Archive for the ‘Poets and writers’ Category

Central Park West’s most enchanting apartments

March 17, 2014

SturbantallThe wonderful thing about New York is that you can pass a building hundreds of times before discovering its magic.

Which is how, on a rainy late afternoon with just a slant of sunlight left in the sky, I discovered the beauty of the Beaux-Arts gem the St. Urban.

It’s a 12-story apartment house at 89th Street, one of many French flat–style residences built in an almost unbroken line along Central Park West at the turn of the last century.

The building’s neighbors, the Dakota and the San Remo, are perhaps more flamboyant. The St. Urban’s beauty is more understated, and it stands today as an elegant throwback—described in one book as a “splendid anachronism” of gracious, Gilded Age living.

SturbancherubFacing the park is a porte-cochere—a magnificent recessed carriage entrance—illuminated by golden globes affixed to the limestone entrance.

The St. Urban’s sloping mansard roof and dormer windows give it a castle-like feel, which is underscored by its rounded, domed tower crowned with a copper lantern.

I’m not the only one enchanted by the St. Urban. In 2001, writer Andre Aciman had this to say about the building, in a New York Times Magazine issue that focused on the specialness of New York City.

Sturbanlobby

“As with Monet’s portraits of the Rouen cathedral, does the St. Urban stir so many images that changing the season, the cast of light or time of day changes the building as well?,” wrote Aciman.

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“All I know is that something in me is forever grafted here—which is why I dare not think of the city without this building, or of me without this city, or of this building without me.”

Returning to a strange, unrecognizable New York

March 10, 2014

Marktwain1867Like Joan Didion in her essay “Goodbye to All That,” countless authors have written their story of coming to the city, building a life here, and then realizing for various reasons that it was time to go.

But there’s a similar tale that isn’t told as often. It’s about living in New York, then leaving—only to return years later to a city that feels different, distant, not the home you knew so intimately.

It happened to Mark Twain. In 1854, at age 18, he left his city printer’s job for California, where he made a name for himself as a journalist.

In 1867 (three years before this photo was taken of Canal and Mott Streets) he found himself back in an indifferent, business-oriented New York.

He dubbed it “the overgrown metropolis” and mused about how “the town is all changed since I was here, 13 years ago, when I was a pure and sinless sprout” in letters to his former newspaper.

Mottandcanalstreets1870“I have at last, after several months’ experience, made up my mind that it is a splendid desert—a domed and steepled solitude, where the stranger is lonely in the midst of a million of his race, ” Twain wrote that August.

“Every man seems to feel that he has got the duties of two lifetimes to accomplish in one, and so he rushes, rushes, rushes, and never has time to be companionable—never has any time at his disposal to fool away on matters which do not involve dollars and duty and business.”

Henryjameswithfather1854“There is something about this ceaseless buzz, and hurry, and bustle, that keeps a stranger in a state of unwholesome excitement all the time, and makes him restless and uneasy, and saps from him all capacity to enjoy anything or take a strong interest in any matter whatever—a something which impels him to try to do everything, and yet permits him to do nothing.”

Twain would not stay in New York very long. Later that year he traveled to Europe and the Middle East, then settled in Hartford, Connecticut.

Author Henry James, above with his father, also felt like a stranger when he came back to New York in 1904 after years in Europe.

21washingtonplaceBorn and raised on genteel Washington Place in the 1840s, James was aghast at the new skyscrapers, which he deemed in The American Scene “grossly tall and grossly ugly” and “. . . extravagant pins in a cushion already overplanted, and stuck in as in the dark, anywhere and anyhow. . . .”

He was struck by “the terrible little Ellis Island,”  trolley cars “stuffed to suffocation,” and the “melancholy monument” that was the new arch on Washington Square.

And James was really upset about NYU knocking down the school’s original college building…along with his childhood home.

Henryjames1913singersargent[Above, the NYU building that took James' childhood home's place on 21 Washington Place].

“The grey and more or less ‘hallowed’ University building—wasn’t it somehow, with a desperate bravery, both castellated and gabled?—has vanished from the earth, and with it the two or three adjacent houses, of which the birthplace was one.”

