Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

A 19th century mayor’s fascinating social diary

December 17, 2018

Philip Hone served as New York’s mayor only from 1826 to 1827.

But Hone—the son of a carpenter who made a fortune in the auction business as a young man—spent the next two decades serving the city in another way.

From 1828 to his death in 1851, Hone kept a diary (free to access) chronicling the political and social changes of the growing metropolis.

His diary offers a fascinating glimpse of the daily life of New York filtered through the mind of a reflective writer, whose thoughts about culture and politics echo some of the same conversations we continue to have today.

“The old custom of visiting on New Year’s Day, and the happy greetings which have so long been given on that occasion, have been well kept up this year,” Hone wrote January 2, 1831.

“I am glad of it; few of those good old customs remain which mark the overflow of unsophisticated good feeling, and I rejoice whenever I can recognize any part of the wreck which the innovations of fashion have left afloat.”

The same year, he also noted the city’s “new University”—today’s NYU (above, in 1850)—and dined often with friends like Washington Irving at the Washington Hotel, at the southern tip of Broadway.

In 1836 he marked the one-year anniversary of the “great fire”—an 1835 blaze that destroyed much of downtown (left). “To the honor of the merchants, and as an evidence of the prosperity of the city, the whole is rebuilt with more splendor than before.”

Hone noted a party he went to in a mansion lighted by gas, when most homes were lit by candlelight. The gas “gave out suddenly in the midst of a cotillion; this accident occasioned great merriment to the company, and some embarrassment to the host and hostess, but a fresh supply of gas was obtained, and in short time the fair dancers were again ‘tripping it on the light fantastic toe.'”

The financial ruin brought on by the Panic of 1837 didn’t change Hone’s circumstances, but their effects were seen across the city. “No goods are selling, no business stirring, no boxes encumber the sidewalks of Pearl Street….”

Hone was a regular theater-goer, and he wrote about opening night at a new venue. “The National is the prettiest theatre in the United States; but it is not Broadway, and the New Yorkers are the strangest people in the world for their predilection for fashionable locations.” (at left, when it was destroyed in 1839.)

Before moving to Broadway and Great Jones Street, he lived in a townhouse on Broadway opposite City Hall next to the American Hotel (below). He worshipped at Trinity Church.

On Good Friday 1839 he wrote, “I went, as usual, to church this morning, and afterward into Wall Street [at right, in 1846], where the din of business drowns the sound of the bell’s invitation to worship, and the gravity of devotion is put out of countenance by the restless, anxious looks of speculative men of ‘this world.'”

Hone, a Whig, wrote about the politicians of the day; his dining partners included John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren (left, in 1828). He noted a reception held for the arrival of Henry Clay.

Hone also wrote of “the Irish and other foreigners” and other “discontented men” for fomenting labor troubles on the wharves in 1836.

He recorded the names of steamships that crossed the Atlantic; an amazing feat in his day and even toured ships when they were docked at the Battery or North River.

He took excursions to the country suburb of Hoboken, dined at friends’ estates in Manhattanville, West Farms in the Bronx, and Flushing. He and his adored wife and children went to many “fancy balls.”

While having dinner at his home with William Astor and other distinguished New Yorkers in December 1838, he experienced something sadly common in the city at the time.

The doorbell rang, and an abandoned infant with its name pinned to its gown was at the doorstep. Hone described the baby as probably a week old and “one of the sweetest babies I ever saw.”

“It did not cry during the time we had it but lay in a placid, dozing state, and occasionally, on the approach of the light, opened its little, sparkling eyes, and seemed satisfied with the company into which it had been strangely introduced,” wrote Hone.

“Poor little innocent—abandoned by its natural protector, and thrown at its entrance into life upon the sympathy of a selfish world….” Hone wrote that he thought about taking the child into his own home, but his dinner guests convinced him otherwise, and the “little wanderer” was brought to the city almshouse.

This part of Hone’s diary brings me to tears. But the horrible tragedy of infant abandonment touched Hone (at left, near the end of his life) enough to include it in his diary, so I included it here too.

