Archive for the ‘Bronx and City Island’ Category

Edgar Allan Poe’s haunted walks on High Bridge

October 7, 2016

Like so many other New Yorkers, Edgar Allan Poe was known to take long, contemplative walks.

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After he moved from a farmhouse in today’s Upper West Side to a wooden cottage in rural Fordham (below), Poe regularly journeyed across the High Bridge, opened in 1848, two and a half miles from his home.

A graceful feat of engineering, the High Bridge carried fresh Croton Aqueduct water from Westchester to Manhattan.

poecottage“During Mr. Poe’s residence at Fordham a walk to the High Bridge was one of his favorite and habitual recreations,” wrote Sarah Helen Whitman, a literary contemporary who Poe tried and failed to court.

The dramatic views of the Harlem River and the rocky shores must have suited Poe’s mood. After all, his life was in free fall.

His wife, Virginia Clemm, succumbed to tuberculosis in 1847. And though he would write some of his best work during his Fordham years, including “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee,” Poe’s literary career was falling apart.

He was broke, he drank a lot, and his behavior was becoming increasingly erratic.

poehighbridge1900nypl“In the last melancholy years of his life—’the lonesome latter years’—Poe was accustomed to walk there at all times of the day and night; often pacing the then solitary pathways for hours without meeting a human being,” continued Whitman.

The 1930 lithograph by B.J. Rosenmeyer (top) captures Poe crossing the High Bridge.

There’s some contention that the dates and image don’t line up. The lithograph depicts a winter scene; Poe wasn’t in New York much during the winter of 1848-1849, the last winter of his life, according to this High Bridge website.

poehighbridgetodayAlso, the pedestrian span of the bridge hadn’t been built until 1864, the site explains. (Above, High Bridge around 1900.)

On the other hand, another witness decades after Poe’s death gave a colorful and distressing chronicle of his High Bridge walks.

“With a faded old army cloak over his shoulders, a relic of his old West Point life, he was a familiar object to the staid villagers as he went loitering by through the lanes and over the fields,” a former Fordham acquaintance of Poe’s told a New York Times writer in 1885.

“His favorite route was the aqueduct road, leading over the High Bridge.”

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: NYPL]

Taking the 3rd Avenue El to the Botanical Garden

September 30, 2016

We can’t be sure that these genteel New Yorkers actually took the Third Avenue El to get to the New York Botanical Garden, a 250-acre cultural treasure founded in 1891.

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But after the turn of the century, when this image was likely taken, there was no easier way to get from Manhattan to the Gardens or the new Zoo opened nearby in 1899.

You could say that the El, the Botanical Garden, and the Bronx or New York Zoological Park, as it was called, are all products of a great late 19th century push to improve city life and its offerings, making New York easier to transverse and giving it world-class cultural institutions—all of which we continue to benefit from.

Two enchanting views of New York’s High Bridge

August 8, 2016

It’s New York’s oldest bridge—a Roman-inspired graceful span completed in 1848 as a crucial link of the Croton Aqueduct, the engineering marvel that brought fresh upstate water to city spigots.

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At 140 feet above the breezy Harlem River, it was (and is—it’s now open to the public) a favorite place for strollers as well as artists.

Ernest Lawson was one of those artists. “High Bridge—Early Moon” (above) from 910 “dates from Lawson’s early period . . . when he lived for a time in Washington Heights, at the northern tip of Manhattan,” states the website for the Phillips Collection, which owns the painting.

Highbridgeharlemriver

“Having left the area in 1906 when he moved to Greenwich Village, the artist often returned to paint his favorite sites until about 1916.”

“High Bridge—Early Moon” looks toward the Bronx side of the bridge. In the more somber “High Bridge, Harlem River,” Lawson looks toward Upper Manhattan, the site of the circa-1872 High Bridge Water Tower.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcover“The motif of the bridge . . . takes on added significance in American art as a symbol of movement and change. As cities grew, bridges were often among the first structures built, their spare designs helping to transform the face of the American landscape from rural to urban.” continues the Phillips Collection caption.