[Henry James in 1913, by John Singer Sargent]

A downtown street once called “Newspaper Row”

February 27, 2014

In the late 19th century—before media companies concentrated in Midtown and the Chelsea/Flatiron area—the short stretch of Park Row next to City Hall was New York’s media neighborhood, dubbed Newspaper Row.

Newspaperrow

Newspaper Row was home to major dailies such as the domed New York World, the New York Tribune, and the Sun (the little building between the World and the Tribune). The New York Times‘ headquarters stood on the other side of the Tribune.

Why Park Row? To be near the action at City Hall and close to NYPD Headquarters and the courts.

As the city marched northward, so did the newspaper headquarters: to new enclaves named for them, like Herald Square and Times Square.

Chronicling a city “shrouded and mute in snow”

February 10, 2014

JosemartiMarch 11, 1888, a Sunday, had started out spring-like, with temperatures hitting 40 degrees by noon. But afternoon rain turned to evening sleet, then heavy snow overnight.

New York’s surprise blizzard of 1888 had set upon the city. Before the 60 mile-per-hour winds and blinding snow ended on Tuesday, 20 inches would blanket the metropolis, paralyzing the city for days and killing about 200 people.

During the blizzard, Jose Marti wrote. Marti (above photo) was a Cuban journalist who had moved to New York in 1881 after leading his country’s fight for independence from Spain.

Blizzardstreetsceneloc

In exile, Marti wrote dispatches about life in New York for Spanish-language newspapers and continued his fight for Cuban freedom. He chronicled the “white hurricane” for the Argentinian paper La Nacion in searing, poetic language, capturing a city stuck without the communication and transportation systems it greatly depended on.

Blizzardmadisonave“[T]he first straw hats were just beginning to be seen on the streets of New York along with the glad, bright clothes of Easter, when the city opened its eyes one morning shaken by the roar of a storm, and found itself shrouded, mute, empty, buried in snow.”

“The snow was knee deep, and the drifts waist-high. The angry wind nipped at the hands of pedestrians, knifed through their clothing, froze their noses and ears, blinded them, hurled them backward into the slippery snow, its fury making it impossible for them to get to their feet, flung them hatless and groping for support against the walls, or left them to sleep, to sleep forever, under the snow.”

On Tuesday, a shaken city began to dig out. Trains that had been grounded resumed running, and residents set out to their workplaces.

“The elevated train, encamped for two days in sinister vigil next to the corpse of an engineer who set out to defy its gale, is running again, creaking and shivering over the treacherous rails that gleam and flash.”

Blizzardwest11thst

“This city of snow dotted with brick-red houses is terrible and astonishing, as if flowers of blood were suddenly to bloom on a shroud. The telegraph poles broadcast and contemplate the mess, their lines lying in tangles on the ground like disheveled heads.”

Blizzard14thst6thave“The city awoke this morning without milk, coal, mail, newspapers, streetcars, telephones, or telegraphs. . . . All businesses are closed, and the elevated train, that false marvel, struggles in vain to take the angry crowds that pack the stations to work.”

“The city is coming back to life, burying its dead, and pushing back the snow with the chests of horses and men, the ploughs of locomotives, and buckets of boiling water, sticks, planks, bonfires. And there is a feeling of immense humility and sudden goodness, as if the hand we all must fear has resting on all men at once.”

After the blizzard, Marti continued to write and push for Cuban independence, returning to Cuba in 1895. Later that year, he perished on the battlefield.

Blizzard of 1888 Bdwy at 31st St.

A bronze statue heralding Marti as an “apostle of Cuban independence” was dedicated in Central Park in 1965. On the pedestal, a plaque notes his literary genius.

[Photos: Library of Congress, New-York Historical Society, New York Public Library Digital Collection, New York Times]

A book of “tenement tales” on the city’s poor

February 6, 2014

When I first came across this vintage ad (or part of a cover?) for J.W. Sullivan’s 1895 book Tenement Tales of New York, I wasn’t sure if it was serious-minded fiction or pulpy stories filled with stereotypes and lurid drama.

Apparently it’s the former—a slim volume chronicling with sensitivity the lives of street kids, factory girls, and immigrant laborers.

Tenementtales

James W. Sullivan was a journalist and union organizer active in the growing labor movement of the late 19th century.

