Friday, November 30, 2012

George Bellows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: A must-see rumination on New York City's abrasive beauty

George Bellows: Retrospective
Metropolitan Museum of Art
November 15, 2012-February 18, 2012

George Bellows was a member of the Ashcan School, the New York-centered realist art movement of the early 20th century. The so-called 'Apostles of Ugliness' -- at least, according to critics -- included John Sloan, Robert Henri and eventually Edward Hopper. Even the photography of Jacob Riis is considered indicative of the bold Ashcan style.  Bellow's painting, in particular, are representative of the movement, using dramatic, almost geometric styling to depict everyday settings that were raw, lurid and sometimes unsettling..

But after a century of photography and film and decades of modern art, Bellows work now seems rather far from real, almost hallucinogenic. A romantic abstraction, the manipulation of light to evoke the senses of the flesh. The imperfections of his subjects, while sometimes ghastly, are flawless ones.

That was my personal impression of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's amazing new retrospective of the work of George Bellows, a stunning collection of oil paintings and drawings, most steeped in the rough and tumble of early 20th century New York City.

His subjects include lean boxers in the basement of Sharkey's Saloon on the Upper East Side, naked East River swimmers, fiery preacher Billy Sunday (Bellows paints Sunday's upper Manhattan revivals), strolls along Riverside Park, and the excavations of Penn Station. Collected together, you'll notice many of the images derive their motion from confident broad strokes, slightly distorted and blurred body frames, and a framework that's almost photographic.

My favorites surprised me with their use of radical light, like his blinding-white winter scene in Battery Park (below) and his stark-green, twisted views of a Newport, R.I., afternoon. The show makes a point of keeping his weirdest work -- inspired by not-quite-true stories of World War I atrocities -- confined to one room.

Bellows did seek to expose the ruddiness and chaos of urban life, but it wasn't just for its inherent ugliness that he found it so irresistible. It's no surprise to find that his home and studio at 146 East 19th Street happens to be on the so-called "Block Beautiful," Gramercy Park's most diversely gorgeous street. There's even a painting of his elegant home, with his printing press clearly seen on the top floor.

Bellows died prematurely in 1925 at age 42 at the height of his talents, abundantly clear in the exhibition's final room. It literally feels like an unfinished show, not by fault of the museum, but at the clear superiority of the final paintings.

I still personally think John Sloan is New York City's greatest painter, but, thank you Met, you've almost changed my mind.

By the way, there's another new show with a connection to New York City history you should check out while here -- African Art, New York, and the Avant Garde.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Julian Fellowes 'Gilded Age', New York's 'Downton Abbey': Some suggestions and a few pipe dreams

It's a different world: Illustrating the difficulty of a New York TV show set in the 1880s, above is a picture of the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The Reservoir is off to the left, where the New York Public Library is today. More on this photo here.

Ever since the announcement that 'Downton Abbey' creator Julian Fellowes would be developing a show for NBC about 1880s New York, blogs have been excitedly speculating its contents. Will 'The Gilded Age' be have the same 'Upstairs Downstairs' dynamic that informed Fellowes' Oscar-winning script for 'Gosford Park'? Will it feature real-life New Yorkers like Alva Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan? Which American actress will be cast in a Maggie Smith-like dowager role? (Leading candidates may include Susan Sarandon, Cherry Jones and -- if she can be wrested away from 'American Horror Story' -- Jessica Lange.)

This era is ripe for proper television treatment but, with its degree of difficulty, could easily run afoul of mediocrity. Some things hopefully show creators will consider:

-- Don't skimp:  The 1880s is one of the more formative decades of New York history. It exists mostly in fantasy, as only a few notable buildings from before this period still exist, and many of New York's grandest structures were just being constructed (Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, among others). The tallest building in New York was the Equitable Building at a whopping seven floors. (I mentioned the Equitable in my post on the Williamsburg fire, as it burnt to the ground in 1912.) New Yorkers got around by elevated railroad and streetcar. They spent a Saturday afternoon strolling upon the Reservoir and or visiting the newly built Metropolitan Opera House near Herald Square.

None of this can depicted cheaply. My only solid gripe about BBC America's 'Copper' was its obviously low budget comparative to the scope they were intending to capture. If you're going to call something 'The Gilded Age', the world needs to feel opulent. (Even if the phrase, as coined by Mark Twain, was meant to evoke high society without depth.)

