Friday, April 29, 2011

A short history of Trump: the roots of Donald's wealth, from quiet Queens beginnings to glitzy Midtown excess

Ice ice baby: Donald Trump at Wollman Rink, which he renovated in a moment of non-profit public altruism during the 1980s.

PODCAST Sick of Donald Trump yet? (Probably.) Figured him out yet? Is he a financial wizard, reality sideshow, or political distraction? Or all of the above? The solution may be contained in the roots of his fortune -- a saga that stretches back to the 1880s and begins with a 16-year-old boy named Drumpf who made his living in a barber shop. The story unfolds during the early days of Queens, a borough once sparsely populated but by the 1920s, a land ripe for growth.

By the 1960s, Donald's father Fred had built thousands of middle-class homes throughout Queens and Brooklyn and embroiled himself in some controversy regarding the remains of two Coney Island theme parks. The Donald built upon his father's reputation to become a successful Manhattan developer and a flamboyant celebrity with seemingly bottomless levels of lucre. But of course everyone has their limit.

FEATURING: Trump Tower marbles, a miracle on 34th Street, and the magic that would have been Television City.

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: TRUMP

A home building frenzy in Woodhaven, Queens, at the corner of 64th Road and Woodhaven Boulevard. A massive population influx into the borough induced home development at a rapid pace. Fred Trump's first constructed homes were in the neighborhood in the 1920s.

Donald and his father Fred Trump, two of the most powerful developers in the city by the 1970s and 80s. Of course, the elder Trump constructed mostly dwellings for the middle class, while Donald focused on the wealthiest New Yorkers.

Trump Village, Fred Trump's largest apartment co-op when it opened in 1964. (Courtesy flickr/TheFadedPast)

The Hotel Commodore under construction in 1918. Sixty years later, young Donald Trump would redevelop the property to become the Grand Hyatt, encasing the stripped-down hotel in a sleek glass tower that literally reflects Grand Central on one side, and the Chrysler Building on the other (below). (1918 pic courtesy NYPL; modern pic courtesy flickr/kw-ny)

Trump rode a wave of personal connections, business drive and opportunity to become New York's hottest developer by the 1980s, fueled by media attention and spectacle to become one of New York's most ubiquitous celebrities.

Does anything typify New York in the 1980s more than Trump Tower, that fortress of wealth gleaming with imported marbles, finished in 1983 and offering the most expensive apartments in the city?

Bonwit Teller, the luxury department store that had the misfortune of having an address that Trump wanted for his Trump Tower.

Behold -- Television City, the Trump plan for the west side involving a 152-story skyscraper and a studio for NBC, originally at a total of 16 million square feet of space.

Trump the Game! From 1988. "It's not whether you win or lose. It's whether you win!"

Photos at Wollman Rink and of Donald/Fred courtesy Google Life images

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Run DMC and the Revolution: Historic Hollis, Queens

I'm putting together a special edition solo podcast to be released tomorrow morning, featuring a very timely subject. In the meantime, here's a reprint of an article originally posted April 3, 2009, on one of the places that will be mentioned in the show.

It's like that: Rap pioneers and proud sons of Queens

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.

WHERE: HOLLIS -- in the southeastern section of Queens. It's next to the much larger Jamaica, a neighborhood with an even stranger origin to its name

Hollis, Queens, is one of the least pretentious musical inspirations in the world. What may have been an average neighborhood under normal circumstances has become one of the birthplaces of hip hop, starting with music mogul Russell Simmons and his younger brother Joseph, the Run of Run DMC, and continuing today with current hip hop star, Hollis native Ja Rule.  Run DMC even immortalizes Hollis in their unusual holiday classic "Christmas In Hollis."

Icons of a major musical movement, emanating from such a saccharine sounding community? But Hollis disguises some rather tragic moments in Queens history, its roots reaching all the way back to a horrifying, bloody moment of the Revolutionary War.

In a story now steeped in legend, it was here along the Jamaica road -- back when Hollis was mere uninhabited hillside -- that one of the Continental Army's great generals Nathaniel Woodhull was brutally tortured by British soldiers.

Woodhull was in charge of the Queens and Suffolk county militias when the British invaded Brooklyn, spreading out along the countryside and pushing back Washington's men, surging towards an invasion of Manhattan island. On that fateful day in August 27, 1776, however, Woodhull and his men were busy herding Brooklyn's cattle east into Queens, ensuring the British had little to eat when they arrived.

While stranded at a tavern on Jamaica road (today's Jamaica Avenue) near the center of today's Hollis, Woodhull was captured and, as legend goes, forced to swear allegiance to England. Instead of "God Save The King" however, Woodhull allegedly cried, "God Save Us All!" For his defiance he was mutilated by British soldiers and died a few days later.

Below: Woodhull receives his mortal blow at Carpenter's Tavern

This bucolic land outside of the town of Jamaica would not see much excitement for the next 100 years, the quiet hills and farms being referred only as East Jamaica, the memories of Woodhull's sacrifice its only legacy.

Then came Freddy. That would be Frederick W. Dunton (pictured at right), a young, ambitious and handsomely mustachioed man born with the benefit of calling the president of the Long Island Railroad -- during the days of unprecedented growth into New York -- his beloved uncle.

