Archive for the ‘Poets and writers’ Category

Welcome to Poverty Gap, a 19th century slum

January 4, 2016

Povertygapwest28thstreetManhattan in the late 19th century had some awful slum districts. Not all of them were downtown.

“The city is full of such above the line of Fourteenth Street, that is erroneously supposed by some to fence off the good from the bad, separate the chaff from the wheat,” wrote journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis in 1890’s How the Other Half Lives.

Povertygap1890family

One small stretch of hardship in the geographical middle of the city was Poverty Gap, a stretch of West 28th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues.

Riis’ image (above) of the inside of a Poverty Gap tenement, “an English Coal-Heaver Home,” reveals just how terrible conditions were.

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“The father . . . earned on the average $5 a week ‘when work was fairly brisk,’ at the docks,” wrote Riis, a Danish immigrant. The entire family, including a baby, slept on a pile of rags, he added.

Poverty Gap, home of a group of “roughs” called the Alley Gang, appears to have been one of the city’s few mixed-race neighborhoods.

Povertygapplayground1890

In 1899, the New York Times reported that a black man who shot and mortally wounded a white burglar was almost lynched.

What became of this hardscrabble enclave? Riis visited again in 1908 and found that the Alley Gang had dispersed and one of the city’s first public playgrounds (above) took the place of a rundown tenement.

Povertygapplayground21890“The toughs were gone, with the old tenements that harbored them,” he wrote in Children of the Poor. “A decent flat had taken the place of the shanty across the street where a ‘longshoreman kicked his wife to death in a drunken rage.”

“And this play-ground, with its swarms of happy children who a year ago would have pelted the stranger with mud from behind the nearest truck—that was the greatest change of all. The retiring toughs have dubbed it ‘Holy Terror Park’ in memory of what it was, not of what it is.”

Far West Chelsea has had a colorful past, its small alleys and enclaves long forgotten, like Franklin Terrace.

[Photos: Jacob Riis]

New York inspires “The Night Before Christmas”

December 14, 2015

Nightbeforechristmas1901‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”

It’s the Christmas classic that helped create the image of the modern Santa Claus, a “jolly old elf” who arrives on a reindeer-driven sleigh, sneaking down chimneys on Christmas Eve to fill stockings with toys.

First published anonymously in a Troy, New York newspaper in 1823, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” became an instant hit. In the 1830s, it was revealed to have been written by Clement Clarke Moore.

Moore, the descendant of a colonial English family, lived with his wife and children on a vast inherited estate called Chelsea in what was then the hinterlands of Manhattan.

Nightbeforechristmas1886As a theology professor, Moore wrote dry volumes inspired by ancient cultures.

But the whimsical and imaginative “A Visit From St. Nicholas” is surely influenced by life in early 19th century New York City.

The poem “he is said to have composed in 1822, at his father’s imposing tree-shaded country house in old Chelsea Village, at the corner of what is now 23rd Street and Ninth Avenue,” explained a New York Times piece from 1926.

He wrote it, “simply as a Christmas present for his two daughters, making St. Nicholas the hero at the suggestion of a ‘portly, rubicund Dutchman living in the neighborhood.”

ClementclarkemoorehouseLegend has it that Moore wrote the poem on a snowy day while riding in Chelsea in a sleigh.

“His Santa Claus was supposedly based on the family’s plump and jovial Dutch handyman, and it was while being driven home one night that the jingling bells on the horse inspired the poem,” according to When Christmas Comes, by Anne Harvey.

That sleigh ride may have been taken for a last-minute shopping trip to get a holiday turkey for charity. (Above, a drawing of Moore’s Chelsea home, before he subdivided the property and helped develop the residential neighborhood.)

Nightbeforechristmas1900A document that was part of a Santa Claus exhibit at the New-York Historical Society two decades ago showed that “Moore was a slave owner, and some historians have recounted a journey to the market to buy a Christmas turkey, the event said to have inspired the poem, in a sleigh driven by a slave,” reported the New York Times in 1995.

“A Visit From St. Nicholas” borrows the image of an airborne, tobacco-smoking Santa Claus from Moore’s literary contemporary, writer Washington Irving.

“In 1809’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Washington Irving described St. Nick flying over the treetops, bringing presents, smoking a pipe, and ‘laying his finger beside his nose,’ stated the Museum of Play.

The red suit was added later, but otherwise, This version of St. Nicholas/Santa Claus is the one we know today—though I think the pipe has been axed in these smoking-averse times.

Nightbeforechristmas18982Every December for more than a century, the beloved “A Visit From St. Nicholas” is read aloud at the Church of the Intercession on 155th Street.

