Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Wining, dining, and celebrating at Little Hungary

June 30, 2016

On a stretch of East Houston Street nicknamed “Goulash Row” for its Hungarian restaurants was a place called Little Hungary, an improbable haunt of the city’s elite and tourists in the pre-Prohibition city.

Littlehungryacozynookatlittlehungrymcny1910

Little Hungary featured “the atmosphere of Budapest, of gay nights on the Danube, of the Rhapsodies of Liszt” as well as goulash handed out as part of a free lunch with an order of glass of beer, wrote the New York Times.

Little Hungary hosted a wild and festive dinner for Teddy Roosevelt in 1905, after he won the presidency a year earlier. The Eighteenth Amendment in 1920, however, put an end to the place.

[Postcard: 1910, MCNY]

The best place for swimming in the East River

June 27, 2016

Swim in the East River? Without a wet suit, no adult would do it today, let alone allow their child to take a dip there.

eastriverswimfultonfishmarket

Yet even after the river became the dumping ground of the city’s untreated sewage, lots of people cooled off in its bracing, choppy waters.

Perhaps no group of New Yorkers relied on the river during the hot summer months more than poor tenement kids, who often faced overcrowded public swimming and bathing facilities or preferred the freedom of diving off a city pier with their pals.

Eastriverswim1910

One of those tenement kids was Alfred E. Smith (below, in 1877), future governor of 1920s New York. In his 1929 autobiography, Up to Now, he reminisced about his boyhood summer days in the river.

Eastriverswimalsmith1877age4coneyisland“The East River was the place for swimming, and as early as April and as late as October the refreshing waters of the East River, free entirely at that time from pollution, offered the small boy all the joys that now come to the winter or summer bather on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean,” he wrote.

Smith was born in 1873 in a house on South Street. His river swimming days were in the 1870s and 1880s.

“The dressing rooms were under the dock. Bathing suits were not heard of,” stated Smith.

“In fact, it would have been dangerous to suggest them, for fear you might be accused of setting a fashion that everybody else could not follow.”

EastriverpikeslipsignThat explains not only the many photos that exist from the era of unclothed boys jumping into the river but also George Bellows’ famous 1907 painting, 42 Kids.

“The popular swimming place was the dock at the foot of Pike Street, built well into the river, and there was a rather good-natured caretaker who paid no attention to small boys seeking the pleasure and recreation of swimming in the East River.”

Pike Slip (but no dock) still exists—almost entirely in the grimy shadow of the Manhattan Bridge.

“In the warm summer days it was great fun sliding under the dock while the men were unloading the boatloads of bananas from Central America,” wrote Smith.

Eastriverboysswimmingatrutgersslipbain1912

“An occasional overripe banana would drop from the green bunch being handed from one dock laborer to another, and the short space between the dock and the boat contained room enough for at least a dozen of us to dive after the banana.”

Eastriverswim1937

[Top image: New-York Historical Society; second and fourth images: 1910 and 1912, George Bain/LOC; fifth image: from 1937, via Stuff Nobody Cares About]

A Gilded Age mansion goes down in the 1960s

June 16, 2016

Wealthy clothier Isaac Vail Brokaw lived a more under-the-radar life than his fellow stupendously rich New Yorkers in the late 19th century.

Brokawmansionbain

But Brokaw did have at least one thing in common with Gilded Age titans with names like Frick, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie: he too built himself a sumptuous mansion on Fifth Avenue.

Brokaw1927mcnyBrokaw’s French Renaissance palace, modeled after a 16th century chateau in France’s Loire Valley, went up in 1887 at 1 East 79th Street.

It had all the trappings of a multimillionaire’s home from the Age of Elegance: four stories, stained glass windows, a staff of seven, even its own moat.

“Its grandiose entrance hall is of Italian marble and mosaic and huge murals line the walls,” wrote the New York Times decades after it was built.

“The ceilings are paneled in stone and wood and no two of them are alike. The library has a seven‐foot‐tall safe concealed behind a panel opened by press­ing a hidden catch in the mould­ing,” the Times continued.

Brokawmansion1960sBy 1911, three more modest mansions adjoined the chateau, built by Brokaw for his two sons and daughter.