Dunton was raised in the New Hampshire town of Hollis and obviously thought the most of it. When he went off to pursue his own real estate development in Long Island in 1884, he grew fond of this hilly area outside of Jamaica and, as an ardent history geek himself, most likely reveled at its importance in Revolutionary War history. He built his house here on a hilltop, sold plots to his friends and called the surrounding development Hollis and Holliswood -- because there's no place like home, right?*

He also bought and named a community after himself -- the now-vanished Dunton, which was later absorbed into today's Richmond Hill neighborhood. (Ken Bausart does some fascinating detective work in digging up the back story.)

Apparently, Frederick is equally as known for something a bit more scandalous -- a headline grabbing grand larceny trial in 1896.

The area developed slowly into a comfortable middle-class neighborhood, experiencing a bit of scandal now and then, as when Hollis Hall, Dunton's old home in Holliswood, allegedly became a speakeasy during Prohibition. (An apartment complex stands in that spot today.) Hollis grew slowly and steadily, from 4,000 people in the 1920s to 31,000 people today. Some of the first homes ever built by mega-developer Fred Trump, the father of Donald, were in this neighborhood and still stand today.

Russell and Joseph were raised here in the 1960s, soon teaming with Darryl "D.M.C." Matthews McDaniels (born in Hollis in 1965) and the late Jam Master Jay** (who moved here in the 1970s), performing together for the first time in 1980. Within four years, they would become rap music's ambassadors to the world, the first rap act played on MTV, selling millions of records and paving the way for mainstream hip hop culture. God save us all.

(Frederick's picture courtesy

*  Okay, but if Hollis, Queens, got its name from Hollis, New Hampshire, then where did they get it from? Hollis is a vestige of British occupation of the entire region. British governor Benning Wentworth gave the settlement the name Hollis in 1746, after one of his more colorful ancestors John Holles, the Earl of Clare. Holles was actually one of England's wealthiest men ever; in today's currency, his estate would be worth 5.1 billion pounds.

**Jam Master Jay, aka Jason Mizell, was also shot and killed in Hollis in 2002

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Oui! Paris on Broadway (now with air conditioning)

New Yorkers have been borrowing things from Paris for decades -- the fashion, the architecture, the people. And, one hundred years ago today, the city paid homage to Paris' naughtiest hideaway with the opening of the Folies Bergere (206-14 West 46th Street) on April 27, 1911, a dinner-theater extravaganza that Irving Berlin once proclaimed was "the first theatre cabaret in America."

Theater producer Jesse Lasky was 30 years old when he opened the dinner theater, hoping to borrow some of the exotic allure of the Parisian music hall, with a big entrance fee to boot. In September a young Mae West performed there for over a week in the show A La Broadway.

The theater even inspired a sassy Berlin Irving number titled "Down At the Folies Bergere": "In old New York up at Long Acre Square / Turn 'round the corner, you'll find yourself there / Millions of miles from all trouble and care / Two doors from Heaven the Folies Bergere."

More appealing than the comediennes and the dancing girls, however, was a remarkable innovation; the Folies Bergere was the very first air conditioned theater in New York.

Its reputation belies its longevity. Within the year, the Folies Bergere abandoned the dinner theater idea and, with it, the name.  Lasky went on to become an iconic film mogul. The stage survived as the Fulton Theater, then, after 1955, as the Helen Hayes Theater. It was ripped down to make room for the Times Square-consuming Mariott Marquee. Another theater on 44th Street was then given the name Helen Hayes Theater

Monday, April 25, 2011

Move over, Spider-man: Robert Moses hits the stage!

If you've ever thought to yourself, "You know, that Robert Moses, I wish he were even more larger-than-life," then your wish may be granted this Wednesday, April 27, when the Artists Playground Theatre launches into a staged reading of Robert Moses "three-act, historical fantasy" titled "World of Tomorrow."

On top of more traditional dramatic moments recounting his struggles with other New York power players, the play, written by Bill McMahon, will also include "fevered dreams in which he is teased and tormented by community organizer and urbanist, Jane Jacobs."

As if that wasn't enough, the reading takes place at the legendary Player's Club in Gramercy Park, and former haunt of New York's literary and dramatic elite. And it's FREE. More information [here].

I believe this is entirely different from the Robert Moses musical that was first presented in January, with Moses' biographer Robert Caro in attendence. That oddity, "Robert Moses Astride New York," was crafted by Gary S. Fagin. You can hear a snippit of it here.

When will we get Robert Moses, the ballet?

Speaking of our favorite parks commissioner, his late great World's Fair of 1964-65 opened its gates for the very first season 47 years ago last Friday (April 22, 1964). Below: Moses overlooking the finishing touches on that day.

Robert Moses image courtesy Life Magazine (source)

Friday, April 22, 2011

What's the deal with Easter and Fifth Avenue anyway?

Project Runway 1903: Fifth Avenue in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral vibrates with fashion.

For well over 125 years, budding fashionistas have been prancing up and down Fifth Avenue on Easter Sunday, displaying elaborate bonnets, hairdos and colorful outfits. Given that modern holiday celebrations are often relatively new (for instance, trick-or-treating has only been a common activity on Halloween since the 1950s), this decorative practice located at this particular spot has displayed a commendable longevity.

And it appears that the bonnet parade is far older than most of the buildings in midtown. After all, people have been dressing up and going to church -- and doing so with vanity -- since the city was born.

