Friday, March 30, 2012

Circus activism: Barnum's female stars demand right to vote, name baby giraffe 'Miss Suffrage' at Madison Square Garden

The famed Barnum & Bailey's presented an elaborate Cleopatra-themed stage show during its 1912 season, featuring over 1,500 performers. The show had debuted just the week before at Madison Square Garden. Certainly some of its stars -- perhaps Cleopatra herself? -- participated in the March 1912 suffrage event. 

Women did not have the right to vote one hundred years ago. I know this is not an unknown fact. There are people who are still alive who remember that an extra X chromosome excluded you from what is today considered a basic American right for adults.

This struck me as particularly odd this morning, having read last evening all about some odd events from a hundred years ago, March 31, 1912, involving the Barnum & Bailey circus troupe, in town to perform at Madison Square Garden (back in its Madison Square location). The female stars of Barnum's traveling show decided to throw their support behind the suffragist cause -- and the newspapers could barely keep their laughter in check.

Modern women activists of the day were happy to see any headlines relating their cause, as long as the environment was a respectable one. The circus was not one of those environs. Then consider that most newspapers were operated by men and read by men. While some progressive sheets supported suffrage, several chose to cast the cause in a satirical light where possible. The ladies of Barnum & Bailey gave reporters a particularly ripe opportunity for a little spoofing.

Seventy-five women employed by America's most famous circus organized an afternoon suffrage rally and invited the press to the world's first 'circus suffrage society'. How indeed could reporters resist a group of comely acrobats and horse wranglers, presenting their cause on the site of caged animals?

It was meant as a solemn pronouncement; reporters mocked it. "They Organize As Man-Eating Hyena Grins, Elephants Trumpet', went the Tribune headline, as the circus's publicity agent "solemnly sw[o]re last night with a hand on his heart that the meeting was a real, honest-to-goodness suffrage meeting." [source]  This was Barnum territory, after all. Although the great showman had died many years earlier, perhaps after decades of chicanery and misdirection, nobody could take a Barnum photo opportunity with a straight face.

But it was a serious endeavor, led by petite circus rider Josie De Mott (pictured at left) and acrobat Zella Florence. Included in the audience were animal trainers, wire walkers, 'hand balancers', dancers, acrobats and even a few strong ladies, including the renown Katie Sandwina, 'the female Hercules' (pictured below).

Not in attendance, however, were key members of the mainstream suffrage movement -- notably Brooklyn socialite Inez Millholland and the movement's de facto leader Harriet Stanton Blatch, the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Mrs. Blatch, the New York Times noted, was having tea with her fellow esteemed suffragists at their 46 East 29th Street headquarters. (It should be noted they were only a block away from Madison Square Garden!) However, perhaps recognizing the value of a traveling suffragist show, they did deign to send a representative named Beatrice Jones.

Clearly flustered by the appearance of the press -- the society ladies of the suffrage movement did not consider a circus ring an appropriate political venue -- Jones repeatedly asked the ladies if they were serious, then dispensed advice on how to conduct themselves as standard-bearers of the roving suffragist cause.

At one point, the male half of Barnum's husband-and-wife riding act stormed in and dragged his partner from the meeting. The crowd assailed the interloper with boos and hisses.

After the meeting, De Mott and the other circus suffragists created a dandy of a photo op, moving to a cage and presenting the name of 'Miss Suffrage' to a young baby giraffe. The Times coyly suggested the animal was male: "[B]y nightfall he couldn't abide even the sight of a suffragette."

The 'proper' suffragists acquiesced and eventually did meet with their more flamboyant sisters over tea the following week. The society activists marveled at the vigor of the Barnum ladies. "It is because they have so much exercise," one exclaimed, all the while "looking envious at the at the smooth skins and rosy cheeks," the Times condescendingly added.

Top picture courtesy the Boston Public Library. The picture of Ms. DeMott comes from this blog about West Hempstead history and has a lovely story about the feisty circus star. And as for Mrs. Sandwina (at right), you can read all about this wonderful lady at Forgotten Newsmakers.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Before 'Newsies': The Brooklyn Newsboys Strike of 1886

The grueling life of a Brooklyn newsboy, taken by Lewis Hine, 1910 (Library of Congress)

The new Disney-produced Broadway musical 'Newsies' puts melody to the events surrounding the Newsboys Strike of 1899. For one week that summer, young newspaper sellers fought back against their employers' unfair pricing schemes, turning their former street corners into places of mass protest. [You can hear all about in our 2010 podcast on The Newsboys Strike of 1899.]

But did the producers of the Broadway show realize they're opening their new musical on the anniversary of another significant strike?

The organized disobedience of 1899 was only the grandest of New York's newsboy strikes. Despite their youth and inexperience, newsies fought back on several occasions throughout the late 19th century. While the image of the street-smart, scrappy whelp was a stereotype often relayed by the newspapers themselves, in some cases, journalism's youngest workforce used its hot-blooded pluck to great advantage.

With the growth of New York after the 1850s came a fierce competition among its many dozens of newspapers, leading to lamentable and unfair business practices aimed at those who actually sold their product. After all, selling newspapers was a grueling job with low financial reward. Adults looked elsewhere for higher paying work, so in the era before substantial child labor laws,  newspapers often employed younger New Yorkers, mostly boys. And children, cynical publishers believed, were a pliable workforce.

The independence the job required initially appeared to discourage any kind of organization, and newspapers felt they could systematically underpay their 'freelance' sellers, often pitting groups of newsboys against each other. A newspaper across the East River, in the pre-consolidation city of Brooklyn, made just such a mistake in March of 1886.

