the crypts.

You can of course catch a glimpse of the decadence in the film Party Monster, about the kooky days of Alig and the Club Kids, both in documentary and Macauley Culkin-vehicle formats. Harvey Keitel also takes a visit to the club in Bad Lieutenant.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mayor John Lindsay returns to New York City

"Not only is New York City the nation's melting pot, it is also the casserole, the chafing dish and the charcoal grill." -- John V. Lindsay

He famously referred to New York as a 'fun city', even as he reigned its reality, a metropolis racked with debt, riots and rising crime, a metropolis restless and energized by the changes of the 1960s. He was once called 'the worst mayor of the 20th century.' Now Mayor John V. Lindsay is getting a serious public relations boost this spring in a host of new projects.

Releasing next week is America's Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York, New York Times editor Sam Robert's anthology of essays on Lindsay. An exhibit of the same name at the Museum of the City of New York reviews the ambitious mayor's two tumultuous terms in office.

But if you can't wait for either of those, the hour-long documentary Fun City Revisited: The Lindsay Years debuts Thursday night at 8 p.m on WNET (Channel 13 in New York).

In the meantime, check out WNET's collection of the politician's earnest television advertisements, including. his re-election bid advertisement in 1969, a bitter contest in which Lindsay was rebuffed by his own party and ran as a Liberal Party and won.

And, randomly, below, find a video from 1966 of John Lindsay presenting an award -- to Alfred Hitchcock

Monday, May 3, 2010

The crazy tale of the Mad Bomber, 1950s NYC terrorist

The man in the center, the one who looks like a kind grocer? That's George Metesky, the insane "Mad Bomber" who terrorized New York for years with crudely made bombs placed in public places. (Photo by Peter Stackpole)

A ticking bomb goes off in Grand Central Station. The seats at Radio City Music Hall, rigged with explosive devices planted inside the upholstery. Bombs found at the Empire State Building, others detonating at movie theaters and in phone booths, at the New York Public Library and in subway stations. An explosion inside Macy's. Chaos, panic, anonymous letters to the police, copycat bombers. Some of the most sustained levels of domestic terrorism to hit an American city in the 20th century.

It may sound like the plot of a bad Bruce Willis movie. Or, given the bomb scare in Times Square this weekend, like a scary doomsday scenario. But it actually happened in New York City.

Through two decades, from 1940 to the mid 1950s, the city was under siege by a violent, greatly disturbed ex-Marine dubbed the Mad Bomber by the press. George Metesky planted dozens of pipe bombs in New York City before he was finally apprehended in January 1957 at his home in Waterbury, Conn. He sheepishly met his captors at the door with the phrase, "I know why you fellows are here. You think I'm the Mad Bomber."

Metesky's beef wasn't with the city per se, but with his former employer Consolidated Edison. (Or more exactly, the United Electric Light and Power Company, which was later absorbed by Con Ed.) For a time, his rage was specifically focused at the corporation he believed treated him with extraordinary indifference. George had been employed by the utility company until 1931, when a boiler explosion at uptown Manhattan plant left him permanently disabled and in the care of his two sisters in Connecticut.

He claimed the company refused to compensate him for his work-related hardship, fighting in vain with the corporation for five years. "My medical bills and care have cost thousands -- I did not get a single penny for a lifetime of misery and suffering," he would claim in one of his many letters to the press, after the bombings began.

For Con Ed's part, they claimed Metesky had taken too long to file for disability benefits. Eventually, the truth didn't matter. Metesky, later to be diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic, decided to get comeuppance in a more sinister manner.

The first explosive, ultimately a dud (as many were), was placed at Con Ed's 64th Street office on November 16th, 1940, accompanied by a carefully constructed note, "CON EDISON CROOKS, THIS IS FOR YOU." One year later, another device, wrapped in a woolen sock, was hastily dropped in front of Con Ed's 19th Street offices, without a missive this time. In both cases, investigators were befuddled: were the bombs even meant to go off or was it a scare tactic?

Metesky was feeling ignored yet again by Con Ed. Whether out of frustration or some kind of twisted, legitimate patriotic duty, however, he decided to call off future bombings due to World War II and sent a 'kidnapper-style' note (left, one such example), made from cut newspaper letters, to the press informing them so.

