Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

The 1960s heyday of Village bar the Lion’s Head

May 22, 2017

It had an early incarnation on Hudson Street. And even past its heyday, it lingered on as a popular neighborhood bar until the taxman shut its doors in 1996 (left, during last call).

But the Lion Head’s glory days as a legendary Greenwich Village watering hole was during the 1960s.

That’s when the downstairs bar at 59 Christopher Street equally attracted literary types and longshoremen, and drinkers could rub elbows with writers, newspaper reporters, Irish folk singers, politicians, and a pre-fame Jessica Lange, who waited tables.

Pete Hamill, a writer at the New York Post in the mid-1960s, recalled the energy and excitement there in his wonderful 1994 memoir, A Drinking Life.

“In the beginning, the Head had a square three-sided bar, with dart boards on several walls and no jukebox,” he writes.

“I don’t think many New York bars ever had such a glorious mixture of newspapermen, painters, musicians, seamen, ex-communists, priests and nuns, athletes, stockbrokers, politicians, and folksingers, bound together in the leveling democracy of drink.”

“On any given night, the Clancy Brothers would take over the large round table in the back room. . . . Everybody joined in singing, drinking waterfalls of beer, emptying bottles of whiskey, full of laughter and noise and a sense that I can only describe as joy.”

The Lion’s Head has been shuttered for 21 years; in its place is the Kettle of Fish (below), another old-school Village bar that moved over from MacDougal Street.

Kettle of Fish still packs in crowds, but too many of the regulars who remember the “glorious mixture” Hamill recalls at the Lion’s Head are not with us anymore.

There are accounts like Hamill’s in many books and memoirs, but more and more of the memories of nights at the Lion’s Head are lost to the ages.

[Top photo: Chang W. Lee/New York Times; third photo: Petehamill.com]

The loneliness of a New York all-night cafe

May 8, 2017

Lamb, beef, and eggs are on the menu board on the sidewalk. Inside, the room is lit up, and people appear to be sitting together, or at least in close proximity to one another.

But this lone figure standing on the snowy sidewalk outside an all-night cafe in New York circa 1900 isn’t part of it. He’s an emblem of the 24-hour, modernized city, a New York with more than three million residents divided and isolated.

Maybe he can’t afford to go in; perhaps it’s not his class or crowd. Painter Everett Shinn, a member of the Ashcan School — artists who focused on the grittier side of urban life — isn’t letting us read the man’s face for clues.

Shinn had a studio on Waverly Place. Could the current occupant of this cafe be Joe Coffee at 141 Waverly?

The past lives of the “bunker” on the Bowery

May 1, 2017

The first people to hang out at the red brick, Queen Anne–style building that opened in 1885 at 222 Bowery were working-class men.

At the time, the Bowery was a cacophonous circus of vaudeville theaters, beer gardens, pawnbrokers, rowdies, and streetcars all under the screeching rails of the Third Avenue elevated train.

Much of New York loved this, of course, and lots of men flocked there, living in the five-cent hotels or in doorways. Reformer Jacob Riis estimated their numbers at more than nine thousand.

But this was the 1880s, and to keep young men who were “not yet hardened” from getting sucked into sin, the YMCA built their first New York branch at 222 Bowery and called it the Young Men’s Institute.

It was actually a novel idea and an example of Gilded Age uplift. The institute was to promote the “physical, intellectual, and spiritual health of young working men in the densely crowded Bowery,” states Landmarks of New York.

Instead of bars and dance halls, men ages 17 and 35 who joined could attend lectures by Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Ward Beecher.

They could borrow books from a circulating library (this is before the New York Public Library was established), work out in the gym or pool, or use the bowling alley. Classes in mechanical drawing, architecture, penmanship, and bookkeeping were offered—and Bible reading too, on Sundays.

After the turn of the century though (above, in 1910), as the Bowery’s fortunes fell even further, membership declined.

The Y sold the building in 1932 and it became a residence on the mid-century Bowery, less a raucous zone of fun and vice and now a strip of forgotten men and bars (1930s Bowery at right).

That’s when the artists arrived—like Fernand Leger. After fleeing the Nazis in Normandy, the French surrealist painter landed in Manhattan and lived and worked at 222 Bowery, even after it was sold to a dental manufacturing company.

By the time 222 Bowery was  turned back into a residence in the late 1950s, more artists and writers came, like Mark Rothko, who painted his Seagram murals in the former gymnasium.

Fellow abstract artists James Brooks and Michael Goldberg (his “Bowery Days” painting, at left) moved in too, as did poet John Giorno. Andy Warhol held parties there. Allan Ginsberg and Roy Lichtenstein spent time at 222 as well.

