Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

A Bryant Park memorial for a Gilded Age crusader

August 3, 2020

When ground broke in 1912 on a new fountain on the east side of Bryant Park, New Yorkers assumed that what was dubbed the “Lowell Memorial” would honor James Russell Lowell, a popular 19th century romantic poet.

Instead, the fountain, which still graces the park today (though now on the Sixth Avenue side of the park), honors the poet’s niece by marriage, Josephine Shaw Lowell (right, at age 26).

In the years before and after the turn of the century, New York City—like many other booming cities entranced by the City Beautiful movement—went on a statue- and fountain-building frenzy.

But a fountain dedicated to this female social reformer was an interesting choice in an era that tended to honor war heroes, presidents, and political leaders.

Mostly forgotten today, Lowell was famous during the Gilded Age for her 40-year devotion to ending the deep poverty that affected so many New Yorkers—the “other half,” as fellow social activist Jacob Riis described the city’s poor in his 1890 book.

Like many social reformers of the era, Lowell came from a well-off background. Born in 1843 to an old New England family, she grew up on Staten Island and in Europe.

She was widowed when she was just 21; her husband was Union Army Colonel Charles Russell Lowell, who died in battle and is seen with his bride at left.

After her husband’s death, Lowell gave birth to their daughter, Carlotta, wore black every day for the rest of her life, and continued the Union Army charity work she had been doing for the Red Cross and the Women’s Central Association of Relief.

In the years following the end of the war, a movement toward charity and benevolence took hold in New York—sort of the flip side of the crass moneymaking that typically characterizes the Gilded Age. Lowell soon became its steward.

Basing herself first in Staten Island and then in a brownstone at 120 East 30th Street (above), Lowell founded the Charity Organization Society in 1882 (which helped various charities coordinate their efforts). In 1876 she was the first woman appointed to the New York State Board of Charities. And in 1890 she launched the New York Consumer’s League, lobbying for better conditions and pay for working women.

Lowell was arguably one of the most powerful women in the late 19th century city. For 40 years, she served as “a career woman in the growing field of organized philanthropy and government service,” states Virginia Commonwealth University’s Social History Project.

What made her controversial, however, was her reliance on what was called “scientific charity,” the idea that providing direct relief (in the form of food and housing, for example) to the poor fostered dependency and led to idleness.

Scientific charity was a generally accepted concept at the time, an era in which the city provided almost no direct relief to the “deserving poor,” and charity was supposed to be given in exchange for some kind of work.

Lowell held firm to her strong convictions. She advocated that some poor residents be “committed, until reformed, to district work-houses, there to be kept at hard-labor, and educated morally and mentally,” according to Mike Wallace’s Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.

Her dedication to eradicating poverty, though, was never in question. In a letter to her sister-in-law in 1883, Lowell wrote:

“‘Common charity, that is, feeding and clothing people, I am beginning to look upon as wicked! Not in its intention, of course, but in its carelessness and its results….If it could only be drummed into the rich that what the poor want is fair wages and not little doles of food, we should not have all this suffering and misery and vice.'”

The day after Lowell’s death from cancer in 1905 was made public, a tribute to her was published that included this summary of her life’s work: “She has championed unpopular causes when she believed they were right. She has known nothing of mere expediency, but she worked nevertheless with rare wisdom and with remarkable success.”

[Images 1, 3, and 7: Wikipedia; fourth image: Google maps; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Bryantpark.org]

The Midtown corner where the Draft Riots began

July 13, 2020

It’s the worst riot in New York City history, and it kicked off 157 years ago today.

On July 13, 1863, with the Civil War raging, the New York Draft Riots began: four days of mostly working-class Irish men marauded across the city—burning homes and buildings and targeting police, abolitionists, pro-war newspaper offices, and black residents, among others.

“By far the worst violence was reserved for African-American men, a number of whom were lynched or beaten to death with shocking brutality,” states History.com. An estimated 119 people were killed, and countless buildings destroyed.

Though the riots spread to parts of Brooklyn on the third day, most of the violence took place in Manhattan. The atrocities kicked off on this unassuming East Midtown corner at Third Avenue and 47th Street.