After he died, squabbling family members occupied all four Brokaw mansions. Three were eventually sold off to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers between the 1940s and early 1960s, which used them as office space.

Gilded Age chateaus with skyrocketing upkeep costs had long since gone out of favor; dozens of the more than 70 mansions constructed along Fifth Avenue in its Millionaires’ Mile heyday had been razed in favor of stately apartment houses.

BrokawmansionIEEE

In 1964, the Brokaw mansion was headed toward the same fate. But it wasn’t going down without a fight.

BrokawmansionprotestNYPAPNewspaper editorials denounced the demolition. More than 100 people (including Ed Koch, then a city councilman) attended a rally in front of the original chateau to persuade officials to protect this remnant of a fast disappearing older city.

“However, in spite of the best efforts of preservation campaigns, demolition scaffolding went up on February 5, 1965,” reports The New York Preservation Archives Project.

Brokawmansion2016The wreckers came the next day. A year later, the Brokaw mansion’s successor, a 26-story apartment co-op, was completed.

It stands today, across 79th Street from one of the last remaining Gilded Age palaces—the Fletcher-Sinclair mansion, occupied by the Ukrainian Institute of America.

[Top photo: 1920s, LOC; second photo: 1927, MCNY; third photo: Getty Images, 1960s; fourth photo: 1960s, IEEE; fifth photo: The New York Preservation Archives Project]

The two vintage cannons on a Central Park bluff

June 13, 2016

Hike up a steep walkway below Harlem Meer on Central Park’s east side, at the site of a colonial road known as McGowan’s Pass, and you’ll end up at a magnificent bluff that puts you at eye level with Fifth Avenue apartments.

Cannon1

On that bluff, you’ll also find two 18th century cannons—one aimed north, the other to the east.

Cannonmap1814What are they doing there? These examples of artillery commemorate Fort Clinton, a military command post built to defend the city from this high point in the hinterlands of Manhattan well before Central Park existed.

The British occupied the site during the Revolutionary War.

“The British built a fortification here in 1776, following their invasion of Manhattan, as part of a defensive line extending west to the Hudson River,” states the Central Park Conservatory.

During the War of 1812, fearing a British attack that luckily never happened, the U.S. made it a fortification (along with nearby Fort Fish, see map) and named it after DeWitt Clinton, then mayor of New York.

“In the 1860s, the designers of Central Park recognized both the scenic and historic value of this location, and retained the original topography and remains of the fortification,” states the Conservatory.

Cannonfortclintonnypl

The two cannons weren’t actually part of the fort. They were artifacts salvaged from the wreckage of the H.M.S. Hussar, which sank in Hell Gate in the East River, reportedly laden with gold, in 1780, writes Sam Roberts at the New York Times.

Cannon2

Donated to the park in 1865 after 80 years in the river, they harken back to the post-colonial city and serve as reminders of the bluff’s military past.

In the 1970s, vandalism and neglect led the city to put them in storage. Since 2014, they’ve been back on the bluff, on a granite base with a commemorative plaque.

The cannons are not far from another remnant of the War of 1812: the stone Blockhouse Number One, also in the northern section of the park.

[Illustration of Fort Clinton, 1828, NYPL]

Three centuries, four views of a Village tavern

June 13, 2016

Once a country backwater of tobacco farms, Greenwich Village owes its urbanization to lethal disease outbreaks.

Oldgrapevine1851

Residents fleeing late-1700s cholera and yellow fever epidemics in the city center moved up to Grin’wich, as it was then called. By 1840, the population had shot up fourfold.

“Shrewd speculators subdivided farms, leveled hills, rerouted and buried Minetta Brook, and undertook landfill projects,” states the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation.

Oldgrapevine1905

Streets, businesses, and houses followed—including a three-story clapboard roadhouse at Sixth Avenue and 11th Street. Built in the 18th century as a home, it became a popular tavern by the 1820s called the Old Grapevine, for the vine that ran along the facade.

The first illustration depicts the Old Grapevine in 1851. West 11th Street looks like a rural road, thanks to the trees and paving stones.

Oldgrapevine1914

Two ash barrels are the only street furniture. The small fence at the far left surrounds the second cemetery of Shearith Israel, established here in 1805 by a synagogue of Spanish and Portuguese Jews.