Above: Determined Brooklyn newsies hang around the Brooklyn Navy Yard (at Sands Street) looking for potential buyers. 1903 Picture courtesy Shorpy 

Brooklyn Takes Sides
The Brooklyn Times employed newsboys all throughout the city of Brooklyn, a fast expanding metropolis by the mid-1800s. Originally just the area we consider Brooklyn Heights and the Fulton Ferry, the burgeoning city grew to absorb many Long Island towns along the bay. In 1854, it also expanded to include the independent city of Williamsburgh (today's neighborhood drops the -h) and Bushwick. These new additions were often referred to as the Eastern District.

However, the city of Brooklyn had a good deal more expansion ahead of it and would eventually swell to include many towns south and southeast of its original borders, an area referred to back then as the Western District, including areas like Bay Ridge, Red Hook, and many others. (This is a tad confusing today as many of these areas were later called South Brooklyn; the Eastern/Western distinction makes sense of you orient it with 'true north'.)

In an effort to expand sales into the newer regions of Brooklyn, the Times made a unique deal to Western District newsboys. They would receive stacks of newspapers at a lower cost (one cent per paper) than those sold to Eastern District newsboys (one-and-a-fifth cent per paper). The Times publishers believed this would boost sales by encouraging the Western District newsies to "push sales vigorously in new directions."

Above: Newsies gathered near the Brooklyn Bridge. Courtesy NYPL

Riot on South Eighth Street!
Oh, but when the Eastern District newsboys found this out the following day! On March 29th, according to a report by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a hundred newsboys, armed with sticks and stones, stormed the Times distribution offices at South Eighth Street and tried to prevent two wagons of newspapers from heading to the Western District. A whip-wielding wagon driver and arriving police officers thwarted the boys, but one of the trucks was later overturned at the area around today's Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Many Williamsburg newsies refused to sell the Times, even defying orders of older, more compliant newsboys. Wagons filled with papers were continually attacked on their way south. Any regular newsboy caught selling the Times was set upon by other boys, often roving bands "backed by a number of roughs." The Daily Eagle reports of some young newsies hiding newspapers in their jackets, selling them to customers in secret, for fear of reprisal.

The Brooklyn newsboy strike lasted for a couple days. Like the later newsboys strike of 1899, the key to success came from adult newspaper sellers at regular newsstands. Once a few of them joined the boycott, the Times agreed to lower their wholesale cost to just one cent per paper for newsboys in both areas of Brooklyn.

By April 1, 1886, newsies returned to their street corners, their hands stained with the ink of the Times and glowing with the satisfaction that their efforts might reward them with a little extra money that day.

SIDE NOTE: It's probably a good guess to say that many of these young workers lived at the Brooklyn Newsboys Lodging House at 61 Poplar Street, which opened its doors in 1884, one year before the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Fiasco! New York's first Republican presidential primary

One hundred years ago yesterday, New York hosted its first-ever Republican presidential primary. Not only was it an organizational failure of epic proportions, but the results handed a stunning and rare defeat to one of New York's most iconic politicians.

Making the 1912 primary a unique contest was that it was between two presidents -- the current one, William Howard Taft, and the prior one, Theodore Roosevelt. (Robert La Follette was also on the ticket, serving as a bit of a Ralph Nader-esque outsider.) Dissatisfaction with Taft's administration had convinced Roosevelt to obtain his party's nomination once again, having served in the White House for almost eight years already.

Roosevelt laid out his plank during a memorable speech at Carnegie Hall (pictured above) on March 20, 1912: "THE great fundamental issue now before the Republican party and before our people can be stated briefly. It is: Are the American people fit to govern themselves, to rule themselves, to control themselves? I believe they are. My opponents do not."

Getting out a powerful incumbent was a difficult task, one that Roosevelt supporters thought could be overcome with the debut of the Republican primary process to the political system. The primary system was considered progressive for its day, putting the delegate process to a popular vote. But New York's first Republican primary, held on March 26, 1912, quickly dissolved into chaos.

Poll workers were ready to make history that morning, only to arrive at polling stations bereft of ballots. Voting locations throughout the city opened that day with nary a ballot in sight. The outer boroughs suffered greatly, and in over a hundred locations, ballots never arrived. Voters waited in line for hours, only to be told that would not get an opportunity to select a candidate. At some voting locations, ballots arrived a few minutes before the polls closed at 9 p.m.

'Kings, Queens and Richmond Largely Disenfranchised,' proclaimed the New York Sun, while the Tribune found 'Big Confusion Throughout the City'. Some clever operators quickly hammered out unofficial ballots on typewriters for anxious voters, hoping they would be accepted.

Below: First lady Helen Herron Taft makes greets supporters in New York

Manhattan voters had fewer problems at their polling stations, as moving vans rushed ballots to locations throughout the city. But the result did not help out the former president.

Political machines still held sway in local politics, and New York was now firmly in Taft's camp. The incumbent easily won the state, although the voting hiccups throughout the other counties allowed Roosevelt supporters to cry foul. A representative of Roosevelt's election committee wailed to the New York Times that "the primary election here today was not only a farce, but goes beyond that and is an insult to the city."

Roosevelt came back from this messy defeat to win nine primaries in other states. Unfortunately, most states still chose delegates at state conventions, a system that favored Taft. At the national convention, Taft was chosen again as the Republican candidate. Roosevelt bolted and ran as a progressive third party candidate (the so-called 'Bull Moose' party).

While campaigning in Milwaukee, Roosevelt was shot in the chest by an insane saloon keeper, surviving the impact due to his eyeglass case and a voluminous speech absorbing most of the blow.