Why here? This is where the Ninth District provost marshal’s office was located. A new federal conscription law had been passed, and the names of all men in the district who were deemed eligible for military duty were entered into a lottery here. Those selected would be called up to serve.

The draft law was unpopular among working men. “The complaints—and the violence that followed—focused mainly on two exempted groups: the rich, who could pay $300 to escape the draft, and blacks, who were not considered citizens,” wrote the New York Times in 2017.

The first day of the lottery, Saturday, July 11, was peaceful. The second drawing, two days later on Monday morning, took a dark turn.

“Employees of the city’s railroads, shipyards, machine shops, and ironworks and hundreds of other laborers failed to show up for work,” stated Stephen D. Lut in an 2000 article in America’s Civil War, via historynet. “By 8 o’clock, the workers were streaming up Eighth and Ninth avenues, closing shops, factories, and construction sites and urging their workers to join them.”

“The procession congregated in Central Park for a brief meeting, then formed into two columns that marched to the Ninth District provost marshal’s office. They carried ‘NO DRAFT’ placards.”

As the lottery got underway, the crowd of about 500 outside threw stones and bricks at the windows, terrifying families who lived on the upper floors of the building, according to a Times article written the next day.

The crowd battled their way inside, destroyed paperwork, beat the deputy provost marshal, and fought off policemen who tried to quell the disorder.

A fire was lit—possibly by firemen who joined in the rioting—and the entire block was consumed, touching off bloodshed and destruction all across Manhattan. A month after the riots were finally stopped by 4,000 federal troops, the draft lottery process resumed.

[Second image: Digital Library of America; third and fourth images: NYPL; fifth image: House Divided/Dickenson College]

The most famous summer house in Manhattan

May 25, 2020

You might not immediately recognize this elegant, two-story wood mansion, with its large windows and wide porches—perfect for capturing cool East River breezes.

But in the post-colonial New York of the early 19th century, the house stood out among the other posh summer estates built in the bucolic countryside of today’s Yorkville.

This was the summer home of Archibald Gracie. Born in Scotland in 1755, Gracie (at left) arrived in New York in 1784 with a cargo of goods that netted him enough money to invest in a mercantile.

By the 1790s, he was a very rich merchant and shipowner. His regular residence was a State Street townhouse so impressive it was known as “The Pillars,” according to a 1973 New York Daily News article.

But like other wealthy city residents, he wanted a summer house, too.

For $3,700, “he bought 11 acres of rolling land at Horn’s Hook, facing the Hell Gate,” a 1981 Daily News explained, referring to the treacherous section of the East River between Astoria and Randall’s Island that claimed hundreds of ships by the late 19th century.

The house, built on a high bluff facing the East River next to a towering cottonwood tree used as a landmark for sailors, was designed for the enjoyment of his family, elite friends, and notable guests.

“In 1799, Gracie began construction of his mansion, a sumptuous building of 14 rooms and eight bathrooms, replete with hand-carved fireplaces and priceless furniture,” wrote the Daily News. “There was a large dining room and a broad, white pillared porch that overlooked the East River—in all ways, an ideal site for holding large receptions.”

At the time, it took an entire day to sail from the Battery to reach his house at today’s East 88th Street.

But Gracie and his family made the trip often, entertaining political and literary figures such as Alexander Hamilton (a business partner of Gracie’s and the owner of a lovely summer estate in Harlem), James Fenimore Cooper, John Quincy Adams, and Washington Irving.

Irving, in particular, was struck by the beauty of the house and Gracie’s hospitality.

“I cannot tell you how sweet and delightful I found this retreat, pure air, agreeable scenery, profound quiet,” Irving (below left) wrote in 1813 in his diary, according to the Daily News.

Of the Gracies, he wrote, “Their country seat was one of my strongholds last summer, as I lived in its vicinity. It is a charming, warm-hearted family, and the old gentleman has the soul of a prince.”

The summer house wouldn’t stay in the Gracie family. Gracie lost much of his fortune by 1819. “The craggy-faced Scot,” as the Daily News called him, died at age 94 in 1829.

Through the mid- to late-19th century, the house changed owners at least twice. As the area’s summer estates were sold off and parceled out and Yorkville became more urbanized, the house fell into disrepair.