The Old Grapevine wasn’t just any tavern. “During the Civil War it was a popular hangout of Union officers and Confederate spies,” states the NYPL blog.

Oldgrapevine1915

“Later, when the Jefferson Market Courthouse was built the local lawyers and politicians would gather there to talk business. Artists and actors also met there. It was the ideal place to get news and information, or in the case of spies and politicians, the ideal place to spread rumors and gossip, leading to the popular phrase “heard it through the grapevine.”

[The origin of the saying might be a myth, as some comments below explain.]

The second image shows the Old Grapevine in 1905, from under the tracks of the elevated. The third image is from 1914.

The clapboard house is still standing, but 11th Street is paved and the ash barrels are gone, replaced by a Journal American newspaper box.

Oldgrapevine2016

One year later (as seen in the fourth photo), the Old Grapevine was about to be bulldozed, replaced by a six-story apartment building renting rooms for $12 a month.

A New York Times article from 1915 recalled the Grapevine wistfully: “it was not only a place to warm the inner man with the fermented juice of the grape, malted beers, and fine musty ale, but a place where good fellows met, as in the more palatial clubs today, to match their wits, tell the latest story, and discuss in a friendly way the political destinies of the nation.”

Here’s Sixth Avenue and West 11th Street today. The Old Grapevine is long gone; only the cemetery on the far left remains.

The “poet sisters” host a Gramercy literary salon

June 9, 2016

CaryaliceIf you were a writer or thinker of some renown in New York in the 1850s and 1860s, then you likely found yourself on Sunday evenings inside a small house at 53 East 20th Street.

This was the home of Alice (right) and Phoebe Cary, two siblings dubbed “strong minded” (a 19th century put-down for an independent woman) who hosted weekly Sunday salons in their Gramercy Park parlor for the city’s literary and cultural crowd.

Here, newspaper editors, authors, and some of the bohemians who had congregated at Pfaff’s on Bleecker Street came together to “meet and mingle,” according to one biography of the Carys.

“The poet sisters, as they were known, owned a wide, low, old-fashioned house on East 20th Street, near Fourth Avenue, and their informal Sunday receptions were always thronged,” wrote Lloyd Morris in Incredible New York.

Caryphoebe“They had come to New York from an Ohio farm as young women, without either money or formal education, determined to support themselves by writing.”

Alice Cary wrote poems, ballads, and “little idylls of country life,” stated Morris. Phoebe composed parodies of Longfellow and “astringent verses about love that made old-fashioned readers uncomfortable.”

Considering the guest list, conversation at the Carys’ salon must have been fascinating.

Regular invitees included P.T. Barnum, whose American Museum and the curiosities inside it thrilled the city; Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Tribune; publisher and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and other cultural leaders of the day.

Carys50east20th“On Sunday evenings, you found the Carys in their parlor, a large room decorated in red and green, furnished with many comfortable, velvet-upholstered sofas and chairs,” described Morris.

“Later, everyone would cross the hall to have tea in the square, oak-paneled library.” Except Greeley, who drank two cups of sweetened milk and water and then took off to write his Monday newspaper editorial.

The famous male guests were joined by “strong-minded” movers and shakers, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

CarystreetaddressThese were women like the Carys, who pursued professional work and “asserted that women ought to think for themselves, ought to get their opinions at first hand—not because this was their right, but because it was their duty,” wrote Morris.

The Carys held their weekly salon for 15 years; both sisters, closer to each other than anyone else and just four years apart, died in 1871.

[Third photo: from MCNY, early 1900s; labeled the “Careys” home and the address is 50 East 20th Street, so it is perhaps the sisters’ home, which no longer exists]

A 1947 mob murder on Grove Street jolts the city

May 16, 2016

GrovestreettenementFrom the river pirates of the 1800s to the mobsters of the 20th century, New York’s once-thriving waterfront had always been riddled with crime.

One man’s murder on a quiet West Village street in 1947 revealed just how depraved and corrupt the criminals who ran the piers could be.

On the morning of January 8, 1947, Anthony Hintz was leaving the third-floor apartment he shared with his wife at 61 Grove Street (right).