Both Taft and Roosevelt lost that November to the Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

Pictures courtesy the Library of Congress

Monday, March 26, 2012

'Mad Men' notes: New Jersey invades the Statue of Liberty

The lady of Liberty Island makes an appearance in a 1965 United Airlines ad campaign. Don Draper, of course, prefers American Airlines. (Courtesy Flickr/What Makes The Pie Shop Tick) 

WARNING The article contains a few spoilers about last night's show, so if you're a fan of the show, come back once you're watched the episode. 

'Mad Men' returned to AMC last night, ramping up its regular displays of well-primped, misogynistic Madison Avenue ambition. On Mondays here on the blog, I'll drill down for inspiration into the smaller details from the show that deal specifically with New York City history. And on Sundays, during the show itself (when possible), I'll be playing along on Twitter, throwing out little trivia tidbits as quickly and accurately as humanly possible.

Everybody seems to be talking about the slinky performance of Gillian Hill's ditty 'Zou Bisou Bisou' -- or 'Zoo Be Zoo Be Zoo' if you prefer the Sophia Loren version -- by Don Draper's new wife Megan. And civil rights issues finally begin to bubble to the surface when a nasty water-balloon incident by a rival firm (based upon a real event, down to the dialogue!) somehow ends with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce possibly hiring their first African-American secretary.

But I was struck by a throwaway line uttered early in the episode by Don's son Bobby Draper -- played by yet another young actor, the fourth Bobby in the show's five seasons. With the children over at Don and Megan's Manhattan apartment for the Memorial Day holiday, Don emptily suggests this will be the day they go visit the Statue of Liberty. Bobby shrugs and says, "We always say that, but we never do."

The remark is meant to imply all the cheerful, all-American things that the Draper family never seem to do together anymore. When Don drops the kids off at the home of ex-wife Betty and her new husband, he refers to the couple inside as 'Morticia and Lurch'. (Did Don know that ABC had just cancelled The Addams Family the month before?)

Oh, but I do wish the Drapers had gone to the Statue of Liberty at that moment, in late May 1966, as they might have witnessed a rather remarkable sight -- the virtual invasion of Liberty Island by stolid representatives from Jersey City!

Once called Bedloe's Island, the alleged hiding place of pirate's treasure and the home of Frederic Bertholdi's statue since 1886, Liberty Island actually sits within the state line of New Jersey, as does its partner Ellis Island. In fact, some of Ellis Island's reclaimed land is still considered part of New Jersey. However, Bedloe's has been within the jurisdiction of New York since a compact between the two state governments was signed in February 1834.

New Jersey has not always been happy with this arrangement. On the afternoon of May 23, 1966, a group of over four dozen Jersey City Chamber of Commerce members stormed across the water and 'conquered' Liberty Island, pressing their contention that the island should be part of their state.

With 'the Federal Government cooperating as a friendly non-belligerent', the New Jersey businessmen, joined by Jersey City mayor Thomas J. Whelan in a 'festive, bloodless invasion', rattled off their demands, including equal recognition of Jersey City and New York, direct access to Circle Line boat service from the island, and even a change to Liberty Island's postal address.

Don could have even brought his new bride Megan -- of 'French extraction' as she might say -- as a representative of the French government was also on hand to confirm friendly relations between the two parties. (I assume he meant between America and France.) Afterwards, Air France even provided a box lunch to the Jersey City aggressors!

The event was, of course, mostly for show, for greater plans were already in play. In the previous year, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island were enjoined as a national monument under one administrative entity, the National Park Service. By October 1966, they were also listed as inaugural members of the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

The Statue of Liberty often served as a complicated symbol for 1960s political debate, a touchstone for civil rights activists and an ironic construct for many antiwar protesters embittered by the Vietnam War.

In 1965, the FBI and New York police snuffed out an attempt by the Black Liberation Front to smuggle dynamite onto the island and blow up the statue. That same year, President Lyndon B. Johnson (at right) traveled to Liberty Island to sign into law the Immigration and Naturalization Act, a pivotal and far-reaching change to American policy that essentially eliminated immigration quotas.

A few years later, antiwar activists staged a Christmastime demonstration here, barricaded themselves inside the statue for almost two days. In sad need of disrepair by the late 60s, Lady Liberty even represented a certain dislodging of the American dream to many, a sentiment strongly recognized by the 1970s which led to the statue's rehabilitation for her 1986 centennial celebration.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Bowery Boys High Line audio walking tour, featuring tales of the Titanic, the Manhattan Project and 1,000 Stevies

Cookie heaven: Trains pull into a factory owned by the National Biscuit Company, between W. 15th and 16th streets, July 30, 1950. Could those cars be filled with crates of freshly made Oreo cookies? (See comments section below for the anser.) By 1958, the snack company had pulled all production from New York's west side. Photo courtesy Ed Doyle/Flickr

PODCAST Welcome to our unofficial High Line audio walking tour! In our last podcast (episode #135), we gave you a history of the High Line, the one-mile linear park situated atop a stretch of abandoned elevated railroad tracks along the West Side. This time, I'll take you on a tour along the High Line itself.

This will incorporate some history of the elevated line itself, but it's geared towards describing the history of the surrounding neighborhoods. This is intended to be listened to as you walk along the High Line, beginning at the park's southern entrance at Washington Street and Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District. We'll end at 30th Street. This tour will last a little over an hour or so -- depending on what speed you choose to enjoy the High Line. But take your time!