-- Don't film in Burbank. Or London. Or Toronto:  Even though the big set pieces will be created by matte painting and CGI, New York still enjoys hundreds of brownstones from this period, literally begging to be used.  There are dozens of historic districts in New York; just edit out the Dunkin Donuts on the corner, and you're set! Do not make the 'Mad Men' mistake of thinking you can create an iconic vision of New York someplace else.

-- Cast authentic faces, not big stars:  Okay, sounds like an expensive show so far. The good news is that Fellowes has a huge following, and the show is concept driven. Outside a pivotal star or two, pull together a great list of actors from New York's huge acting pool that actually fit the part -- in comportment, body shape or profile. Handsome men then didn't look like Taylor Lautner. If you're casting for stunning beauties, hold up a picture of Lillian Russell (who arrived on the New York scene in 1885), not Kristen Stewart. Above: Ms. Russell in 1885

-- Consider changing the title:  I like 'The Gilded Age' but perhaps it's a little too on-the-nose. And there's already a satirical classic with that title. (Although that didn't stop 'Nashville'.) One of the pleasures of 'Downton Abbey' is that it's rooted to an actual place, providing gravity to an ever-centrifugal drama.  Perhaps find the same in New York. (This saves money too.) 'Fifth Avenue'? 'Madison Square'? The Villard Houses were built in 1884. Wouldn't that be a perfect setting? I mean, if it's good enough for Gossip Girl....

Too bad a most perfect title 'The 400' -- the name of Mrs. Astor's high society social circle -- conjures up images of a non-existent sequel to '300' full of sweaty gladiators.  And if you decide to chuck the high society thing and go all gritty, may I suggest 'The Tenderloin'?

-- Watch 'Boardwalk Empire':  The world of Fellowes' new show is going to have to interact with the real world even more than 'Downton Abbey' does. And while Martin Scorsese's HBO drama about 1920s Atlantic City feels narratively distant -- sometimes it's unforgivably boring -- it does incorporate historical figures into its storyline surprisingly well. It's not an easy thing to do, making melodramatic historical figures into flesh-and-blood characters, but that's been one of Boardwalk's more successful accomplishments.

-- The temptation of the Astors vs. the Vanderbilts: You can't touch upper crust Manhattan of the 1880s without discussing the old school Astors and the new money Vanderbilts, whose families collided in the narrow New York social sphere of the era. But it may be more prudent to watch this clash of style from an adjacent family, either real or fictional.

-- The potential of wacky supporting characters:  Now I'm just being a total New York geek here, but in the periphery of such a show, one could find an excellent assortment of extraordinary oddballs. The 1880s had no shortage. Perpetual mayoral candidate Henry George, industrialist Peter Cooper and preacher Henry Ward Beecher in their final years, faded icon of scandal Victoria Woodhull, cigar-chewing Fifth Avenue Hotel power player Roscoe Conkling and the young, genius gadabout Stanford White.

-- And don't just stay in New York: There's Saratoga! Newport! Tuxedo Park! Manhattan Beach! Long Island's Gold Coast!

All right, so maybe I've just budgeted the show out of existence. Anyway, here's hoping for a drama as heartfelt and as addictive as 'Downton Abbey'.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A giant Coke bottle atop the Empire State Building? Almost.

Did you see the spectacular debut of the Empire State Building's new LED lights last night, choreographed to the music of Alicia Keys, being simultaneously broadcast on four New York radio stations?


 The allure of the Empire State Building as a glamorous light spectacle has been around almost since the mast -- originally designed, but never used, as a mooring mast for zeppelins -- was raised in 1931.

Nearby Times Square was bathed in the light of neon advertisement, and its master of manipulation was lighting designer Douglas Leigh.  The iconic beacon would have been irresistible to Leigh, and in 1941, he proposed for the top of the Empire State something that would have been easily his most ambitious, most striking lighting display to date -- an illuminated bottle of Coca-Cola.

According to author John Tauranac, the famous curvaceous bottle would have sat along the spire, changing color based upon the weather. It was one of several potential Empire State Building/Coke tie-ins planned, including a Coke-sponsored performance by the orchestra of Andre Kostelanetz performed at the top, broadcast nationwide on the radio. Coke products would have featured "a small guide to decipher the colors."

