Archive for the ‘Poets and writers’ Category

Christmas in the tenements in the Gilded Age

December 11, 2017

On the Lower East Side, “during these late December evenings, the holiday atmosphere is beginning to make itself felt.”

“It is a region of narrow streets with tall five-story, even seven-story, tenements lining either side of the way and running thick as a river with a busy and toilsome throng.”

So wrote Theodore Dreiser (below photo) around the turn of the last century, in a dispatch chronicling New York’s poorest, who lived between Franklin and 14th Streets.

Dreiser was a Midwestern transplant who moved to Gotham in 1894 to pursue a literary career. He himself lived in shabby apartments as he worked as a journalist, writing short prose pieces like this holiday-themed piece that gave a sensitive yet unsentimental portrayal of Christmas among the struggling.

“The ways are already lined with carts of of special Christmas goods, such as toys, candies, Christmas tree ornaments, feathers, ribbons, jewelry, purses, fruit, and in a few wagons small Christmas greens” like holly wreaths and mistletoe, wrote Dreiser.

“Work has not stopped in the factories or stores, and yet these streets are literally packed with people, of all ages, sizes and nationalities, and the buying is lively.”

“Meats are selling in some of the cheaper butcher shops for ten, fifteen, and twenty cents a pound, picked chickens in barrels at fifteen and twenty.”

“A whole section of Elizabeth Street is given up to the sale of stale fish at ten and fifteen cents a pound, and the crowd of Italians, Jews and Bohemians who are taking advantage of these modest prices is swarming over the sidewalk and into the gutters.”

“The street, with its mass of life, lingers in this condition until six o’clock, when the great shops and factories turn loose their horde of workers. Then into the glare of these electric-lighted streets the army of shop girls and boys begins to pour. . . .”

“The street cars which ply this area are packed as only the New York street car companies can pack their patrons, and that in cold, old, dirty and even vile cars.”

Dreiser had much to say about the houses of these hordes.

“Up the dark stairways they are pouring into tier upon tier of human hives. . . . Small, dark one-, two-, and three-room apartments where yet on this Christmas evening [they] are still at work sewing pants, making flowers, curling feathers, or doing any other of a hundred tenement tasks to help out the income supplied by the one or two who work out.”

Dreiser visits a family of Bohemians on Elizabeth Street who curl feathers at home for 40 cents a day, and he explains their circumstances: rent is $3 per week, food, clothes, and coal, and gas cost $6 more.

“However, on this Christmas Eve it has been deemed a duty to have some diversion, and so, although the round of weary labor may not be thus easily relaxed, the wife has been deputed to do the Christmas shopping and has gone forth into the crowded East Side street,” returning with a meat bone, vegetables, small candles, and a few toys for the children in the household on Christmas morning.

“Thus it runs, mostly, throughout the entire region on this joyous occasion, a wealth of feeling and desire expressing itself through the thinnest and most meager material forms.”

“Horses, wagons, fire engines, dolls—these are what the thousands upon thousands of children whose faces are pressed closely against the commonplace window panes are dreaming about, and the longing that is thereby expressed is the strongest evidence of the indissoluble link which binds these weakest and most wretched elements of society to the best and most successful.”

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more photos and stories of what a New York Christmas was like for the poor, rich, and emerging middle classes.

[Photos: NYPL, LOC]

This 1840 spectacular costume ball started it all

December 4, 2017

The elegant Brevoort mansion (left, in 1912), which stood at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street for an astounding 91 years, doesn’t look like the kind of place that hosted serious partying.

But inside these walls was the city’s first extravagant costume ball, credited with launching the fad for the blowout spectacular balls beloved by society throughout the 19th century.

The story of the ball begins with the story of the mansion, commissioned in 1834 by Henry Brevoort. He was a descendant of the Brevoort family—wealthy landowners who trace their Manhattan lineage to the 17th century.

Fifth Avenue at the time was little more than a dirt road. But fashionable New Yorkers were moving to Washington Square, and Henry Brevoort decided to build a Greek Revival house (below, 1915) and surrounding gardens nearby.

It must have been a bucolic home in those early years, a place Brevoort could entertain literary friends like Washington Irving (below left).

After hosting several smaller parties, the Brevoorts had a bigger plan. In winter 1840, they sent out invitations for a costume ball like the ones taking Europe by storm at the time. (This image below, from Demorest’s magazine, gives an idea of these balls).

It wasn’t the first costume ball in New York, but it was the one that dazzled Gotham and pushed the city into ball fever.

“The fashionable set are remarkably well off just now in the possession of an inexhaustible topic of conversation in Mrs. Brevoort’s bal costume, costume a la rigueur, which is to come off next Thursday evening,” wrote former mayor Philip Hone (below right) in his diary days before the affair.

“Nothing else is talked about; the ladies’ heads are turned nearly off their shoulders; the whiskers of the dandies assume a more ferocious curl in anticipation of the effect they are to produce; and even my peaceable domicile is turned topsy-turvy by the ‘note of preparation’ which is heard.”

The lucky invitees showed up at the mansion on February 24. Hone, dressed as Cardinal Wolsey, and his family arrived at 10 p.m.

“Soon after our party arrived the five rooms on the first floor (including the library) were completely filled,” wrote Hone.

“I should think there were about 500 ladies and gentlemen . . . many who went there hoping each to be the star of the evening found themselves eclipsed by some superior luminary, or at best forming a unit in the milky way.”

Such great interest in the ball didn’t go unnoticed by James Gordon Bennett, the canny publisher of the New York Herald. With Brevoort’s consent, he sent a reporter in costume dressed as a knight to report all the details of the ball—perhaps the city’s first celebrity gossip coverage.