Along the way, I'll share tales from almost 200 years of history, from the early days of Fort Gansevoort during the War of 1812 to the underground club life of the 1990s. Featuring New York stories of the Titanic, the Lusitania and the Manhattan Project. And starring a wild array of people who have influenced these neighborhoods, including Abraham Lincoln, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Drew Barrymore, REVS, Cass Gilbert, a feisty lady named Tillie Hart, and a whole lotta people dressed like Stevie Nicks.

ALSO: You might want a handful of Oreos after you're done.

To get the walking tour, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys High Line Walking Tour

This tour covers two hundred years of history, starting with the construction of Fort Gansevoort, built to protect the city from potential attack during the events leading up to the War of 1812. (Courtesy NYPL)

A map of the High Line, courtesy the Friends of the High Line. This walking tour follows this path directly from the southernmost entrance at Gansevoort Street, all the way up to W. 30th Street.

If you're not able to walk the High Line anytime soon, never fear! Google Maps actually allows you to 'walk' the High Line.

View Larger Map

Although you won't experience any vehicular traffic on this tour, please be aware of other visitors to the High Line as you listen. Stand over to the either side as you listen. There are some narrow paths, uneven walkways, benches and other nooks built into the surface of the High Line, so watch your step.

At the end of the tour I mentioned a Chelsea gallery tour that also provides a great perspective on the neighborhood while leading you through the scene's best art shows. You can find more information about tours at New York Gallery Tours. In addition to the Chelsea scene, they also provide guided tours of the Lower East Side and Upper East Side art scenes.

CORRECTION: There is a very hilarious mis-statement near the end of the show. The Morgan Processing and Distribution Center is 2.2 million square feet, NOT 2.2 square feet. That would be the size of a flower box, I think. I've added the correction to the podcast show notes.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Rays of light: Madonna and the music video club, 1984

Girl gone wild: Madonna enjoys the video opulence of Private Eyes with former boyfriend and producer Jellybean Benitez, July 17, 1984

It's 1984, and the hottest trend in American pop culture is the music video . MTV had debuted a channel of non-stop music videos in 1981, and just three years later, most new pop superstars were being defined by them-- Michael Jackson, Prince, Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper, Wham, Culture Club.

One of the more notable New York club opening in the summer of 1984 was Private Eyes, a trendy gay lounge at 12 W. 21st Street, poised to meet the video future with full-on glittery radness. With MTV revolutionizing pop music by the early 80s, nightclubs rushed to incorporate the new trend into their aesthetic. At Private Eyes, clubgoers needn't have worried about a frenetic disco floor; they were literally invited to be mesmerized. "There is no defined dance area -- it's like a living room with the coffee table pushed aside." the owner told Billboard magazine in November 1984.

The club was state-of-the-art for its day, with almost three dozen television sets, an immense library of 3/4th inch VHS cassettes and the technology to make "beat-for-beat transitions between videos, as well as wipes, fades and full mix effects for the club's six tape decks." New York Magazine listed it among their 'environment clubs' of 1984, "like a department-store television section, except at Private Eyes you can have a beer and you can't change the channel."

In its opening months, Private Eyes scored a few appearances by music video's biggest female star of the day -- Madonna.

As a friend of owner Robert Shalom, Madge allegedly swore by the club, sometimes popping in after a day of recording her album Like A Virgin over at the Power Station studios on W. 53th Street*. "I don’t have MTV," she remarked. "I do see videos, I go to Private Eyes."  Her record label hosted a party in celebration of her new album, released in November that year. Several months later, Madonna was photographed at the club with her rowdy companion Sean Penn on their first date.

Below: Madonna, inside Private Eyes with Grace Jones, sometime in 1984, perhaps both having difficulty watching music videos with sunglasses on

The strict notion of a 'video club' in New York faded when it became cheaper for smaller clubs to install multiple screens and access video material. And, of course, as more common clubs joined the video revolution, the swankier ones eschewed it. Dance clubs that did opt for visual entertainment embraced ambient sets of computer animation by the early 90s, often leaving standard music videos for MTV and other cable networks. (Eventually even MTV left music videos.)

Private Eyes morphed with the times, eventually becoming the Sound Factory Bar in the 1990s, a spin off of sorts to the renown but troubled all-hours club on W. 27th Street, in the shadow of the West Chelsea's elevated tracks. It refreshed its image a few years later under the name Cheetah.

Madonna, who had starred in five music videos by the time she first stepped foot in Private Eyes in the summer of '84, has gone on to make a total of sixty-nine of them, including one that was just released this week.

*The year before, Bruce Springsteen recorded portions of 'Born In The U.S.A.' in the same studios.

Top picture courtesy Life Google images. Second image courtesy Madonna Scrapbook

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mad Men 1966-67: Speculation, context and flashbacks

Our favorite randy, drunken Madison Avenue suits return this Sunday with an extra-special long episode of 'Mad Men' this Sunday. As with prior seasons, I'll try and follow up most shows on Monday with a little historical commentary.

The wonderful thing about this show is that they're nothing if not hyper-sensitive about historical accuracy. From hints given by producers, it appears the new season will open sometime late in the year 1966 or perhaps early 1967. Some significant events during that year that may come into play on the show, either in major disruptive ways or in fine, knowing details:

-- It's the first year of the John Lindsay mayoral administration. Although he governs over a metropolis in steep financial crisis and paralyzed by striking workers, he still considers it a 'fun city'.

-- Pennsylvania Station is ceremoniously demolished. The fate of the treasured train station has been the subject of prior episodes. Could its final destruction represent something more for the troubled ad agency?

-- The World Trade Center begins construction. I'll be very surprised if some mention isn't made of the envious offices with their magnificent views.