According to a 1905 article in Harper's Weekly, the display of Easter finery may have begun in the Dutch days along the streets of whatever church was fashionable for the day. By the time St. Patrick's Cathedral was finally opened in 1879, the wealthiest New Yorkers were already on Fifth Avenue in their townhouses. The cavalcade naturally migrated here, whether the costumed were congregants there or not. With the addition of Saint Thomas Church on 53rd Street (built in 1914), Fifth Avenue became even further inundated with Easter elegance.

Even by 1905, the Easter bonnet parade had become an overwhelmingly popular and even cumbersome affair. "Such a vast number of people come on Easter to see the Fifth Avenue churchgoers walk home from the church that the Avenue, in the Fifties, begins at noon to feel like Park Row at 5 o'clock, when the Brooklynites begin to feel for the Brooklyn entrance."

The annual Fifth Avenue hat show existed before Saks Fifth Avenue department store, before Rockefeller Center, before any tony Fifth Avenue shops. The affair even influenced fashion for the rest of the year. According to author Nathan Silver, designers and illustrators would flock to the bonnet show for inspiration.

Enjoy your Easter and accessorize with an umbrella this year. Looks like it might rain!

Below: A similar fetching set gathers for the 1908 fashion parade.

Top picture and bottom picture courtesy Library of Congress

Thursday, April 21, 2011

South Bronx and the days of new American aristocracy

What you think about when you think about the South Bronx: the Morrisania estate built by Gouverneur Morris. (NYPL)

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.

NEIGHBORHOOD: Morrisania, the Bronx

Was there an estate in New York ever as beautiful as Morrisania, nearly 2,000 acres that hugged the Harlem River until it opened out into the turbulent East River as it coursed past small islands and flowed into the Long Island Sound? A property that varied from western hills looking over the river to the rolling spread of Manhattan below, to eastern marshes and flatlands suitable for farming.

Today's Bronx neighborhood of Morrisania is only a small portion of the original property owned by the Morris family since the 1670s, during the dawning years of British dominance in the New York region. The original parcel, purchased by Welsh captain Richard Morris, was only 500 acres, a part of original land settled by Bronx namesake Jonas Bronck.

When Richard died, brother Lewis Morris (for reasons that will soon be evident, let's call him Lewis 1) moved from the West Indies to claim the property. He would be one in a succession of Lewis Morrises to live here and place an imprint on what would some day contain much of the South Bronx.

The Morris family was feisty, business savvy, well connected, extremely aristocratic and entirely unoriginal with names. Another Lewis Morris (Richard's son, or Lewis 2) became the governor, at separate times, of both New York and New Jersey. Yet another Lewis (Lewis 3) became a powerful New York justice. His son Lewis Morris (Lewis 4) was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

If you haven't gleaned it already, the clan carried themselves like some kind of royal family. They were, artificially at least, as were many families in the New World who quickly made fortunes here and staked claims in manners similar to what their forebears were accustomed to in Europe. Over the decades, the Lewises would blend by marriage into other elite, bold-faced families to form a tangled ball of interlinked faux American royalty.

Morrisania for most of the 18th century resembled a miniature British kingdom, with a spread of small farms, dairies and cattle pens operated by those leasing from the Morris family, a proper workaday serfdom common for the era. However, during the early decades, the land was even worked with slave labor, although the practice was phased out in later generations.

When Lewis 3 passed in 1762, this massive property was split in two. West of the small babbling Mill Brook (honored today with a playground and a housing development) belonged to Lewis 4 and his brothers, but the more bucolic eastern side fell to Lewis 3's second wife Sarah and eventually her only son. That's right, Gouverneur Morris (pictured below).

Gouverneur fled his home during the Revolutionary War, but his mother Sarah stayed behind. During this time, the rich farmland was vandalized and the family's voluminous library, one of the largest collections in North America at the time, was ransacked.

Gouverneur was quite busy in the late 18th century doing things like penning the Constitution and being minister to France in the midst of their bloody revolution. But wherever he traveled, he always felt a closeness to Morrisania.

After the war, while Gouverneur in France, Lewis 4 offered up the family estate of Morrisania be used as the site for the new American capital. One can just imagine the history of New York had Congress taken him up on that offer!

In 1798, when Gouverneur returned from France and claimed the property for himself, he built a new home here and filled it with all his gathered French finery. Perhaps no household was more beautiful -- or as pretentious -- as Morris' new manor.

Gouverneur, of course, facilitated the growth of New York with his roles in the development of both the Commissioners Plan of 1811 and the Erie Canal. His old farms, however, were technically part of Westchester Country. In the 1840s, his son Gouverneur Morris Jr. emulated New York's former estate owners and began to develop his property for commercial and residential use.

Chief among these decisions was becoming vice president of the New York and Harlem Railroad (eventually to be owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt) and allowing the railroad to cut through the old property. Townships formed around the railroad station, include one small village named the old manor, Morrisania. That village is the root of today's neighborhood of the same name.

Gouverneur Junior was cut from the visionary mold that would define many in the 19th Century. One pet project was the development of a port village along the old family property on the eastern shoreline, today's Port Morris area.