His Tenement Tales, one of many books Sullivan wrote about the city’s slum dwellers, “constitute a landmark literary achievement,” stated a chapter in The Irish Voice in America, edited by Charles Fanning.

Amazingly, Tenement Tales of New York is a free download available here. (Its “companion volume, 1895′s Slum Stories of London, is online too.)

[Ad: NYPL Digital Collection]

Where to buy zines in the 1980s East Village

January 6, 2014

Remember the zine era? Those stapled, Xeroxed, cranked-out-in-someone’s-basement homemade magazines lined the shelves of independent bookstores and music shops through the 1990s.

SeehearphotofromyelpOne of the best places to browse and discover a new zine was at See Hear, inside a gritty basement storefront on East Seventh Street between First and Second Avenues.

It’s hard to imagine now, in our message- and media-saturated world, but See Hear contained a treasure of independent voices that, in an era before blogs, tweets, and Instagram, would otherwise never be heard.

Testimonials to the store’s incredible variety and the thrill of discovering something new there are all over the web. Just a few months ago, Alex at Flaming Pablum paid homage.

Seehearad2

See Hear is firmly etched in the 1990s for me. Yet they opened years earlier. This ad comes from the February 1986 issue of the East Village Eye.

Zines still exist, but See Hear does not. They shut their doors in the early 2000s [Top photo from Yelp].

The men on the facade of the National Arts Club

December 23, 2013

NationalartsclubNew York City brownstones don’t come any lovelier than 14 and 15 Gramercy Park South, the combined home of The National Arts Club since 1906.

Flora, fauna, and other ornamentation decorate the warm, handsome buildings. But why are the heads of five literary giants carved into the facade as well?

The names are underneath their sculptural busts: Shakespeare, Dante, Franklin, Milton, and Goethe.

They were among the authors and thinkers whose books were featured in the library of the brownstones’ Gilded Age owner, former New York State governor and 1876 presidential candidate Samuel Tilden.

Nationalartsclubfaces

In the 1870s, Tilden, a wealthy lawyer, commissioned Central Park co-architect Calvert Vaux to combine the two 1840s brownstones into one incredible mansion complete with Gothic Victorian touches, stained glass, and bay windows.

After he died, Tilden’s library, as well as his fortune, helped create the New York Public Library. His homage to five literary legends lives on, greeting passersby on one of the prettiest blocks in the city.

The 1940s “poetry mender” of Greenwich Village

December 14, 2013

Artistspoetsgreenwichvillage19352Curious characters have always lead anonymous lives in New York. One of them was a Village man who dubbed himself the Poetry Mender.

Everything known about him comes from a small, touching article from 1948 in the New York Herald Tribune:

“The sign outside the door at 25 West Third Street, Greenwich Village, said ‘ring bell loudly or knock hard and wait.’ But no one tugged at the bellpull—a piece of baling wire with clothespin attached—or knocked on the faded green door last night.

“For the Saturday night soirees of Anton Romatka were over forever.”

Washsquaresouthsullivan19222Romatka, you see, had scratched out a meager living writing poetry, which he and other “versifiers” would tack “on the fences around Washington Square.”

The old man’s apartment “was the kind of place which non-Villagers think of when they speak of garrets of poets and artists in that romanticized section of lower Manhattan.”

Manuscripts cluttered the room; boxes of food hung from string attached to the ceiling to keep them from mice.

Westhirdstreet19352Romatka, a Bohemian in both senses of the word (he was born in Bohemia) also hosted Saturday night sessions, were poets sat around on chairs and soap boxes to read their work aloud and hear his criticism.

“He charged a few cents to criticize or edit poems; he wrote verses to order, from five to 15 cents a line.”

One Saturday night, his students got no answer when they pulled the wire. “They called police, who broke into the two-room cold-water flat on the third floor. There they found the 70-some-years poet dead of natural causes.”

Max Bodenheim Relaxing on a MattressAfter his death, his students—among them Max Bodenheim (at right, in the 1950s)—paid tribute to Romatka at the chapel at Bellevue Hospital and then by his grave in New Jersey.