-- 'Cabaret' opens on November 20, 1966.  Finally, something opens in New York more debauched than an ad agency Christmas party!

-- New York's most fabulous club is The Electric Circus on St. Mark's Place, drawing the magnificent and the mod, including the entourage of former advertising illustrator Andy Warhol.

-- This is the year of color and camp. New on TV: Star Trek, Batman, The Monkees, Dark Shadows

-- In 1966, there 385,000 American troops in Vietnam, of which over 6,000 would be killed that year alone. A massive protest hit the streets of New York in April 1967 and dozens burned their draft cards in Central Park. A Maxwell House coffee can was famous used to burn the cards. A new client for Don Draper?

-- Cassius Clay had fans last season at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. As Muhammad Ali, will he still have them after he becomes a conscientious objector against the war?

-- The most important album of 1966 comes from two boys from Forest Hills, Queens -- Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.

-- New York played second-fiddle to the colorful imported fashion trends of London. Fashion became daring, flamboyant and colorful, even the dress suits. Skirt hems elevate. Pictured above: New York's hottest star Barbra Streisand on one side, Marlene Dietrich the other, and the currency of 1966 fashion in between, at a Paris fashion show. Pic courtesy Life Google images

-- A strange year at the movies, the top box office hits were 'Hawaii' and 'The Bible'. However the cultural zeitgeist was surrounding the third biggest film of the year -- 'Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?' Can you imagine a time when a stage adaptation was the third biggest film of the year?

-- Gay rights protests begin popping up around the Village, including a slightly botched 'sip-in' at Julius Bar in April of 1966. Might we see a reappearance of Sal in this context?

-- New York gets its first FM rock music station in 1966 -- WOR-FM. While I doubt this fact makes the show, expect a soundtrack heavily laced with sweat and reverb. (Or perhaps, laced with something more tangible?)

-- On top of color televisions, potential clients for the agency include such newfangled inventions as disposable diaper, the synthetic fiber Kevlar, lawn replacement AstroTurf, the sugar substitute NutraSweet and any product related to the American quest to reach the moon.

Here's a sampling of some articles I've written for the blog on 'Mad Men' episodes. You can find them all by clicking on the label 'Mad Men':

-- 'Mad Men' returns: a guide to eating (and drinking) options
-- 'Mad Men' notes: The once and future Hotel Pennsylvania
-- 'Mad Men' notes: A movie theater classic in its final days
-- 'Mad Men notes: Naked truths about New York nudism
-- 'Mad Men' notes: Upscale flowers in a mystery mansion
-- 'Mad Men notes: Konnichiwa, New York City!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Motor hotels: Manhattan's most luxurious parking garage "Your car never touched by human hands!"

If you don't already check in to the marvelous Modern Mechanix blog from time to time, then you're missing out on some retro-futuristic genius. The blog usually highlights visionary drawings from the Modern Mechanics archives. But in the case of one illustration from May 1929, one particular wacky, wondrous dream was actually carried out -- and promptly fizzled.

Automobiles had been a part of midtown Manhattan since the beginning of the 20th century, with dealerships lining the streets of the plaza that would soon take the name Times Square. But it wouldn't be until the 1920s that the city recognized a crisis that would bedevil New Yorkers into today -- where do you park your car?

Some cities outright banned curb parking during the decade. Chicago became the first city to charge motorists to park along city streets. But in New York, some private endeavors tried to solve the problem.

Perhaps seeing a bit of cross promotion, Packard Motors sold an area of property on Ninth Avenue and 61st Street (today's 43-45 W. 61st Street) to the Kent Garage Investing Corporation in 1928. the brainchild by Westchester insurance salesman Milton A. Kent, the ambitious company opened a dizzying 25-floor* mechanical parking garage in a 'flamboyant brick and terra-cotta' art deco tower,  that could accomodate 1,000 cars, using an automatic elevator system that stored cars in upper floors. The cars were rolled into and out of elevators to desired slots in the structure, in theory using few human operators.  (See the clipping from the December 1928 issue of Popular Science at the bottom of this article.)

Advertisements touted the garage as a 'motor hotel'. "Your car never touched by human hands!" went the Kent Garage slogan.

At right: The glamorous garage at West 61st Street, harkening a bit in appearance to the RCA Building, which would be completed in 1933. [source]

Kent Garages opened another location at 44th Street and 3rd Avenue and seemed to be the solution to the coming automobile boom that would fuel the ambitions of city planners like Robert Moses in the coming decade. Unfortunately, the Kent Garages were extremely inflexible, not suitable for cars of certain sizes, and employed highly defective machinery. And as you can probably gather, these were hardly swift forms of storage. It might take almost 30 minutes to retrieve your automobile during rush hour!

The garages were done in before they really got started thanks to the Great Depression. The Kents sold the 61st Street garage in 1931, although the building remained as a more conventional parking garage until 1943, when the building was refitted as a warehouse. (It's an apartment building today.)

*Advertisements of the day tout a 25 floor structure, while the building's landmark designation report lists a 24-floor building.

Top image courtesy of Modern Mechanix

Friday, March 16, 2012

'The Irish Way' to becoming American: a hard-fought history of the dockworkers, the vaudevillians and the chambermaids

The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multi-Ethnic City
part of the Penguin History of American Life series
By James R. Barrett
Penguin Group

The Irish were the first to immigrate to this country en masse in the 1840s, only to find themselves near the bottom of almost every aspect of American life. In James R. Burnett's tidy and studied cultural history 'The Irish Way: Becoming American In The Multi-Ethnic City', we found out how they fought their way into American life, transforming it, and paving the way for others.