Given that Gouverneur Senior was partially responsible for Manhattan's grid, it's no surprise that a different grid patterns were adhered to the old Morris properties over the years. In emulating Manhattan's pattern, all traces of the area's early farm existence was eradicated. The following years was hold many strange detours in the history of the South Bronx: opulent boulevards, the Yankees, 1970s crime sprees. But the Morrises live on, if in name only.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

New York's flag day: The Civil War rally at Union Square

Throngs gather in Union Square in support of the Union cause, April 20, 1861. Just in case you're slightly confused by the placement, the crowd is standing on Fourth Avenue (Park Avenue South) facing into the east side of the park; the Washington equestrian statue once stood at the southeast corner. Look here for comparison. (Courtesy Harpers Weekly/Sons of the South)

One hundred and fifty years ago today (April 20, 1861), the largest group of Americans ever gathered in one place up to that time filled the streets around Union Square in support of the Union cause, in one of the most patriotic events ever held in the city.

The numbers are, of course, impossible to guess, and newspapers at the time were not good judges of crowds. But anywhere from 100,000 to 250,000 people filled the streets to hear speakers and rally to the Northern cause. Local businesses around the square unfurled patriotic banners and paraphernalia; the spirit caught on throughout the city, bedecked like ten Fourth of Julys.

The main draw was Major Robert Anderson, the commander at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, which had been taken by Southern forces just eight days before. Anderson arrived in New York as a rallying figure and he brought along a somber souvenir -- the 33-star flag that had flown above the fort.

As the string of evocations and speeches were introduced, crowds cheered and wailed, spurred mostly by the commotion. Only those nearest one of five stands -- each with a different plate of speakers -- could really hear the words by such orators as Secretary of the Treasury John A. Dix, Theodore Tilton (famous for later suing Henry Ward Beecher) and John C. Hamilton, son of Alexander Hamilton.

Nearly every building in Manhattan was adorned in flags. "Broadway was hidden in a cloud of flaggery," exclaimed one writer. Despite the sober purpose of the event, New Yorkers treated it (as they do) like a party, with costumes, lively music and even public drunkenness by nightfall.

You would think from the spectacle that all of New York was solidly in the Union's court. In fact, a great many New Yorkers sided with the Confederacy, including one of the speakers that day, Mayor Fernando Wood. The mayor had just proposed three months previous that New York secede alongside the South. But he quickly changed his tune. "I am willing to give up all sympathies, and, if you please, all errors of judgment upon all national questions," he included in his speech, to much applause. (The full text of his speech appeared in the New York Times the following day.)

Below: a stereograph of the Union Square crowd. According to the caption: "The dense mass gathered around one of the Speaker's stands, over which gracefully floats the Stars and Stripes."

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Notes from the Podcast (#122) The Manhattan Grid Plan

From H.S. Tanner's 'The American Traveller; or Guide Through the United States', 1836 (book published book 1840)

Stuyvesant Street is mentioned as one of the few streets in New York that was allowed to break the grid, and its diagonal path between Second and Third avenues is a reminder of the original farm grid of Peter Stuyvesant. But as a few listeners have pointed out, it holds another unique distinction.

The original estate owners of Manhattan often carved up their own lands into the shape of small grids. For instance, the grid of the DeLancey farm is still impressed upon the Lower East Side below Delancey Street. The Stuyvesants also had a system of streets on their property that ran true east to west. (Manhattan is obviously not on a true north-south axis, and its grid streets do not truly run east to west, but progress at a slight diagonal. Charles Petzold has a very detailed article on the island's true orientation.)

Thus, Stuyvesant Street is the only street in Manhattan that actually runs east to west. Walk its length with a compass and be amazed!


Not too far from Stuyvesant Street is the beginning of grid plan, First Street and First Avenue, Kramer's "nexus of the universe". This is the spot were near-uniformity along New York's streets and avenues begins.

The southern border of the grid plan was, ironically, called North Street at the time, for it was truly north of the city. As I mentioned back in the Niblo's Garden podcast, today's Houston Street is actually the adjoining of two roads, the other being a path that cut through the property of Nicholas Bayard, land that is today's SoHo. Bayard renamed his street after his daughter's new husband, the esteemed Georgian patriot William Houstoun. Later, it made sense to link Houstoun's street to North Street, and thus the whole thing was called Houston Street (with a 'u' vanishing in the process).

The occasion of the Commissioners Plan is presents a good opportunity to peer into the extraordinary collection of old New York maps in the David Rumsey Collection. The original 1811 Randel maps are there, as well as others that chart the course of development during the 19th Century. This Tanner map from 1836 shows the grid progressing nicely.

So, if I didn't quite get it across on the show, let me say it now: Gouverneur Morris is awesome. I devoured two different biographies on the controversial Founding Father, and I highly recommended them both. Although Richard Brookhiser's "Gentleman Revolutionary" is a breezier read, the quieter "Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life" by William Howard Adams still makes room for some salacious details.

And to repeat one major CORRECTION: Due to my complete misreading of my own handwritten notes and in the flurry of wrapping up the show, I said that Manhattanhenge occurs on March 28 and July 12 or July 13. I meant MAY 28, not March 28.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Building Blocks: The Commissioners Plan of 1811, inventing a New York grid of streets and avenues

The simplicity of the New York grid system, seen overhead in a 1939 classic photo by Margaret Bourke-White.