A candlelight procession then heads up the street to Trinity Cemetery, where Moore and his family members are buried.

If you can’t make it to the reading at the church, give “A Visit From St. Nicholas” a read this season.

[Images of rare 19th-20th century volumes of the poem courtesy of thenightbeforechristmas.com]

Reading a 1960s Village writer’s “Lunch Poems”

September 21, 2015

Frankoharacedartavern“It’s my lunch hour, so I go for a walk among the hum-colored cabs.”

So begins Frank O’Hara in “A Step Away From Them,” one of his witty, observational Lunch Poems.

The name comes from the time of day when they were supposedly written: during O’Hara’s lunch hour in Midtown, when he worked as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art.

Born in Baltimore and a graduate of Harvard, O’Hara arrived in the city in the early 1950s, a time when abstract expressionist painters and Beat poets were hitting their stride.

FrankoharaapartmentAnd both were meeting and drinking at bars like the San Remo and the Cedar Tavern (top photo; O’Hara is in the center), next door to O’Hara’s apartment at 90 University Place (left), which he shared with then-partner Joe LeSueur.

The Lunch Poems were published in 1964, and they are of their time, with references to no-longer-there restaurants and long-gone starlets and sometimes a campy sensibility.

But the New York O’Hara writes about—the culture, the noise, the crowds, the way the Sixth Avenue bus “trunk-lumbers sideways” so full of people, is still the city of today.

In “Music,” he references Grand Army Plaza by Central Park and the statue of William Sherman on a horse, led by an angel:

Frankoharapoems“If I rest for a moment near The Equestrian
pausing for a liver sausage sandwich in the Mayflower Shoppe,
that angel seems to be leading the horse into Bergdorf’s

“The Day Lady Died” is about Billie Holiday:

“I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
Then go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfield Theater and casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
Of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it”

O’Hara wrote other poems too, and he also made a name for himself as an art critic.

The Lunch Poems, though, were his last collected volume. He died prematurely after being hit by a beach taxi on Fire Island in 1966 when he was only 40.

FrankoharamomaPerhaps his most relatable verse, chronicling day-to-day life in a pre-Bloomberg city of smokers drinking coffee they made themselves, comes from “Steps”:

“oh god, it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much”

[Photo of O’Hara in front of MOMA: newyorkschoolpoets.wordpresscom]

Back to school on the Lower East Side, 1890

September 7, 2015

Journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis took these photos of Lower East Side kids crammed into a desk-less, crowded, all-boy classroom at the Essex Market School.

Essexmarketschool1890mcny

This school appears to have been a public school holding classes in the Essex Street jail-court complex, which was slated for demolition in 1905.

Essexmarketschool2

“Indeed, the jail filled the title role in the educational cast of that day,” wrote Riis in 1902’s The Battle With the Slum.

“Its inmates were well lodged and cared for, while the sanitary authorities twice condemned the Essex Market school across the way as wholly unfit for children to be in, but failed to catch the ear of the politician who ran things unhindered.”

[Photos: MCNY Collections Portal]

The day McSorley’s bar finally admitted women

May 25, 2015

Mcsorleys1940s“Is woman’s place at the bars?” asked a 1937 New York Times article.

This was several years after prohibition, and for the most part, drinking establishments in New York City, once for men only (respectable 19th century women wouldn’t want to enter a bar), had become coed. Some even welcomed women, or at least their business.

But one of the few taverns opposed was McSorley’s Old Ale House (above, in the 1940s), the East Seventh Street bar open since 1854 and believed to be the city’s oldest pub.

McSorleyssaturdaynight

“There are not many taverns so stoutly arrayed against the female invasion,” the Times wrote. “McSorley’s continues in the tradition that woman’s place is in the home, or, if she must take a nip occasionally, that her place is elsewhere, anywhere, but not at McSorley’s.”

This was the McSorley’s whose motto was “good ale, raw onions, and no ladies,” a place for mostly working-class men but also artists and writers.

Mcsorleyswomenprotestcorbis

In 1925, e.e. cummings wrote his famous poem with the opening line, “i was sitting in mcsorleys.”

And John Sloan’s paintings (above) depicted a warm, old-time tavern with  mahogany bar, resident cats, and men drinking pitchers of ale in cheer.

McsorleyswithwomentoastingEven in the mid-1960s, the men-only rule stood. “Once in a while, a woman will enter and get as far as the pot-bellied stove,” Harry Kirwan, the present owner, says, “but they generally leave as quickly as they came,'” stated a Times piece from 1966.