Hintz was headed to Pier 51, at the foot of Jane Street, where he was the hiring boss. His job was to run the “shape-up,” the process of deciding which longshoremen looking for a job that day would be picked to work.

GrovemurderjohndunnAlmost all of the city’s piers were run by hiring bosses under the thumb of crime syndicates. The bosses would demand kickbacks from men who wanted to work, and the money would be shared with the mobsters.

Pier 51 (below), however, was not controlled by the mob. Hintz refused to submit to gangsters.

Naturally, the mob want to get rid of Hintz. The job was undertaken by gangster and enforcer John “Cockeye” Dunn (left) and his associate, Andrew “Squint” Sheridan.

On January 8, these two killers with the noir-ish nicknames (along with a thug and former boxer named Danny Gentile) lay in wait for Hintz beside the stairwell in his building.

Grovestreetpier51Dunn, Sheridan, and Gentile ambushed Hintz right just after he kissed his wife good-bye and walked out the door.

He was shot six times and lay bleeding in the hallway in front of his wife, who came out to see what was happened. “Johnny Dunn shot me,” he said.

Gravely injured, he was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital up Seventh Avenue. There, he held on long enough to tell police that Dunn was the shooter. Hintz died three weeks later.

Dunn and Sheridan were quickly arrested; Gentile turned himself in a few months later. All three were found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to the electric chair.

Grovestreetnytimesjuly81949Gentile was lucky; his sentence was commuted. Dunn and Sheridan, ruthless and remorseless, were electrocuted in 1949.

If any of this real-life mob murder sounds familiar, here’s why: the story of Hintz’s murder and an exhaustive New York Sun series about it inspired Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront.

[Second photo: mafia.wikia.com; third photo: NYPL Digital Gallery; fourth image: New York Times headline July 8, 1949]

Making 1970s Midtown a giant pedestrian mall

May 9, 2016

Madisonmall1970sNot a fan of the city’s car-free zones, or  “public plazas” as they are officially called?

Then you would have bristled at an idea Mayor Lindsay cooked up in the 1970s.

The plan was to create a “vast, H-shaped pedestrian mall that would straddle the heart of midtown Manhattan,” wrote the New York Times on December 8, 1971.

Forty-Eighth Street from Broadway to Madison Avenue would go car-free, though “a people-mover of some kind” would eventually be installed (sketch below).

Madisonmallsketch

Both Broadway and Madison Avenue between 45th Street and 57th Street would also be cleared of vehicles and turned into “a network of malls.”

The idea of completely remaking midtown came on the heels of a Lindsay administration experiment, which banned cars on Madison Avenue in 1970 and 1971.

MadisonmallstuffnobodycaresaboutThose temporary bans, inspired by the first Earth Day, were deemed a success by Mayor Lindsay and many pedestrians . . . though merchants weren’t happy to see people playing frisbee, not shopping.

It was the era of what the city called “Green Streets.” Nassau Street was about to become a pedestrian mall. Eighth Street in the West Village and Fifth Avenue in midtown also tried out the car-free thing.

But while the H-shaped mall idea disappeared quickly, Mayor Lindsay stuck to plans for making Madison Avenue into a “Magic Promenade.”

Madison from 44th to 57th Streets would be “a permanent pedestrian mall with a widened street, large trees, many benches, and special lanes for small buses and trucks,” stated a Times article.

Madisonavenuemallnyt

By 1973, however, the idea was dead, thanks to an appeals court ruling that the Transportation department didn’t have the authority to turn a city street into a mall.

Of course, Mayor Bloomberg revived the idea in 2009. His public plazas—with their tables, chairs, and streets blocked off with planters—appear to be successful.

[Top image: streetsblog.org; second image: urbanomnibus.net; third image: stuffnobodycaresabout.com; fourth image: New York Times]

A Village church’s secret presidential wedding

April 18, 2016

ChurchoftheascentionwikiThe beautiful Church of the Ascension, on Fifth Avenue and 10th Street, has a long history in New York. It started in 1829 in a Canal Street building, where the city’s growing Evangelical population gathered.