The Empire State Building could have used this publicity at this time, as owners were scrambling to fill vacancies within the building. With Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building and dozens of other towers now constructed, midtown Manhattan was experiencing a glut of office space.  A Coke sponsorship would have given the Empire State Building free publicity, not to mention sizable rental fees.

Below: Leigh's famous smoking Camel ad in midtown Manhattan. The Empire State Building can be seen up in the corner.

But Leigh's timing was terrible; even as the plan was being drafted, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and America entered World War II.  During the war, there would be no lights at all atop the building or in its upper floors.

A few years later, in July 1945, a B-25 bomber would crash into the Empire State Building, killing the pilot and several within the building. More amazing facts about that tragic accident here.

Leigh never gave up his dream of transforming the Empire State Building. After the war, Leigh told Life Magazine he wanted to put a gigantic, lighted cigarette on the building. [source]  Many decades later, Leigh would finally get his chance -- albeit without product placement -- designing a new, colorful lighting system  in time for the country's 1976 Bicentennial celebration.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Williamsburg in flames: Explosion on the East River 1912, and a test for the five-borough fire department

The Williamsburg waterfront was a wall of industry over one hundred years ago and of a most combustible kind.

Manhattan had waterfront industry as well, but it was leveraged with rising skyscrapers.  For instance, from the Williamsburg Bridge -- not a decade old in 1912 -- one could see the nearly-completed Woolworth Building emerging from the downtown skyline. When one turned to the Brooklyn side, however, you were greeted only with towers of belching smokestacks from warehouses and factories, dark, sooty and noxious.

Immediately north of the bridge was the Domino sugar plant, a remnant of William Havemeyer's century-old sugar concern.  Nearby were the oil tanks and plants of Standard Oil, coal yards, concrete warehouses, gas reservoirs and even a marine freight terminal, with storage warehouses with grain and hay. Many workers of these factories actually lived close by in tenements along Kent Avenue.

And right in the middle of all that was the United Sulphur Company*, at Kent Avenue and North 10th Street. On the afternoon of November 25, 1912, an explosion here at the sulphur plant threatened to destroy the entire waterfront.

At right: Headline from the New York Tribune, November 26, 1912

Imagine both the sights and the smells of an exploding sulphur factory. Over 5,000 tons of crude sulphur were ignited, created a blast so powerful that some employees were literally blown into the river. Others were trapped in "suffocating fumes" and collapsed.

Newspaper reports made note of various acts of "unselfish heroism" as trained employees "plunge[d] into the yellow glare, shot with blue sulphur flame" to rescue unconscious co-workers.

Two more explosions spread the fire over three blocks, showering fiery embers into the hay bales over at the  Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal building and endangering the nearby oil and gas tanks.

Fire alarms rang throughout the entire city, as firefighters from other boroughs soon arrived to help combat the blaze. This was the second time in history that a 'borough call' -- essentially, all hands on deck -- had ever been made since the consolidation of New York in 1898.

The first would have been fresh on the minds of firefighters rushing to the scene -- the devastating blaze at the Equitable Building (in Manhattan, at 120 Broadway) which had killed six people that January.  It appears the borough call was not yet in place or was simply not called in 1911, when the fire at the Triangle Factory Fire killed 146 workers.

"This was the hardest fire of its sort I ever experienced," said New York fire chief John Kenlon of the blaze. Taking seven hours to fully extinguish, the inferno was made worse by the billowing sulfurous fumes which knocked out more than a few firemen and at least four fire horses.

One benefit of the burning sulphur: it smelled so rancid that residents of tenements in the surrounding neighborhood fled early from the smell. A good thing, as the flames eventually destroyed a tenement on Berry Street. A local saloon also caught fire from wisps of burning hay.

Below: An almost abstract photo of the fire from the Tribune.

Hundreds of spectators watched the blaze from the vantage of the Williamsburg Bridge, the sulphur created a thick curtain of smoke; the New York Times claimed that "the flames showed like dancing green sprites through the fog of gas and smoke."

Unbelievably, despite dire headlines -- 'DEAD IN RUINS OF BROOKLYN FIRE' -- it appears there were no deaths due to the blaze, but dozens of injuries. It was a true test of the consolidated New York Fire Department, and one they ably passed.