[All images: NYPL Digital Collections]

Walking Macombs Dam Bridge in Upper Manhattan

November 26, 2018

Completed in 1895, Macombs Dam Bridge is the third oldest bridge in New York City—a graceful metal truss swing bridge over the Harlem River linking West 155th Street in Manhattan to the South Bronx.

A walk across it doesn’t take long. But as you stroll along the pedestrian pathway at the edge of the span, past its 19th century stone towers, finials, and decorative lighting fixtures, you’re treated to a unique panorama of a city waterway few New Yorkers ever see.

It’s a view early 19th century residents who lived in the sparsely populated areas on both sides of the Harlem River knew well. They’ve been crossing the river at this point for more than 200 years.

The first Macomb’s Dam Bridge—it originally had an apostrophe—went up in 1814. (Above and below, about 1850.)

A few years earlier, a Bronx miller and landowner named Robert Macomb sought permission to build a dam here to help power his new grist mill on the Harlem side, states nycroads.com.

The state legislature gave the okay (the Bronx was in Westchester County at the time) with two stipulations: the dam had to allow ship traffic, and it couldn’t flood the salt meadows along the river.

So Macomb built his bridge, but it was a huge headache for local people. They didn’t like the toll they had to pay to cross it, first of all (half the toll fees were supposed to help the poor). Also, the bridge hindered other vessels.

In 1838, fed-up neighbors reportedly paid the crew of a coal barge to hack the dam with axes. Another story has it that one local resident used his own ship to sabotage the dam in 1839.

A court later determined that the dam and bridge were a “public nuisance,” and New York and Westchester County were told to build a new free bridge.

The second bridge was constructed in 1861 (above). Made of iron and wood, it was technologically advanced.

But the wood planking on the roadway wore out quickly, and it had to be repaired and partially rebuilt many times.

This was a major problem in part because upper Manhattan and the lower Bronx were rapidly filling up with people, hence more traffic.

“Macomb’s Dam Bridge, over the Harlem River, is a rickety old structure, and its vibrations when crowded with vehicles and people are alarming,” wrote the New York Times in 1883.

“On days when there are races at Jerome and Fleetwood Parks, between 3,000 and 4,000 carriages cross Macomb’s Dam Bridge,” another Times article from 1885 stated, referencing popular racetracks in the Bronx.

“If there is a more awkward, dangerous, and disreputable bridge across any stream within the city limits, an effort should be made to find it.”

Ultimately, the city decided that it would cost too much to fix the second bridge. The new one—the current bridge—made its debut 12 years after the Brooklyn Bridge opened.

Today, walking Macombs Dam Bridge can make you feel very exposed. Before you stroll high across water, you walk above what was once the Polo Grounds, and today is the Polo Houses.

Once you’re a hundred or so feet over water and closer to the Bronx side, the view is astounding. There’s Yankee Stadium straight ahead, and the glorious High Bridge, which leaps across the Harlem River about 20 blocks north.

[Top photo: Wikipedia, 2014; third image: MCNY 58.300.44; fifth image: NYC Bridges; sixth image: New York Times 1885; seventh image: N-Y Historical Society; eighth image: MCNY 2010.11.8556]

A 23-year-old launches a 1909 labor revolt

November 5, 2018

In the early 1900s, Clara Lemlich’s life resembled that of thousands of other immigrant girls.

Born in the Ukraine in 1886, she came to New York with her family in 1903. Still a teenager and barely five feet tall, she toiled at a job as a draper in a waist factory.

“We worked from sunrise to sunset seven days a week,” she wrote in a 1965 letter. “The shops were located in old dilapidated buildings, in the back of stores . . . the hissing of the machines, the yelling of the Foreman made life unbearable.”

Strikes were frequent, and Lemlich didn’t shy away from the picket line. “However every strike we called was broken by the police and gangsters hired by the bosses,” she wrote.

From 1906 to 1909, Lemlich was arrested more than 17 times and was beaten up by hired thugs who broke her ribs and tried to intimidate her.

Their tactics didn’t work. “Infuriated by working conditions that, she said, reduced human beings to the status of machines, she began organizing women into the fledgling International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) soon after her arrival,” stated the Jewish Women’s Archive.

