Archive for the ‘Poets and writers’ Category

The Brooklyn tree that belongs in a fairy tale

August 28, 2017

New York has many famous trees: the elms that form a canopy over the Central Park Mall, Peter Stuyvesant’s 200-year-old flowering pear tree, the infamous “hangman’s elm” of Washington Square Park.

But none are as dreamy and enchanting as the Camperdown Elm in Prospect Park, gifted to the young park in 1872 by an East New York florist named A.G. Burgess (who after a career cultivating beauty, sadly committed suicide in 1883).

Grown from a mutated branch of an elm tree in Scotland, Brooklyn’s Camperdown Elm looks like it belongs in an Edgar Allan Poe story. Its gnarled, knotty trunk and thick curly branches give it an ominous fairy tale vibe.

On the other hand, the tree has a magical and protective quality to it. With those weeping branches growing parallel to the ground, the tree’s curtains of leaves serve as a shield against danger. Seek solitude or privacy under it, and it will keep your secrets.

No one described this Camperdown Elm better than Marianne Moore, the poet who began her writing career in the West Village before moving to Fort Greene in 1929 and then back to Greenwich Village in the 1960s.

Her 1967 ode to “Brooklyn’s Crowning Curio” gave the tree, then neglected and often a target of vandals, a new appreciation.

“I think, in connection with this weeping elm,
of “Kindred Spirits” at the edge of a rockledge
overlooking a stream:
Thanatopsis-invoking tree-loving Bryant
conversing with Thomas Cole
in Asher Durand’s painting of them
under the filigree of an elm overhead.
No doubt they had seen other trees—lindens,
maples and sycamores, oaks and the Paris
street-tree, the horse-chestnut; but imagine
their rapture, had they come on the Camperdown elm’s
massiveness and “the intricate pattern of its branches,”
arching high, curving low, in its mist of fine twigs.
The Bartlett tree-cavity specialist saw it
and thrust his arm the whole length of the hollowness
of its torso and there were six small cavities also.
Props are needed and tree-food. It is still leafing;
still there. Mortal though. We must save it. It is
our crowning curio.”

Save it the city did, with cables to support the Camperdown Elm’s branches and a cast-iron fence to keep admirers at a safe distance.

Wise men once fished at the Gotham Book Mart

May 25, 2017

New York is getting a new bookstore tomorrow—an actual brick and mortar shop run by Amazon on the third floor of the Time Warner Center, the shopping mall at Columbus Circle.

With Amazon about to open, let’s take a look back at a legendary cozy, dusty literary haven that operated at the other end of Midtown—the Gotham Book Mart.

[The photo above shows the store in 1945, with a window display by Marcel Duchamp.]

Gotham Book Mart, with its black and white framed photos of 20th century poets and writers and endless shelves and stacks of books, existed at three different locations in the Diamond District from 1920 to 2007.

It was the kind of place where you could duck in and quietly be transported into the world of James Joyce or T.S. Eliot.

Browsers were always welcome, and the store’s founder, Frances Steloff, defied censors who banned the sale of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer in the late 1920s and 1930s.

“Wise Men Fish Here” read the iconic sign outside the door. Indeed. Only a handful of these old-school literary paradises remain.

[Top photo: Art-nerd.com/newyork; second photo: Alamy; third image, MCNY: F2012.99.156]

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 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]

A March blizzard pummels New York by surprise

March 13, 2017

The day before it hit, the temperature (measured from the Equitable Building at 120 Broadway) was a balmy 40 degrees—and the forecast at the tail end of what had been a warm winter called for light rain.

The next morning, Monday, March 12, 1888, the rain had turned to snow, ferocious winds created heavy drifts, and temperatures dropped to the low 20s.(Below, Park Street in Brooklyn)

For the next 24 hours, “the city went into its gas-lighted rooms and its heated houses, and its parlors and beds tired, wet, helpless, and full of amazement,” reported the New York Sun on March 13. (Below, 14th Street)

Take a look at these scenes of the city during and after the “White Hurricane” that pummeled the metropolis at the start of a workweek in mid-March 129 years ago.