*'Sulfur' is the more preferred spelling today, but as the original company used the British spelling 'sulphur', I have continued that spelling throughout the article for consistency. 

Top illustration courtesy New York Public Library

Friday, November 23, 2012

And now -- Eartha Kitt on a bicycle

I was going to run this picture alongside my post on bicycle history last week, but decided this needed a post all its own.

 This picture and the one below were taken by Gordon Parks for Life Magazine in June 1952.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Dressed for success: The tradition of Thanksgiving masking, children in drag, begging for money!

Turkey anyone? Thanksgiving maskers, in New York, taken sometime between 1910-15. Whatever you do, don't look the 'lady' directly in the eye!

My new column for the Huffington Post is live, and the topic is a strange, forgotten holiday custom called Thanksgiving masking, popular among New York kids from the 1890s-1930s. Children dressed as exaggerated versions of poor people! Boys in their sisters' clothes! I wrote about this last year at this time, but this article is newly expanded, and I've done a bit more research on the origins of this very odd tradition.

You can check out my story here.

There are several archive photos attached to the article as well. However, here are a few more, courtesy the Library of Congress.

All these were taken in New York between the years 1910-15 according to file captions. However the background looks quite unfamiliar. Any guesses?

I especially love these little rascals. Cute, cute, really cute, SCARY.

And finally, here's a selection of small portraits of Thanksgiving maskers in the West Village in 1933. Courtesy New York Public Library

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Fernando Wood: More on Lincoln's wily scoundrel

While the Confederacy may be the enemy in Stephen Spielberg's new film 'Lincoln', it is a defeated and toothless one, tattered and on the cusp of surrender. But as this is a legislative melodrama, not a war film, the real foes are the South-sympathizing, anti-war Democrats, opposed to passing Abraham Lincoln's signature Thirteenth Amendment, which would permanently abolish slavery.

And at the head of that fear-mongering group is perhaps one of the Confederacy's most well-known allies, the charming and duplicitous Fernando Wood, former two-time mayor of New York.

As played by Lee Pace, Wood is at his most vituperative, presenting any notion of racial equality as a destruction of American values and stoking fears of black men running amok with such powers as the right to vote. But while the depiction is certainly accurate -- this is, after all, the man who proposed to New York's Common Council that the city secede with the South -- the context is also telling.

For Wood had just been voted out of office just a couple months before.

Aligning himself so tightly with Southern causes had been his recipe for success in the past; New York was a city with strong economic ties to Southern states, and Democrats were adroit at playing to the fears of newly arrived immigrants.  But even as Lincoln's challenger in the general election George B. McClellan easily won the vote of New Yorkers in November 1864, Wood had sullied his own reputation with local Democrats, and his own political machine Mozart Hall was going down in flames.

That November, he struggled to keep his seat and was mocked in the press. Spelling out his desperation, the New York Herald declared, "Fernando Wood is the nominee of Fernando Wood. Fernando Wood is patrolling the district, making speeches for Fernando Wood." He lost his seat to Republican William Darling, the president of the Third Avenue Railroad Company.

So, as depicted in 'Lincoln', he's letting it all go, a flailing lame-duck power representing a losing cause, albeit one still clinging to significant legislative power. The ultimate quest of the film is to convince several Democrats to change their vote and, thus, history.

William Bilbo (played in the movie by James Spader) was asked if Wood could perhaps be swayed to vote for the Amendment, but he replied that he could "not do anything with Fernando Wood nor do I much regret it." [source]

After a period in 'political exile', Wood returned to Congress in 1867 and retained his seat until 1881. But he was politically weakened, giving up as leader of his own political machine even as Tammany reached its apotheosis with William 'Boss' Tweed.

For much more on the life of this obstinate but fascinating character, check out my podcast on Fernando Wood: the Scoundrel Mayor of New York, recorded in July 2011.  You can find it on iTunes (Episode #126) or download it directly from here.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bicycle Mania! The story of New York on two wheels, from velocipedes to ten-speeds -- with women's liberation in tow

Alice Austen's iconic photograph of a telegram bike messenger in 1896, a year where many New Yorkers were wild about bikes. Austen even rode one around with her camera. 

PODCAST The bicycle has always seemed like a slightly awkward form of transportation in big cities, but in fact, it's reliable, convenient, clean and -- believe it or not -- popular in New York City for almost 200 years.

