Monday, June 30, 2014

Remember Me To Herald Square

Location:   Herald Square
Year:   1896

Macy*s Herald Square is an iconic building all on its own, the chain's flagship store and the largest Department Store in the Western Hemisphere. It occupies most of the corner plot.  However, directly in front of it is a five story privately-owned building that Macy*s has never been able to acquire. The Macy*s building jogs around it. Draped by a vast Macy*s shopping bag, the building is virtually invisible, but a close look will disclose the Sunglass Hut store that occupies the ground floor.  When the plot was sold to new owners in 1911, it cost one million dollars --- the first million dollar real estate deal ever.

The Hippodrome

Location:   Midtown Manhattan
Year:   1905-1939 

The Hippodrome in 1907

The Hippodrome was the world's largest theatre when it was built in 1905. It stood on Sixth Avenue between West 43rd and West 44th Streets in Midtown Manhattan and had a seating capacity of 5,300, and a 100 x 200 ft (20,000 square foot) stage. The theatre had state of the art theatrical technology for its time, including a rising glass water tank the size of a small lake.

The interior of the Hippodrome, 1905

During its heyday, the Hippodrome featured lavish spectacles complete with circus animals, swimming horses, opulent sets, and 500-member choruses. In 1918, on the brightly lit stage of the Hippodrome, Harry Houdini made a 10,000-pound elephant disappear, creating a worldwide sensation. It also featured musicals, operas, sports events, vaudeville acts, and, in the 1930s, movies. 

Houdini at the Hippodrome, 1918

The expense of maintaining the Hippodrome made it a perennial financial failure. It lost money throughout The Great Depression, and was finally torn down in 1939. The office building on its site is now known colloquially as "the Hippodrome building." 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The "20th Century Limited"

Location:   New York to Chicago
Year:   1902

In 1938, the 20th Century Limited was upgraded with Art Deco streamlined locomotives and cars

From 1902 to 1967, the 20th Century Limited was the primary form of passenger transportation between New York and Chicago via "the water level route" --- up the Hudson River, along the Mohawk River, through Buffalo, and along Lake Erie. The trip took about 16 hours.

The 20th Century Limited logo

Traveling between Grand Central Station in NYC and LaSalle Street Station in Chi-Town, the 20th Century Limited had gourmet food, elegant Pullman cars, and comfortable accommodations. Mail carried on the train had a special cancellation stamp. Lapel flowers for men's suits and perfume for the ladies were standard "extras" given to each passenger as they boarded. Not for nothing was it called "The Most Famous Train In The World." 

The solarium in the observation car

Entraining and detraining passengers walked along a red carpet to approach and leave the train, and the New York Central Railroad called this innovation "giving passengers the red-carpet treatment." 

In 1947, the "Hickory Creek" sleeping cars added a new level of comfort to the 20th Century Limited

Fort Terry

Location:   Plum Island
Year:   1898

Fort Terry was part of the ring of defensive forts that protected New York Harbor. Opened in 1898, Fort Terry was constructed in order to protect Long Island Sound from possible attack during the Spanish-American War. It remained a coastal defense until 1969. 


The Top Cop

Location:   Mulberry Street in lower Manhattan
Year:   1895-1897

In 1895, Theodore Roosevelt received an invitation from New York City's Progressive Mayor, William Strong, to become a Commissioner of the New York City Police Board.  Due to T.R.'s influence, he was elected President of the Board.  New York's Finest were infamous as the most corrupt cops in America at the time.

Police Board President Roosevelt established the first Police Academy in the U.S., pioneered bicycle patrols, promoted civil service reforms for recruitment and promotion of officers, hired minority officers (including female clerks), created meritorious service medals, had telephones installed in station houses, fought the endless and endemic corruption of the N.Y.P.D., and established a Municipal Lodging House for Waifs through the Board of Charities. 

T.R. was famous for disguising himself and patrolling the streets at night with his journalist friends Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens, hoping to catch policemen accepting bribes, drinking on the job, sleeping, or in flagrante delicto with prostitutes. 