Among the costumes were a fox hunter, a peasant, a German miner, an “Arab boy,” a “Dutch girl,” “Spanish muleteer,” and Greek gods and goddesses like Diana.

The ball was a great success, ushering in the era of famous balls given by Mrs. Astor, the Patriarch balls at Delmonico’s, and of course the city’s most notorious ball of all, Alva Vanderbilt’s costume gala at the other end of Fifth Avenue in 1883—so important that it changed New York society.

The Brevoort mansion remained until 1925—a lone reminder of wealth and society in the antebellum city (above in 1903).

[First and second photos: MCNY; third image: NYPL; fourth and fifth photos: Wikipedia; sixth photo: MCNY]

Edgar Allan Poe on New York’s “inevitable doom”

October 23, 2017

New Yorkers tend to agree on one thing: any change in the look and feel of the city is never good.

Modernization, development, improvement—all are buzzwords for the end of Gotham as we know it.

In the 1840s, Edgar Allan Poe felt this way too.

Poe may have died in Baltimore, but in the 1830s and 1840s, Poe hopscotched around New York, living on Greenwich Street, West Third Street, today’s West 84th Street and then a cottage in the Bronx, where his young wife, Virginia, died of tuberculosis.

Like many residents, he eased his mind with long walks and wanderings.

His outings gave him a unique view of New York’s charm (and its noise, grime, Sunday alcohol laws, and the ugliness of Brooklyn houses, but lets save that for another post).

In an 1844 letter, he bemoaned the way the city was urbanizing before his eyes—which he saw after he rowed out to Blackwell’s Island and was able to see New York from the water. [Above right, the Beekman Estate in the East 50s]

“The chief interest of the adventure lay in the scenery of the Manhattan shore, which is here particularly picturesque.”

“The houses without exception are frame and antique. Nothing very modern has been attempted—a necessary result of the subdivision of the whole island into streets and town-lots.” [Above left, the David Provoost Mansion at East 57th Street]

“I could not look on the magnificent cliffs, and stately trees, which at every moment met my view, without a sigh for their inevitable doom—inevitable and swift.”

“In twenty years, or thirty at farthest, we shall see here nothing more romantic than shipping, warehouses, and wharves.”

In another letter that same year, he described the villas along the East River. [Above right, the Riker estate at East 75th Street]

“These localities are neglected—unimproved. The old mansions upon them (principally wooden) are suffered to remain unrepaired, and present a melancholy spectacle of decrepitude.

“In fact, these magnificent places are doomed. The spirit of Improvement has withered them with its acrid breath. Streets are already ‘mapped’ through them, and they are no longer suburban residences but ‘town-lots.'” [Above left, the Rutgers mansion in Yorkville]

“In some thirty years every noble cliff will be a pier, and the whole island will be densely desecrated by buildings of brick, with portentous of brownstone, or brown-stonn, as the Gothamites have it.”

Was Poe right or what? [Above, East River at 86th Street in the 1860s, by Currier and Ives]

[Images: Wikipedia, NYPL Digital Collection]

This is the oldest house in Greenwich Village

October 2, 2017

Imagine New York in 1799: the entire population numbered about 60,000. The British had only vacated 16 years earlier.

State Street near Bowling Green was lined with posh mansions, and the city was riveted by the murder of a young woman whose body was found at the bottom of a well near Spring Street.

And in a leafy suburb called Greenwich north of the city center, a house was built by a merchant named Joshua Isaacs. It still stands—and it’s thought to be the oldest home in Greenwich Village.

The Isaacs-Hendricks House, as it’s called today, sits solidly on the corner of Bedford and Commerce Streets.

Why Isaacs built his home here isn’t known, but perhaps like other New Yorkers, he was fleeing the yellow fever epidemic that hit the post-colonial city hard.

Isaacs didn’t live at 77 Bedford Street for long though. A year later, he gave up the house to creditors, and his son-in-law Harmon Hendricks (right) bought it in 1801, according to the Greenwich Village Historic District Report.

Hendricks owned a copper mill, and he was a leader of New York’s small Sephardic Jewish community.

For the next three decades, Hendricks (and then his daughter Hettie Gomez, who inherited the house) had this stretch of the Village all to himself.

“Old records clearly indicate that the house was a free-standing building with its own yard,” explains the report. “A map of 1835 indicates no other buildings standing on Hendricks-Gomez land.”

That changed in 1836, when a builder put up 73 and 75 Bedford Streets. (75 and 1/2 Bedford, the former home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, has the distinction of being the city’s skinniest townhouse.)

Other homes were built in the 1840s and beyond, turning Bedford Street into a residential enclave of red brick and wood frame beauty.

The Isaac-Hendricks house changed with the times.

“Originally the building was a simple frame structure with a gambrel roof,” states the report. “A brick front was probably added in 1836.”

Amazingly, the house—still in the Hendricks family—didn’t get its third floor until 1928. Windows were switched around, and a basement entryway was built in the back of the house. (Fourth and fifth photos, in the 1920s and 1930s)

How did the Isaacs-Hendricks house make it into the 21st century? (above left, in 1975).

In the 1920s, “it was purchased by a group of Villagers to preserve the character of the block and to prevent the erection of an apartment house on the site,” reads the report.

Thanks to these history-minded residents, this lovely home (from the back on the far left of the photo here) is here to delight and inspire New Yorkers.

[Photos one and two: Ephemeral New York; third photo: American Gallery 19th; fourth photo: MCNY; fifth photo: NYPL; sixth photo: MCNY; seventh photo: NYPL]

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]