Burnett, a professor from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, explores the Irish influence on American life via the collisions and conflicts which occurred between the new arrivals and nativists, and the new arrivals and the newer arrivals. A profound theme of the book is that the definition of being American Irish came not from seclusion that would define later immigrant groups, but from clashes with those groups. By the 20th century, Irish influence came from their successful entry into American life and, according to Burnett, "in strategies for dealing with newcomers."

The book is categorized into various aspects of modernity as it would have looked to a late 19th century immigrant -- The Streets, The Parish, The Workplace, The Machine. Although it purports to be a survey of American Irish urban life, it's almost wholly based on the New York Irish experience. And for good reason; by the turn of the century, more people of Irish descent lived here than in Dublin.

Many aspects of modern life trace back to more robust strains of Irish defiance. The Catholic Church may have been a powerful organizer of the Irish community, but the many Irish social reformers who pushed against it (even those among the clergy itself) helped fashion modern social reform. The roots of union organizing came from Ireland. And, with nods to the likes of "Big Tim" Sullivan, the modern political machine was essentially fueled by powerful collaborations with Irish community leaders.

If early Irish New Yorkers strived for assimilation, later generations defined their ethnicity against the grain, combating black, Italian and other immigrants in alleyways and along the docks -- for territory, for jobs, for identity. The Irish dominated the worlds of minstrelsy and vaudeville. Victimized by horrid stereotypes, Irish entertainers turned the tables with equally vulgar presentations of groups they often considered beneath them. (Those tables could be turned again; as Irish entertainers often did 'yellowface', so too could a Chinese entertainer do a broad Irish impression in those years.)

There are lovely details of New York life scattered throughout, from the birth of New York's first black Catholic Church to the final foothold of Irish dock workers in the neighborhood of Chelsea. While Burnett spends little time amid the grit of early Irish neighborhoods, there are plenty of depictions of fisticuffs and riots to indulge your pugilistic impulse. While it does beautifully illustrate the roots of Irish American pride, 'The Irish Way' is not a manual but a map, a reflection upon their path to influence on life in the United States.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A strange bridge over Canal Street

One of the more ornate features of the West Side Elevated Highway was the bridge constructed over Canal Street and opened to the public in February 1939. In November 1982, the bridge was ripped down and sold for scrap. I'm not sure of the exact date of the photography above (courtesy the Library of Congress) but it's clearly after the entire elevated highway was closed. Notice the weeds growing from the highway partition!

Sorry, notes from the podcast and regular posts will be on the way in the next few days.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The High Line: The wild, wild West Side, cowboys included, inspires an elevated railroad and a remarkable park

Joel Sternfeld's extraordinary four-seasons photographs of the High Line -- displayed in his 2002 show Walking The High Line -- revealed a ribbon of nature surrounded by urbanity and presented a peek into forgotten history. These images greatly influenced the later design of the park, a mix of seamless design and tastefully untethered flora. Courtesy Joel Sternfeld

PODCAST  The High Line, which snakes up New York's west side, is an ambitious park project refitting abandoned elevated train lines into a breathtaking contemporary park. This is the remnant of a raised freight-delivery track system that supported New York's thriving meat, produce and refrigeration industries that have defined the city's western edges.

 You can trace the footprints of this area back almost 200 years, to the introduction of the Hudson River Railroad and Cornelius Vanderbilt, who transformed the streets along the Hudson River into 'the lifeline of New York', filled with warehouses, marketplaces and abattoirs. And, of course, lots of traffic, turning 10th Avenue and 11th Avenue into 'death avenues', requiring New York's first 'urban cowboys'.  The West Side Elevated Freight Railroad was meant to relieve some of trauma on the street. That's not exactly how it worked out.

We'll tell you about its downfall, its transformation during the 70s as a haven for counter-culture, and its reinterpretation as an innovative urban playground.

FEATURING: Cows, dining cars, Russian caviar and sex clubs!

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 High Line

More photos will be available later this afternoon. Notes, corrections, clarifications, sources, and additional information will be posted on Tuesday. 

St. John's Freight Depot, built in 1871. The Cornelius Vanderbilt statue stood watch over the bustling activity until the building was demolished in the 1930s. Mr. Vanderbilt was then moved to Grand Central Terminal, where he still stands today. Pictures courtesy NYPL digital images

The businesses, the trains and the marketplaces of the west side created a nightmare traffic situation along 10th and 11th Avenues, resulting in dozens of death and the sinister moniker 'Death Avenue'. (Picture courtesy Friends of the High Line)

Rangers of Eleventh Avenue: A railroad cowboy marches ahead of an approaching train. Below that, many years later, another cowboy has his work cut out for him going up the avenue in 1922, the era of automobiles.

The relatively 'modern' St. Johns Terminal on Spring Street.

Building the elevated freight railroad: At Gansevoort Street, looking north. Picture courtesy the New York Historical Society
The elevated in 1934, West Street and Spring Street. This was one of the sections that was later ripped down. (Courtesy NYPL)
After the elevated railroad closed for good in 1980, the track sat abandoned, covered in natural overgrowth of the likes hardly seen anywhere else in Manhattan. 'Urban explorers' often traipsed along the mysterious rails, capturing the dichotomy between sudden natural landscape and metropolitan backdrop. (Photo courtesy wally g/Flickr)

The High Line Park opened in 2009, after almost a decade of awareness and fundraising. The linear park has helped transform the neighborhoods below it and has created a new must-see destination for tourists. (Courtesy Friends of the High Line)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sue Simmons: A Four-Letter-Word-ing Celebration

Shake-up on the set! My favorite all-time New York news anchor Sue Simmons, a part of the WNBC news room since 1980, has been 'let go' from her long-time position, as the network won't be renewing her contract when it expires in June. One of the highest paid news anchors in New York history, Simmons is perhaps best known nationally for letting loose an expletive during a commercial news tease. I have no idea what Chuck Scarborough is going to do without her.