But times change. Fast forward to 1969 (photo of two women outside McSorley’s, above). A lawyer from the National Organization of Women filed a federal sex discrimination case against McSorley’s. The judge ruled that this was a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The final nail in the coffin came in 1970, when Mayor John Lindsay signed a bill prohibiting sex discrimination in public places, including bars.

McSorleys2015

On August 10, 1970, they opened their doors to their first female customer (above photo, from the Times). The day before, many of the old timers at the bar bid good-bye to the all-male preserve.

“Dennis Cahill, who is 83 and has been a customer for the last 62 years ‘off and on,’ said: ‘Well, I don’t care. I don’t think they’ll come in much. A decent woman wouldn’t come into a place like this,'” wrote the Times.

The beloved city poet you’ve never heard of

May 4, 2015

FitzgreenhalleckheadshotAt the time of his death in 1867, he was one of the most popular writers in the city: a critically acclaimed poet, satirist, and social commentator whose work was published in leading periodicals and recited by schoolkids.

But chances are you’ve never heard of Fitz-Green Halleck (right), a forgotten man of New York letters.

Born in Connecticut in 1790, Halleck, like so many aspiring writers before and after him, moved to New York at age 21.

He made a name for himself as part of the Knickerbocker group, which included the city’s early 19th century literary hotshots like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper.

FitzgreenhalleckcentralparkHe also met Joseph Rodman Drake, the scion of a wealthy New York family (below).

Drake was a medical student who collaborated with Halleck on a series of satirical verses published in the New York Evening Post.

It’s widely presumed that Halleck was in love with Drake. Upon Drake’s marriage, Halleck wrote his sister:

“[Drake] is perhaps the handsomest man in New York, a face like an angel, a form like an Apollo; and, as I well knew that his person was the true index of his mind, I felt myself during the ceremony as committing a crime in aiding and assisting such a sacrifice.”

FitzgreenhalleckjosephrodmandrakeDrake died shortly after of tuberculosis. Halleck continued writing, earning the nickname “The American Byron” in the 1830s.

He also secured a job as John Jacob Astor’s personal secretary, which allowed Halleck access to the city’s social scene—and also an annuity upon Astor’s death that gave him an income independent of his art.

His poems tended to be overwrought and fanciful, but they were popular in his day, especially “Fanny,” from 1819 (below).

Halleck kicked around the bohemian scene at Pfaff’s, the bar at Bleecker Street and Broadway.

FitzgreenhalleckfannyexcerptHe moved back and forth between New York and Connecticut, living with his sister but never marrying.

By the 1860s, he’d earned a place in the city’s established literary scene.

In 1877, ten years after his death, he was still so popular that his statue commemorating him went up along Central Park’s Literary Walk.

Fitzgreenhalleckstatueunveiled

“President Rutherford B. Hayes dedicated his statue in 1877 before an estimated crowd of 10,000,” states poetryfoundation.org (right).

He’s the only American writer there, part of an esteemed club featuring William Shakespeare, Robert Burns, and Sir Walter Scott.

Fame was fleeting. Today, no one remembers his name or his work.

[Fourth image: gayatlcp.com; fifth image, NYPL]

The “water-gazers” strolling Battery Park

March 30, 2015

“With its fine promenade and magnificent vista of the harbor, the Battery became a popular place for New Yorkers to visit in the early 18th century,” states the NYC Parks Department.

Batteryparklanding

Battery Park was so popular, in fact, New York native Herman Melville put it in the opening chapter of Moby Dick.

“There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf,” wrote Melville.

“Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme down-town is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.”

By the time this turn of the century postcard was produced, the Battery was still a popular promenade for “water-gazers” seeking cool breezes, as it is today.

The most sensational actress of the 1860s

March 16, 2015

Adahmenken19Adah Isaacs Menken (at right, in her teens) was never considered a great actress.

But she sure was a colorful one, hanging out with Walt Whitman, Ada Clare, and other bohemians at Pfaff’s saloon on Broadway and Bleecker Street and earning notoriety in a tawdry play that required her to appear naked on a horse.

She spun many tales about her origins, but Adah may have been born Ada Berthe Theodore to mixed-race parents in New Orleans in 1835, according to Rebel Souls, Justin Martin’s wonderful book chronicling New York’s 19th century bohemian crowd.

To support her family, she became a New Orleans chorus girl, then joined a traveling circus.

After a few marriages, some theater work, and a conversion to Judaism, she arrived in Manhattan, taking roles at the Chatham Theater and working at the Canterbury Concert Saloon on Broadway in today’s Noho.

Adahmenkenmazeppa

She was fearless, sensual, acrobatic, and gorgeous—all of which helped her land her big break: the lead in Mazeppa (above), a play based on a Byron poem about a 17th century Cossack.