“The older, skilled male workers who dominated the union resisted her efforts, but whenever they attempted to strike without informing the women, Clara brazenly warned them that their union would never get off the ground until they made an effort to include women.”

Lemlich’s bravest hour, however, came in November 1909.

A meeting was being held at Cooper Union (left, in 1899) to determine whether sweatshop workers citywide should go on strike.

Defying older male union leaders, she rose to the podium. “I am one of those who suffers from the abuses described here, and I move that we go on a general strike,” she told the crowd in Yiddish.

In her own letter recalling the incident, she wrote that she actually said, “I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”

Whatever she said exactly, her words helped galvanize support for a strike that began in late November 1909.

“Between 30,000 and 40,000 young women garment workers—predominantly Jewish immigrants (some pictured at left)—walked off their jobs over the next few weeks,” explained the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Dubbed the Uprising of the 20,000, the strike made newspaper headlines; workers who were arrested had their bail paid for by wealthy women (like Anne Morgan, below, daughter of J.P. Morgan) who supported their efforts.

By February 1910, the strike was over. Most of the sweatshops agreed some of their demands for better pay, improved work conditions, and shorter hours.

One that didn’t was the Triangle Waist Company—where a little more than a year later in March 1911, 146 workers perished in a fire at the Greene Street factory.

The Triangle fire was a turning point in New York, helping to create laws to guarantee safer factories and more fair wages.

It was a turning point for Lemlich as well. Blacklisted from garment factories for her union activities, she married in 1913 and had three children.

Her revolutionary nature didn’t change, however. She rallied for affordable housing and access to education. She was instrumental in organizing the kosher meat boycotts of 1917 and the citywide rent strike of 1919.

Even as a senior citizen, Lemlich continued to fight. While she was a resident of the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles in the 1960s, she helped staff orderlies organize a union.

Lemlich died in 1982 when she was 96. At the time, her death went largely unnoticed.

But a push to recognize activists like Lemlich has brought her new attention—as one of the farbrente Yidishe meydlekh (fiery Jewish girls) who led the battle for better working conditions, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive.

The last days of a Victorian mansion in Harlem

August 27, 2018

The beginning of the end of the Victorian mansion at Fifth Avenue and 130th Street commenced in August 1936.

“Civic and fraternal organizations, individuals of prominence, as well as private citizens of Harlem have separately and in groups given voice to their objections to the City of New York, through the department of Parks, to use the site of the MacLean residence and property at 2122 Fifth Avenue for a playground,” wrote the New York Age on August 8.

“Popularly called the ‘Pride of Harlem,’ it is certainly one of the most beautiful of the old landmarks in the city.”

Beautiful it was: A red brick, three-story Victorian confection with a mansard roof, lacy ironwork, and a wide, welcoming front porch surrounded by lovely gardens.

Built in the 1870s when Harlem was still a village dotted with the country mansions of the city elite, it spanned the block and had been occupied since the 1880s by the family of Jordan Mott.

Mott was a descendant of the Mott Haven Motts; a prominent businessman who ran his family’s Bronx-based iron works.

After the turn of the century, Harlem became urbanized, and the mansion increasingly surrounded by apartment buildings.

By the 1930s, only Mott’s widowed daughter, Marie MacLean, remained.

Upon hearing the news about the demolition of her house, MacLean tried to fight back.

She spoke out through reporters, asking city officials that her home be converted “into a museum for Negro history,” stated the New York Age on October 10, and the gardens “be maintained intact for [the] benefit of aged women and small children.”

She also asked that she be allowed to “spend the remainder of her aging days in the reminiscent atmosphere of the home given to her by her father,” stated one letter to the editor published by the New York Times.

But her wishes were ignored. By October, she was forced out, moving south to 1081 Fifth Avenue as her house was condemned. The mansion soon met the wrecking ball.

A playground was built and named after Courtney Callender, Manhattan’s first African-American deputy commissioner of cultural affairs.

These days it’s a lovely respite of trees, swings, and jungle gyms—all of which hide the destruction of an old woman’s Victorian-era home and a neighborhood point of pride 80 years ago.

