Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Three centuries of Broadway and Murray Street

July 7, 2014

For most of the 19th century, the intersection of Broadway and Murray Street was the city—a bustling nexus of commerce and city government with notoriously heavy traffic.

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This photo, from New York Then and Now, dates to 1887. Without traffic signals of any kind, crossing Broadway could be tricky, as these pedestrians demonstrate.

City Hall Park is on the right; the building on the right corner is A. T. Stewart’s “Marble Palace” dry goods emporium. Note the telegraph and telephone wires on wood poles.

It’s worth remembering too that underneath this stretch of Broadway, the city’s first subway got its ill-fated start in 1870.

Broadwaymurraystreet1974

Eighty-seven years later, this downtown corner is still busy. Loft buildings and office structures line the west side of Broadway, like the lovely Home Life Insurance Building, constructed in 1894.

A.T. Stewart’s department store building is still there—from the 1910s to 1950 the home of the New York Sun newspaper. The beautiful clock was still there last time I checked.

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Today, the intersection looks almost unchanged from 1974, save for more visible traffic and pedestrian lanes markings and the loss of the pub at the corner of Warren Street on the west side. It’s now a bank branch.

Herman Melville imagines the brutal Draft Riots

July 7, 2014

DraftriotsmelvilleHerman Melville wasn’t in New York City in July 1863 to actually witness the Draft Riots.

A city native born on Pearl Street, he returned to the metropolis from Massachusetts that same year, moving with his family to a farmhouse on East 26th Street.

But the horror of the city’s worst riot certainly affected him. In 1865, he published Battle Pieces & Aspects of the War, which included a poem about the four horrific days of violence and murder that began 151 years ago this week.

The riots were ignited by opposition to the Civil War and class animosity, but more specifically the new draft begun days earlier that forced poor men to fight while richer men could buy their way out.

Draftriotsarson

Titled “The House-top. A Night Piece,” the poem “is an imaginative reconstruction of the awful scene with his judgment of the results,” states the introduction to The Poems of Herman Melville, edited by Douglas Robillard. It begins with a hot, restless night:

“No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air
And blinds the brain—a dense oppression, such
As tawny tigers feel in matted shades,
Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.”

DraftriotsillustrationnyplThe steamy Monday after the draft began, thousands of mostly poor and working-class Irish immigrants, enraged by the draft lottery, began setting fires to buildings citywide and attacking and killing black residents who happened to cross their path.

“The town is taken by its rats—ship-rats
And the rats of wharves. All civil charms
And priestly spells which late held hearts in awe—
Fear-bound, subjected to a better sway
Than sway of self; these like a dream dissolve
And man rebounds whole aeons back in nature.”

[Below: The New York Seventh Regiment was called in to quell the rioters]

Draftriotsseventhregiment

Read the full text of the poem, which hints at the military force brought in to finally put an end to the Draft Riots and serves a harsh indictment of man’s dual nature to do good and evil.

As for Melville, he spent the Gilded Age falling into obscurity, working at the Customs House on West Street near Gansevoort—a street named after his Revolutionary War Hero grandfather.

[Third image: NYPL]

High-school girls in 1910 celebrate Midsummer

June 23, 2014

New Yorkers in 2014 enjoyed the summer solstice by going to the Mermaid Parade, testing out the new roller coaster at Coney Island, and cruising on Citibikes.

In the 1910s, they did it by reviving an ancient holiday most commonly celebrated in northern Europe: Midsummer’s Day.

Midsummersdayfestival1911The idea of bringing back this once-popular summer event—a festival of food, dancing, and maypoles—began with a group of students from all-female Washington Irving High School on 15th Street and Irving Place.

WilliamgaynormayorThey decided that Midsummer’s Day should be celebrated in the modern city with a traditional folk festival, with Mayor William J. Gaynor (left) in attendance.

According to a New York Times article, six girls sent and signed this very fanciful, slightly hippie-ish letter to Mayor Gaynor:

“Whereas the great family known as the City of New York should, like other happy families, take part in the joys of its daughters, you, the honored father of the city, are advised that your girls are minded to meet you in the family garden, Pelham Bay Park, June 24, 1910, and to pay you filial respect, to entertain you with songs and games, and otherwise celebrate our family loyalty.”