After the original church was destroyed by fire a decade later, the parish moved to a Gothic Revival cathedral designed by Richard Upjohn in 1841 in what was then the outskirts of town.

In 1844, it earned fame as the site of a small wedding for a very prominent groom: United States President John Tyler.

And amazingly, the entire ceremony was pulled off without the press or public finding out until after the couple said their vows.

ChurchoftheasensionjuliaTyler (of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” fame) had ascended to the White House when his Whig party running mate, William Henry Harrison, died one month after taking office.

After meeting her at a Washington reception, Tyler fell hard for Julia Gardiner, a beautiful 24-year-old from a wealthy New York family.

Following the death of Tyler’s first wife in 1842, the president was determined to win Julia’s hand.

The independent-minded Julia (who shocked society when she posed on the arm of a man who was not related to her in a store ad) eventually accepted.

The wedding was set for June 26, and the goal was to keep the press from finding out—and making a big to-do about the short time between Tyler’s first wife’s death and his second marriage, as well as the couple’s 30-year age difference.

Churchoftheascensionjohntyler“Tyler was so concerned about secrecy that he did not discuss his plans with his other children until after the wedding,” stated one source.

Tyler, 54, did tell his son John Tyler, Jr., who arrived in New York for the wedding with his father. They stayed at Howard’s Hotel on Lower Broadway, where the staff were kept on lockdown so no one would find about about the famous guest.

The secret ceremony was pulled off successfully, with only one newspaper reporting the nuptials. “The bride is a very beautiful and elegantly formed woman of apparently 20 years of age,” wrote The New York Morning Express.

Churchoftheascension1840“She was robed simply in white, with a gauze veil depending from a circlet of white flowers wreathed in her hair.” Less than 10 people attended, and afterward “the party departed for the residence of the bride in Lafayette Place (below)…the wedding cortege consisted of five carriages.”

After a wedding dinner, the couple boarded a steamer. Apparently Tyler was recognized, because people on passing ships “cheered most heartily” and presidential salutes were fired from “various ships of war.”

Julia was only First Lady for a short time. After Tyler’s term ended, he moved back to his Virginia plantation.

Churchoftheascensionlagrangeterrace1886There, the couple had seven kids—in addition to the seven Tyler fathered with his first wife.

On another note, incredibly, two of Tyler’s grandchildren—children born of a son Tyler had with Julia—are still alive today.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; fourth image: Church of the Ascension; fifth image: NYPL Digital Gallery]

A Little Italy painter’s colorful, complex city

April 4, 2016

In October 1972, the cover of New York magazine featured a photo of a working-class man posing with several paintings.

[“Worker’s Holiday—Coney Island,” 1965]

Fasanellanewyorkcityconeyisland

“This man pumps gas in the Bronx for a living,” the New York headline announced. “He may also be the best primitive painter since Grandma Moses.”

[“New York City,” 1957]

Fasanellanewyorkcity

The smiling man on the cover was Ralph Fasanella. Born in the Bronx and raised in Greenwich Village’s Little Italy, Fasanella had already scored some success as a self-taught painter.

[“San Genarro—Festa,” 1950]

Fasanellasangenerrofestival

But the New York cover turned this middle-aged union organizer and gas station owner into something of an artistic late bloomer.

His enormous, carnival-colored paintings and panoramas, finely detailed and conveying the complexity of urban life, became sought-after examples of primitive art.

[“Stickball”]

Fasanellastickball

“Primitive” was a term he disliked. Social realism might be a more appropriate label for Fasanella’s work, as he captured images of family life, labor unrest, and working-class neighborhoods.

[“New York Going to Work”]

Fasanellanewyorkgoestowork

“[His paintings’] bittersweet mood and crowded space also conveyed something of what the critic John Berger called ‘the violence of the daily necessity of the streets,’ noting ‘the way that the density of the working population makes itself felt,'” wrote the New York Times.

FasanellacoverHis depictions of Italian festivals, the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, and other New York icons burst with color, energy, and authenticity.

“Painting until the wee hours of the morning to the tunes of John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon, Fasanella described himself as a jazz artist,” states aflcio.org.

“He said he painted from his belly and would urge young aspiring artists to reject pretention, to be authentic, to paint what they know and where they came from.”


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