His reformist zeal soon sickened a number of his fellow Police Board members who acted together to block his reforms (and incidentally maintain their own bribetaking systems). Finally frustrated, Roosevelt quit the Police Board in 1897, but subsequently, as Governor of New York State, T.R. signed an act in March 1901 to replace the corrupt, bureaucratic, and politicized Board of Police Commissioners with a single Police Commissioner.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Howland & Aspinwall

Location:   South Street, New York
Year:   1845  

The House burghee of Howland & Aspinwall

Howland & Aspinwall was a New York City-based merchant firm that specialized in the Pacific Ocean trade, especially the importing of goods from China. It is best known for taking a pioneering role in the financing of the first clipper ships, especially the Sea Witch, which made the New York-to-Hong Kong run in a record 74 days, 14 hours, and the Rainbow, the first extreme clipper. Both were built in New York in 1845.

Clipper "Rainbow"

Howland & Aspinwall imported high-status goods such as porcelain, silk, and tea from China. The import tariffs paid by Howland & Aspinwall made up a significant portion of federal revenues during the 1840s.

Clipper "Sea Witch"

The Howlands and the Aspinwalls donated lavishly to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and helped found the A.S.P.C.A.

Following the discovery of gold in California, Howland & Aspinwall focused primarily on the '49ers who were trying to reach California as fast as possible. Howland & Aspinwall turned their primary attention from wind-driven clippers to steam-driven paddleboats.  As part of a consortium of New York merchant shippers, Howland & Aspinwall formed the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. P.M.S. eventually became American President Lines, and then today's Neptune-Orient Lines.

South Street in Manhattan, circa 1845

Part of the Aspinwall family fortune was eventually bequeathed, through grandmother Mary Aspinwall Roosevelt, to Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Wall Street --- of pigs and patroons

Location:   Northernmost New Amsterdam
Year:   1653

In 1653, the Dutch patroons of the New Amsterdam colony decided to increase the safety of their settlement by building a defensive barrier across the northern boundary of the colony. It began as a picket fence, and was eventually developed into a twelve-foot wooden palisade. Ostensibly developed as a first line of defense against marauding Lenape Indians (who never marauded), the palisade faced greater danger from the settlers' livestock. The colonists' animals were allowed free range north of the barrier. While cattle and horses posed no problem, rooting hogs seeking out fresh roots and grass succeeded in unearthing the base of the posts that supported the barrier. 

The Director General of the colony, Peter Stuyvesant urged the government to take precautions against the pigs. He detailed with “great grief the damages, done to the walls of the fort by hogs, especially now again the spring when the grass comes out.”

The burghers appropriated additional funds to strengthen the fence, and hired a herdsman to keep the pigs from digging up the posts. They also built a service road that ran parallel to the barrier and allowed for easier, quicker repairs to the fence. With the usual pragmatism that marked Dutch activity in the New World they called the service road simply, "Wall Street."  

New Amsterdam. The wide north-south running street is Broadway. The street crossing the island from east to west is Wall Street. The hatches represent fortifications

The rut running alongside the picket fence is Wall Street, circa 1653.

Famous New Yorkers: Jose Marti

Location: New York, New York
Year:   1880

José Martí (born Jose Julian Marti Perez, 1853-1895) was born in Cuba, and in his short life became a major exponent of Cuba's independence from Spain. Writer, lawyer, philosopher, translator, and revolutionary, he admired Abraham Lincoln as The Great Emancipator, and became an agitator for Cuban independence while in his teens. He was arrested at age 16, and eventually was exiled by the Spanish to Spain where they determined they could keep him under surveillance more easily.

After being admitted to the Spanish Bar he traveled the world, becoming friends with the famed French author Victor Hugo. Forbidden to return to Cuba, he arrived in New York in 1880. For the next fifteen years he worked in the city as a journalist, traveling internationally for greater or shorter lengths of time.