Here are four videos that encapsulate her resplendent, telegenic glow -- and her occasional lack thereof. Plus, I just enjoy watching '80s newscasts for some reason:

Alive at Five!

Interviewing Kate Bush in 1985 -- and getting the name of her song wrong.

Featuring Jack Cafferty and Al Roker!

And of course.....

Networked New York: This Friday at NYU!

What are the challenges of presenting the history of New York in a digital landscape? How does technology make New York history richer?

The Project on New York Writing, the Colloquium in American Literature and Culture, and the Workshop in Archival Practice at New York University is presenting an all-day conference this Friday, March 9, 'Networked New York', examining the relationships among "physical New York (the city’s buildings, streetscapes), digitized New York (its blogs, websites, tweets), or institutional New York (its archives, museums)".

I'll be representing the Bowery Boys in an afternoon panel discussion "Blogscapes and Digital Interaction," joining fellow bloggers Maud Newton, Rachel Fershleiser, and Teri Tynes of the Walking Off The Big Apple blog.  The panel will be moderated by NYU English professor Bryan Waterman, who also produces the blog Patell and Waterman's History of New York.

This discussion is begins at 4 p.m. in the Great Room at 19 University Place, right off of Washington Square Park. The conference begins at 10 a.m. All panel events are free and open to the public! There are many history-related speakers, and I think you'd all enjoy many parts of the program, so check out the schedule of events here. And read some in-depth descriptions of events at Bryan's blog.

And there's a new podcast ready for download this Friday. It's a big one!

Picture above "See Something or Say Something: New York" Caption reads: "Red dots are locations of Flickr pictures. Blue dots are locations of Twitter tweets. White dots are locations that have been posted to both."  Image courtesy Eric Fischer, who pretty much has the coolest Flickr stream ever.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Ten fabulous facts about 70 Willow Street, Brooklyn Heights, aka 'the Truman Capote house'

The strange, yellow Brooklyn Heights mansion best known as the home where Truman Capote wrote 'Breakfast At Tiffany's' has finally been sold for $12 million, after many months of humbling markdowns from its original hefty pricetag.

Located in the heart of old Brooklyn, the new owners will be winning more than a literary prize. The house has a rather unusual past full of influential inhabitants and has been used in some curious ways:

1) 70 Willow Street, in the popular Greek revival style of the day, was built in 1839 by Adrian Van Sinderen, the descendant of original Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam and a fiery Revolutionary War-era reverend from Flatbush, Ulpianus Van Sinderen. Van Sinderen's lavish urban villa -- it has almost a dozen fireplaces -- is one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood, but not the oldest. There are a few neighboring houses that are older, including 24 Middagh Street, just a couple blocks away and built in 1824.

2) The house passed to his son Adrian Jr., a prominent New York lawyer, who fell spectacularly from grace when he mishandled the family trust. He died nearly penniless and alone in New Lots, far outside the sphere of wealth, in 1864. (There's an avenue near that east Brooklyn neighborhood named for the Van Sinderen family.) His descendants appear to have done better. Another Adrian Van Sinderen has an annual book-collecting competition named for him at Yale University.

3) The 'estate of Van Sinderen', as it was often called then, was built for a single family, but by the late 1860s, the roomy floors were being split up for several tenants. From an October 1869 classified ad in the Brooklyn Eagle:"One large, handsomely furnished second floor room for gentleman and wife or gentlemen willing to room together."***

4) The primary resident during the late 19th century was the banker William Putnam, better known as a significant trustee for the Brooklyn Museum in its early years. He betrothed to the museum paintings by Rembrandt and Monet, as well as some 'Royal Copenhagen  porcelain' that rivaled that of European rulers, according to the Times.

5) The house was a pivotal location for the women's suffrage movement. Scratch that, the anti-women's suffrage movement. The newly married lady of the house, Caroline Putnam, and her sister Lillian joined other local ladies of means in organizing protests against granting women the right to vote or, in the words of their 1894 petition, to protest "the obligations of the ballot upon the women of the state." Mrs. Putnam also hosted French conservation classes and literary salons from her parlor here. [source]

The picture at top shows the house as it looked in 1922. At right, the home in 1936. (Pictures courtesy New York Public Library.)

6) After Mrs. Putnam died in 1940, the house sat entirely vacant until 1944, when it was donated to the Red Cross. They used the house as a classroom, teaching arts and crafts, Braille to the blind and cooking classes to the wives of returning soldiers from World War II.

7) In 1953, the old house landed in the hands of renown Broadway stage designer Oliver Smith, responsible for the original scenery from great American musicals like Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls and West Side Story. In his lifetime, he was nominated for 25 Tony Awards. With some of his earnings from the musical On The Town, Smith bought 70 Willow Street and lived here until he died in 1994.

8) From 1955 to 1965, he lent the basement apartment to his friend Truman Capote. The blond Southern writer was simply wild about Brooklyn Heights and basically charmed himself into a permanent room on Willow Street. From his essay 'A House on the Heights,' Capote describes, "We [Smith and Capote] sat on the porch consulting Martinis -- I urged him to have one more, another. It got to be quite late, he began to see my point; yes, twenty-eight rooms were rather a lot; and yes it seemed only fair that I should have some of them."