MidsummerdayfestivalrelayMayor Gaynor, impressed with the idea, promised to bring his wife and enjoy a luncheon on the grass in the Bronx with 2,000 Washington Irving students, alumni, and family members.

After eating, a Midsummer procession was to occur. “Competitive songs and dances will follow, with the ancient midsummer torch race and other traditional games,” the Times wrote.

Midsummerdayfestivalfling

I couldn’t find an account of how the Midsummer Day festival went off. And unfortunately, when it came time to do it again in 1911, the Mayor didn’t show, according to a 1911 Times article.

But thousands of Washington Irving girls did. These photos, from the Bain Collection of the Library of Congress, are from the June 24, 1911 festival.

A colonial-era plan to build “Delancey’s Square”

June 5, 2014

DelanceysignBrowsing old maps can turn up some strange discoveries.

Take the map below, for example. Published by James Hinton, it shows the city streets and family estates circa 1776.

There’s a road leading to “Kepp’s Bay,” ship yards along today’s South Street, Crown Point, which is today’s Corlear’s Hook, and a square plot called Delaney’s New Square.

Delaney’s New Square—what was that?

In the growing city, it was supposed to be the (apparently misspelled) center of the new street grid developed on the Delancey estate, about 300 acres east of the Bowery on today’s Lower East Side.

Delaneysnewsquare

The powerful Delancey family, descendents of French Huguenots, “began the layout of streets in the southwestern part of their property in the 1760s,” reports oldstreets.com.

“Their plan included a spacious square, called Delancey Square on the Ratzer map (right, at the bottom left), bounded by the present Eldridge, Essex, Hester and Broome Streets.”

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Too bad the Revolutionary War got in the way. The Delanceys were loyalists, and after the war were exiled and had their property taken.

“In subdividing the land for sale, the State’s Commissioners of Forfeiture continued the grid established by the Delanceys but eliminated the grand square,” states oldstreets.com.

Interestingly, a century later, the location of this “spacious” square was one of the most crowded places on earth!

A piece of the Berlin Wall hidden downtown

June 2, 2014

BatteryparkcityberlinwallIn a verdant stretch of Battery Park City, just steps away from the soon-to-open Freedom Tower, sits another global emblem of freedom.

It’s a piece of the Berlin Wall, one of four segments known to be  in New York (left).

How did it end up in a small, hard-to-find expanse between Gateway Plaza and the North Cove Marina?

The city of Berlin donated it to Battery Park City in 2004, the 15th anniversary of the destruction of this Cold War icon.

“These segments were originally located in downtown Berlin in the area between Potsdamer Platz and Leipziger Platz,” a sign helpfully explains.

berlinwallphoto1“They were not exposed to the West (“Outer Wall”), but part of the Inner Wall that was designed to prevent East Germans from entering the heavily guarded death strip between the Inner and Outer Wall.”

A bigger section of wall can be found at lovely pocket park Paley Park on East 53rd Street (left).

There’s also pieces at the entrance to the Intrepid Museum and at the United Nations.

The NYPD’s pioneering 19th century mugshots

May 26, 2014

One more thing that appears to have gotten its start in New York? The mugshot. The city’s nascent police force began taking photographs of criminals as early as 1857.

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“The culprits of New-York, pickpockets. burglars, shoplifters, forgers, and the whole genus of swindlers, owe no debt of gratitude to Monsieur Daguerre,” stated a New York Times article published that year.

RoguesgallerynypdThe article explained that police had hired a “daguerreotypist” to capture 28 images of some of the more notorious street thieves, which were then kept in a book dubbed the Rogue’s Gallery.

Over the next few decades, the Rogue’s Gallery expanded into the hundreds.

ThomasbyrnesphotoBut it really took off and became a prime crime-fighting tool under the reign of chief of detectives Thomas Byrnes in the 1880s.

Among his other police innovations (like the Third Degree and the Dead Line), Byrnes came up with the idea of taking a photo of every criminal suspect, not just known crooks.

He then cataloged the suspect’s image, along with a physical description and other details that could be used to identify the potential lawbreaker before an offense was committed.

Byrnes’ Rogue’s Gallery was housed in a room on the first floor of police headquarters (above), which was then located on Mulberry Street.