 The original two-wheeled conveyance was the velocipede or dandy horse which debuted in New York in 1819. After the Civil War, an improved velocipede dazzled the likes of Henry Ward Beecher and became a frequent companion of carriages and streetcars on the streets of New York. Sporting men, meanwhile, took to the expensive high-wheeler.

But it was during the 1890s when New Yorkers really pined for the bicycle. It liberated women, inspired music and questioned Victorian morality. Casual riders made Central Park and Riverside Drive their home, while professionals took to the velodrome of Madison Square Garden. And in Brooklyn, riders delighted in New York's first bike path, built in 1894 to bring people out to Coney Island.

FEATURING:  Robert Moses, Charles Willson Peale, Ed Koch, and New York's bike thief in bloomers!

To get this week's episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to straight from here:
The Bowery Boys: Bicycle Mania! From Velocipede to Ten-Speed


The early velocipede went by several names -- the hobby horse, the dandy horse, the draisine. This device made a big splash in 1819 before they were effectively banned from the city. [NYPL]

With the velocipede craze of the late 1860s, women attempted to conform to Victorian ideals of fashion with a host of bizarre products to maintain a ladylike presentation. By the 1890s, women riders chucked most of those conformities out the window, introducing more comfortable clothing and embracing the independence offered by the bicycle.

At top: An ad for a hair product, 1869. (LOC) Below: A radical change of costume in a photo illustration from 1890s (courtesy Brain Pickings, accompanying an amusing article of women's bicycle do's and don'ts from 1895)

The bicycle didn't just provide transportation and recreation in the 1890s. It influenced entertainment as well, through the songs of Tin Pan Alley. Below: A 'comic play' and a two-steph, both from 1896, and both inspired by the Coney Island Bike Path. (LOC)

The Coney Island Bike Path in 1896, running up Ocean Parkway to Prospect Park. I believe this illustrates the opening of the return path, as the original path opened in 1894

I have absolutely no context for this image, but I love it. Taken sometime between 1894-1901 [NYPL]

Thursday, November 15, 2012

History in the making: Post-Sandy Coney Island edition

The old Coney Island El Dorado bumper car ride, 2007 (courtesy Flickr/chris trudeau)

Whistleblower: A heartfelt tribute to David Durk, the NYPD officer who exposed corruption in the force with the help of Frank Serpico (subject of the 1973 Al Pacino film 'Serpico'). "Durk then went on to take a mad genius approach to enforcing the law and to serve as a beacon for whistleblowers far and wide." [New York Daily News]

Master of Ceremonies: One of New York's little museum treasures of the fall has been Bard Graduate Center's Circus and the City: New York 1793-2010, from the earliest of bizarre amusements to the electric splendor of P.T. Barnum and beyond. Highly recommended. [Bard]

Reports from Rockaway Beach: The Hurricane Sandy cleanup here has taken on a surreal and almost apocalyptic air.  "Giant dump trucks were lined up in front of the old bathhouse built by Jimmy Walker in 1932 for “the recreation of all New Yorkers,” ready to deposit their loads. Each truck was piled high with 36 cubic yards of what used to be people’s worldly possessions. "  [New York Magazine]

Tragedy remembered amidst another: The Rockaways' Belle Harbor neighborhood remember the 2001 crash of American Airlines Flight 587. [CBS New York]

Report from Coney Island: Some Coney Island rides have come out of the Sandy aftermath fairly unscathed, like the Cyclone roller coaster. [Brooklyn Paper]

But not all. A few rides were irreparably destroyed. A reader Bruce CS reports from the Coney Island amusement district: "Coney's last two dark rides, Ghost Hole and Spook-A-Rama sustained heavy damage. Deno's may try to revive the Spook-A-Rama, but the Ghost Hole is history most likely.

"All other street level attractions were heavily damaged, all electric components were destroyed, and need to be replaced. Zamperla likely will rebuild, since they are a ride builder and be easier for them to repair. El Dorado is most likely gone,. no more chances to bump your ass off there."

Also gone, per Eater: Denny's Ice Cream, on the boardwalk

Coney Island USA headquarters was one of several area businesses ransacked by rushing waters, damaging the Sideshow, Freak Bar and Coney Island gift shop.  According to their website, they need volunteers this weekend to help clean up!  "We need help with cleaning Wednesday, November 14th through Sunday, November 18th from 12pm - 6pm. Water hardy clothing and footwear recommended. No need to email us first, just come to 1208 Surf Ave."