In 1894, the city took possession of Gracie’s house and built East End Park—now Carl Schurz Park—around it. The dwelling was home to the Museum of the City of New York from 1923 to 1936, when the museum decamped to its current location on Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street.

It was Parks Commissioner Robert Moses who suggested revamping the house and turning it into the official residence of New York City’s mayors.

Gracie Mansion, as it’s known to New Yorkers, is probably the city’s best-known summer house. Once a country retreat for one of New York’s richest men, it now serves as the designated home for city mayors since Fiorello LaGuardia was in office…and sadly is hard to see behind an ugly tall fence.

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society, 1923; second image: Wikipedia; third image: New-York Historical Society, 1923; fourth image NYPL, late 19th century; fifth image: New-York Historical Society, 1914; sixth image: New-York Historical Society, 1923; seventh image: Wikipedia; eighth image: New-York Historical Society, 1923]

The 1955 plan to get rid of Central Park’s Ramble

May 18, 2020

Since Central Park opened in 1859, city officials have occasionally tried to tinker with its original intent—which was to replicate the woods and pastures of nature for industry-choked New Yorkers in need of R&R.

Among the plans that luckily never came to pass: a racetrack, a cemetery for the city’s “distinguished dead,” a 1,000-seat theater, building lots from parcels of park space, even pavement replacing the grass at the lower end of the park. And these are just the ideas proposed before 1920!

But one of the weirdest plans in Central Park’s history hit the headlines in 1955: bulldozing part of Central Park’s Ramble (below, in 1900) and turning it into an indoor/outdoor senior citizens center.

The proposal meant fencing off 14 of the Ramble’s 33 acres, putting up a building with a parking lot, and also constructing an outdoor activities area, which would include croquet and shuffleboard courts behind a fence.

Who came up with this one? Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, aka the “master builder” of the 20th century city, who took charge of the parks in 1933.

In his 27 years as parks czar, Mose fundamentally changed Central Park. In the 1930s, he built 20 playgrounds and created baseball fields—going against co-designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s original prohibition of play areas, which they felt interfered with the natural landscape their Greensward plan called for.

Moses also restored and preserved sections of the park, including the zoo, and his overall stewardship of the “lungs of New York” and other city agencies is still being debated.

But back to the Ramble. The idea of destroying “the dense maze of meandering paths through rocky outcrops and lush vegetation” that was one of the earliest parts of the park caused an outcry, recalled The New York Preservation Archive Project (NYPAP).

One group of critics: birdwatchers, among them “Robert Cushman Murphy, former curator at the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Birds,” stated NYPAP. “The Ramble, he argued, was ‘one of the park’s most important bird sanctuaries,’ which the new facility threatened to destroy.”

Moses countered that the new facility wouldn’t impede bird watching, and in fact it would be safer to have a senior center there due to the growing threat of being mugged or assaulted in the Ramble, according to one newspaper columnist.

New Yorkers voiced their opinions in the papers. “In a Moses park, everybody must do something—row a boat, ride a horse, play shuffleboard or checkers,” commented one East Side resident. “The Ramble is a place to just sit quietly and look at the trees, but Moses doesn’t understand that.”

Contemporary historians detect anti-gay bias in Moses’ plan.

“In the 1920s they called the open lawn at the northern end of the Ramble the ‘fruited plain,'” wrote Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar in The Park and the People. The proposal may have been driven in part because “the Ramble was considered a gathering place for ‘anti-social’ persons,” they stated.

Because of the uproar, Moses backed down. The shuffleboard and croquet courts were never built, and the Ramble remains just the way Olmsted wanted it: a “wild garden” for getting lost in the restorative powers of the natural world (above, 1865).

[Second image: Medium; third image: MCNY X2010.11.1419; third image: New York Times headline, 1955; sixth image: MCNY 94.64.14]

What New York did in 1947 to evade an epidemic

March 16, 2020

In February 1947, an American importer named Eugene Le Bar boarded a bus in Mexico with his wife; the two were bound for New York City. That evening, he developed a headache and neck pain. Two days later, a rash developed.

After arriving in Manhattan on March 1, the Le Bars registered at a Midtown hotel.

