Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

From wealthy socialite to women’s rights activist

November 23, 2015

AlvabelmontyoungWhen she was known as Alva Vanderbilt, she was one of the wealthiest women in New York City.

And as a young wife and mother in the 1870s and 1880s, Alva was determined to spend big bucks to secure a place for her family in the city’s stuffy, old money society run by Mrs. Caroline Astor.

To become part of the so-called Astor 400, she built a magnificent French renaissance mansion at Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, modestly christened Petite Chateau (below).


She then threw a housewarming party in the form of a masquerade ball and invited 1,200 of New York’s richest residents, who feasted and danced while dressed as kings and queens. (Alva, right, as a “Venetian renaissance lady.”)

And when she couldn’t score a box seat at the Academy of Music on 14th Street, the city’s premier opera house at the time, she convinced other new rich New Yorkers to pitch in money to build the more opulent Metropolitan Opera House, which opened in 1883.

After finally breaking into formal society, she divorced her husband in 1895 and married another enormously rich man, Oliver H.P. Belmont.

For the next decade, she resumed life as a society matron, entertaining and building incredible mansions in New York and Newport, Rhode Island.

AlvavanderbiltlepetitechateauAfter Belmont died in 1908, however, Alva traded mansions and balls for activism. Instead of putting her money toward estates and entertaining, she began funding causes that advanced women’s rights.

That year, she founded the Political Equality Association and gave millions in support of the fight for suffrage both in the United States and in Great Britain.

Inspired by dedicated suffragists like Alice Paul and Emmeline Pankhurst, she helped launch the National Women’s Party, and she opened her mansion doors in New York City and Newport for rallies and events. (Above: 1912 Suffragist Parade, New York City.)


Her devotion to women’s rights expanded even after 1920. She helped support working women’s groups. The former wife of two famous capitalists even helped keep Socialist magazine the Masses financially viable.

Alvavanderbilt1920She was living in France in 1932 when she suffered a stroke. At her funeral in early 1933, friends and family draped a banner across the coffin that read “failure is impossible,” per her instructions.

The woman who early in her life dedicated herself to becoming part of an American aristocracy made women’s rights around the world her lasting legacy.

When New York celebrated “Columbus Week”

October 12, 2015

The Columbus Day parade of 2015 is expected to draw a million viewers to the parade route on Fifth Avenue.


That’s peanuts compared to the crowds that turned out for Columbus Day parades of decades past. And it’s nothing compared to the Columbus Day—actually Columbus Week—of 1892, the 400th anniversary of the Italian explorer’s washing ashore in the Caribbean.

Columbus Week 1892 was an all-out party, featured a naval parade up the Hudson, fireworks at the Brooklyn Bridge, displays at various city parks, a Catholic school parade of thousands of kids, and a music festival.


And of course, there was a grand parade, seen here in two images at Union Square. “Many miles of men in the great Columbus procession,” the New York Times wrote in a headline on October 13.

“Streets turned into arbors of bunting—cascades of gay colors everywhere—model work by the police in handling the greatest crowd New-York ever held.”

[Photos: NYPL Digital Gallery]

A bumpy dedication of the Statue of Liberty

September 28, 2015

Statueoflibertymoran1886On October 28, 1886, the city had scheduled a day of festivities for the official dedication of the Statue of Liberty.

Things mostly went off well, but not without plenty of hitches that turned the celebration into a comedy of errors.

First, there was the cold, miserable rain, which poured down on marchers during the morning parade from 57th Street to Madison Square Park to the Battery.

President Cleveland (a former governor of New York State) was to lead the parade and then watch from a reviewing stand at Worth Square—which he did, umbrella-less, with sheets of rain pouring down on him for two hours.


In the afternoon, after the city’s first-ever ticker-tape parade, an official dedication ceremony took place on what was once known as Bedloe’s Island—with thousands of New Yorkers watching from the Battery.

Interestingly, no regular citizens were allowed on the island, and few, if any, women were invited. A group of suffragists rowed out close, though, and held their own ceremony, hoping the day would come when women had the liberty to cast votes.


The 2,500 or so French and American dignitaries invited to the ceremony were treated to music, prayers, gun salutes, speeches, and finally, the unveiling of the copper-colored statue, which had been shrouded in a French flag.

The wet flag was lifted prematurely, however, in the middle of a speech by New York Senator William Evarts, cutting Evarts off.


After President Cleveland accepted the statue from France, a flotilla of ships began setting off alarms in celebration, drowning out the rest of the speeches.

The boats also released plumes of smoke, which along with the clouds and mist made it even harder for crowds on shore to see the copper-colored statue.

Statueofliberty1890sA huge fireworks display had to be cancelled that night because of the rain. And the actual lighting of the statue?

It didn’t go off well, mainly because no one could figure out how to light Lady Liberty properly—odd, as she was supposed to be an official lighthouse for New York Harbor.