From his office at 120 Front Street, Martí published the revolutionary newspaper Patria, and wrote insightful essays on Latin American politics, economy, and culture --- as well as essays on New York City life --- for Latin American newspapers and journals.  He helped found New York’s Spanish-American Literary Society in 1887 and profiled American writers like Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He wrote influential volumes of poetry such as Versos Sencillos. He founded the popular children’s magazine La Edad de Oro,which combined educational articles with fairy tales and verse.

Marti's wife did not share his dedication to Cuban independence, and in 1887, she was allowed to return to Cuba with Marti's children. He was never to see any of them again. Alone in New York, Marti took up with Carmen Miyares de Mantilla. They had a daughter, Maria, who was the mother of famed actor Cesar Romero.

Martí never pressed for U.S. involvement in Cuba’s affairs. He feared America’s imperial ambitions, writing, “Once the United States is in Cuba, who will get her out?" Instead, he argued that Latin America should develop independently, in accordance with its own particular conditions.

Marti was a supporter of peasantry and labor, and worked to secure rights for Mexican workers and Cuban exilados living and working in Ybor City, near Tampa, Florida. His positions made him unpopular with American business interests.

Throughout the early 1890s, Marti worked to foment a revolution in Cuba, writing the Manifesto de Montecristi, an "exposition of the purposes and principles of the Cuban revolution." His long-awaited revolution began in April 1895, and he illegally returned to Cuba to help lead it. The uprising had less popular support than he expected, and the revolutionaries were soon run to ground by the Spanish authorities. Martí was killed in battle against Spanish troops at the Battle of Dos Ríos, on May 19, 1895.Marti's death was both a blow and a rallying cry for the Cuban rebels, who kept up the fight, eventually aiding the United States when it invaded Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Ruleta Clusters

Location:   New York City
Year:   Twentieth Century

In a city renowned for its dense pedestrian and vehicular traffic, unusual traffic controls were quite common in 20th Century New York City. While three-cluster traffic lights (red, yellow, and green) were common, equally common were two-cluster traffic lights (red and green) known as Ruleta Clusters, named for the company that first originated them. Ruleta Clusters could be found in all five boroughs. Originally installed on less heavily trafficked streets, changing demographic patterns left Ruleta Clusters in some of New York's busiest neighborhoods. In the 1980s, Ruleta Clusters began to be replaced by standard modern LED traffic lights. Few now remain.

A two-sided Ruleta Cluster, Midtown Manhattan 1955

An unusual single-lamp Ruleta Beacon

A Ruleta Cluster in Midtown Manhattan 1977

A four-sided Ruleta Cluster in Brooklyn, 1980

One of the last remaining Ruleta Cluster lights, Forest Hills, Queens

Friday, June 20, 2014

Top Cat

Location:   Animated Manhattan
Year:   1961-1962

Top Cat was a prime time animated television show that aired for 30 episodes in the fall, winter and spring of 1961-62. A Hanna-Barbera Production, it aired on Wednesdays at 8:30 PM Eastern Time. 

The show concerned the shenanigans of a group of anthropomorphic cats living in Hoagy's Alley (based on the real-life classic comic strip "Hogan's Alley") somewhere in Midtown Manhattan. The gang was usually involved in some whacky get-rich-quick scheme. Most of them turned inside out and upside down leaving the gang just as penniless as before.

The cats included the clever boater and waistcoat-wearing Top Cat ("T.C."), who was the "indisputable leader of the gang" as the show's catchy theme song made clear.  Top Cat's character was based on that of Sgt. Bilko, Phil Silvers character from
The Phil Silvers Show.

Top Cat's right-hand-cat, Benny The Ball, was a short, rotund cat who wore a white jacket.  Rather innocent and easily confused, he, ironically, generally managed to be the most logical of the group. Benny The Ball was based on Doberman, a character from The Phil Silvers Show, and was voiced by Maurice Gosfield, who had played Doberman.

Choo-Choo, with his pronounced Brooklyn accent, wore a white turtleneck. A great poker player and an inventive schemer, he, nonetheless, was shy around girls.