Feeling some acceptable amount of time had passed, Metesky decided on a different tactic on March 29th, 1950, planting a bomb at crowded Grand Central Terminal. Another note from George warned of an explosion there, and police were able to locate and defuse the device in time.

Thus began a bizarre game of cat-and-mouse as Metesky laid dozens of bombs throughout the city, unbelievably without detection. (The "see something, say something" mantra was clearly not in effect in the 1950s.) A fourth device, in front of the New York Public Library, was the first to actually detonate, but it injured no one, the fortunate outcome of many of Metesky's oddly made devices.

Despite dropping off pipe bombs in such places as Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, despite targeting movie houses by scooping out the seats and implanting bombs there -- despite some of these weapons actually exploding, nobody had been hurt. He had even thrown a pipe bomb into the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station, with no serious harm.

His devices in 1954, however, began to hurt people -- minor injuries in a detonation at a Grand Central men's room, then during a November screening of White Christmas at Radio City Music hall, where five people were hurt. (You can find pictures of the aftermath of one such bombing at Radio City in this Life Magazine article.) Amazingly, Metesky set off three bombs in total at Radio City. Once, a bomb went off with the bomber still in the theater; an usher stopped him as he was escaping but merely "apologized for the disturbance" and let him go.

Photo by James Burke, Google Life images

He also sent a series of letters to the New York Herald Tribune, all in that same exact block-letter styling. Stating in these letters that he was seriously disturbed, George apologized for any potential injuries he might cause but proclaimed, "IT CANNOT BE HELPED—FOR JUSTICE WILL BE SERVED." Metesky would sign his letters F.P., which investigators would later learn meant 'Fair Play.'

Two explosions in 1956 ramped up the intensity and urgency of stopping Metesky. One device planted in a Penn Station bathroom seriously injured an elderly attendant. And Metesky left a Christmastime bomb in the Paramount Theatre in Brooklyn that detonated and injured six people, three seriously. (The film playing? 'War and Peace' with Audrey Hepburn.)

The police were frantically piecing together a profile of Metesky, and dozens of people were apprehended and questioned, including one man who frequently drove into the city with a suspicious trunk in his backseat. It was not Metesky; the trunk contained a pair of sexy fetish boots that the man paid prostitutes to wear.

During this time, dozens of bomb scares were called in throughout the city and there were even other copycat bombers like Frederick Eberhardt who sent a 'sugar bomb' in the mail to Con Edison. He too was a former employee....and mentally disturbed.

Below: detectives on the case, 1957 (Google Life)

It's a bit difficult to get a grasp on the true on-the-street reaction to these bombings, which were numerous but rarely deadly. Slight panic may have passed through the thoughts of commuters passing through Grand Central or riding the subway, but over time, most people seem to have dismissed the danger. These events are sometimes brought up in comparison to the Son of Sam killings of the 1970s, which held the city in a far greater hysteria.

But, as they're well equipped to do, the newspapers kept reminding New Yorkers of the danger. According to a 1957 Time Magazine article: "Hearst's Journal-American thoughtfully provided a do-it-yourself spread on how to make a pipe-bomb.....The papers, thirsty and cunning in a news-dry holiday period, were still going strong."

The Mad Bomber case is a textbook example of early profiling techniques of the day, and the first with a forensics psychologist (Dr. James Brussel) at its forefront.

Below: the home of George Metesky and the garage housing many of his supplies Photography Peter Stackpole

In January 1957, a Con Edison secretary discovered similarities between letters from 'F.P.' published in newspapers and wording in Metesky's old personnel files. Police were at Metesky's doorstep in Waterbury a couple days later, where he almost readily spilled the beans about his identity.

Even after his arrest, devices he had previously planted were still being discovered, such as one at the Lexington Avenue movie theater (at 51st Street) that had been buried in a seat cushion years before.

Metesky was declared insane and sent to upstate's Matteawan Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Believe it or not, he was freed on December 13, 1973, and lived for twenty more years back at his home in Waterbury. He claimed to the end that he designed his bombs not to hurt people. And yet, of course, many did.

Below, the creepy George Metesky peers from his jail cell:

(Photo by Peter Stackpole, Google Life images)