If you can't make it out there this weekend, you can also donate individual cleaning items. Their website has instructions and a list of necessary items.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Bites of the Big Apple: Interview with the Bowery Boys

We sat down in Washington Square Park with the New York web series Bites of the Big Apple, hosted by Kirsten Alana and produced by Michaela Potter, to talk about the Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast and website. Visit their website for other videos in this series.

As the video includes screenshots of this website, this should be especially trippy to watch from here:

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Holland Tunnel, still drying out, turns 85 years old today

Contract No. 3. South tunnel, New York. taken December 1923  [NYPL]  

The Holland Tunnel, New York's first automobile tunnel, linking downtown Manhattan with Jersey City, New Jersey, turns 85 years old today after a hard month for the city's underground passages. The tunnel was closed for several days after Hurricane Sandy, reopening on November 7.

The tunnel is named after its engineer Clifford Milburn Holland who died before its completion, from heart failure brought on during a routine tonsillectomy procedure in Michigan. He was 41 years old.

He died in 1924, just two days before the two approaching tunnels on the New York and New Jersey sides were to have met.  In 1927, on the day of its opening, the New York Times gave him one of most passionate eulogies --'In Holland's Tunnel Is His Monument' -- in the newspaper's history.

Holland was replaced by Milton H. Freeman ... who then also died, of pneumonia a few months later. Ole Singstad, a colleague of Holland's, was finally brought in to complete the work, devising its innovative ventilation system. Singstad eventually developed most of Manhattan's tunnels, including the Lincoln Tunnel.

When the Holland was completed, it was the longest underwater tunnel of its day. The first vehicle through the tunnel 85 years ago? A delivery truck for Bloomingdale's department store.

The Holland Tunnel was closed on October 29 in advance of the superstorm's arrival; as you can see, it was a wise decision:


Friday, November 9, 2012

New York gas rationing 1942: "The taxi driver's golden age?"

Today begins mandatory gas rationing in New York City due to shortages caused by Hurricane Sandy.

There was limited gas rationing during the 1970s, but the longest a gas ration was ever sustained in New York City was 70 years ago, during World War II, officially becoming a nationwide policy in December 1942. It was actually rubber that the government was protecting, conserving it for military vehicles by reducing the amount of rubber used by America's growing car culture.

Gas was distributed based on coupons, allotted by communities at their discretion, according to author John Alfred Heitmann. An underground market of 'chiseled gas' naturally sprung up, "particularly on the East Coast."

Most New Yorkers, however, adhered to the rationing. Interestingly, the New York Times and others have referred to the 1942 rationing as a 'golden age' for city taxicabs, raking in fares as New Yorkers left their private cars home. "They are making so much money it runs out of their ears and into their savings banks." 

At left: An illustration from the 1943 Times article. Good times for taxi!

According to the Times, a fleet of 9,300 New York cab drivers received enough gas to travel 100 miles a day and were taken off the road only one day a week. Essentially, every street in Manhattan would have looked like Times Square today -- a sea of taxis, checkered, yellow and other colors.(Yellow wouldn't become the standard color for medallioned cabs until the 1960s.)

Below a cab company advertisement from 1944 [courtesy Flickr]

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Help Fraunces Tavern, the South Street Seaport Museum and Stone Street! Still picking up after Hurricane Sandy

There are still so many places throughout the city struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Many people in outlying regions are still without basic needs. In my post on Friday -- A Snapshot of Hurricane Sandy -- there's a list of charities and volunteer organizations where you can donate or volunteer. There's further information about volunteering opportunities at Occupy Sandy Relief.

Some of lower Manhattan's most historic structures have not gone unscathed.  In particular dire straits is old Fraunces Tavern, the 18th century inn, Revolutionary War landmark and site of several early offices of the first American government. George Washington's farewell address to the Continental Army was given upstairs, and Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and Aaron Burr all worked and drank here.

The tavern was originally built upon landfill and sits upon low-lying land, making it and other older surviving structures along Pearl Street very susceptible to sudden water surges from storms. (We spoke about its early history in our podcast on Fraunces Tavern from March 2011.)

