Wednesday, October 1, 2014

1981 was indeed "A Most Violent Year" in New York City

In 1981, there were more reported robberies in New York City (over 120,000) than in any year in its history.  There were over 2,100 murders that year (slightly down from the previous year) including such infamous crimes as the mob-related Shamrock Bar murders in Queens. After years of steadily increasing crime rates, it seemed unlikely in 1981 that New York would ever reverse course.

This should make a very intriguing backdrop for the new film A Most Violent Year by J.C. Chandor, starring Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac.

We last saw Isaac in another New York flashback -- Inside Llewyn Davis -- which gave us a spectacular view of 1960s Greenwich Village.  And Chandor himself dabbled in some recent history with his debut film Margin Call, about the 2007 financial crash.

The film is set for an end-of-the-year release. So far the production design looks very promising:


And here's a few images of New York City in 1981 for comparison:

Top pic courtesy New York Daily News/Getty Images. Middle picture courtesy Luper/Panoramio.  Meryl Streep courtesy Life Magazine!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Housewives demand open markets! One century ago, New York radically changed how people bought groceries

[Manhattan open market.]

Setting up a market under the Manhattan Bridge. (Courtesy MCNY. Note: This photo may be of an earlier market here, but this gives you an idea of where the 1914-15 markets would have been located.)

Groceries are becoming more expensive as retailers mark up prices due to food shortages (or simple price gouging at perceived shortages). So people are turning to rather unconventional methods of getting fresh meat and produce.  Is this 2014 or 1914?

At the start of World War I, there was an immediate shortage of certain food items at New York grocers. Local distributors greatly took advantage of this special circumstance, marking up a variety of essential items.  "Sugar and flour, which have been increasing in price so rapidly, gave indications of continuing their upward march," an article from August 19, 1914 proclaimed.

Shopping at a typical New York grocer, 1903 (MCNY): 

266 Seventh Avenue c. 1903.

Fifty years before, New Yorkers could interact with farmers and butchers directly at open-air markets.  But by the 1910s, most transactions were governed by local distributors. Old Washington Market was by this time a thriving indoor wholesale market. Local grocers had limited space with limited selection. The era of the modern supermarket -- with greater selections and better values -- was still a decade or two in the future. (The first supermarket is often considered to be Piggly Wiggly, which opened in Tennessee in 1916.)

To fend off rising food rates, the city of New York did something rather extraordinary:  it opened its own direct markets (or "open markets") which cut out the middle-man entirely.

Manhattan Borough President Marcus M. Marks authorized the opening of four such markets in the following open areas -- under the Manhattan sides of the Manhattan and Queensboro Bridges, the intersection of 3rd Avenue and 129th Street (today's Harlem River Park), and the Fort Lee Ferry Terminal (West 139th Street and the Hudson River, near today's Riverbank State Park).  A similar program was also set up in Tompkinsville, Staten Island.

Below: Interior of the Queensboro Bridge Market, 1915 (MCNY)

[Interior of market under the Queensboro Bridge.]

The markets opened in September 1914 with dozens of Long Island and New Jersey farmers bringing their wares to New York. Pushcart vendors, already spread throughout the city, also set up shop here.  What makes this such a controversial move is that it was a clear attempt to undercut all established grocers, to force distributors to quit gouging price.

They were an immediate hit despite being located in areas quite distant from certain populated areas. The markets appealed to women of many classes, because who doesn't love a bargain? "At this market were many housewives who came in automobiles to buy from the farmers," said a report from September 20, 1914. "Baskets filled with fresh vegetables and fruits were on seats, and the legs of more than one chicken projected from paper parcels under the chauffeur's elbows."  By 1915, the markets were considered by some "a social affair."

Below: from an April 1915 profile from the Sun:

 The open markets were so successful that stock was usually emptied out by mid-morning.  Late-arriving women "actually wept when the market was bought out." [source]

Naturally, retail grocers were angered by the city's bold move and soon went on the offensive. "There is nothing but politics in this open market game, gentleman, from start to finish," declared one speaker at a grocers union rally that October.