[Top three photos: Library of Congress, 1933]

Peter Stuyvesant’s last descendant died in 1953

July 16, 2018

Streets, schools, apartment complexes, statues—you can’t escape the Stuyvesant name in New York City.

These and other memorials pay homage to Peter Stuyvesant (at right), the director-general of New Amsterdam from 1647 to 1664, as well as other Stuyvesants who made a mark in the city over three centuries.

But there’s one Stuyvesant family member who made headlines for a different achievement: He was the last one, the final direct descendant of peg-legged Peter, dying at age 83 in 1953.

His name was Augustus Van Horne Stuyvesant Jr. Born in 1870 in his family’s mansion on Fifth Avenue and 20th Street, he grew up in an “imposing” house on East 57th Street off Fifth Avenue.

Wealthy and a resident of Manhattan’s most exclusive neighborhood at the time, Augustus lived the same life as the children from other old-money families did in the Gilded Age.

“Educated privately by tutors at home, Mr. Stuyvesant never went to school or college,” stated a New York Times article announcing his death. “In his youth, he and his two sisters led the normal social life of their class, spending summers at Newport, Southampton, or Tuxedo.”

Not only did Augustus not go to school, he never pursued a profession. And neither he nor his sisters married. As adults, the three of them lived together in their East 57th Street mansion.

The three siblings weren’t housemates for long. In 1924, the oldest, Catherine, died; youngest sister Anne’s death followed a decade later.

Augustus spent the next two decades in seclusion. He and Anne had sold the 57th Street mansion in the 1920s and purchased a spectacular French chateau (above) on Fifth Avenue and 79th Street.

The reclusive bachelor’s “only recreation seems to have been an hour’s stroll each day through the streets near his home,” wrote the Times. “He had no family or social life.”

His one regular haunt, however, was St. Mark’s Church at Tenth Street and Second Avenue, where eight generations of Stuyvesants had been buried in a family crypt.

“Once or twice monthly, also, a uniformed chauffeur would drive the tall, white-haired, black-clothed gentleman in an old Rolls Royce to visit the Stuyvesant tomb beneath St.-Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie,” stated the Times.

“Frequently, in the last ten years, the [St. Mark’s Church] staff would see the quiet, elderly man in black wandering the churchyard, reading the inscriptions on the tombs or sitting in the Stuyvesant family pew in the silent church.”

After Augustus died—he was overcome by heat on an August day while on a stroll—he joined those 80 or so relatives in the family vault.

At his funeral at St. Mark’s Church three days after his death were some cousins, his lawyer, and his “ruddy-faced” butler, who “dressed in black, sat alone, weeping into his handkerchief” along with six elderly house servants, according to a second Times article.

Augustus was the last Stuyvesant to go into the crypt, which runs under the east wall of the church, after which it was sealed forever.

[Top image: Peter Stuyvesant in 1660; second image: Peter Stuyvesant Vault at St. Mark’s Church, wikipedia; third image: New York Times 1953; fourth image: Peter Stuyvesant statue at Stuyvesant Square, Alamy; fifth image: St. Mark’s Churchyard, 1979, MCNY X2010.11.4182; six image: New York Time 1953]

Why this elephant at the UN is hidden from view

July 9, 2018

It’s easy to miss this enormous statue of an elephant at the northern end of the grounds of the United Nations.

This 7,000 pound bronze pachyderm is located behind a black iron fence at 48th Street and First Avenue, in a corner of thick foliage and shadowy trees.

Unlike the front-and-center statue of St. George on a horse brandishing a sword above a dragon (a gift from the Soviet Union in 1990), the lifelike UN elephant seems almost purposely hidden away from view.

And it is, actually—because UN officials decided the elephant’s 2-foot erect penis was a little too lifelike.

A gift from Kenya, Namibia, and Nepal, the sculpture was supposed to “remind UN visitors of humans’ responsibility to the environment,” according to a 1998 AP article, which paraphrased then-Secretary General Kofi Annan’s dedication speech.

“The sheer size of this creature humbles us,” the AP quoted Annan, “as well it should, for it tells us that some things are bigger than we are.”

Before the dedication ceremony, potted plants and trees were “hauled in to block a side view of the animal,” the AP stated.