PODCAST The Commissioners Plan of 1811 How did Manhattan get its orderly rows of numbered streets and avenues? In the early 18th century, New York was growing rapidly, but the new development was confined on an island, giving city planners a rare opportunity to mold a modern city that was orderly, sophisticated and even (they thought at the time) healthy. With the Commissioners Plan of 1811, uniform blocks were created without regards to hills and streams or even to the owners of the property!

Join us as we recount this monumental event in New York's history -- how land above Houston Street was radically transformed and also how the city revolted in many places. What about those avenues A, B, C and D? Why doesn't the West Village snap to the grid? And why on earth did the early planners not arrange for any major parks?!

ALSO: A podcast within a podcast as we focus on the biography of one of those commissioners. Give it up for Gouverneur Morris, the casanova with Constitutional connections, a Bronx estate and a wooden pegleg.

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: The Grid: The Commissioners Plan of 1811

CORRECTION: Due to my complete misreading of my own handwritten notes and in the flurry of wrapping up the show, I said that Manhattanhenge occurs on March 28 and July 12 or July 13. I meant MAY 28, not March 28. Chalk this one up to my senility. I apologize for the error.

An early view of the area that would one day become the Lower East Side, SoHo and Chinatown: a network of farms and jagged roads, with some organization on individual properties. This map features details of James DeLancey's farm. That property would be carved up after the war. (You can check out the whole 1767 map here.)

Gouverneur Morris, the Founding Father who led the commission to plan New York's future streets and avenue.

A detail from the original 1811 grid plan map of John Randel. The grid starts at irregular intervals due to keeping Greenwich Village intact, but begins right about Houston Street to the east. As it heads north, two big interupptions were planned -- a market place in east around 10th-11th Street and a 'parade ground' about 23rd Street.

A close-up on the parade ground.

Not everything conforms to the original plan. Take Stuyvestant Street in the East Village. A main thoroughfare into the original estate of the Stuyvesant family, the small road was allowed to break the block between 9th and 10th streets. The street is hardly recognizable in this extraordinary photo from 1856, but the top of St. Mark's Church gives away the location. (Courtesy East Village Transitions)

Crossroads: Herald Square, on a hot summers day in 1936. The intersection was partially created by the grid plan (the intersection of 34th Street and Sixth Avenue) and by one feature that later city planners ignored: Broadway which, according to the plan, was never supposed to extend past 23rd Street. (NYPL)

Here's a look at the entire Randel map in color.

Check out the New York Times wonderful interactive map, overlaying the original plan on top of modern changes to the city.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"Nexus Of The Universe"

In honor of tomorrow's cartographic-flavored podcast, I present to you a classic clip which begins in that most mysterious of Manhattan locations. Well, at least according to Kramer*:

*If this blew his mind, imagine had he stumbled upon the intersection of 4th Street and 10th Street, two streets that logically should never cross paths.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cheers, College Point; A tribute to kooky Casey Stengel

I love this picture. There are so few century-old images of actual saloons that look like places you'd actually want to go into. This image, from 1905, of a handsome bar and its attentive staff was taken in College Point, Queens. Notice the beautiful cash register, the deer head overlooking any patrons and the food spread on the right.

College Point, a mid-19th century destination for German immigrants, was a village developed by industrialist Conrad Poppenhusen, an early producer of rubber products for Charles Goodyear. It was also home to many late, great breweries, and the combined smell of rubber and beer must have been something else.

Photo courtesy the Queens Borough Public Library. They have several more College Point photos from 1905 in this Flickr photo stream.

Casey At Bat: The title of the Museum of the City of New York's upcoming tribute to Casey Stengel "The Greatest Character of the Game" is not an exaggeration. A typical Stengel aside: "All right everyone, line up alphabetically according to your height." More crazy quotes will be thrown out by a panel of baseball historians and Stengel fans this Thursday 6:30 PM. Say you're a Bowery Boys listener and get the member's discount on admission! [Museum of the City of New York]

Courtesy LIFE Google images

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

William 'Boss' Tweed meets his end on Ludlow Street

From a Thomas Nast cartoon, with the caption: The spirit of Tweed is mighty still "...and even yet you don't know what you are going to do about it!"

Today is a day of big historical remembrances, from the 150th anniversary of the first battle of the Civil War to the 50th anniversary of man's first entry into space.

But to me, April 12th will always be the day that William 'Boss' Tweed died in his cell at the Ludlow Street Jail in 1878, locked up for his far-reaching crimes of corruption and graft.

We're working on putting together a new podcast for this Friday, but in the meantime, here's a reprint of an article on the Ludlow Street Jail I wrote back in 2008, in support of the Riker's Island podcast:

Above: the Ludlow Street Jail, at the corner of Ludlow and Grand streets. (Courtesy NYPL)

Despite being in sight of two boroughs and a very large airport, Rikers Island lulls us with psychological assurance of feeling remote and entirely sequestered from our regular world. But never fear, New Yorkers; there are prisons all over the damn city.

Take the Bayview Correctional Facility, a former Seaman's YMCA turned medium security prison for women. It's in Chelsea, 20th street and 12 Avenue, not far the Chelsea Piers sporting facilities. Or the modern day version of the Tombs, officially the Manhattan Detention Complex and once called the Bernard Kerik Complex. (Poor Kerik. Imagine being so disgraced from misdemeanor charges that they strip your name off of a jail.)

But our current correction system benefits from increased security advancements, better run facilities, and relatively humane treatment of inmates. Quite unlike the world which greeted Rikers Island when its first jail opened in 1932.