“Although he was not feeling well, he did a little sightseeing and also walked through one of the large department stores,” explained a New York Times article published later that year and written by Commissioner of Health Israel Weinstein.

Four days later, Le Bar was in Bellevue Hospital, unsure of what he had. He raged with fever and was covered in dark red bumps, similar to chicken pox.

He was transferred to another hospital, Willard Parker Hospital at East 16th Street and the East River (below, in 1935), which treated communicable diseases. He died there on March 10, and it was only during an autopsy did doctors discover he had smallpox—the fearsome scourge that killed up to a third of victims until a vaccine was developed in the 19th century.

Le Bar’s case was the first appearance of smallpox in New York City since 1939. “The occasional case of smallpox had been seen in the area for decades since the last big outbreak in 1875, which had killed 2,000 New Yorkers,” stated a 2004 edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

This new case wasn’t an isolated one. It quickly spread to two other people, one at Bellevue and the other at Willard Parker.

From there, about a dozen more people who’d been in contact with the first three smallpox victims developed the disease.

Realizing that the outbreak had to be stopped, city officials sprang into action. First, all hospital staffers and anyone who may have had contact with the infected individuals were vaccinated or revaccinated, explained this post from Virology Blog.

And on April 4, “facing the possibility of a genuine epidemic, Mayor William O’Dwyer ordered that virtually the entire city, or 6.3 million people, be vaccinated or revaccinated, a process that for three weeks caused enormous lines to snake around every hospital, police precinct, and 60 special health stations,” recalled the New York Daily News in 2001.

New York didn’t have enough doses of the vaccine on hand, so O’Dwyer met with the heads of pharmaceutical companies and asked for their help manufacturing millions of vaccines, which they accomplished.

“When a second person died from the disease on April 13, the Mayor asked all 7.8 million New Yorkers to be vaccinated,” stated Virology Blog.

“At this announcement, the city shifted into crisis mode, with contributions by police, fire, health departments, and hospitals. The campaign slogan was ‘Be sure, be safe, get vaccinated!’”

An estimated 5-6 million people were vaccinated in the city until early May, after which the campaign was halted because the outbreak appeared to be contained.

Is there anything here to learn from to tackle the coronavirus pandemic? I’m not sure; it was a different time, and a vaccine already existed. Let’s hope coronavirus is contained by May, just like smallpox was in 1947.

 

[Top image: Vaccine line in Morrisania, Bronx, by Life magazine; second image: New York Daily News; third image: NYPL; fourth image: New York Daily News; fifth image: New York Times; sixth image: Broadway showgirls getting jabbed, Life magazine; seventh image: New York Times]

Mystery monuments on the “East River Drive”

July 29, 2019

It towers above the FDR Drive at about 93rd Street: a rectangular monolith facing the parkway.

A forgotten Yorkville war memorial or monument to a long-gone neighborhood leader? I went to the end of East 93rd Street on the grounds of the Stanley M. Isaacs Houses to take a look.

Composed of stone blocks and set inside a small garden, the monument reads, “East River Drive” and then “Triborough Bridge Approach.”

The East River Drive part makes sense; this was the original name of the FDR Drive, built in the 1930s to run along the length of Manhattan’s East Side.

The “Triborough Bridge Approach” is more of a question mark. The bridge, opened in 1936 under the auspices of legendary Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, connects Manhattan to Randalls Island via 125th Street.

So why a sign announcing the approach to the bridge at 93rd Street?

It might be because the Triborough (now called the RFK Bridge), was supposed to be built at 103rd Street and be a direct conduit to Queens, according to NYCRoads.

“Moses originally proposed that the Manhattan arm of the Triborough Bridge be constructed at East 103rd Street so as to avoid the mental institutions on Randall’s Island,” the site explains. “However, the East 125th Street location that was previously procured for the Triborough Bridge was used instead.”

Why? Because of William Randolph Hearst, according to Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, a biography of Moses.

“William Randolph Hearst had owned deteriorating real estate there [at 103rd Street] and he had wanted the city to buy it,” Mr. Caro wrote. Not willing to tangle with Hearst or his newspaper empire, Moses “left the terminus at 125th Street.”

The FDR Drive monuments, then, may have been built with 103rd Street in mind.

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]