The city counteracted the grocer's propaganda by providing 'bargain days' for extra values, reeling in the participation of farmers, butchers, poultry brokers and even honey producers.  "A butcher, who will open a new stand, says that he will give a head of cabbage in lieu of trading stamps to every purchaser of a piece of corned beef." [October 15, source]

The markets lasted only a few months and, strangely enough, it was the city itself that killed them. Obviously bending to pressure from local businessmen, the city began charging high rents for a spot at the markets, and smaller farmers soon fled.  The Evening World noticed rents that would equal up to "$900 a year". That's $20,000 in 2014 currency.

In essence, this was one end of New York government attempting to dampen the authority of the other (namely, the borough president's office).  Vendors had to raise prices to keep their place, and so the usefulness of the markets swiftly faded.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

History in the Making 9/25: Music Made For War Edition

During World War II, Steinway and Sons produced specially-built pianos for the American troops.  Called the Victory Vertical or G.I. Steinways, the pianos were sometimes airdropped onto battlefields to provide a bit of relaxation to troops.  They were manufactured in Steinway's Queen-based factory and mostly sold to the U.S. government.  More pictures below of the pianos in Steinway's Manhattan showroom:

Meanwhile, some links of interest....

Exxxxcellent: Seventeen years ago, the Simpsons visited the Big Apple in the episode "The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson." As you may remember, the World Trade Center is featured in a central gag.  [Gothamist]

Still in 'Power':  Robert Caro's The Power Broker turns forty years old this month and reminds a searing, indispensable read. [Salon]

Men in the 'Moon':  The imposing roster of the Half Moon Club, an obscure gentleman's club of the Gilded Age, featured the most important men of New York [New York Historical Society]

Dangerous Mission:  The incredible story behind a newly discovered photograph of a Southern slave in a Confederate uniform. [Smithsonian]

Saturday Matinee:  The extraordinary Valencia movie palace in Jamaica, Queens, is being opened for a rare preview by its current owners the Tabernacle of Prayer Church.  The tour may already be filled up, but call anyway! If they get enough interest, perhaps they'll start offering regular tours. [Scouting New York]

Opening Soon:  The list of participating sites and events for the 2014 Open House New York will be available next Tuesday, September 30. [OHNY]

A Real Meat Market: Photos by Richard Ovaduke of a very different Meat-Packinig District. [Jeremiah's Vanishing New York]

Towering: An extraordinary castle on the Upper West Side that once served as New York's first cancer hospital. [Gizmodo]

Below: On display at the Steinway showroom on 57th Street:

Pictures courtesy the Steinway and Sons Photo Collection at the San Diego Air-Space Museum

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Happy Rosh Hashanah! Images of Jewish New Years' past

Look to the stars children! A vintage Rosh Hashanah card manufactured by the Williamsburg Art Company in the 1920s.

Rosh Hashanah is here -- the first of Tishrei, year 5775.  Presented here are a selection of photographs from the Library of Congress depicting Jewish New Yorkers celebrating the new year (or, at least, on their way home to start the festivities).  These images date from 1909-1915, although most are 1912.  As most of these photographs were possibly taken (or labeled) by non-Jewish photographers, some of the meaning is a little lost.  If you have any insights into these images, please leave a comment!

And there's some detective work to be done here. For instance, anyone recognize this synagogue?

One hundred years ago, Jewish New Year celebrations were especially fraught due to the events in Europe. Ethnics groups from embattled countries, in fear their rituals made them targets for local violence, made doubly sure to distance themselves for the politics of the day, while affirming their continuing connection to their Jewish brethren.

A leader of the reformed Jewish congregation proclaimed, "The conservative and patriotic citizenship of America refrains from endorsing the attitude of any country involved in the horrible European conflict. ... [O]ur hearts go out to the 300,000 men in the Russian army who, having bled and suffered at the hands of their country on account of being Jews, are now suffering and dying for their country because as Jews they are loyal to the flag under which they live." [source]

This one is dated September 1912 although there was not a "Jewish New Year Parade" and this is hardly an image of a parade anyway!