The prisons of New York City were notorious for atrocious conditions, disease, frequent escapes, corruption and disorganization. The most notorious of these jails, the original Tombs, sat in the festering shadow of a drained Collect Pond, creating a leaky, damp world, or as James Baldwin once described, "a place of sorrow and tears and dread forebodings." The original Tombs, which opened in 1838, with its ostentatious Egyptian facade, sat close between Five Points and City Hall and often filled its cells with residents of both.

The prisons and workhouses on Blackwell's Island (later Welfare Island, then Roosevelt Island) were equally as moribund when paired with the island's wretched asylum, smallpox hospital and other places one wouldn't wish to throw a birthday party.

We have the beautiful garden of West Village's Jefferson Market as a keepsake to the former New York Women's House of Detention. Its proximity to West Village foot traffic was the bane of the neighborhood until it closed in 1974. Activist Angela Davis was kept here before being acquitted of murder charges in 1972. Florrie Fisher was also a regular here.

But my favorite former prison location, however, has to be the Ludlow Street Jail, formerly at the corner of Ludlow and Broome, opened in 1862 and sat for many years smack in the middle of a stretch of residential tenements. Originally a debtors prison, the red-brick jail complex, with its 87 cells and an open courtyard, later kept county detainees, some of whom could pay to receive slightly better accommodations as though it were a hotel.

From this picture of the Ludlow jail interior, things don't look so awful there. I mean, billiards in top hats?

Victoria Woodhull, the free-love advocate who became the first woman to run for president, spent her 1872 election day in a jail cell here at Ludlow Street for sending obscene materials through the mail, documenting the alleged womanizing of Plymouth Church's Henry Ward Beecher.

More notably, the king of Tammany Hall corruption, 'Boss Tweed, died inside a prison cell here on April 12, 1878. Although some accounts claim the Ludlow jail to be better than most -- with wide windows allowing sunlight and "probably not surpassed by any prison in the United States" -- the doctor who pronounced Tweed's death mentions it was brought on by "prolonged confinement in a unhealthful locality."

Curiously, the once-powerful Tweed had partially overseen the construction of Ludlow's jail and, according to his biography by Kenneth D. Ackerman, his former friends remarked, "If Mr. Tweed had known he was going to patronize it, he would have made the rooms more commodious."

By the 1920s, the prison was affectionately referred to as Alimony Jail for the number of deadbeat husbands contained there. In 1929, the block was cleared to make way for what many would consider a new form of incarceration -- the new Seward Park High School. (The original, which actually did sit next to Seward Park, was moved due to subway construction.)

It should be noted that this school was notable for poor performing students and an alarming amount of dropouts and was eventually closed in 2006. Five new smaller high schools now share the building. Former "inmates" of this institution include Tony Curtis, Estelle Getty, and Jerry Stiller.

(Below) Seward Park High School today, a prison for some, built over the site of an actual prison

Friday, April 8, 2011

Bridge Whist Club: The worst booze your taxes can buy!

Just a barrel of laughs: Prohibition agents dump illegal containers of wine into the streets.

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

LOCATION: The Bridge Whist Club
44th Street between Madison and Fifth avenues, Manhattan
In operation: 1925-1926

Prohibition in the United States didn't extinguish the taste for liquor. The Eighteenth Amendment, ratified in 1919, outlawing the sale and transportation of alcohol, merely inspired those who sold it to become more creative.

In New York, prohibition even redefined midtown. Where once nightlife gathered around supper clubs and cabarets in major plazas like Times Square and Columbus Circle, speakeasies now slithered down the side streets and into previously unremarkable buildings. Some of the most famous of these illicit 1920s booze joints were housed in old tenements and small storefronts, down numbered streets off of Times Square and further downtown in Greenwich Village.

Outside the spotlight, a new regime of proprietors, building newfound nightlife empires with mob ties, quenched the thirsts of a populace thirsty for that which they weren't legally allowed to partake. A great many vied for this business, with a reported "30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs" formed by 1925.

That is an absurd number, reflecting the diversity in establishments -- from the gentlemen's clubs behind secret doors and the high-kicking lounges owned by Larry Fay and Texas Guinan to rundown tenements hastily fashioned with a bar and a few bottles. With no liquor sold there were no liquor licenses required. Everybody could get in the game.

How could the federal government even try and combat such widespread and diverse abuses of a virtually unenforceable law? One tactic manifested in 1925 when, in certainly one of the strangest undercover operation in the history of U.S. law enforcement, the feds got into the speakeasy business themselves. If you can't beat 'em, drink up and join them.

In the fall of 1925, the United States Bureau of Prohibition sunk a few thousand dollars ($5,576.50, according to official documentation, almost $70,000 today)
to rent a building at 14 East 44th Street to construct its own speakeasy, called the Bridge Whist Club. The dive, called a "plush booze joint" by Herbert Asbury in his history of the Prohibition years, was named for a card game, and it is likely men gathered there to partake in this diversion.

But most were there for the liquor. The undercover agents, meanwhile, used the joint to gather "information concerning the activity of liquor smugglers." Rubbing elbows with drinkers, agents could theoretically get names of other speakeasies and establish connections to leaders in New York's underworld. Tables were even equipped with recording devices to pick up incriminating details.

