Archive for the ‘Poets and writers’ Category

Why a West Side park is named for an Italian poet

August 20, 2018

New York City parks and playgrounds don’t just honor the usual city founders and war heroes—they’re named for artists, singers (Diana Ross Playground, anyone?), even vaudeville comedians.

But unless you count the Shakespeare garden in Central Park, not many are named for poets.

So how did a postage stamp of green on the Upper West Side in 1921 become a monument for Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet of the Middle Ages best known for the Divine Comedy, completed in the 14th century?

It wasn’t just a concession to the growing Italian-American population in Manhattan at the time. But the growth of this immigrant group was instrumental in naming the park and erecting the bronze statue of Alighieri that still stands.

“The New York branch of the Dante Alighieri Society had intended to erect a Dante monument on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Italian unification in 1912,” states the New York City Parks Department website.

“Carlo Barsotti, editor of Il Progresso (the first Italian daily newspaper in the United States), urged subscribers to contribute towards the creation of the statue.”

Barsotti had already helped erect monuments honoring other Italians: Giuseppe Garibaldi in Washington Square, Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle, Giovanni Verrazano in Battery Park, and composer Giuseppe Verdi in Verdi Square—not far from the soon-to-be site of Dante Park, which was then known as Empire Park at 63rd Street and Columbus Avenue.

Money was raised, but according to NYC Parks, the sculptor didn’t finish the imposing bronze statue of a robed Alighieri wearing a garland and holding a copy of the Divine Comedy until 1921.

Another source has it that the original monument was too big and in too many pieces, so the city rejected it. Funds were again collected, and a second statue arrived in 1921—past the anniversary of Italian unification yet marking the 600th anniversary of the poet’s death.

Whatever happened, the dedication was held that year. The statue (described as “dour and grumpy” by the AIA Guide to New York City) was officially “a gift of citizens of Italian descent.”

[Second photo: MCNY X2011.34.3603; third photo: Wikipedia]

Who is the man with the pen on 14th Street?

January 29, 2018

I’ve been curious about him since the 1990s—this sturdy man clad in a loose-fitting shirt sitting in a chair while holding what looks like a pen to a piece of paper.

His image is carved above the doorway of the five-story walkup residence at 210 West 14th Street.

Who is he? A writer I imagine, or an illustrator, or some other kind of artist.

Whatever he’s doing, he seems reflective and serious, engrossed in his work.

Did an artist or writer live and work here? A search of possibilities turns up something interesting.

From 1942 until his death in 1968, French-born painter, sculptor, and Dada pioneer Marcel Duchamp had a studio in this building on the top floor.

(In fact, “Duchamp” is still written on the buzzer outside the front door, a nice turn Duchamp would probably get a kick out of).

It’s one of many places Duchamp lived in the city after he first arrived in 1915. “It was here that, using found objects from his walks around the neighborhood, Duchamp secretly constructed ‘Etant Donnes,’ when the public had thought he’d given up art,” states art-nerd.com.

Is the man with the pen Duchamp? It seems unlikely, based on what Duchamp actually looked like.

The ground-floor commercial space doesn’t hold any clues. Various tenants leased the space over the years, most notably a Spanish food store called Casa Moneo from 1929 to 1988.

Casa Moneo was one of the last holdouts from when West 14th Street was the center of Manhattan’s “Little Spain” enclave.

The identity of the man and his significance at this address remains a mystery.

The Yorkville home of a children’s book heroine

January 29, 2018

Is this beautiful Queen Anne corner townhouse at 558 East 87th Street the fictional home of Harriet M. Welsch, the 11-year-old heroine of the beloved 1964 children’s classic Harriet the Spy?

That’s the conclusion of real-estate writers and online sleuths. The actual address of Harriet’s house is never named in the story about a city girl who spies on her neighbors and earns the ire of her friends for writing about them in her notebook.

But this impressive residence, part of a group of contiguous homes built in 1881 for “persons of moderate means,” according to the Landmarks Preservation Committee, fits the description of the house based on the book.

With its tower and turrets, it sure looks like a place that would nurture a curious kid.

The first chapter gives readers an early clue. Harriet and her best friend, Sport, are in the “courtyard of Harriet’s house on East Eighty-Seventh Street in Manhattan,” wrote author Louise Fitzhugh.

Perhaps the courtyard is Henderson Place, the charming alley off East 86th Street, which the back of the house would face.

Harriet’s bedroom is on the third floor, the story tells us. “It was small and cozy and the bathroom was a little one which looked out over the park across the street.” Carl Schurz Park is right across the street.

Harriet attends the Gregory School, we learn. “It was on East End Avenue, a few blocks from Harriet’s house and across the street from Charles Schurz Park.”

The Chapin School is on East End Avenue and 84th Street and may have been Harriet’s school.

If this isn’t Harriet’s exact house, East End Avenue in the 80s is certainly her world. The book takes readers through Harriet’s spy route, where she stands in an alley on York Avenue to observe the Dei Santis grocery store. She also watches a man named Harrison Withers, who lives in a boarding house on 82nd Street.

Also on her route is a “duplex” on East 88th Street, where a couple who never speak to each other live.

One morning on the way to school she walks through Carl Schurz Park. “She crossed East End at the corner of 86th and walked through the park, climbing the small hill up through the early morning onto the esplanade, and finally sat, plunk on a bench, right by the river’s edge,” wrote Fitzhugh.

Fitzhugh would have known the neighborhood well; she lived on East 85th Street. Like East 87th, her block was in the Henderson Place Historic District.

Number 558 was up for sale in 2016 (interior photos are still on Streeteasy) for $5 million. At the time, the New York Post noted that the house had a dumbwaiter that serves the dining room from the kitchen.

As fans of the book know, Harriet uses a dumbwaiter to spy on her rich neighbor, Mrs. Plumber.

[Third photo: MCNY x2010.11.5744]

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]