About 200 people were killed during the storm itself and many more succumbed to storm-caused injuries later, felled by heavy snow or left in unheated flats after coal deliveries ceased. (Below, Fifth Avenue at 27th Street)

The downed power lines, stuck streetcars and trolleys, and deep mounds of snow are reminders of all the damage a late winter storm can do when city residents have been tricked by a mild winter season into feeling spring fever before winter is officially over.

Exiled Cuban journalist Jose Marti chronicled the storm from his New York home for an Argentinian newspaper.

Marti captured the mood of the city paralyzed by snow in poetic, descriptive prose, more of which you can read in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: via Stuff Nobody Cares About]

A Village hotel, a suicide, and a haunting painting

February 17, 2017

Since opening in 1887, the Albert Hotel on University Place and 11th Street has been a magnet for creative souls.

alberthotel

Author Robert Louis Stevenson booked a room in this lovely Victorian Gothic building, receiving Augustus St. Gaudens as a guest.

albertpinkhamryderWalt Whitman and Mark Twain spent time at the Albert, as did Hart Crane and Thomas Wolfe in the 1920s. Jackson Pollack, Robert Lowell, and folk rock bands like the Mamas & the Papas all made the hotel their home base.

But one late 19th century painter who gained notoriety for his moody landscapes and eccentric habits was so taken aback by an experience he had in the hotel’s restaurant, it inspired one of his darkest, most haunting works.

The painter, Albert Pinkham Ryder (left), was a near-recluse. Totally devoted to his art, he often walked from his downtown flat to the Battery late at night to observe the effect of clouds passing over the moon.

alberthoteltheracetrack

“But a roof, a crust of bread and an easel,” was all he needed in life, Ryder reportedly wrote.

alberthotel1907mcny93-1-1-5311Ryder’s brother was the manager of the Albert, so he often took his meals there. One evening, he talked up a waiter about an upcoming horse race, the Brooklyn Handicap, and a favored thoroughbred named Hanover.

“The day before the race I dropped into my brother’s hotel and had a little chat with this waiter, and he told me that he had saved up $500 and that he had placed every penny of it on Hanover winning the race,” Ryder recalled years later.

“The next day the race was run, and as racegoers will probably remember, Hanover came in third. I was immediately reminded that my friend the waiter had lost all his money.”

alberthotelheadline1917

“That dwelt on my mind, as for some reason it impressed me very much, so much that I went around to my brother’s hotel for breakfast the next morning and was shocked to find my waiter friend had shot himself the evening before.”

alberthotelfrom11thst“This fact formed a dark cloud over my mind that I could not throw off, and ‘The Race Track’ is the result.”

Subtitled “Death on a Pale Horse,” the painting was completed between 1896 and 1908.

It belongs to the Cleveland Museum of Art—a work of art whose connection to a Bohemian hotel in Greenwich Village and a horse race in Brooklyn is not obvious yet runs deep.

[Fourth image: MCNY 93.1.1.5311; fifth image: The Sun headline, two weeks after Ryder died in 1917]

A lurid best-seller shocks 1850s New York

February 13, 2017

hotcornkatyIt was deemed “filthy” by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Brooklyn preacher and moral crusader Henry Ward Beecher praised it, then quickly retracted his recommendation once he actually took a look at it.

Henry James, a young boy when it was published, was forbidden to read this “tabooed book” by his father—and of course became obsessed with getting a copy, he recalled years later.

What kind of book could stir such outrage—and become a runaway best-seller—in the New York City of 1853?

hotcorncover1853Hot Corn: Life Scenes in New York Illustrated, was a collection of short stories that had originally run in the New-York Tribune.

The stories chronicled the interconnected lives of several poor kids and adults living in the wretched Five Points slum in the antebellum city.

The main character was young Katy (top), a Five Points resident and “hot corn” girl—one of hundreds of vendors who stood on New York corners hawking this favorite street food of the early 19th century.