Below: From the jacket of a 1926 book by author Martha Bensley Bruere (courtesy NYPL)

In essence, they were feeding the small fish to draw out the larger ones. The Treasury Department, tasked with enforcing Prohibition by 1925, was well aware of the shifty nature of the enterprise. But an ethical distortion in the philosophy of the Bridge Whist actually put its patrons at risk.

As Wayne Wheeler, head of the Anti-Saloon League, put it, "The government is under no obligation to furnish people with alcohol that is drinkable when the Constitution prohibits it." So the Bridge Whist served up a mixture containing wood alcohol, also known as Methanol, linked today with causing blindness.

This is not the first time that the U.S. government introduced dangerous substances into illegal drink. Realizing that many bootleggers stole industrial alcohol to make their product, enforcers directed that the industrial stuff be polluted with Methanol, hoping the foul taste and physical illnesses would deter consumption. (Slate Magazine ran an eye-opening article about this last year.)

Some of this toxic mix was sold at the Bridge Whist; other batches infiltrated through speakeasies throughout New York. According to author Deborah Blum, "In 1926, in New York City, 1,200 were sickened by poisonous alcohol; 400 died. The following year, deaths climbed to 700."

Still, the Bureau claimed such tainted booze was "the most effective denaturant which the government could use, since it was the most difficult denaturant to remove" by bootleggers with their own chemists, tasked with cleaning up the toxic stew.

Having the government in the speakeasy business did not settle well with many in Congress. Anti-Prohibition members equated it to entrapment. Indeed, many arrested due to information gleaned from the Bridge Whist were later set free. Only one "mid-level bootlegger" was ever caught from information gleaned from the speakeasy operation.

New York congressmen Fiorello LaGuardia, ardently against Prohibition, petitioned against the use of 'under-cover funds' and extreme measures of enforcement. Ultimately, the Bridge Whist could not weather the scrutiny, and thanks to the efforts of the future mayor of New York, the experiment was officially shut down in May 1926.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Dancing queens: Scenes from Bronx Park

A zesty group of ladies enjoy the beauty of Bronx Park in 1911 as they perform a Polish dance known as the Krakoviak according to the photo caption. I don't really have much else to say about this picture other than to say it really makes me wish it weren't below 50 degrees right now. Below: Another group of girls skip the dance and move straight to the sandwiches.

Both images of Bronx Park courtesy Library of Congress

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Stories from Midtown: The journey of an old church, surviving Civil War riots to become a garage

Drive-in salvation: the former All Souls church welcomed automobiles into the fold in 1908. (Courtesy Shorpy)

Another story of a long-gone, forgotten building and one that would have celebrated its dedication 150 years ago this week. This time the story has a strangely sacreligious twist!

It's safe to say that most Americans were extremely anxious in April 1861. Even as a new president Abraham Lincoln settled into office, most of the Southern states had already seceded from the Union. One week later would begin the battle of Fort Sumter, commensing what would become the Civil War.

In a city of competing loyalties between its country and its rich Southern allies, it would have been difficult to get anything done in New York without lively debate on the matter. Newspaper were consumed with war talk. Irish and German workers excavating Central Park argued with each other about it; society was abuzz, from the Gramercy Park mansion of George Templeton Strong (a proponent for the Union) to the corridors of City Hall and the office of Mayor Fernando Wood (who was very much sympathetic to the South).

War consumed conversation; many New Yorkers feared the future. With everything going on, how can you possibly focus on anything else?

It was in this light, 150 years ago, that a simple little church, a Gothic brownstone structure of red and white brick, was dedicated on West 48th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues. The All Souls Episcopal Church was nothing particularly fancy, "there were several oriel and oblong windows, not differing from those in churches generally," the Daily Tribune said frankly.

All Souls would not have been terribly lonely in 1861, but West 48th Street was far from populated. Theaters wouldn't make it up this far for decades, and nearby Long Acre Square was only now beginning to conjure the horse and buggy industries that would make its late 19th century reputation. Over on Fifth Avenue sat the new campus of Columbia College, its classrooms escaping the growing business district of lower Manhattan.

The congregants had much to pray about in its first years. Those competing loyalties and a conscription lottery that many thought targeted the city's poor led to riots during the summer of 1863. Angry mobs stormed Columbia College and some nearby factories and residences, but All Souls was spared. Other Episcopal churches weren't so lucky. (Harlem's St. Philip's, for instance was used as a barracks for police and Union soldiers fending off the rioters.)

All Souls survived the war and by the 1870s brandished a new name, the Memorial Church of the Rev. Henry Anthon. Rev. Anthon was a beloved leader from St. Mark's-On-The-Bowery, and the building on 48th must have been closely connected to that congregation by this time. By the 1880s, it was also known as a charitable 'bread and beef house', "for the relief of worthy poor people between Thirty-second and Fifty-ninth streets."

In 1889, the building went Methodist. Then for a time, in 1896, the church became 'rented quarters' for the New York City Christian Science Institute, one of the first New York headquarters for the fledgling religious practice and formed by Augusta Stetson on the orders of the church's leader Mary Baker Eddy.

According to a 1904 issue of Architectural Record, the former All Souls building "was acquired and radically changed in structure, only the walls being left undisturbed."

The Christian Scientists eventually moved out to much fancier digs (designed by the renown Carrere & Hastings) on the Upper West Side. But stripping out the detail of old All Souls Church may have ultimately doomed the structure. For in its next incarnation, it became a garage .