The Bulgarian-born sculpture, Mihail, was none too pleased to learn that UN officials were embarrassed by his work.

”I take it as a joke,” Mihail told the New York Times in 1990. ”Until I saw myself the bushes being planted. This is exactly the problem between people and wildlife. They create a frontier. Like the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall.”

Apparently potted plants weren’t enough. At some point, the UN banished the elephant to this dark corner, its anatomy shielded by shrubbery.

It really is shielded; I couldn’t get a photo of it at all from any angle. Luckily Buzzfeed was at the UN in 2014 and appears to have secured a closer view.

[Third photo: Alamy; fourth photo, Wikipedia, 2006]

Lovely houses and lush front yards on 18th Street

June 4, 2018

Peter Stuyvesant’s bouwerie must have been something. But contemporary New Yorkers can get an idea of what it looked like thanks to three charming houses on East 18th Street.

Stuyvesant was the final director-general of New Amsterdam. After the British took over in 1664, he moved out of the city center and resided on his 120-acre bouwerie, or farm—roughly bounded by today’s 5th to 15th Street east of Fourth Avenue to the East River.

Stuyvesant died in 1672 and was interred at St. Mark’s Church at Second Avenue and 10th Street, on his bouwerie.

As the East Side went from countryside to part of the city In the 18th and 19th centuries, his heirs sold off land to developers eager to put down roads and build homes for a growing New York.

One of those heirs was Cornelia Stuyvesant Ten Broeck, who in 1852 leased land on today’s 18th Street to several men who worked in the construction trades.

Ten Broeck stipulated in her lease that these men put up “good and substantial dwelling houses…being three or more stories in height and constructed either of brick or stone,” according to a 1973 Neighborhood Preservation Center report.

The results of that lease are still part of the city today: three lovely brick houses with vast, lush front yards and iron fences and entryways at 326, 328, and 330 East 18th Street.

The three sister houses, built in the popular Italianate style of the mid-19th century, “recall a period when rows of one-family dwellings were beginning to line the city’s ‘uptown’ side streets from the Hudson River to Avenue A,” the NPC report says.

The houses themselves are somewhat modest. But the decorative ironwork on the porches and entryways give them a New Orleans kind of feel.

And the deep front yards are an unusual feature in Manhattan, though as the above black and white photos (from the 1930s to the 1970s) show, the yards didn’t always feature thick greenery.

The trees and bushes shading our view of the houses look like they sprang up on their own, ghostly reminders of the trees and bushes of Stuyvesant’s bouwerie three centuries earlier.

They lend a bucolic feel to this stretch of the cityscape . . . almost like what Stuyvesant’s bouwerie might have looked like.

[Third photo: NYPL, 1938; Fourth photo: MCNY/Edmund V. Gillon 2013.3.2.2325; Fifth photo: MCNY/Edmund V. Gillon 2013.3.2.2326]

The woman who didn’t want women to vote

November 6, 2017

“Why force women to vote?” read the incendiary headline in the New-York Tribune in March 1913.

The question was posed in all seriousness by Josephine Jewell Dodge (left), the leader of a group headquartered at 35 West 39th Street called the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage.

It’s hard to imagine anyone in today’s city opposing voting rights for women—rights that were granted in New York State in November 1917, a century ago this week.

But the suffrage movement that played out in marches and parades on Fifth Avenue (like this one in 1913, below) since the late 19th century had plenty of opposition—from other women.

Dodge and the other ladies of the NAOWS were hardly throwback reactionaries.

Born in 1855, Dodge came from a prominent family; her father had been the governor of Connecticut, and she was educated at Vassar, one of the few women’s colleges of the era.

Like other privileged women of her time, she devoted herself to social reform, funding and then founding several day nurseries in tenement districts where poor young children could go if their mothers had to work.

But as suffrage gained steam in the 1910s (and drove newspapers like the Brooklyn Eagle to run reader polls, as seen below), Dodge’s activism took a different direction. She joined a state anti-suffrage group before starting the NAOWS in 1911.

Why exactly was Dodge opposed to suffrage? Her thinking was that women would have more success as social reformers if they didn’t get mixed up in the dirty world of politics.