(“Hot corn, hot corn, here’s your lily-white hot corn/hot corn, all hot, just came out of the boiling pot” was a hot corn girl’s signature refrain.)

hotcornpolicebeatingThere was also “Wild Maggie,” her drunk father, a ragpicker’s daughter named Madelina, and Katy’s alcoholic mother, who lives off the pennies Katy makes selling corn.

Interspersed in the drama are lurid descriptions of the real streets of Five Points as well as the efforts on the part of the missions that had recently set up there, hoping to ease the lives of residents with charity, offers of work, and religious moralizing.

Hot Corn was such a hit that it immediately spawned three plays. P.T. Barnum staged a rendition, and another version ran at the Bowery Theatre—becoming the second most popular play in the 1850s after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, another novel-turned-drama.

hotcornmancookingcornNo one was reading Hot Corn for its literary merits, of course. The tawdry yet sentimental tales of poverty, broken families, and alcoholism gave respectable book-buyers a scandalous look into slum life.

The stories milk every emotion. Omnibuses run people over, characters end up in jail or in Green-Wood Cemetery, rats run wild, and there’s at least one marriage and deathbed scene.

The message about the evils of alcohol found an audience as well. The temperance movement was gaining steam at this point in the 19th century, even in a city that centered around saloons and taverns.

hotcorndeathbedsceneDespite its massive popularity, Hot Corn disappeared from booksellers’ shelves by the end of the decade.

Consider it one in a long line of lurid dramas exposing the underbelly of New York life or the hidden world of a not-well-known subculture, from the Horatio Alger stories of the late 19th century to Rent on Broadway.

[All illustrations all come from the text, which you can download for free via Google]

A 1940s poem’s dark and ominous Varick Street

January 23, 2017

elizabethbishopkingstreetIn 1944, Elizabeth Bishop, then 33 and with a published book of poems under her belt, moved into a tiny flat at 46 King Street (from which she painted this watercolor of 43 King Street, at right, across the street).

She’d already lived in various downtown apartments since graduating from Vassar in 1934, among them 16 Charles Street and 61 Perry Street.

elizabethbishopcollegeyearbook1934Unlike so many other artists and writers of her generation, Bishop (left, in her Vassar yearbook) had an uneasy relationship with the city. She spent much of her early years traveling, living in Manhattan only in short stints.

One poem in particular, “Varick Street,” published in 1947, offers a surreal glimpse of what put her off about New York.

At night the factories
struggle awake,
wretched uneasy buildings
veined with pipes
attempt their work.
Try to breathe,
the elongated nostrils
haired with spikes
give off such stenches, too.

elizabethbishopfactoryIn the 1940s, Varick Street—the widened extension of Seventh Avenue South, which plows through the West Village’s meandering cow path streets—was a hub of manufacturing.

Bishop seemed to view the factories (perhaps this one at left, on the corner of King and Varick) right outside her King Street window as mechanized and ominous threats to love.

The poem alludes to the unnatural, the “pale dirty light” and “mechanical moons” of the factories.

The industry and commercialism of the city’s manufacturing world appear to threaten the narrator’s love for the unnamed person sleeping in bed beside her.

Our bed shrinks from the soot
and hapless odors
hold us close.
And I shall sell you sell you
sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me

Bishop’s work is not confessional, and though her poems are intimate, they tends to avoid the personal.

But one can imagine Bishop lying in bed next to her beloved, in a relationship complicated if not doomed by an industrial and commercialized city that to her doesn’t recognize love and encourages betrayal.

Here is text of the poem in full, originally published in The Nation.

[Top photo: Tibor De Nagy Gallery; second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: NYPL; fourth photo: 47-49 King Street in 1975 by Edmund Gillon, MCNY: 2013.3.2.2211]

Everyone in 19th century New York loved oysters

January 5, 2017

oysters1900mcnyx2010-11-10037Oysters in the booming 19th century city were kind of like pizza today: sold in exclusive restaurants and lowly dives, prepared in countless styles, and devoured by rich and poor alike.

“Oysters were the great leveler,” wrote William Grimes in his book Appetite City. “At market stands, the New Yorker with a couple of nickels rubbed shoulders with the gay blades known as ‘howling swells.'”