The carriage-industry district of Long Acre Square briefly became home to many of New York's first automobile dealerships at the start of the 20th century.

The Studebaker company was among the most successful. Its main factory and showroom was just down the street at 48th Street and Broadway in what would now be called Times Square. By 1904 it began selling 'horseless carriages' that ran on gasoline. In that same year, the Studebaker company bought the old church and turned the former house of worship into a garage for its new vehicles.

The picture at the top of this posting shows the state of the building in 1908. In not a single way has the building's original purposes been obscured, as though the owners wanted to make their automobiles new objects of worship. I do wonder if more religiously sensitive people thought this new purpose to be a bit blasphemous. What's worse than turning a church into a garage? Turning a church into a nightclub, then a shopping mall, perhaps.

The garage was torn down one hundred years ago in 1911 and turned into a small theater, reflecting once again the changes of the neighborhood. It too was demolished and replaced -- appropriately, with a garage -- for the McGraw Hill building.

Photo above courtesy Shorpy

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Trans-Lux experience: Madison Avenue's 'modern' mini-movie house

I'm a sucker for severe electric-laden art-deco theaters like the Trans-Lux Modern Theater, once located on the corner of 58th Street and Madison Avenue.

Most every midtown theater in the 1920s dabbled into electric signage to grab attention. But Trans-Lux worked in the opposite direction. To underscore the importance of illuminated billboards in New York, Trans-Lux was actually a sign company who then dabbled into theater ownership.

Their separate film branch, Trans-Lux Movies Corporation, was a collaboration with RKO Pictures. This screen at 58th and Madison, opening in March 1931 as the first of Trans-Lux's theater ventures, was a unique venue that played newsreels and shorts.

It was an 'upgraded' film-going experience, in a miniature theatrical environment. According to a Time Magazine article from 1931, "[t]his theatre, about the size of a small drugstore, has 158 comfortable arm-seats, a turnstile in front and a svelte modernistic interior in which newsreels now flicker from 10 a. m. till midnight. There are no ushers; a ticket girl, two operators (union requirement) and a manager run the house."

Customers would pay a quarter to see about an hour of newsreel and short films, in a brightened environment to allow them to read their programs and newspapers without squinting.

Trans-Lux opened several 'newsreel' theaters throughout the city, although by the late 1930s, those that survived the Great Depression switched to conventional feature films.

This Library of Congress image from April 1931 shows the building from the corner. That glorious neon lettering would have brightened a bustling Manhattan corner.

Trans-Lux is actually still in the film business today as a conventional theater chain Storyteller Theatres, located in a few western states.

Below: She's waiting to take your ticket! (source)

Friday, April 1, 2011

An ode to Sbarro Pizza, a long way from Bensonhurst

On the grim news today that Sbarro Pizza has filed for bankruptcy, I thought I would reprint my article from July 2009 on the Brooklyn origins of this fast-food slice joint.

The Sbarro family in their original salumeria in Bensonhurst

In my July 2009 roundup of famous New York-style pizzerias, I left out the one pizza company that could technically be called the most recognizable New York pie -- at least to those who live outside the city.

Sbarros Pizza is a fixture of shopping malls and roadside traffic stops across the nation. In fact, "across 30 countries" according to the website. In many of these countries, Sbarros is most likely introducing the actual concept of pizza, much less its modified 'New York style' offering.

I was surprised to learn that Sbarros actually got its start in Brooklyn, over 50 years ago, and in a fashion similar to Lombardi's Pizzeria, the tourist-heavy pizzeria in Little Italy.

It too was started up by a Neapolitan named Gennaro -- the highly alliterative Gennaro Sbarro, to be exact -- with his wife Carmela and their three sons. Like Gennaro Lombardi, the Sbarros didn't start off selling pizza either. Their original salumeria (delicatessen) in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, was located at 1701 65th Street and 17th Avenue, opening in 1959 and serving the usual Italian-style deli fare, eventually incorporating pasta and pizza onto the menu -- and sit-down service along with it.

The similarities to Lombardi's stop there. The Sbarros had a mind to expand, keeping a tight reign on their operation as they opened 14 additional New York locations well into the 1970s, with all the food made at the original Bensonhurst location. Carmela even continued to personally make the cheesecake.

They could have been content to stop there, but keep in mind that the 1970s was the age of the shopping mall, and the lure of the food court greatly appealed to the Sbarros. Their first experimental pizza outlet was at the King's Plaza mall in Marine Park. It was here that Sbarros became a counter fast-food restaurant, shedding its salumeria image for a bright, uniform place with a set menu of popular Italian standards.

Needless to say, it was a successful experiment. Incorporating the family business in 1977 and opening the brand up for potential franchises, the Sbarro sons took their restaurant chain national by the 1980s after their father's death, and rolled it out to international locales by the 1990s.

The original Bensonhurst Sbarros was closed a few years ago, and it's difficult to find the inherent Brooklyn-ness in a standard-issue Sbarros restaurant today. But if you look carefully, you might find some dusty, fake-looking meats hanging in the window, harkening back to its early Bensonhurst roots. It's definitely the closest you're ever going to find New York-style pizza in, say, Salt Lake City or even Kazahkstan. (Picture courtesy PMQ Pizza magazine)