Byrnesbook3

He even published a book in 1886, Professional Criminals of America, which was kind of a portable Rogue’s Gallery containing photos and descriptions of 200 bad characters.

NY3DBox“In fact, it is a bad thing to judge by appearances, and it is not always safe to judge against them,” wrote Byrnes.

Did the Rogue’s Gallery work? Crime did drop, but it’s hard to know if all the mugshots had anything to do with it.

Read more about the early policing efforts of the NYPD and the pioneering crime-fighting tactics of Byrnes, promoted to police chief in the 1890s, in New York City in 3D in the Gilded Age, in bookstores June 3.

[Mugshot images: Professional Criminals in America]

Boss Tweed’s brazen escape from a city jail

May 19, 2014

TweedportraitNew York has had its share of corrupt politicians. But few cast as depraved a shadow as William M. “Boss” Tweed.

How brazen was Tweed? As head of Democratic political organization Tammany Hall, he passed a new city charter in 1870 that gave him control of the city treasury.

That allowed Tweed and his cronies to embezzle tens of millions of dollars, mostly by creating fake contracts, padding bills, and invoicing the city for services never rendered.

After an outcry on the part of The New York Times and Harper’s cartoonist Thomas Nast (below, one of his infamous illustrations of Tweed), he was tried and convicted of fraud and larceny charges in 1873.

TweedprisoncartoonnastHe should have been locked up for life. But a year later, his sentence was reduced from 12 years to one.

After his release from prison on Blackwell’s Island, he was rearrested on civil charges and sent to the Ludlow Street Jail—a relatively cushy prison for white-collar criminals.

Now here’s the really ballsy part. Because the Ludlow Street Jail was so accommodating, they allowed Tweed to take carriage rides in Central Park and visit his family at their Madison Avenue mansion (with a prison guard in tow).

TweedludlowstjailnytDuring one visit in December 1875, Tweed disappeared. He took off and fled the city.

Where did he go? First to New Jersey, then Florida, and then to Cuba. From there he made his way to Vigo, Spain.

However, the Spanish recognized him from a Nast cartoon and notified New York officials—who had offered a $10,000 reward for information about his whereabouts.

“When asked about his flight, Tweed said that some friends urged him to go to Turkey or to Egypt, where the telegraph could not so easily locate him,” wrote The New York Times, “but he finally picked Spain, hoping that in the absence of an extradition treaty the Spanish authorities would not surrender him.”

NY3dBookIntCoverNo such luck. He was sent back to the city, and a year later, in 1876, was again incarcerated on Ludlow Street.

This time, he wasn’t allowed daily family visits. He confessed his crimes in an attempt to win freedom, but he was convicted of nonpayment of a civil judgment and kept in jail.

He died there, on Ludlow Street, at age 55 in 1878.

Read more about Tweed’s crazy web of corruption in New York City in the Gilded Age, in bookstores and on Amazon starting on June 3. [Ludlow Street prison photo: New York Times]

A Central park lamp inspired by a German bridge

May 16, 2014

LombardlamptallAcross the street from Grand Army Plaza at the Fifth Avenue and 59th Street entrance to Central Park is a lovely lone lamppost.

Made from cast iron and aluminum, the ornate lamp is only 35 years old—a gift to New York City from the city of Hamburg in Germany symbolizing friendship.

Known as the Lombard Lamp, it draws its inspiration from the beautifully crafted lampposts that have illuminated the Lombard Bridge in Hamburg since the 1870s (photo below).

“The series of lamps that line the bridge have long been beacons at the heart of this vital German city,” states the New York City Parks Department.

LombardlamppostIn 1979, city leaders in Hamburg decided to recreate their famous lamp and give it to New York.

The new lamp “has a lavish base composed of cherubs, garlands, and other decorative features,” notes the Park Department.

“Although it is hollow, the 15-foot lamp weighs more than 1200 pounds, and supports five globe-shaped luminaires.”

Lombardbridgegermany

With its amber globes and imagery of bridge architecture and sea icons, it’s an enchanting replica—which fits right in with Grand Army Plaza’s Gilded Age celebration of glory and progress and abundance.