“Lawson’s carefully observed paintings documenting this change conveyed his delight in commonplace views and objects—an old boat, a frail tree, grasses growing along the river’s edge.”

Read more about the High Bridge and how the bridge and the riverfront below it became a favorite recreation area in the late 19th century in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

A hidden Village memorial to a 1930s sports hero

May 26, 2016

HankgreenberghomeOn the slender stretch of Barrow Street just west of Sheridan Square is a typical old-school city tenement.

Blending in discreetly on the outside of 16 Barrow Street is a weathered plaque honoring an early occupant: baseball all-star Hyman “Hank” Greenberg (below in 1933).

The Hebrew Hammer, as one of his nicknames went, lived there for a year after his birth in 1911, after which his family moved to a tenement on Perry Street.

Greenberg never played for a New York team; he spent his long career through the 1930s and 1940s slugging it out for the Detroit Tigers.

Hankgreenberg1933He made a name for himself not just as an excellent ballplayer but as the first Jewish superstar (his parents were Romanian-born Orthodox Jews).

In his memoir, The Story of My Life, he recalls the Village back in the 1910s.

“Baseball didn’t exist in Greenwich Village,” he wrote. “The neighborhood kids played one-o-cat, or stickball, or some other game that could be played on a city street.

“There was no place to play baseball, and nobody thought about the game, or missed it. Kids down in the Village thought the national pastime was beating up kids of other nationalities.”

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The Greenbergs decided the neighborhood was too rough and relocated to the Bronx. At Monroe High School, Hank began playing the game that earned him fame and fortune.

A rocky West Side knoll inspires Edgar Allan Poe

May 23, 2016

 

PoedaguerreotypeIn 1844, Edgar Allan Poe had a lot on his mind.

Though he’d already published some short stories and newspaper pieces, Poe was still a struggling writer working on a poem called The Raven and editing articles for the Evening Mirror.

He also had his young wife to worry about. Virginia Clemm was sick with tuberculosis.

Instead of living downtown or in Greenwich Village, as the couple had in 1837, they moved to a country farmhouse roughly at today’s Broadway and 84th Street.

 At the time, this was part of the bucolic village of Bloomingdale. Fresh air, the thinking was, might help ease Virginia’s illness.

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When Poe needed to get away from the farmhouse (above, in 1879) and seek inspiration, he went to a rocky knoll of Manhattan schist in the woods overlooking the Hudson River, on the border of the not-yet-created Riverside Park.

He named it Mount Tom, after young Thomas Brennan, the son of the farmhouse’s owner. This outcropping still exists at the end of West 83rd Street (below).

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“It was Poe’s custom to wander away from the house in pleasant weather to ‘Mount Tom,’ an immense rock, which may still be seen in Riverside Park, where he would sit alone for hours, gazing at the Hudson,” states this 1903 Poe biography.

“Poe and Virginia enjoyed sitting on [Mount Tom] and gazing across the then-rural riverland north of the city,” according to this collection of Poe’s work.

Poemounttom2016Poe himself wrote about Manhattan’s rocky topography in an 1844 dispatch to a Pennsylvania newspaper, finding the city’s “certain air of rocky sterility” to be “sublime.”

In the same dispatch, he bemoaned Manhattan’s development and the end of its rural, spacious charm.

“The spirit of Improvement has withered [old picturesque mansions] with its acrid breath,” he wrote.

“Streets are already ‘mapped’ through them. . . . In some 30 years every noble cliff will be a pier, and the whole island will be densely desecrated by buildings of brick, with portentous facades of brown-stone, or brown-stonn, as the Gothamites have it.”

PoestreetnamePoe didn’t last long on West 84th Street. After The Raven was published in 1845 and turned him into a literary sensation, he and Virginia moved to a cottage in the Fordham section of the Bronx.

Tuberculosis took Virginia in 1847; Poe left the Bronx and found himself in Baltimore, where he died, perhaps from alcoholism, in 1849.

I wonder what he would think of contemporary West 84th Street bearing his name?

