Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

The “fear and anxiety” of approaching the city

July 30, 2018

Edward Hopper painted “Approaching a City” in 1946, making it one of his later works.

But it’s no less effective in depicting the isolation and stasis of the modern city—which visitors reach by traveling on a train, something usually associated with excitement and adventure.

Not here. A potential threat lies ahead for travelers to this city (which is presumably New York, based on the tenements flanking the railroad tunnel).

When asked about the painting in 1959, he answered tersely. “Well, I’ve always been interested in approaching a big city in a train, and I can’t exactly describe the sensations, but they’re entirely human and perhaps have nothing to do with aesthetics,” Hopper replied.

“There is a certain fear and anxiety and a great visual interest in the things that one sees coming into a great city. I think that’s about all I can say about it.”

Is this the oldest photograph taken in Brooklyn?

July 23, 2018

This Dutch-style farmhouse doesn’t look like it’s in great shape. But the man in the top hat is standing proudly in front of it on uneven ground beside an enormous tree.

That man and a second man to the left are posing beside what’s described as “the First Meserole House” in Wallabout, Brooklyn, states the Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861.

This daguerreotype dates to 1848, according to the Museum of the City of New York. That could make it one of the oldest photographic images of Brooklyn, if not the oldest.

1848 is almost two centuries after the first French Huguenot Meserole family member arrived in Kings County. One of the original five families of Greenpoint, the Meseroles were very influential in the development of Brooklyn. (Meserole Avenue is exhibit A.)

Based on the image, it’s impossible to know exactly where it is in today’s Wallabout. But the house might not actually be Wallabout (above, in an 1840 map) at all.

Greenpointers.com notes that the Meserole farmhouse once stood at 723 Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint—which became the Meserole Theater in the 20th century, and now houses a Rite-Aid.

[Image: MCNY: 42.121; map of Brooklyn 1840: David Rumsey Map Collection]

Dreams and illusions on 1930s Chambers Street

July 23, 2018

It’s an ordinary Depression-era day in “View in Chambers Street,” painted by O. Louis Guglielmi in 1936. On this shadowy, marginalized downtown street, we see rundown tenements, sidewalks almost empty of people, and a disorienting perspective.

Faces show little detail, but body language tells us more. A female figure appears to confront another woman sitting on a stoop, and a couple round the corner beside a faded ad, looking downward in different directions.

Amid the despair, though, there’s a strength of the human spirit. Even in rough times, when banks can’t help make dreams come true (see the faded Bowery Savings Bank ad) and even the circus can’t offer any magic (“The Greatest Show on Earth” ad is partially torn), people persist.

The couple look in different directions, but their arms are locked as a team. The rickety baby carriage contains their future.

Guglielmi, who grew up poor in Italian Harlem, painted in the social surrealist style—using abstract, dreamlike images to convey something about society.

His Chambers Street blends a down and out urbanscape with the working poor who live there, who remain stoic in the face of uncertainty.

This Guglielmi painting of a child playing hopscotch beside a stoop on South Street has a similar foreboding quality.

The hidden tenement angels of East 10th Street

July 16, 2018

There’s a fine tenement building in the middle of East 10th Street between Second and First Avenues, one of the many tenement blocks built when the East Village was Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany.

It’s the color of cream, and it looks like the rest of the tenements on the block—six stories, a fire escape on the facade, some ornamental bells and whistles like wreaths under the windows.

But this tenement has an extra bit of loveliness on the facade, something visible when the wind blows back the thick leaves of the sidewalk trees that normal give it cover.

On the facade high up under the fifth floor windows are bas reliefs of what look like twin angels. There’s two on each side of the building, watching over the tenement and East 10th Street since 1900, the year Streeteasy says it was built.

They’re not the only angels carved into an East Village tenement facade. This one on East 14th Street is equally hard to see and straddles two tenements.

The fence post turtles adorning East 49th Street

July 9, 2018

Turtle Bay is one of the most enchantingly named neighborhoods in Manhattan.

But did colonial settlers give this swatch of East Midtown its name because of the plethora of turtles they saw in a creek that emptied into the East River?

Or is “turtle” an anglicized form of the Dutch word deutal, which means bent blade or knife—once the shape of the bay?

The truth is lost to the ages. But turtles are what inspired the designers of this iron fence along East 49th Street between Second and Third Avenues.

The fence keeps the riffraff away from these elegant townhouses, which are part of Turtle Bay Gardens, a collection of 19th century brownstones lining East 48th Street and East 49th Street that were restored in the 1920s.

The 20 houses are connected in the back by a shared secret garden modeled after the Villa Medici in Rome between East 48th and East 49th Streets (below in 1920).

These exclusive residences gave Turtle Bay cachet, and they become home to privacy-seeking celebrities like Katherine Hepburn, Bob Dylan, and Stephen Sondheim.

Most of us will never get a personal glimpse inside one of these beauties or the hidden garden. (Though real estate listings offer a peek inside the restored homes.)

But we can walk down East 49th Street and get a kick out of the turtle-adorned fence posts, which pay homage to the aquatic creatures the neighborhood may or may not be named for.

[Third and fourth images: Library of Congress]

Why this elephant at the UN is hidden from view

July 9, 2018

It’s easy to miss this enormous statue of an elephant at the northern end of the grounds of the United Nations.

This 7,000 pound bronze pachyderm is located behind a black iron fence at 48th Street and First Avenue, in a corner of thick foliage and shadowy trees.

Unlike the front-and-center statue of St. George on a horse brandishing a sword above a dragon (a gift from the Soviet Union in 1990), the lifelike UN elephant seems almost purposely hidden away from view.

And it is, actually—because UN officials decided the elephant’s 2-foot erect penis was a little too lifelike.