Finally, on November 1, the city did a do-over of the fireworks and illumination. According to the New York Times, at least the phyrotechnics went of splendidly.

“Land and sea alike were teeming with glories. The vast fleet added not a little to the scene—the distant city with its million lights and flame-tipped spires was a sight to be remembered itself.”

“When the last rush of rockets from the island had scattered their showering gold and the wonted darkness settled again, the great figure grew brighter and huger and gleamed ghostly but beautiful, the new Anadyomene, Liberty rising from the sea.”

The East Village hippie who ran for president

September 14, 2015

Third-party candidates for president tend to come from out of the mainstream. That’s the case with Louis Abolafia, a 27-year-old East Village artist.


In the 1960s, Abolafia, the son of a florist, made a name for himself as an abstract expressionist painter who staged happenings around the Village and helped shelter teenage runaways in his East Fourth Street apartment.

LouisabolafiaposterA nudist who came up with the cheeky campaign slogan “What Have I Got to Hide,” Abolafia decided to run for president in the 1968 election.

His ticket was the “Love” party, according to a New Yorker article from 1967, and his campaign kicked off with a “love in” at the Village Theater.

“In running for the Presidency I’m trying to bring about a world unity,” he told a crowd there.

“We should be a country of giving and giving and giving. The way we’re going now, we’re all wrong. We could be giants; we should be 10 times above what the Renaissance was.”

Abolafia scored some attention from the media. He appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (as a candidate for the Nudist Party) and distributed a poster of himself naked except for a bowler hat.

Amazingly, he received 300,000 to 2 million votes that November, but it wasn’t enough to beat Richard Nixon.

Louisabafolia“Louis decided to run for president because he understood that to be an artist, you have to do something a little outstanding,” his brother Oscar, a celebrity photographer, told Bedford and Bowery in 2013.

“Even today, don’t we look for people who are a little off the wall? I think my brother started that whole movement, doing something that’s off the wall so people notice you.”

After the publicity died down, Abolafia moved to San Francisco. His next appearance in the national press was his obituary in 1995, after he died of a drug overdose.

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.


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.


“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]

A Brooklyn street named for a president’s son

August 31, 2015

QuentinroadOn a street grid packed with lettered avenues, Brooklyn’s Quentin Road stands out.

Stuck between Avenue P and Avenue R, Quentin Road actually used to be known as Avenue Q. But in 1922, a petition to change the name was brought to the city’s Board of Aldermen. So who was Quentin, and why did Brooklynites want to honor him with a street name?

Quentin was Quentin Roosevelt, 21, fifth child of Teddy Roosevelt. Rambunctious and mischievous as a child, Quentin left Harvard and his fiance, Flora Vanderbilt Payne, in 1916 to volunteer for World War I.

QuentinrooseveltHe trained as a pilot at a field on Long Island (today known as Roosevelt Field), but was killed in combat over France in 1918.

The petition to rename Avenue Q for Quentin may have had to do with his father’s popularity in New York. After all, he was the former city police commissioner and state governor, not to mention U.S. president.

QuentinRooseveltgravefranceReportedly devastated by his son’s death behind enemy lines, Theodore Roosevelt died the next year.

“To those who fearlessly face death for a good cause; no life is so honorable or so fruitful as such a death,” he said.

“Unless men are willing to fight and die for great ideals, including love of country, ideals will vanish, and the world will become one huge sty of materialism.”

A bomb goes off at a Union Square rally in 1908

August 17, 2015

Labor Day parades, rallies in favor of birth control and suffrage—Union Square in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was ground zero for demonstrations that advocated progressive causes and reform.


But only one rally turned deadly, thanks to a police-hating anarchist who brought a crude homemade bomb to the park in March 1908.

UnionsquarebombcrowdSelig Silverstein (also known as Selig Cohen), a Russian-born cloak maker and anarchist living on Van Brunt Street in Brooklyn, was attending the Socialist Conference of the Unemployed.

The gathering attracted 7,000 participants to Union Square. But the city had refused the group’s permit to hold a public demonstration.

So hundreds of policemen were called in to help disperse the crowds, reported the New York Times on March 29.

At about 3 p.m., just as the crowds had mostly been cleared out of the park, Silverstein, standing by the fountain, raised his arm to toss the bomb at a policeman—but instead it exploded in his hands, blowing his face and fingers off and mortally wounding him.


“In a moment all was pandemonium,” wrote the Times, adding that windows a block away rattled and shook, and pedestrians were “thrown to their knees.”

An innocent bystander lay dead, and parkgoers were driven to the surrounding streets by mounted officers.


Cops used their bully clubs on the crowd, and “the fleeing throng started in to sing the ‘Marseillaise’ and jeer at the police.”

UnionSquarebomberCar traffic was stopped, visitors to the theaters that still existed on Union Square stumbled out the exits to find out what had happened. Rumors circulated that dozens of cops had been killed.

Silverstein, a member of the Anarchist Federation of America, ultimately died of his injuries at Bellevue Hospital two weeks later.