[Second image: MCNY.org Greatest Grid exhibit]

A New York bus driver takes a joy ride to Florida

March 7, 2016

CimillobusnewspapersCollect fares, hand out transfers, navigate traffic—like most jobs, driving a city bus is pretty routine.

That’s why William Cimillo, 37, a married father of two from the Bronx who had been driving a bus for 16 years, became fed up.

“Day in and day out it was the same old grind. He was a slave to a watch and a schedule,” reported the Brooklyn Eagle.

CimillonytBoredom led to daydreaming. Cimillo (left), who strangely looked like Ralph Kramden, wondered what it would be like if he “disobeyed the rules and forgot to look at his watch and did not get to that street corner at the right time,” wrote the Eagle.

One morning in March 1947, something came over him as he pulled away from the garage to start his shift on the BX15 route along Gun Hill Road.

“‘All of a sudden I was telling myself, baby, this is it. I left that town in a hurry. Somehow, I didn’t care where I went. I just turned the wheel to the left, and soon I was on Highway 1, bound for Florida.'”

So began Cimillo’s joy ride. Instead of taking nickels from passengers, he drove across the George Washington Bridge to Hollywood, Florida.

CimillobusheadlineHe parked the bus on a side street, called the bus company to ask them to wire him $50 so he could refuel and return home, and then went to a local racetrack. Police arrested him there and transported him back to New York in his bus (below).

Cimillo was indicted for grand larceny, but instead of throwing him in jail, the bus company seemed to be on his side. They paid his bail, after all.

CimillovideoOnce his busman’s holiday made the newspapers, he generated sympathy from the public. Even his fellow bus drivers held a fundraiser to pay for his legal fees.

Charges were later dropped. He became something of a mini-celebrity, with passengers asking for his autograph and plans for a movie about his adventure announced.

Cimillo continued driving a bus for years. When asked by one newspaper why he took his detour to the Sunshine State, he replied that he “just started out and kept going … the fellows at the bus company will understand, I’m sure.”

[Top iamge: AP; second, New York Times; third: Brooklyn Eagle headline; fourth: British Pathe film clip]

An iconic TV commercial from 1980s New York

July 13, 2015

Aside from the Crazy Eddie and Milford Plaza ads that ran constantly on 1970s and 1980s, is there any more iconic New York City commercial than Phil Rizzuto shilling for The Money Store?

“Can you imagine what you could do with $5,000, $10,000, $50,000?” the Yankee shortstop turned announcer bellowed in a series of ads for this national mortgage lender based in New Jersey—ads which seemed to run constantly whether it was baseball season or not.

PhilRizzutothemoneystoreThe commercials were terrible, but Rizzuto was a character, and every New York sports fan knew his face and his voice.

He left the Yankee announcer’s booth in 1996 and died in 2007 at 89.

Luckily YouTube has preserved Rizzuto’s Money Store ads in all their low-budget, 1980s glory.

A Bronx serial killer escapes from prison in 1916

June 22, 2015

FrederickmorsheadshotIn 1914, residents of a Bronx nursing home called the German Odd Fellows Home began dying.

This is hardly unusual in a nursing home, of course. But officials there realized that the residents were dying in larger numbers than usual.

Officials didn’t have to do a drawn-out investigation. In February 1915, a peculiar new porter and nursing orderly at the home described as “neurotic” and a smoker of “Egyptian cigarettes” walked into the Bronx district attorney’s office.

Clad in a corduroy hunting outfit and wearing a feathered Alpine hat, he admitted that he killed eight octogenarians.

Frederickmorsheadlinenyt2Frederick Mors, 26 (above), a recent Austrian immigrant, told authorities that he used chloroform (and in one case arsenic) to “put people out of their misery.”

“When you give an old person chloroform, it’s like putting a baby to sleep,” he told police. “It frees them from all pain. It is humane and kind-hearted.”

 He claimed he was egged on by the home’s superintendent, who urged him to “‘hurry the deaths’ of some of the more aged and suffering inmates,” wrote The New York Times in 1915.

Frederickmorsheadline2He confessed, he said, because he was afraid the superintendent would pin all of the murders on him.