The Brain was the slow-witted treasurer of the gang, which may be one reason they rarely had any money. Generally lost in a fog bank, The Brain nevertheless could manage to come up with an occasional brilliant idea, usually just in time to get everyone out of trouble.

Fancy-Fancy spoke like the actor Cary Grant and wore a dashing white silk scarf. A ladies' cat, and a cat of some refinement, he was usually able to charm his (and the group's) way out of sticky situations. 

 Spook had a bit of Greenwich Village in him, "like, eh, like dis, yeah, man," and resembled Fancy-Fancy but had Choo-Choo's penchant for games of chance.

The gang's nemesis was Officer Charlie Dibble, usually referred to (to his face) by T.C. as "Dibble, baby!" who habitually threatened to "run them in" as confidence cats, but Dibble frequently allied with them against outside troublemakers too.

The show drew from many elements --- especially The Phil Silvers Show, The Dead End Kids, The Honeymooners, and West Side Story, among others --- and there was a strong element of New York street smarts, beatnik culture, and 1950s jazz music in the program as well. 

Although it only ran one season, it is eminently memorable, and New York urban slang still retains the word "Dibble" for a police officer, rarely heard but still remembered.  

Hell's Kitchen

Location:   The West Side 
Year:   c. 1840

West Side Story is based on events in Hell's Kitchen

Davy Crockett was once quoted as saying, "In my part of the country, whenever you meet an Irishman, you find a first-rate gentleman; but the New York Irish are worse than savages; they are too mean to swab hell's kitchen." 

A map of Hell's Kitchen aka Midtown West aka Clinton

Bounded by Eighth Avenue to the east, the Hudson River to the west, 59th Street to the north, and 30th Street to the south is the infamous neighborhood that 21st century realtors refer a bit disingenuously to as "Midtown West." A taxi map will tell you that it is called "Clinton," after the eponymous DeWitt Clinton Park in its midst, but almost any New Yorker still refers to the neighborhood as Hell's Kitchen.

Early Hell's Kitchen tenements. Many of the New York Draft Rioters of 1863 lived in Hell's Kitchen

Hell's Kitchen got its name sometime after Davy Crockett made his famous if impolite remark, and about the same time that masses of impoverished Irish tenant farmer families fleeing the Potato Famine in the 1840s, over 100,000 of them, crammed into this West Side area 30 blocks long by four blocks wide. By the time of the American Civil War, Hell's Kitchen was known as an endemically  violent, impoverished shantytown. Penny bars, where ne'er-do-wells could knock back a glass of adulterated wood alcohol or barter pocket change for sex from streetwalkers barely worth the investment, were in virtually every basement. Houses of ill-fame, some catering to the outre and attracting upscale New Yorkers on the downlow, were the area's biggest tourist attractions. In the early years, the city's tanneries, lard-rendering plants, and open sewers --- all concentrated here --- lent a piquant taste to the air. 

Hell's Kitchen in the 1930s
Conditions in Hell's Kitchen were so rough that NYPD vehicles became known as "Paddy Wagons" because they mostly hauled "Paddies" --- Irishmen --- away to jail.

A horse-drawn Paddy Wagon of the 1890s

The later railroad yards and wharves along the Hudson cemented the rough-and-tumble dangerous quality of the neighborhood well into the 20th Century. 

In the late 19th Century and early 20th Century locomotives were moved from one part of the rail yard to another along tracks laid in the streets. Accidents --- generally involving maimings and deaths --- were common as the fast-moving trains generally did not stop for other vehicles or pedestrians. It is estimated that a person was killed by a train once every three days in Hell's Kitchen. As a result. the train engineers were usually pelted with rocks, broken bottles, and horse or dog manure as they went by.  
Although Hell's Kitchen has traditionally been known as an Irish neighborhood, it has also been home to several other ethnic groups over the years, including the Scots, Germans, African- Americans, Greeks, Eastern Europeans, Puerto Ricans, and others. Violence between the neighboring groups, represented by youth gangs such as the Gophers in the early 20th Century and the Westies in the late 20th Century, has predominated there. The area around the Port Authority Building with its arriving out-of-town buses was a magnet for grifters, con-men, pickpockets, and muggers who often worked in broad daylight. Gang-related violence in Hell's Kitchen is memorialized in the 1957 stage play and 1961 film West Side Story. The Irish mobster Mickey Spillane (not the author) was killed in 1977 for his refusal to allow the Mafia to wet their beaks from the rackets in Hell's Kitchen. 