There appear to be a series of old Rosh Hashanah photographs focusing on boot blacks polishing the shoes of young ladies.  I doubt this was an actual custom but more a recognition of the fact that many young boot blacks came from Jewish families. (However, for Passover, people leave their shoes at the door.)

The smile of the girl at center is totally making my day:

Here's a telling detail from 1914:  New Jersey decided to hold a statewide primary election on the same day as Rosh Hashanah that year, disenfranchising thousands of Jewish voters "who are prohibited from signing their name." Registering to vote was quite different back in the day; luckily, there was an alternate date provided that fell before the holiday, but no attempts were made to actually move election day.  [source]

Then there's this captivating image:

So what's going on in the picture above, taken on the Williamsburg Bridge in 1909?  Per some commentary from a Library of Congress commenter:  "If this was photo was indeed taken around Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) as the notation implies then these people are most likely taking part in a "tashlich" ceremony. The ceremony is when the previous year's sins are symbolically "cast off" by throwing pieces of bread into a flowing body of water."

And finally here's some rather imaginative Jewish New Year postcards that were manufactured by the Williamsburg Art Company sometime in the 1920s.  While the company was located in Brooklyn, all of these were actually manufactured in Germany. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ladies, eliminate your "New Yorkese": Prim and proper advice from a 1940s elocution teacher

Seventy-five years ago today (September 23 1939), this advertisement ran in the New Yorker:  

Well, that simply won't do!  So I decided to look into Miss Margaret McCoy and found an illuminating article from a 1942 column in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle -- "Beauty and You" by Patricia Lindsay.  In this piece, McCoy provides advice for young woman wishing to find more confidence in their personal presentation. Some of her sage observations:

-- "Women don't realize that through misuse of their voice they reveal a nervous, erratic and unstable temperament."

--  "The swallowed tones heard so frequently today among the younger generation disclose affectations of superiority and insincerity."

-- "Good speech is speech that does not attract attention to itself. It is not affected, pedantic or theatrical."

--  "If, while you speak, your listeners are attracted to how you sound rather than what you say, your message is not being delivered.  Muffled, indistinct speech, due to careless sloppy habits, or speech which has a foreign or provincial flavor is incapable of conveying an idea."

Margaret's school was still offering advice in the 1940s but I can't find reference to it after that. She may be the very same Margaret McCoy who broadcast pleasantries on WNYC in 1935.

The McCoy School of Speech was located near Grand Central Terminal for better access to nervous, erratic or unstable individuals.

Monday, September 22, 2014

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Friday, September 19, 2014

The Secrets of Gramercy Park (and you don't even need a key)

Gramercy Park

Looking down on Gramercy Park, 1944 (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
PODCAST Gramercy Park is Manhattan's only private park, a prohibited place for most New Yorkers. However we have your keys to the history of this significant and rather unusual place, full of the city's greatest inventors, civic leaders and entertainers.

Literally pulled up from swampy land, Gramercy Park naturally appealed to the city's elite, a pocket neighborhood with classic old brownstones so vital to the city's early growth that two streets sprang from its creation -- Irving Place and Lexington Avenue.

Within the story of Gramercy Park there are echoes of modern debates over class and land usage.  The area's creator Samuel Ruggles was a New York developer before his time, perfecting techniques that modern developers are still using to convince both the city and its residents of the importance and vitality of their high-end projects.

At right: Inside the park with Edwin Booth (Photo by Helaine Magnus, courtesy NYHS)

In this show, we give you an overview of its history -- a birds eye's view, if you will -- then follow it up with a virtual walking tour that you can use to guide yourself through the area, on foot or in your mind.  (You can follow along virtually starting here.)  In this tour, we'll give you the insights on an early stop on the Underground Railroad, the house of a controversial New York mayor, a fabulous club of thespians, and a hotel that has hosted both the Rolling Stones and John F. Kennedy (though not at the same time).

ALSO: We tell you the right way to get into Gramercy Park -- and the wrong way.

