Reading a 1960s Village writer’s “Lunch Poems”

September 21, 2015

Frankoharacedartavern“It’s my lunch hour, so I go for a walk among the hum-colored cabs.”

So begins Frank O’Hara in “A Step Away From Them,” one of his witty, observational Lunch Poems.

The name comes from the time of day when they were supposedly written: during O’Hara’s lunch hour in Midtown, when he worked as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art.

Born in Baltimore and a graduate of Harvard, O’Hara arrived in the city in the early 1950s, a time when abstract expressionist painters and Beat poets were hitting their stride.

FrankoharaapartmentAnd both were meeting and drinking at bars like the San Remo and the Cedar Tavern (top photo; O’Hara is in the center), next door to O’Hara’s apartment at 90 University Place (left), which he shared with then-partner Joe LeSueur.

The Lunch Poems were published in 1964, and they are of their time, with references to no-longer-there restaurants and long-gone starlets and sometimes a campy sensibility.

But the New York O’Hara writes about—the culture, the noise, the crowds, the way the Sixth Avenue bus “trunk-lumbers sideways” so full of people, is still the city of today.

In “Music,” he references Grand Army Plaza by Central Park and the statue of William Sherman on a horse, led by an angel:

Frankoharapoems“If I rest for a moment near The Equestrian
pausing for a liver sausage sandwich in the Mayflower Shoppe,
that angel seems to be leading the horse into Bergdorf’s

“The Day Lady Died” is about Billie Holiday:

“I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
Then go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfield Theater and casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
Of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it”

O’Hara wrote other poems too, and he also made a name for himself as an art critic.

The Lunch Poems, though, were his last collected volume. He died prematurely after being hit by a beach taxi on Fire Island in 1966 when he was only 40.

FrankoharamomaPerhaps his most relatable verse, chronicling day-to-day life in a pre-Bloomberg city of smokers drinking coffee they made themselves, comes from “Steps”:

“oh god, it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much”

[Photo of O’Hara in front of MOMA: newyorkschoolpoets.wordpresscom]

Bits of Medieval France in the Joan of Arc statue

September 21, 2015

Jeanne d'ArcThe heroic, life-size bronze of Joan of Arc at 93rd Street and Riverside Park was created a century ago by a group of prominent city residents who wanted to commemorate the Maid of Orleans’ 500th birthday.

And incredibly, it was the first statue in the city that honored a real, nonfictional woman (as opposed to the Statue of Liberty or Mother Goose).


But this monument to a Medieval martyr is distinguished and remarkable in other ways as well.

JoanofarcparksdeptSculptor Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington sought to show not a warrior but a spiritual girl whose mission to defeat the British was inspired by the voices of saints.

“Well, the whole idea was that I remember reading before she went into battle she had acquired a new sword,” Huntington later explained.

“And when she went into battle, she unconsciously raised it to heaven to ask the blessing of the Lord on it before she went into battle.”

To invoke Medieval France, architect John Van Pelt made a granite base that contains actual stones from the cathedral in Rheims, where King Charles (who supported Joan’s fight before abandoning her) was crowned.

JoanofarcinscriptionHe also incorporated real limestone blocks from the Tower of Rouen, where Joan was imprisoned and tried for heresy and witchcraft before being burned at the stake.

“On December 6, 1915, the sculpture was unveiled in an elaborate ceremony, which included a military band and French Ambassador Jean J. Jusserand,” states

JoanofarcdedicationThat Jusserand (left, at the ceremony, with Mrs. Edison) made it to the ceremony is impressive, considering that France was embroiled in the Great War at the time.

In front of a crowd of about 1,000, Thomas Edison’s wife unveiled the statue—a symbol of solidarity among America and France and one of the finest city sculptures.

Joan of Arc’s name lends itself to numerous city buildings—like these “French Flats” on 14th Street and this women’s hotel in Chelsea, formerly known as a home for “friendless French girls.”

[Second photo:]

A faded toothpaste ad reappears on 43rd Street

September 14, 2015

Ever heard of Sozodont Toothpaste? Me neither, but in 1859, it was invented by a New Jersey druggist and manufactured by a firm on Washington Street called Hall & Ruckell.


And at some point in the early 1900s, this colorful Sozodont advertisement went up on the side of a stately building on 43rd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue, across from Grand Central Terminal.

Toothpastedvanderbiltave2Hidden behind another building for decades, the remarkably well preserved three-story ad finally saw the light of day again thanks to that building’s recent demolition.

Sozodont fell out of favor in the early 20th century; apparently its high alcohol content destroyed enamel and turned teeth yellow.

The ad will probably go into hiding again soon, but what a relic of the early 20th century city!

[Thanks to Rick F. for alerting ENY to this beauty.]

Coney Island’s “disaster spectacles” thrill crowds

September 14, 2015

ConeyislandfightingtheflamesConey Island at the turn of the century let visitors escape the conventions of city life and experience a fantastical world: of thrilling rides and exotic animals, carnival games, freak shows, Eskimo and lilliputian villages, even a trip to the moon.

But perhaps the most bizarre exhibits were the disaster spectacles.

These shows recreated a real-life disaster so visitors could witness the death and destruction that took place.

The fall of Pompeii, the San Francisco Earthquake, the eruption of Mount Pelee in Martinique, and the Johnstown and Galveston Floods exhibits were hugely popular.