According to their website: "As of November 6, 2012, Fraunces Tavern at 54 Pearl Street and the other four interconnected buildings that make-up Fraunces Tavern Restaurant and Museum are without electricity, heat, and phone service. Without electricity it is difficult to assess the full extent of damage, however, the storm surge flooded all five basements and caused about two feet of water damage to the above street level first floor.

From preliminary building walk-throughs it appears that all the upper floors came through the storm unharmed, including Museum spaces and rooms where the collection is stored.

All of the water has been pumped out and a team of experienced plumbers and electricians are on-site to bring Fraunces Tavern back on-line. In the meantime, a generator is planned to bring back power to critical areas by the end of the week. At this time, Fraunces Tavern’s Board and staff members are unable to tell when full power, including phone lines, will be restored."

Other historic structures in this district, such as the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and the businesses along Stone Street and at One Hanover Square, probably saw similar if not greater damage.

If you'd like to help out the Frances Tavern Museum, you can visit their website and make a tax deductible gift. As for the other businesses of this area -- the restaurants and pubs of Stone and Pearl streets --  most are probably open with limited capacities. Go visit them and spend a little money there. I'm sure they would greatly appreciate it.

Meanwhile, the main building for South Street Seaport Museum also received extensive damage, as did the 18th century print shop Bowne & Co.  As part of Schermerhorn Row, the buildings are almost as old as Fraunces Tavern. At greatest risk, however, were their collection of classic ships docked along the East River. But on that front, there's good news.

According to their Facebook page: "Our ships are largely unscathed thanks to extraordinary preparation by our waterfront staff and volunteers. Now, we are working hard to clean up our 200-year-old gallery building, Schermerhorn Row at 12 Fulton Street (half a block from the East River), and our 19th-century spaces around the corner on Water Street, all of which flooded."

You can help out to the museum by donating to their Hurricane Sandy relief fundAnd if you can volunteer to help out the museum for an afternoon (12-4:30pm) this week, send an email to and let them know!

Thanks to Kristin O'Connor Saslovsky on our Facebook page for forwarding me the information on Fraunces Tavern

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Nasty Nor'easter: Horses, balloons suffer in strange storms

The illustration above overemphasizes the appeal of the windblown look. (Courtesy NYPL) 

We really, really don't need a Nor'easter right now. No, really. But unfortunately it is that time of year, when the northeast United States and eastern Canada are whacked with gale force winds and bitter cold, a wet and chilling blast that can sometimes resemble a hurricane.

Although the phrase Nor'easter seems like a mangled colloquialism or perhaps something a hip weatherman came with, in fact it's a mariner's phrase, tracing back possibly several centuries. Many devastating blizzards and hurricanes in New York City's history can be considered Nor'easters, including the Great Blizzard of 1888.

Their characteristics can vary. One can bring snow, the next, battering sheets of icy rain. A nor'easter from December 17, 1890 (described in the Evening World headline below) actually brought "a regular Southern cyclone" to Brooklyn, taking out a house in the neighborhood of Cypress Hills, while frozen waves ran a boat aground on Hart's Island.

"A sleet laden forty-knot nor'easter struck New York squarely in the face yesterday," cried the New York Tribune, regarding a storm that hit on January 3, 1905, fouling up streetcar service and turning streets into skating rinks.

The New York subway system, just months old in early 1905, proved a hearty warrior to the weather, while the poor horses above ground began "slipping and falling on the treacherous asphalt." Even as the subway system gets back to normal this week after Hurricane Sandy, we should remember how relatively sheltered it is from standard storms and a vast improvement over the ground transportation of old.

A nor'easter from December 1944 disrupted the best-laid plans of movie producers. In promotion of the wartime feature 'Winged Victory' starring Judy Holliday and Karl Malden, a barrage balloon from the invasion of Normandy was placed over the movie theater on Broadway. The storm dislodged the war souvenir and blew it out to sea. [source]

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Night, live on TV! New York City newsrooms, 1952

Above: The CBS news broadcast was sponsored by Philco, an early radio and television manufacturer. In the photos of the ABC newsroom below, you'll notice they are also sponsored by a television manufacturer, Admiral.

The candidates are now at our mercy.

Election Day comes in two phases. The first is in the hands of the voter and those that tally their decisions. The second comes from the media, a frenetic and exciting evening (and early morning) of theorizing, prognostication and jump-the-gun prediction.