It was William S. Burroughs (right, with Joe Strummer inside 222 Bowery in 1980) who dubbed the building the Bunker.

Burroughs arrived in 1974 and officially stayed until his death in 1997, though he lived his last years in Kansas.

Patti Smith recalled visiting Burroughs there in the 1970s. “It was the street of winos and they would often have five cylindrical trash cans to keep warm, to cook, or light their cigarettes,” she wrote in Just Kids.

“You could look down the Bowery and see these fires glowing right to William’s door.”

Burroughs’ nickname for this gorgeous survivor of the Bowery’s past life remains.

The building, now co-op lofts, “is still affectionately called by that name,” states the 1998 Landmark Preservation Commission report that gave 222 Bowery landmark status.

[Second photo: Alamy/King’s Handbook of NYC 1893; fifth image: Artnet; sixth image: unknown]

This skyscraper lobby will take your breath away

May 1, 2017

You’ve heard the phrase “cathedral of commerce,” which is used to describe lots of beautifully designed skyscrapers in New York City.

But the term really applies best to the Trinity Building, opened in 1907 beside Trinity Church at Broadway, with its 21-story Gothic silhouette covered in Indiana limestone.

And if the gargoyles, grotesques, and other Gothic details of the outside of the building (along with its twin next door, the U.S. Realty Building) make your eyes pop, then take a look at the inside lobby.

Here, gilded grotesques adorn the elevators like guardians.

The colored stained-glass exits and elaborate arched ceiling make you feel like you’re in a European house of worship . . . until the security guard asks you where you’re going, and you remember that you’re actually waiting for the elevator in a 20th century Lower Manhattan office tower.

As in many city architectural treasures that still function as office buildings, photos are probably not permitted officially.

But next time you’re in Lower Manhattan, sneak in and let the Gothic wonder around you take your breath away.

A songwriter’s desperate end in a Bowery hotel

April 24, 2017

If you’ve ever found yourself humming “Camptown Races” or “Oh! Susanna,” then you know Stephen Foster.

He’s the genius behind these and other catchy Antebellum-era favorites, many of which supposedly captured life in the Old South — even though Foster was born in Pennsylvania in 1826 and only visited the South when he honeymooned in New Orleans.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to call him the inventor of the pop song: “the bastard stepchild of the parlor song and the minstrel song, of the European and African strains of American music,” as Michael Friedman wrote in The New Yorker in 2014.

And sadly, his tragic life trajectory echos that of many of today’s pop stars.

Growing up, Foster learned to play various instruments. He tried college, then went to work for his brother. But music was his passion, and he began selling songs in the 1840s to sheet music publishers.

“Oh! Susanna,” in 1848, was his breakthrough hit; it sold an astounding 100,000 copies and was performed by the popular New York–based Christy Minstrels.

“The song spread like wild fire with people whistling it in the streets,” states Pittsburgh Music History. “People all over country were singing it.”

Foster was famous now, churning out hits he liked to call “American melodies” (he reportedly disliked the demeaning, racially charged language in many minstrel tunes and tried to make the characters in his songs, both black and white, sympathetic).

He also inked a deal with a New York publisher that paid him 2 cents in royalties for every copy of his music that sold.

But the 1850s weren’t kind to Foster. His wife left him, he was creatively stuck, and pirated copies of his songs took a toll on his finances. He moved to Hoboken for a spell, then returned to Pennsylvania before coming east again.

In debt and alone by 1860, he lived in various Bowery hotels, took on a writing partner, and tried to restart his career.

Living on the Bowery (above, at Chatham Square in 1860) — which was then transforming from a lively theater district to a wilder strip of lowbrow stages and saloons — wasn’t a good move for a man already beset by depression and alcoholism.

“He rented a room in a cheap hotel at the corner of Bayard Street (at right), hoping for inspiration,” wrote Michael Leapman in The Companion Guide to New York, “but instead developed an undetermined fever and a gargantuan taste for drink.”

On January 10, 1864, Foster’s writing partner, George Cooper (below with Foster) found him on the floor of his room, naked and bleeding from the neck. He’d apparently slipped and cut his throat on a porcelain washing basin.

Brought by carriage to Bellevue, he died a few days later, at age 37. In his pocket was 38 cents and a note that read “Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts” but nothing else.

“Beautiful Dreamer,” which he wrote in his Bowery hotel room, was published after his death and became arguably his most enduring song, a standard to this day.