A gift from Kenya, Namibia, and Nepal, the sculpture was supposed to “remind UN visitors of humans’ responsibility to the environment,” according to a 1998 AP article, which paraphrased then-Secretary General Kofi Annan’s dedication speech.

“The sheer size of this creature humbles us,” the AP quoted Annan, “as well it should, for it tells us that some things are bigger than we are.”

Before the dedication ceremony, potted plants and trees were “hauled in to block a side view of the animal,” the AP stated.

The Bulgarian-born sculpture, Mihail, was none too pleased to learn that UN officials were embarrassed by his work.

”I take it as a joke,” Mihail told the New York Times in 1990. ”Until I saw myself the bushes being planted. This is exactly the problem between people and wildlife. They create a frontier. Like the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall.”

Apparently potted plants weren’t enough. At some point, the UN banished the elephant to this dark corner, its anatomy shielded by shrubbery.

It really is shielded; I couldn’t get a photo of it at all from any angle. Luckily Buzzfeed was at the UN in 2014 and appears to have secured a closer view.

[Third photo: Alamy; fourth photo, Wikipedia, 2006]

Dreaming on the elevated tracks at 47th Street

July 2, 2018

New York is a city of dreamers. But I wonder what the girl in John J. Soble’s 1936 painting is thinking about.

We see her on the edge of what looks like a tenement roof, staring out onto the (soon to be demolished) Sixth Avenue elevated tracks and to Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, and beyond.

Her leg is kicked up in a youthful pose, while the woman holding the chair behind her seems older. A train is coming down the tracks as laundry hangs from a roof in the distance. She might be a neighborhood girl, but big city dreams beckon.

Excavating Penn Station by fire and lamp light

June 25, 2018

We’ve all seen the heartbreaking images of the demolition of the original Penn Station from 1963.

Much more inspiring, however, is this painting, which chronicles the building of the Beaux Arts station in 1908. Construction hasn’t begun yet; social realist painter George Bellows gives us the excavation of the land where Penn Station will eventually rise and open in 1910.

There’s magic here—thanks to the lamps ringing the excavation site and tenements across the street. Slightly eerie is the orange glow of a fire deep in the pit and images of nearby figures keeping watch over things, perhaps.

Bellows must have had a fascination with the building of Penn Station, as he painted this daytime image as well.

Dancing at the Lunatic’s Ball on Blackwell’s Island

June 25, 2018

City officials had good intentions when they built the New York City Lunatic Asylum, which opened in 1841 on Blackwell’s Island.

Rather than confining city residents who were deemed insane to prison cells (which had long been the preferred course of action), this new institution with the octagon entrance was all about “moral treatment,” explains Stacy Horn in her new book, Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

Insanity was to be considered an illness, not demonic possession. And “therapy was focused on the patient’s emotional and spiritual needs,” wrote Horn. That meant exercise instead of shackles, work that would build self-esteem, and recreation to lift spirits.

What kind of recreation? Activities included lectures, concerts, magic lantern shows—and a periodic event dubbed the Lunatic’s Ball.

“On special holidays they’d fit up one of the pavilions as a dancing hall and everyone—patients, attendants, and doctors alike—would dance,” explains Horn.

In 1865, Harper’s Weekly covered one of these Lunatic’s Balls in an article titled “Dancing by Lunatics.”

“The Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island was the scene of a most interesting and remarkable spectacle on the night of November 6,” the article stated.

“The completion of the first of a series of four frame buildings was celebrated by a ball, in which the patients of the Asylum were the dancers, ‘tripping the light fantastic toe’ after a fashion even more fantastic than Milton dreamed of in ‘L’Allegro.'”

The new buildings were necessitated by an increase in asylum residents, causing overcrowding and making the place much less therapeutic and more dangerous than the city had hoped.

“A prominent fiddler, himself a patient, is lost in ecstasy in the sounds which he produces, and in their influence upon his fellows. Every variety of ‘pigeon wing’ is being cut by the active dancers. Now and then there darts out one who enchains the attention of all her acquaintance by her excellent execution of the most difficult pas.”

“Occasions of this sort no doubt tend in a great degree to relieve the sluggish melancholy which too close confinement or too monotonous surroundings are apt to produce in our institutions for insane people. It is often the case that isolation renders incurable diseases of the mind which a more considerate treatment might ameliorate, or perhaps entirely relieve.”

This is the same asylum Nellie Bly would go on to write about in 1887, when the Lunatic Asylum had become women-only and “sluggish melancholy” was the least of the problems residents encountered.

Bly’s expose on the terrible conditions there ultimately led to its closing. Residents were relocated to a cleaned-up facility on Ward’s Island, one that didn’t seem to continue the Lunatic’s Ball tradition.

[Top image: Lunatic asylum scene in 1868; second image, the Lunatic’s Ball, Harper’s Weekly; third image: NYPL, 1850s; fourth image: Lunatic Asylum in the 1890s; fifth image: Lunatic Asylum, undated]

The graceful beauty of an original subway kiosk

June 11, 2018

There is sits beside City Hall Park, an original New York City subway entrance—one of several entrances and exits for the new IRT subway, which made its debut in 1904.

Modeled after subway kiosks in Budapest, these graceful structures (domed roof kiosks were entrances; those with peaked roofs were exits, see below at East 23rd Street) were built during the height of the City Beautiful movement that swept major urban areas at the turn of the 20th century.

The idea was that public buildings—schools, courts, and subway kiosks as well—should inspire and uplift city residents.

I’m not sure if any of the originals exist today. But some subways have replicas, like the one at Astor Place, with its colorful beavers on the platform.

[Photo: NYPL, 1903; postcard, MCNY 1905 X2011.34.2882]