“Six hundred veterans of the Boer War, fresh from Johannesburg, re-fought their battles in a 12,000-seat stadium,” stated PBS’ American Experience show about Coney Island.

“Galveston disappeared beneath the flood. Mount Pelee erupted hourly, while across the street, Mount Vesuvius showered death on the people of Pompeii.”

ConeyislandpeleeadsAnother spectacle called “Fire and Flames” had real firemen set a four-story building on fire, then extinguish it as “residents” of the building, really actors, jumped out of windows, just like in a real New York City fire (except they jumped into safety nets).

The fire spectacle, at Luna Park, was so successful, Dreamland came up with their own version, called “Fighting the Flames” that brought in actual fire rescue equipment.

What was so fascinating about disaster to Coney Island visitors of the era?


“In its very horror, disaster conferred a kind of meaning to its victims’ lives, transforming commonplace routine into the extraordinary,” writes John F. Kasson in Amusing the Million.

“Sensationalized recreations of such disasters gave a vicarious sense of this transcendence to their audience—with of course the inestimable advantage of allowing them to emerge from the performance unharmed.”


It’s really no different from our more contemporary attraction to disaster movies, like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, says Kasson.

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]

107 colorful years at a Meatpacking District motel

September 7, 2015

Today’s gleaming, touristy Meatpacking District has no room for low-rent motels. But the Liberty Inn, at 51 Tenth Avenue, which famously charges by the hour, is still hanging in there.


This flatiron-shaped building is a remnant of the days when 14th Street west of Eighth Avenue was a commercial and ship-docking district, home to a produce market, meatpacking plants, sailors’ dives, and sex clubs.

LibertyinndelamatersquareThe hotel had a dicey reputation from the start.

It first opened in 1908 as a sailor’s boardinghouse called the Strand on a patch of land known as Dalamater Square (right, 1938).

“It is a three-story structure, on the ground floor of which is a saloon and the upper part of which contains 28 rooms,” stated a court document from 1914.

“[The Strand] accepts only men as roomers,” the document added, and caters “to the class of trade that has business at the river front.”

In other words, it was a rough place–which might be why it had its “all-night license” revoked in 1910.

Its waterfront location came in handy after the Titanic sank in 1912. To cover the story, the New York Times rented a floor of rooms at the Strand (below, at Pier 54).


“The editors sent reporters to the pier with orders to buttonhole survivors and then run into the Strand and dictate their notes on one of the telephone lines, which were connected to the newsroom in Times Square,” the Times recalled in a 2012 article.


There’s no reason to think the Strand—or whatever it was called as the decades went on—ever changed its seamy vibe.

And why would it, since the Meatpacking District became the haunt of sex workers and the site of sex clubs from the 1970s through the 1990s.

mp0271The Anvil operated out of the ground floor of the building from 1974 to 1986, where “drag queens and naked go-go boys danced upstairs and those looking for a more hands on experience wandered the dark passageways below ground,” recalled the Daily News.

[Above: Photo by Brian Rose]

Today’s Liberty Inn, which limits rooms to 2 guests each and charges $80 for two hours, is a far cry from the debauchery of the Anvil.


But it’s the most unsavory place you’ll find in a neighborhood that’s scrubbed its down and dirty past clean.

[Third and fourth photos: NYPL Digital Collection. Fifth Photo: Brian Rose.]

The whispering gallery in Grand Central Terminal

September 7, 2015

Among the loveliness inside Grand Central Terminal—the starry-skied ceiling, the clocks, the chandeliers—are some wonderful architectural mysteries.


One that appears to have been an accident of design is the whispering gallery. It’s on the lower level outside the Oyster Bar, under beautiful original Gustavino tiles on a low domed ceiling.

Face the wall and whisper, and your words can be clearly heard on other side of the 50-foot space—thanks to the way sound waves travel across the vaulted ceiling.


No evidence exists that the whispering gallery was anything more than a “happy coincidence,” says one of the architects who helped restore Grand Central in the 1990s, states this New York Times piece.

But other sources say it must have been intentional.


Rafael Gustavino and his son designed this part of the terminal “based on architectural principles that have been used for centuries worldwide—from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing to the Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur, India,” according to New York Curiosities.

[Second image: postcard of the Whispering Gallery before the Oyster Bar was added; New York Times]

Faded ad reveals an old Brooklyn phone exchange

September 3, 2015

It’s hard to tell how old this Realty Corp. faded ad is. But it could date as far back as 1930. That’s when the Midwood phone exchange was created, usually abbreviated MI.


Construction off Kings Highway and East 16th Street brought the ad—and vintage graffiti—back into view. The best vantage point: from the Q train platform at the Avenue P Kings Highway subway station.


Phone exchange spotting is always fun, and there’s plenty of signs and ads still left in the city that have them. Just keep your eyes peeled!

Art Deco beauty of an East Side subway entrance

September 3, 2015

Art Deco skyscrapers stand proud like shiny monuments across the Manhattan skyline. But Art Deco subway stations? Those are harder to find.


The lucky commuters who take the E or 6 train at Lexington Avenue and 51st Street get to pass this stylized Art Deco subway entrance.

Thanks to the sleek design and surrounding buildings, it’s always the end of the Jazz Age.


The sign is right outside the General Electric Building (formerly the RCA Victor Building) a 1931 Art Deco beauty, with its decorative bursts along the facade meant to represent the awesome power of radio waves and electricity.

And that wonderful clock, with forearms that stretch time!


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