Before he did, however, he supposedly proclaimed, “I came to the park to kill the police . . . I hate them,” states New York at War, by Steven H. Jaffe.

[Photos: LOC; Find a Grave]

“Eclectic elegance” of a Madison Avenue building

August 3, 2015

When the Parkview opened at 777 Madison Avenue in 1908, the Upper East Side was still known for opulent single family mansions, not French flats.


But apartment living was catching on among the rich, particularly on the Upper West Side with the Dakota and similar buildings.

The architecturally diverse Parkview, which mixes Flemish, French, and English Gothic styles to create what one contemporary critic calls “eclectic elegance,” therefore had no trouble finding renters.


And why not? Behind the elaborate facade of arches, multi-paned windows, and a rounded corner that slightly resembles a Medieval tower were luxurious and spacious apartments, just two per floor.

“The public areas of each included a room-sized windowed foyer, a music room, a dining room (plus a small conservatory), a living room, and a large salon, all totaling about 1600 square feet,” states Andrew Alpern’s Luxurious Apartment Houses of Manhattan.

ParkviewlayoutDon’t forget the 3-4 bedrooms, rooms for household help, and the bedroom for the lady of the house’s maid.

Wealthy and prominent New Yorkers flocked to the building, which shows up frequently in what was once known as the “society” pages of the newspaper, filled with announcements of weddings, new babies, and other milestones people with money wanted everyone to know about.

Dwarfing the rows of brownstones that surrounded it, the Parkview underwent slight alterations as the neighborhood became more commercial.


A protective railing around the ground floor was removed to make way for business tenants. The Parkview name was ditched too; the residence was then known as 777 Madison, and later, 45 East 66th Street.

Parkview1920sAfter World War II, many of the grand apartments were carved into smaller units, and in 1977, the building achieved landmark status.

Now a collection of pricey co-ops, this lovely building with incredible detail and ornamentation is a monument to a turn-of-the-century apartment living.

It’s arguably the most eye-catching residence on Upper Madison Avenue, and it even has a celebrity tenant: Rudy Giuliani.

[Images: second, NYPL Digital Gallery; third, NYPL Digital Gallery; fifth, MCNY Collections Portal]

The luxury power center of the Gilded Age city

July 27, 2015

When the white marble Fifth Avenue Hotel was set to open in 1859, it was mocked as “Eno’s Folly,” after the developer who built it.


With the city’s hotel district farther south on Broadway, why would anyone pay to stay on the outskirts of the city’s center, as Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street was at the time?

But after its grand opening, the Fifth Avenue Hotel became the city’s premier luxury residence and made Madison Square the focal point of post–Civil War New York.


Among the amenities: rooms with private baths and fireplaces and the first “vertical railway”—aka, elevator—ever installed in a hotel.

Presidents and kings stayed there, attended to by a staff of 400. The city’s richest men, like Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, congregated in the drawing rooms. Local politicians held court.

In 1908 it was demolished; its demise serves as a bookend of the Gilded Age. Today the building occupying this spot houses the Italian dining emporium Eataly.

[Bottom image: the hotel’s reading room, a decidedly all-male place. NYPL]

The short life of Strangers’ Hospital on Avenue D

July 20, 2015

Strangershospital2015Built in 1827, the brick building at 143-145 Avenue D, at Tenth Street, is the oldest structure in Alphabet City.

The many-times-remodeled building served first as the Dry Dock Banking House, then as a laundry, cigarette factory, clothing store, even a squat.

But for three years, from 1871 to 1874, it was the Strangers’ Hospital, an institution built by John Keyser, a manufacturer turned philanthropist who had already funded a lodging house called the Strangers’ Rest on Pearl Street.

In a benevolent-minded, Gilded Age city, he established a home “for the relief of suffering” for the “deserving sick poor.”


It was not intended, “for the benefit of the wealthy, who in times of sickness can command the comforts of a well-ordered home and the attendance of a skillful physician of surgeon,” said the president of the Strangers’ Hospital on opening day in February 1871.

“Nor yet for the beggar who leads a life of dissolute idleness . . . . It is intended for the succor and restoration of the deserving sick poor, and in an especial manner for that sadly numerous class of people in this great city who have seen better days.”

BereniceabbottavenueDFour stories high, the Strangers’ Hospital had space for 180 beds, plus a reading room, chapel, and mineral baths.

Keyser, however, ran into some trouble in 1873. That’s the year the city finally indicted politico Boss Tweed and his ring for a host of crimes.

Keyser was exposed as as member of the Tweed Ring; the implication was that his “philanthropy” was in fact funds from city coffers.

The Strangers’ Hospital shut its doors, and Keyser declared bankruptcy.

Off the Grid put together a wonderful 4-part series on 143-145 Avenue D’s long, fascinating history.

[Middle image: from New York and Its Institutions: 1609-1872; bottom photo: 145 Avenue D in 1937, by Berenice Abbott]


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