[Bottom photo: via Amusing Planet]

Thousands of kids mob the city’s first playground

May 12, 2014

SewardparksignGilded Age New York was an era of great wealth. Yet if you were a poor kid living in a hardscrabble tenement district, you still didn’t have a decent place to play.

Sure, you had the traffic-snarled streets, which smelled of manure and trash. Or you could hang out in your tenement’s backyard or on the roof, both dirty and dangerous.

But it wasn’t until 1903 when the first city-run playground at the Lower East Side’s Seward Park—with gym equipment, a concert pavillon, and rows of rocking chairs for mothers with infants—opened to local children who desperately needed a place of their own.

Sewardpark1908

Seward Park playground was the end result of a “playground movement,” a moral push from the progressive reformers of the era, who, with political allies like Theodore Roosevelt and Mayor Seth Low, opened schools and settlement houses.

They formed groups, such as the Outdoor Recreation League and the New York Society for Playgrounds and Parks, to help poor kids gain access to fresh air, trees, and playtime that they believed could prevent “crime and juvenile delinquency,” according to one reformer.

Sewardparkmothers1904

The adults accomplished their goal. By 1905, nine playgrounds had opened, becoming an iconic part of the cityscape.

But what did the kids around Seward Park think? From the beginning, the playground was a huge hit.

Sewardparkboys1903On opening day, October 17, 1903, “the crowd of 20,000 children present took matters into their own hands, mobbed the gates and swarmed into the 5,000 seats which had been reserved for school children and others,” wrote The New York Times the next day.”The programme was supposed to begin at 2 o’clock, but long before that hour all of the great square bounded by Canal, Hester, and Rutgers Street and East Broadway was full of children from one to sixteen years of age.”

In the driving rain, politicians pontificated. Jacob Riis, one of the reformers of the playground movement, took a turn at the podium.

Sewardpark1941nyma

“As anxious as I was to get the children into this park, I am more anxious at this moment to get them out,” reported the New York Herald.

NYCGildedAgecover“I came here to talk to the children, but I will wait until a fair day. I have done all the talking to the administration that I care to, and it is no longer necessary to talk to them, thank God.”

[Second photo: NYC Parks Department, 1908; third photo: NYC Parks Department, 1904; fourth photo: NYPL Digital Collection 1903; fifth photo: NYC Municipal Archives photo 1941]

New York mourns Lincoln, the martyr president

April 21, 2014

News of President Lincoln’s assassination made it to New York City on the morning of April 15. A city that for four years had been divided in its loyalty to the President was now awash in gloom.

Lincolncityhallmourning

“All Broadway is black with mourning—the facades of the houses are festooned with black—great flags with wide and heavy fringes of dead black give a pensive effect. . . ” wrote Walt Whitman.

LincolnlynginstateWhile Lincoln’s body remained in Washington, the grieving continued. “An Easter Sunday unlike any I have seen,” wrote lawyer George Templeton Strong in his diary.

“Nearly every building in Broadway and in all the side streets, as far as one could see, festooned lavishly with black and white muslin. Columns swathed in the same material.”

“Rosettes pinned to window curtains. Flags at half mast and tied up with crape. I hear that even in second and third class quarters, people who could afford to do no more have generally displayed at least a little twenty-five cent flag with a little scrap of crape.”

Nine days after his death, Lincoln’s corpse arrived in New York, one of many stops his funeral train would make before reaching Illinois, where the “martyr president” would be buried.

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A ferry brought the funeral rail car from Jersey City to downtown New York. An enormous procession viewed by thousands wound its way from the ferry landing at Desbrosses Street to City Hall, where the open casket would lie in state for 24 hours.

An estimated 120,000 New Yorkers waited to pay their respects. “Thousands passed reverently before the remains throughout the day and night, and thousands more were turned away, unable to gain admittance,” wrote The New York Times.

Lincolnprocessionbroadway

By one o’clock the next day, April 25, a second procession of 50,000, with thousands more watching from the sidewalks and building windows (including a young Teddy Roosevelt, seen here), accompanied the funeral hearse up Broadway to Union Square.

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The procession continued to a train depot at 30th Street and Tenth Avenue. There, Lincoln’s body was loaded onto a train to continue its journey to Illinois. New York was left to deal with its grief.


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