To get this week's episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #171: The Keys To Gramercy Park

Below: Looking west onto Gramercy Park, photo between 1909-1915.  You can see both the Flatiron and the Metropolitan Life Tower in the distance. [LOC]


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Samuel Ruggles, the mastermind behind the Union Square and Gramercy Park developments, two parks with drastically different fates.  While Union Square would eventually be considered 'the people's park' and a center of working class protest, Gramercy Park would retain its guarded, exclusive character.

A 1831 map outlining the lands owned and developed by Samuel Ruggles. Lexington Avenue and Irving Place have already been planned by this time. (Courtesy MCNY)

Lands of Samuel B. Ruggles in the Twelth Ward in the City of New York
The 1918 unveiling of Gramercy Park's one permanent resident -- the statue of Edwin Booth. (NYPL)

The esteemed Dr. Valentine Mott who lived (with his large family) at 1 Gramercy Park. (

3 and 4 Gramercy Park from 1935 -- and they look exactly the same today!  The lampposts indicate that this was once the home of former mayor James Harper.  (Photo by Berenice Abbot, NYPL)

A architectural cross-section of 4 Gramercy Park, showing the size of the house.

New York governor and almost-U.S. president Samuel Tilden lived in Gramercy Park. His home would later be transformed into the National Arts Club.

Enjoying a banquet at the National Arts Club in 1908.  As you can see, the membership has always been open to both men and women, a trait few social clubs of the day enjoyed. (NYPL)

The Players Club in 1905.  In this photo the building is mournfully adorned in black crepe in honor of the actor Joseph Jefferson.

The Friends Meeting House in 1965. It would become the Brotherhood Synagogue ten years later. (Courtesy Wurts Brothers, MCNY) 144 East 20th Street. Exterior of Friends Meeting House.

Children within the park, 1944. The Edwin Booth statue stands in the background here (MCNY)

Child drinking from water fountain, Gramercy Park

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Whatever happened to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Island?

Midtown New York Skyline Showing Welfare Island, New York.

Welfare Island (once the more enticingly named Blackwell's Island) was New York's depository of human services, once a dour place of horrifying asylums and miserable workhouses.  In the 1960s Mayor John Lindsay was preparing to revitalize the East River island with new housing and increased support for the hospitals there.  Architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee were brought in to rethink the urban space as a largely automobile-free community.

For this grand experiment, all they needed was a name.  Luckily there seemed be a couple prominent figures being egregiously ignored in the city -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor:

From a New York Times editorial, January 30, 1972:

"It is astonishing, and becomes more disgraceful with every passing year, that within the city there is still no memorial to this great New Yorker (except for FDR Drive, a dubious honor).  The opportunity is, however, immediately at hand.  Welfare Island, now slowly undergoing a total reconstruction and rebirth, would take on a new symbolic significance if its name were changed to Franklin D. Roosevelt Island -- or, better yet, to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Island in honor of that extraordinary woman who was even more closely identified with New York City than was the president himself."

By the following year Mayor Lindsay submitted a proposal to re-name Welfare Island for the president and the first lady.  From Jan. 21, 1973:

 It was officially approved later that summer but with a revised name -- Franklin Roosevelt Island.

To the Council, "a witness testified that the name of Welfare Island should be dropped because plans were under way to start marketing this September the thousands of apartments already built and still under construction as part of a $300-million 'new town' designed to replace outdated medical facilities." [source]

Below: The island in April 1961, photo courtesy the New York Fire Department

A Louis Kahn memorial to Franklin Roosevelt was to be built at the south end;  it would take over four decades, but the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park would finally open in 2012.

Wither Eleanor?

She finally did get her own memorial in New York City -- an understated statue tucked away in Riverside Park.

It was unveiled on October 5, 1996 by Hillary Rodham Clinton.  Oddly enough, Hillary regaled the crowd with a story of imaginary conversations she liked to have with Eleanor. "When I last spoke to Mrs. Roosevelt, she wanted me to tell all of you how pleased she is by this great, great new statue."

Top picture courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A new film about New York State Pavilion, the space-age ruin from the World's Fair 1964-65

Many cities have turned the sites of World's Fairs into public places that have endured through the decades.  Chicago's Jackson Park and the Midway were greatly upgraded after their use in the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.  The odd-looking Sunsphere, a highlight of the Knoxville World's Fair in 1982, is now the city's most recognizable monument.