Menken would play the title role, requiring her to wear a body stocking for a pivotal nude scene during which she was strapped to the side of a horse.

Adahmenken1855“The audience was shocked—scandalized—horrified—and delighted!” states one source.

A huge hit, Mazeppa toured the nation before landing on Broadway in 1866 at Wood’s Theater at 514 Broadway.

Adah never abandoned her literary aspirations, publishing a book of poems in 1868 dedicated to Charles Dickens.

“Although world-renown because of her appearance in Mazeppa, Menken’s deepest desire was to be known as a serious poet,” states jewishvirtuallibrary.org.

She maintained her friendship with Whitman and the Pfaff’s crowd and also became close to Dickens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Alexandre Dumas, and Algernon Swinburne.

Adahmenkennapoleons

Adah was a sensation during her life, but she died young, succumbing to tuberculosis and peritonitis in Paris in 1868.

[Bottom photo by Napoleon Sarony]

A Gilded Age writer’s home is now a Starbucks

November 27, 2014

I wonder what Edith Wharton would say about the Starbucks that occupies the ground floor of her former childhood home at 14 West 23rd Street, just off Fifth Avenue?

Edithwhartonhome

Wharton, beloved by many New Yorkers, was the witty, perceptive writer who chronicled the city’s Gilded Age and early 20th century upper crust society.

EdithwhartonyoungportraitShe noticed manners and morals, and though a coffee chain like Starbucks probably wouldn’t have been her stomping ground, she might have had some sharp insight into why some New Yorkers flock to the place, while others revile it.

Her thoughts about Starbucks can never be known, but she did pen a lovely third-person description of Fifth Avenue in the 1860s.

That’s when young Edith Jones (left) lived in what was then a new brownstone (below, on the right, in the 1880s) in the fashionable Madison Square neighborhood.

Edithwhartonhome1880picturehistory“The little girl and her father walked up Fifth Avenue; the old Fifth Avenue with its double line of low brown-stone houses, of a desperate uniformity of style, broken only—and surprisingly—by two equally unexpected features: the fenced-in plot of ground where the old Miss Kennedys’ cows were pastured, and the truncated Egyptian pyramid which so strangely served as a reservoir for New York’s water supply,” Wharton wrote in 1934’s A Backward Glance.

Edithwhartonportrait“The Fifth Avenue of that day was a placid and uneventful thoroughfare along which genteel landaus, broughams, and victorias, and more countrified vehicles of the ‘carryall’ and ‘surrey’ type, moved up and down at decent intervals and a decorous pace.”

Wharton’s family left the home in the 1870s; it was extensively remodeled, with a cast-iron front added, and barely resembles the stately brownstone it once was.

But down the block are a few brownstones that still maintain parts of their original facade. The New York Times has a piece from a few years’ back on the history of 14 West 23rd Street.

[Third photo: Picture History via The New York Times]

Why Gotham stuck as New York’s nickname

November 24, 2014

Washingtonirving1820It may have started out as an insult.

In 1807, Washington Irving was a young writer who ran with a pack of literary-minded pals, frequenting writerly haunts like the Shakespeare Tavern and Park Theater.

That year, he and his friends launched a literary magazine called Salmagundi, which ran satirical essays chronicling the “thrice renowned and delectable city of Gotham.”

Salmagundireprint1869Why Gotham? It was the name of an English village made popular in a series of stories from the Middle Ages about a town whose residents were all fools or madmen.

Translating into “Goat’s Town” (with goats not exactly being the smartest of animals), “Irving’s nickname was intended to mock New York’s culture and politics as he called out the ‘fools’ who had helped the city earn its new name,” stated museumofthecity.org.

Poking fun at the behavior and attitudes of fellow citizens is a time-honored New York tradition. But why would a nickname that could be interpreted as insulting stick?

Gothamtheaterbrooklynnypl

“Many of the tales merely portray the simple-mindedness of the townsfolk, but some—and here perhaps is the reason Irving’s New York didn’t reject the nickname right away—cast their folly differently, as a kind of in-joke of their own,” writes Jesse Zuba in New York.

Gothamsheetmusic1899nyplNew Yorkers love to feel like they’re clever enough to be in on the gag, and that may be why Gotham has triumphed as a popular nickname to this day (helped along two centuries later, when Gotham City became Batman’s hometown.)

You can actually read an 1826 version of The Merry Tales of the Three Wise Men of Gotham, the book that started it all.

[Second image: Salmagundi reprint from 1869; third: Gotham Theatre, NYPL Digital Gallery; fourth: 1899 sheet music, NYPL Digital Gallery]


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