[Top photo: Bowery Alliance; second image: Alamy; third photo: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY 48.79; fifth image: Pittsburgh Music History]

Gowanus Bay like you’ve never seen it before

April 21, 2017

Could these two paintings really be of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Bay — namesake of the canal that was once a notoriously polluted mob dumping ground snaking through Red Hook and Carroll Gardens?

Hard to believe, but the waterfront — and the creek that became the canal — was once this bucolic and beautiful. The first painting, “Sunset at Gowanus Bay,” dates to 1851. It’s by an Australian painter named Henry Gritten, who lived in Brooklyn in the 1850s.

At the time Gritten painted this, Gowanus Creek was being widened and deepened, according to nyc.gov. The new Gowanus Canal, as it would be named, was supposed to attract industry and compete with New York.

In 1887, long after the canal had been built out, William Merritt Chase did his own take on Gowanus Bay.

I wish I knew where his vantage point was when he painted this beachy scene with a pier, small boats, gentle waves, and not much industry along the waterfront. The Bay looks absolutely swim-able.

All the ladies on the Central Park Mall in 1901

April 14, 2017

Completed in 1863, Bethesda Terrace was one of the first structures to go up in Central Park—and it’s also one of the most breathtaking, with its grand, intricately carved staircases connecting park visitors to the expanse of the Mall.

Of course, his may have been of no interest to post-Impressionist painter Maurice Prendergast.

He simply may have been struck by the sight of so many women (and some kids, plus a few men) gathered at the Terrace steps, almost all in brightly colored dresses shielding themselves from the sun under parasols.

(Hat tip to Audrey for singling out this lovely mosaic-like painting.)

A final elevated train shines on Ninth Avenue

April 6, 2017

You can almost hear this elevated train grinding against the tracks as it makes its way up (or down?) Ninth Avenue.

The Ninth Avenue El (which traveled along Greenwich Street to Ninth Avenue and then to Columbus Avenue) was the city’s first elevated railroad, ferrying passengers since 1868.

Andreas Feininger captured the solitary steel beauty of the tracks as they glisten under the sun in this photo in 1940, the year the line shut down.

The World War I doughboys of New York City

April 6, 2017

No one quite knows where the term “doughboy” originated.

Coined in the 19th century, it may have come from the doughnut-like buttons on soldier uniforms, or it might stem from their doughy rations.

But this nickname for the millions of American infantrymen (and thousands of New Yorkers) who fought in World War I endures—as do the bronze doughboy statues that were funded by veterans’ groups and ordinary citizens after the war’s end in November 1918.

With April 6 marking the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into what was then known as the European War, take a look at a few of the nine doughboy statues standing in city parks and corners.

At the top right is the doughboy of DeWitt Clinton Park in Hell’s Kitchen—an excerpt from war poem “In Flanders Fields” carved in granite below him.

The Abingdon Square doughboy, pistol at the ready above, has graced this West Village pocket park since 1921.

The money for the statue was raised by the Jefferson Democratic Club, whose headquarters across the street at 299 West 12th Street were replaced by a handsome apartment building.

In Bushwick’s Heisser Triangle (above) stands a statue honoring the 156 men from the neighborhood who died in the war. Charles Heisser was a local kid who lived two blocks away and was killed in action in France in 1918.

The Red Hook Memorial Doughboy (left) is proud and triumphant; he commemorates the approximately 100 residents of this corner of Brooklyn who gave their lives to the war.

About 2,400 Brooklyn residents made the ultimate sacrifice, reports a 2001 New York Times piece on crumbling memorial statues.

Chelsea has its own doughboy as well, and hey, it’s the same guy who modeled the Abingdon Square doughboy (below right).

“To the Soldiers and Sailors of Chelsea” the granite behind him says at Chelsea Park on Ninth Avenue, as he holds his rifle protectively.

Doughboy statues aren’t the only way city residents commemorated the end of the war, of course.

In Central Park and Brooklyn, memorial trees were planted and plaques laid down—like these hiding in plain site on Eastern Parkway, which honor individual soldiers who never made it back from Europe.

[Third photo: NYC Parks; Fifth photo: Alamy]

The crowds inside a 14th Street subway station

April 3, 2017

Reginald Marsh painted everything in his New York of the 1930s and 1940s: Bowery crowds, showgirls, forgotten men, Coney Island beachgoers, tugboats, panhandlers, and shoppers.

So of course he would take his sketchpad and chronicle New Yorkers using mass transit underground. In 1930 he painted “Subway, 14th Street,” showing a crowd of city residents rushing en masse to or from the train, each absorbed in his or her own world.

If only the newspaper headlines were a little easier for viewers to read!