“The people who were close to him in Greenwich Village said that Mr. Romatka, who never married, was widely known for his generosity and kindness—especially his chivalry toward women.

Washsquarepoetry2“It was for the latter quality, they said, that poets placed a picture of Our Lady of Fatima on his breast, beside the poems and a group of red roses, before his coffin was sealed on Tuesday.”

The four photos (from the NYPL) are of Romatka’s Village, Washington Square South and the vicinity in the 1920s and 1930s.

He was known to pace up and down the sidewalk, “his frayed brown hat pulled down over his brow, offering advice to fellow poets—or a piece of the apple pie some one had paid him for a verse.”

A 19th century writer gripes about the noisy city

September 30, 2013

Complaining about New York—it’s too crowded, trendy, has lost its edge—is a huge pastime of residents.

Portrait of Washington IrvingThere’s just something about the city that makes us think it was better, in some way, in the past.

We’ll never know if Washington Irving preferred the New York he grew up in because it really was a quiet, friendly place, or if nostalgia is clouding his memory.

Born in 1783 to a prosperous merchant, Irving became a journalist before publishing his satirical A History of New York in 1809 and short stories like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by 1820.

His thoughts on the city in 1847—written in a letter to his sister—could have come from any contemporary resident:

Williamstreetoldhouses

“I often think what a strange world you would find yourself in, if you could revisit your native place, and mingle among your relatives.

“New York, as you knew it, was a mere corner of the present huge city; and that corner is all changed, pulled to pieces, burnt down and rebuilt—all but our little native nest in William street, which still retains some of its old features, though those are daily altering.

Washingtonirvingbust“I can hardly realize that, within my term of life, this great crowded metropolis, so full of life, bustle, noise, show, and splendor, was a quiet little city of some fifty or sixty thousand inhabitants. It is really now one of the most racketing cities in the world, and reminds me of one of the great European cities (Frankfort, for instance) in the time of an annual fair.

“Here it is a fair almost all the year round. For my part, I dread the noise and turmoil of it, and visit it but now and then, preferring the quiet of my country retreat; which shows that the bustling time of life is over with me, and that I am settling down into a sober, quiet, good-for-nothing old gentleman.”

[Above: old houses on William Street, from Valentine's Manual, via the NYPL Digital Collection. Left: Irving's bust outside his namesake high school on Irving Place]

A 1920s Village poet writes of heartbreak

September 9, 2013

teasdale“History has not been kind to Sara Teasdale,” wrote Katha Pollitt in a 1979 review in The New York Times.

But “in the teens and 1920s, her rhymed lyrics of love and loss were hugely popular—’her volumes were keepsakes and valentines, the co-ed’s unfailing companion, and the Bible of every disappointed lover,’” Pollitt quotes poet Louis Untermeyer.

VachellindsayBorn in St. Louis in 1884, Teasdale was a sheltered child who left home for Chicago and began publishing verse that was well-crafted, evocative, even fragile and focused on matters of the heart.

She also had an affair with poet Vachel Lindsay (left), but declined to marry him.

In 1914, newly wed to a businessman, she arrived in New York, living on Central Park West before moving to Greenwich Village.

Many of the poems she wrote through the 1920s use New York as a backdrop for heartbreak.

In “Union Square,” she writes:

Onefifthavenue“With the man I love who loves me not
I walked in the street-lamps’ flare;
We watched the world go home that night
In a flood through Union Square”

Summer Night, Riverside” also tackles heartache:

“In the wild soft summer darkness
How many and many a night we two together
Sat in the park and watched the Hudson
Wearing her lights like golden spangles
Glinting on black satin.”

Sarateasdale2Her take on circling the block around Gramercy Park with a romantic partner, wondering why the gates were locked and the park private, ends with this:

“Oh heavy gates that fate has locked
To bar the joy we may not win,
Peace would go out forevermore
If we should dare to enter in.”

Like so many other poets, Teasdale battled depression. She won a Pulitzer in 1918, but when she learned Lindsay had killed himself in 1931, she was deeply affected.

“She divorced in 1929 and lived the rest of her life as a semi-invalid,” states Poets.org. Teasdale committed suicide in 1933 by overdosing on sleeping pills in her apartment at One Fifth Avenue (above).


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