“As social leaders, many of these women were dedicated to philanthropy and promoting reform, but they achieved their results without entering the world of politics and didn’t feel as though they were working against their own self-interest,”states a Saturday Evening Post article on antis from 2016.

She also didn’t seem to believe women had the time to fully grasp politics.

“The life of the average woman is not so ordered as to give her first hand knowledge of those things which are the essentials of sound government,” Dodge said in 1915 speech in New Jersey.

“She is worthily employed in other departments of life, and the vote will not help her fulfill her obligations therein.”

Of course, six years after the NAOWS was founded, women did get the vote in New York. In 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting voting rights to all U.S. women.

The NAOWS hung in there with other anti-suffrage groups, hoping to fight the amendment, to no avail. Dodge had resigned from the NAOWS by that time, according to her 1928 obituary, for unknown reasons.

The Gilded Age in New York 1870-1910 has a lot more on the suffrage movement from a New York City vantage point.

[Top photo: New-York Tribune; second photo: NYPL; third image: NAOWS/Library of Congress; fourth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1912; fifth image: LOC]

New York’s hustle and bustle down at Park Row

August 7, 2017

Here is Park Row at the turn of the century. Why the crowds, which the caption on the back of the postcard says numbers 50,000 commuters, workers, and idlers every day? Think of all the worlds that collide at this juncture.

The statue of Ben Franklin, with its Victorian lampposts, is a nod to New York’s printing and publishing industry, still centered here at Printing House Square.

A treeless City Hall Park is mostly out of view on the left. But centered on the northern end are government buildings, courts, and City Hall, which employ politicians and big staffs that serve them.

Factor in the transit hub known then as the Park Row Terminal, which ferried people across the Brooklyn Bridge so they can pick up streetcars on either side and continue on their way.

And of course, at this time Park Row is still the center of the newspaper trade.

See the delivery wagons lined up in front of various newspaper buildings, ready to bring the latest edition of the news of the world to the city. (Here they are in a closer view from a black and white photo.)

[Photo: Teamster.org]

What one painter saw on a visit to Ellis Island

June 5, 2017

Based on her biographical information and many paintings of carefree beach scenes and small children, Impressionist Martha Walter appears to have been an artist with a charmed life who stuck to safe subjects.

[“Just Off the Ship”]

Born in Philadelphia in 1875, she honed her natural talents at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and studied with sometime-Brooklynite William Merritt Chase. She traveled and painted in Europe and North Africa, set up studios in Gloucester, Massachusetts and then outside of Philly, and lived to be 100 years old.

[“Listening to the Call of Names to Be Released”]

But in 1922, her work took a more somber turn. That year, she spent time visiting Ellis Island and composed at least two dozen paintings based on the women and children she saw in the detention areas—the rooms on Ellis Island reserved for immigrants who were at risk for one reason or another of being sent back to their native countries.

[“Babies’ Health Station Number 4”]

The paintings present, “the sad spectacle of heterogeneous crowds made up of Irish, Russians, Chinese, Dalmatians, women and children, miserable pariahs who have abandoned their native land in the hope of finding another and more charitable fatherland,” states the program for an exhibit of these canvases from 1923.

[“Inpouring of the Unqualified”]

The harsh words of the program collide with the sympathetic portrayals of these unfortunate women and children, herded into crowded rooms, feeding their children at a milk station, and waiting, mostly waiting, for word as to what will happen to them.

[“Italian, Jewish, and Yugoslav Mothers and Children, Waiting”

“This is a different colorful parterre of flower, poor and rude, anxious or frightened, some of them old and faded, others exhibiting the colors of healthy country youths” states the program.

[“The Telegram, Detention Room”]

“All of them are holding little children of a peculiarly strange type, with big eyes wide apart, clad in rags of vivid colors. All these crowds more in their strange and savage harmony between the yellow and brown pillars of this large hall, which reminds one of a hospital.”

What happened to the women and children we’ll never know. But assuming they made it to New York City, they would be among the last great wave of European immigrants to arrive in the U.S. before strict quotas were put in place in 1924.