“In humble cellars and lavish oyster palaces all over the city, oysters were consumed voraciously for as long as the oyster beds held out.”

oystersfultonmarket1870nypl

Oyster saloons popped up near theaters. Fisherman sold them off boats on the rivers. Fancy oyster houses fed the wealthy. Vendors at curbside stands sold them on the cheap, often adhering to what was called the “Canal Street plan”:

oystersmcdonaldsbowerynypl1907“All the oysters you could eat for six cents, usually sprinkled with vinegar and lemon juice, or perhaps just a little salt,” wrote Grimes. “By the 1880s, ketchup and horseradish were standard as well.”

As the ultimate democratizing food, oysters were enjoyed on Fifth Avenue the same as they were in Five Points (see illustration below).

Even Charles Dickens was amazed by their abundance and popularity at cheap Bowery dives during his visit to New York in 1842, which he famously chronicled.

“Again across Broadway, and so—passing from the many-coloured crowd and glittering shops—into another long main street, the Bowery. . . .” he wrote in American Notes.

oysters5pointsnypl1873

“These signs which are so plentiful, in shape like river buoys, or small balloons, hoisted by cords to poles, and dangling there announce, as you may see by looking up, ‘oysters in every style.’

“They tempt the hungry most at night, for then dull candles glimmer inside, illuminating these dainty words, and make the mouths of idlers water, as they read and linger.'”

[Top image: MCNY, 1900, x2010.11.10037; second image: NYPL, 1870; third image: NYPL menu collection; fourth image: NYPL, 1873]

Peek into a travel diary of colonial New York

December 27, 2016

sarahkembleknightNew York in 1704 was barely a city at all.

Under British rule for only 40 years, about 5,000 people called it home. Not much existed past Maiden Lane. Industry focused on the harbor. The original Trinity Church had just been built. Yellow fever was epidemic.

And in autumn of that year a boardinghouse keeper named Sarah Kemble Knight (at left) set out on horseback from her hometown of Boston to journey to Manhattan and back, helping a friend handle legal issues.

Traveling via horse through colonial New England’s primitive roads and bunking in public houses would be rough for anyone, let alone a 38-year-old woman (she did have the help of a guide).

sarahkembleknightnyc1695

But what makes the trip extraordinary is that Knight kept a journal, which was published as a book in 1825.

“The Cittie of New York is a pleasant well compacted place, situated on a Commodius River [which] is a fine harbor for shipping,” Knight wrote on her arrival in December 1704.

sarahkembleknighthouses1700She only stayed in the city for a “fortnight”—two weeks. Yet some of her impressions of New York as a place of fashion, stately houses, flowing alcohol, and high-speed fun might sound familiar.

“[New Yorkers] are not strict in keeping the Sabbath as in Boston and other places where I had bin,” she writes. “They are sociable to one another and courteous and civill to strangers and fare well in their houses.”

“The English go very fasheonable in their dress. [But] the Dutch, especially the middling sort, differ from our women, in their habitt go loose. . . .” Knight says, explaining that the Dutch women wear a caplike headband that leaves their ears sticking out “which are sett out with jewels [with] jewells of a large size and many in number.”

sarahnyin1700Dutch women also have fingers “hoop’t with rings.”

New Yorkers are great entertainers, she says, and taverns “treat with good liquor liberally, and the customers drink as liberally and generally pay for’t as well….”

The 18th century city knew how to have a good time. “Their diversions in the winter is riding sleys about three or four miles out of town,” Knight writes, “where they have houses of entertainment at a place called the Bowery, and some go to friends houses who handsomely treat them.”

sarahfrauncestavernnyplWhile out with friends, “I believe we mett 50 or 60 sleys that day—they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they’d turn out of the path for none except a loaden cart.”

Sounds like modern city traffic and bad taxi drivers!

[Top image: National Women’s History Museum; second image: New York in 1695; NYC Tourist; third image: NYC in 1700, Wikipedia; fourth image: Fraunces Tavern, built by Samuel DeLancey in 1719 on Pearl and Broad Streets; NYPL]