As we prepare to be assailed with CNN's latest high-tech graphic presentations, appreciate these images of a less sophisticated but no less thrilling place -- the newsrooms of CBS, NBC and ABC during the 1952 election, a contest between Adlai Stevenson and Dwight D Eisenhower. These photos were taken for Life Magazine by Al Fenn. The CBS Studio was at Grand Central Terminal, NBC at Rockefeller Center and ABC

By the way, Eisenhower was of course the winner, becoming the first Republican in the White House since 1928. The Republicans also won control of the House that year, the last year they would do so until 1994.

Below: NBC's Monrobot, a "computer used to tabulate votes on election night," made by the Monroe Calculating Machine Company.

Another voting tabulation device, an "Electric brain", the UNIVAC Electronic Computer. This was, in fact, a 'dummy set' as the actual UNIVAC was quite a bit larger. The machine accurately predicted an Eisenhower victory, but CBS producers presumed it unreliable and did not initially report the results.

From the ABC newsroom:

Walter Winchell, enjoying a smoke as the votes roll in.
Photos courtesy LIFE Google images

Friday, November 2, 2012

PODCAST: A snapshot of Hurricane Sandy, Nov. 2, 2012

Above: Aftermath of a massive blaze in Breezy Point on the Rockaway Peninsula (Picture courtesy AP) 

PODCAST A brief encapsulation of what's happening in the city as of Friday afternoon, November 2, reviewing some of the events associated with Hurricane Sandy, the catastrophic storm which hit the Northeast this week. Featuring some of the historical context for the storm. This is just a summary of what's occurred as of now, so much of this information is sure to have changed after recording date. Please check your local news for up-to-date information.

To listen this episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to straight from here:
The Bowery Boys: Hurricane Sandy Update

Throughout the weekend I'll be compiling a list of relief organizations that you can contribute to, helping out those affected by Hurricane Sandy. If you know of any more -- particularly those tailored to particular areas -- please leave them in the comments section or email me, and I will include them on the list today and this weekend.

Tunnel To Towers Foundation [website]
Hope For New York [website]
Jewish Federation of North America [website]
New York Red Cross [website]
Support Breezy Point [website]
Rockaway Relief [website]
Belford NJ/ Jersey Shore Hurricane Relief Fund [website]
Salvation Army [website]

Visit NYC Service for information about volunteering in the area

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The New York City Marathon still on for Sunday! (UPDATE: Scratch that! Now cancelled as of Nov. 2)

UPDATE: As of this Friday afternoon, the New York City Marathon has been cancelled

The ING New York City Marathon will still go on as scheduled this Sunday, November 4. The marathon served as a symbol of New York's perseverance and strength before, most notably a few weeks following September 11, 2001.  Although some have questioned the resources that might be taken from damaged areas to assure the race's safety and security, I think once we get to Sunday, seeing this massive operation in play -- attracting runners from around the world -- will mostly give New Yorkers a bit of a needed uplift.

There quite about of controversy about the marathon going forward of course. Here's a good wrap-up of some of those calling for the event's cancellation, including from the Staten Island borough president James Molinaro. 

There have been modifications to many pre-events, including cancellation of the the opening ceremony, and a more generous policy on last-minute runner cancellations. (This race won't be the first priority to those most effected by the damage of Hurricane Sandy).  Please visit the race page for more information.

And check out the page for volunteer opportunities during the marathon. Not only is it an incredible way to see the race, an abundance of volunteers will ensure extra safety for the runners.

For the rest of us, the race is also fun to watch on the sidelines. Here's the current course map of the New York City Marathon, although it's possible there may be slight alteration due to crew work or possible obstructions.  You can also peruse this view of entertainment that will be found along the route.

On my way home, walking through darkened lower Manhattan last night, I gave another listen to our podcast episode (Episode #68) on the history of the New York City Marathon, featuring a guest appearance by our official Bowery Girl Tanya Bielski-Braham. (Although since she's moved to Pittsburgh, she hasn't been able to record any new shows recently.)   I think it's a rather fascinating story, and Tanya -- a two-time marathon runner -- gives her experiences running the course.

You can download the show from iTunes, straight from our satellite website, or listen to it by just clicking here.

Photo above courtesy the Associated Press