Though some aspects of Mors’ story appeared to check out, the DA’s office wasn’t convinced. They decided to give him a psychiatric test.

Mors failed, and the DA deemed him a victim of “homicidal hallucination.”

Instead of being prosecuted, he was committed to the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane in Poughkeepsie (below).

Frederickmorshospital

Scheduled for deportation back to Austria, Mors escaped prison in May 1916.

He was never seen again, but a skeleton found in a patch of woods in Connecticut may have been his; police found a bottle next to the skeleton that indicated suicide by poison.

When the Yankees were on top (of 168th Street)

May 11, 2015

Hilltoppark1912Broadway and 168th Street, with its rocky terrain, isn’t exactly the best place for a baseball stadium.

Which partially explains why in 1903, New York’s newest baseball team, the appropriately named Highlanders, only played in a ball park at the site for the next 10 years.

Called American League Park and nicknamed Hilltop Park, it was hastily built in six weeks, just in time for the start of the spring season.

Hilltoppark1912entranceA New York Times piece summed up the challenge of turning a hilly nine-acre trapezoid of land into a worthy stadium:

“From Broadway looking west, the ground starts in a low swamp. It rises into a ridge of rocks perhaps twelve to fifteen feet above the level of Broadway. From the top of the ridge the land slopes off gradually to Fort Washington Road.”

“As the property is today it will be necessary to blast all along the ridge, cutting off a slice eight feet or more. … There are about 100 trees to be pulled up by the roots.”

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With the help of Tammany insider Thomas McAvoy, construction on the park began. Five hundred men (paid $2 a day) set to work digging, blasting and carting away 12,000 cubic yards of bedrock.

“In a remarkable six weeks, the McAvoy construction crew had converted a picturesque but forbidding mesa into a serviceable, if unfinished, venue for major-league baseball,” states the Society for American Baseball Research.

HIlltopparkcolor

“Fans would be accommodated in three grandstand sections ringing the home-plate area and extending along the baselines. Single-deck bleacher areas extended from the grandstands to the outfield fences while an adequately sized scoreboard was erected near the left-field foul line.”

Over the decade, the Highlanders didn’t win many games. But they attracted big crowds to the 16,000 person venue, especially with the help of the new subway system.

DSCN5324-copyThe 1912 season was their last at Hilltop Park, which was constantly beset by flooding and other problems.

The team now known as the Yankees shared the nearby Polo Grounds with the Giants, then moved into their own stadium in the Bronx in 1923.

Nothing appears to remain of Hilltop Park, bulldozed to make way for a tabernacle and then Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in 1925, which occupies the hilltop today.

hilltopplaqueBut there are a few interesting remnants. First, the lone tenement apartment building that stood out so prominently in early photos of the park still exists on 168th Street, long surrounded by other apartment houses.

And a small base-shaped plaque in a hospital courtyard marks the site of home plate.

[Top photos: Library of Congress; fifth photo: copyright David B. Stinson; bottom photo: Uptown Collective]

What remains of a once-proud Bronx borough hall

September 13, 2014

Would anyone try to put a photo of the current Bronx Borough Hall on a souvenir postcard today? Probably not. But the Bronx’s first city building, now that’s another story.

Bronxboroughhall

Completed in 1897, the year before the Bronx joined the new five-borough New York City, this brick and terracotta Renaissance-style edifice was situated high on a bluff in today’s Tremont Park, facing Third and East Tremont Avenues.

BronxboroughhallnyplA grand staircase was added in 1899 to ease the way down the sharp incline toward Third Avenue.

Lovely, right? Too bad it’s one of those structures that never received much affection.

By the 1900s, as the Bronx was transforming itself from a more rural “annexed” district to a crowded urban enclave, borough officials complained that the building was too small.

StaircaseparkodysseyWhen a new borough building went up on the Grand Concourse in 1935, most city offices moved with it.

By the 1960s, only the Bronx marriage license office stayed behind. After a fire, the city knocked down Old Borough Hall in 1968.

All that remains is the ghostly grand staircase, seen above in a 2014 photo from the website Park Odyssey.

 [Middle photo: NYPL Digital Gallery]