9) Decked out in green wallpaper and odd knickknacks, "an atmosphere of perpetual Christmas," the house would prove a place of great inspiration for Capote. He wrote part of 'Breakfast At Tiffany's' here. Perhaps more notably, it was here that he picked up a New York Times are read about the brutal slaying of a Kansas family. Capote set about working on what became 'In Cold Blood' the next day.

10) I can't leave the tale of 70 Willow Street without mentioning one of its most famous lunch guests -- Jackie Kennedy. Capote conveniently left out the fact that the house was Smith's, not his. "She laughed about it, because suddenly in the middle of lunch she got the idea that it wasn't his," Smith recalled later. "I suppose I acted as if it were mine."

And here's some literary bonus points -- it's just down the street from the old home of Arthur Miller (155 Willow Street)

***A reader emailed me to say that the addresses for Willow Street were differently numbered before 1865 and that this ad probably refers to a neighbor of 70 Willow Street. In that case, I'll replace that fact with one I should have mentioned in the lede of this article -- as reported by Brownstoner, the $12 million final price tag for 70 Willow Street makes it the most expensive house purchase in Brooklyn history. Does this mean that nobody has yet bought my dream apartment in DUMBO?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Movin' out! The Bronx Zoo closes the Monkey House

The charismatic Baldy the Chimp, on display during the 1910s, was one of the House of Primates' most famous inhabitants. (Pic courtesy Wildlife Conservation Society)

The landmarked Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo was officially closed as an exhibition space this past Monday. It was really quite a throwback, a lovely fossil of a building but an artifact of antiquated zoological style. Even as the Bronx Zoo's popularity soared due to regional exhibits like the Congo Forest, Wild Asia and Madagascar, the Monkey House was kept open, displaying smaller primates like marmosets and tamarinds.

While hardly ideal for any type of primate today -- inmate or visitor -- the Monkey House is one of the few links to the zoo's beginnings.

Originally called the House of Primates, the quirky Beaux-Arts structure by Heins & La Farge was finished in 1901, making it the oldest landmark in the park. (The Reptile House, which opened in 1899, is not landmarked, presumably because most of the building has been replaced.) The zoo once kept all its apes, baboons and monkeys here, including Baldy the Chip (at top), amateur roller skater and acquaintance of President William Howard Taft. Today, you can still find baboon adornments atop the entrance, made by famed animal sculptor Alexander P. Proctor.

This building has been closed before, in 1950, when the inhabitants were shipped out to the newly built Great Apes House* (which no longer exists). It was reopened in 1959 and has housed the smallest monkeys from that date until this past Monday.

The Monkey House was also witness to the sorriest moment in Bronx Zoo history -- the exhibition of the Congolese pygmy Ota Benga at the House of Primates in 1906.

For more information on Ota Benga and the rest of the zoo, check out our podcast on the history of the Bronx Zoo.

*As evidenced by this depressing article, the Great Apes House was no great place with primates either.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

'The Greatest Grid' and an even greater book

Reason to love New York No. 12,306: A museum honoring the city's history has a hit on its hands with an elaborate show about surveying and real estate.

'The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011', the smash-hit exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, is the most fully realized and in-depth show they've produced in a few years, and it's done almost entirely without the help of traditional three-dimensional objects.  (The show has also been extended, until July 15.)

The story of the Commissioners Plan of 1811 and the effects of the Manhattan grid plan are wondrously illustrated with an extraordinary collection of maps and photographs, documenting the island's almost century-long conversion into a major metropolis. The most substantial, non-printed object is a small marble surveying post.

But there's a problem with a show based on maps. You actually want to touch things, draw your finger along familiar areas, and stand staring at pictures unfamiliar landscapes, trying to find evidence of your present street corner. More than once I caught myself poking an artifact in sudden amazement. (My apologizes to the museum curators.)

This is what makes the exhibit's companion volume 'The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011', edited by Hilary Ballon, pretty much invaluable. Published in a slender landscape binding, the book condenses the exhibition but allows for unabated curiosity and imaginative wanderings over vivid prints of aged topography.

This exhibit stands in contrast with Mannahatta/Manhattan, another excellent show from 2009 which aroused New York history lovers. Mannahatta was map-based, but pure speculation, an imagining of what the island was like before European habitation. 'The Greatest Grid' starts from many of the same sources -- the Mannahatta Project was built upon early 18th century topographical maps -- but elaborates forth upon the present landscape with stunningly detailed drawings of almost every inch of Manhattan.

While the show gives nods to the original three commissioners -- and of course to John Randel, the surveyor tasked with outlining every foot of land -- it's the later applications of the grid plan that I found most fascinating. The book reprints images of country homes next to street plans that would shortly cut through the property. It's a melancholy display, I guess, the destruction of natural beauty has rarely been as fascinating.

Original surveying maps are complemented with lithographs and photography illustrating the final product, in some cases carved blocks with lonely structures, waiting for the city to catch up to them. The companion guide, stuffed with short essays and full-bodied artifact descriptions by museum staff, reprints almost every image from the show.

Many such exhibition books suffer from the transfer. As an extreme example, last year's lustrous, blockbuster Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was rendered into a diminutive curio with its accompanying companion book. 'The Greatest Grid' suffers no such problem, especially to those of us who find tinted topographical maps and black-and-white images of old New York as scintillating as haute couture.

Our podcast on the Commissioners Plan of 1811 merely skims the surface of material presented in 'The Greatest Grid', but I think it makes for a fine introduction. And I'm not ashamed to say we spend quite a bit of time talking about Gouverneur Morris. [You can download it from here.]