Nashville has its Parthenon, San Francisco the Japanese Tea Garden.  And perhaps the most famous souvenir of all -- Seattle's Space Needle. These are treasured and maintained relics of World's Fairs of yore.

So what's going on with the New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park?

Like a few other extant relics, this holdover from the New York's World's Fair 1964-65 (designed by Philip Johnson and Lev Zetlin) was built to embody the future -- two towers straight from the Jetsons and a once-festive coliseum perfect for robot gladiator games.  The fair is long gone, but these structures remain, rusting and completely unused.

What to do with these remarkably weird remnants is the subject of Matthew Silva's new documentary Modern Ruin: A World's Fair Pavilion:

Modern Ruin from Matthew Silva on Vimeo.

You'll have an opportunity to catch the film later this year.  But for an exclusive peek and more information on the efforts to save and transform the New York State Pavilion, the film's director Matthew Silva will be in conversation at an event tomorrow night (Wednesday, Sept. 17) with DOCOMOMO (Documentation and Conservations of Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement)

Wednesday September 17, 6:30pm
Knoll Showroom
1330 Sixth Ave at 53rd St, 2nd floor
$10 DOCOMOMO members/$20 non-members
Capacity is limited, register here

More information at Silva's production site, Aquarela Pictures

Top photo courtesy New York Public Library

Monday, September 15, 2014

The story of 'Klein Klassje', the New World's first Roosevelt and the surprising origin of Roosevelt Street

New Amsterdam, the home of Claes Maartenszen van Rosenvelt (by Thomas Addis Emmet, courtesy NYPL)

The new Ken Burns seven-part documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is underway on PBS, a sprawling look at one of New York's most prominent families.  It began last night with the introduction of young Theodore Roosevelt, the sickly boy turned New York police commissioner. Tonight, in part two, he becomes the President of the United States.

With so many Roosevelts to speak about -- and two clans of Roosevelts, named for their summer haunts Hyde Park and Oyster Bay -- there wasn't much time to mention the very first Roosevelt.  That is, the first ancestor to arrive in future North America -- Claes Maartenszen van Rosenvelt.

Claes arrived to New Amsterdam sometime around 1649 or 1650, although possibly much earlier (some records say 1638), one of a number of Dutch settlers arriving at this outpost of the Dutch West India Company.  If the earlier dates are true, this puts Rosenvelt in the outpost during the years of William Keift, when New Amsterdam was a ragged company town, with a rudimentary civic structure and in constant fear of attack by the Lenape.

His wife is referred to in records as both Jannetje Samuels and Jannetie Thomas.  Keep in mind that with the paucity of extant records, a company-town's inefficiencies, basic human error and the "peculiar method of naming people during Dutch times," it's incredible that we even have these names at all!

Many histories make note of Claes unusual nickname -- Klein Klassje or Cleyn Claesjen ("Little Claes") -- perhaps meaning he was a short man or that there was a much larger Claes in town. It's not inconceivable to think he was also "short" in social stature, not physical.

Brooklyn Bridge PierThe colony was whipped into a relatively more livable condition with the arrival of Peter Stuyvesant in 1647, and records list Claes as having a farm "situated back of Stuyvesant's Bouwery, at present somewhere between Broadway and the East River, in the neighborhood of Tenth Street." [source]

The couple had four children of which only one (Nicolas) took and kept the name Rosenvelt, which of course was modified over time into Roosevelt.

For decades, Manhattan once had a Roosevelt Street, named not for any of the later great leaders who would make the family famous, but (it's believed) for either Nicolas or his son Jacobus. The family owned a profitable mill on a small stream which ran between the East River and the banks of Collect Pond. [source]

At right: the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge as seen from Roosevelt Street, 1876 (courtesy MCNY)

In the 19th century, Roosevelt Street was a dour place, rife with poverty and the downtrodden culture of South Street piers.  It was entirely erased in the 1950s with the creation of the Alfred E. Smith Houses.