Spillane's Bar and Grill pays appropriate homage to the hard-drinking Boss of Hell's Kitchen

Post-West Side Story, and especially after the decline of the frighteningly violent Westies in the late 1980s, Hell's Kitchen began to gentrify.  At first, the area was notable for its affordable housing. Currently the neighborhood is home to a diverse and rich restaurant and cultural scene along Ninth Avenue. Comedy Central's Daily Show studios, the CBS Broadcast Center, and the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum all lend a touristy feel to the area today. Walking tours are available to those who want to explore the neighborhood's historic dark side in company, comfort, and in safety.    

Hell's Kitchen today

The old West Side Story-type tenements have become upscale condos conveniently located to Midtown

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Rockaways

Location:   Queens
Year:   1639

The Rockaway Peninsula (known locally as just "The Rockaways," a collective name for the small communities that thrive there) is a long, narrow, low-lying peninsula that forms the extreme south shore of Long Island. It forms the lower jaw of Walt Whitman's "fish-shaped Paumanok." The peninsula separates Jamaica Bay to the north from the Atlantic Ocean to the south. 

Topographically, the peninsula is an extension of Long Island's south shore barrier beaches. Tidal action has connected the Rockaways to the main body of Long Island at its eastern end. The "neck" of the Rockaways is the area known as The Five Towns.  At its western end, the peninsula is separated from Brooklyn's Coney Island by the Rockaway Inlet (the western end of which is also known as Coney Island Channel). The rest of the peninsula is separated from the islands in Jamaica Bay by Beach Channel. 

Breezy Point Shopping Center

Historically, the Rockaways belonged to the Lenape Indians (some older sources say "the Rockaway Indians," though this was a tribal community, not a tribe), who called the area "Rockawocky," meaning "The place of sand." The inhabitants fished and clammed for self-support, and traded with the Canarsies across the channel. In 1639, the area was sold to the Dutch (and in 1665, sold again, to the British).  The Rockaways have always been part of Queens County, and were originally part of the Town of Hempstead. The peninsula is the only area of New York City (excepting islands) that is non-contiguous. When Greater New York City was formed in 1898, eastern Queens voted not to join the city, and seceded to form Nassau County. The borders of the new county did not allow for a land connection between western Queens and the Rockaways.

Given the Rockaways relative isolation from the rest of New Amsterdam/New York, the area was barely settled. The only access to the Rockaways from Manhattan or Brooklyn was by boat; the land journey meant a visitor had to travel around Jamaica Bay and through the fens that existed in modern-day Cedarhurst. The area became an outlier, populated by an odd assortment of folk who, for one reason or another, sought seclusion. 

Apartment houses in Far Rockaway

The Rockaways remained an outlier until the 1830s. As New York and Brooklyn grew, the eyes of the well-to-do lighted upon the Rockaways as a nearby, yet private, area for escape from the hustle-and-bustle of the cities around the harbor. Resort hotels began to be built. The immense amusement park Rockaway Playland opened in 1901 and closed in 1985, unable to compete with the Six Flags organization.  With the hotels and Rockaway Playland came housing for service personnel. The first formal communities grew up in the Rockaways. Growth was further spurred by the coming of the Long Island Rail Road, institution of regular ferry service in the early 1900s (which still continues), and the construction of the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge in 1937 and  the Cross Bay Bridge in 1939, all of which made the Rockaways far more accessible. 

Aside from the large hotels, small beach bungalows became a signature of the Rockaways. Some still stand, though urban renewal efforts have replaced most of them. Two sections of the peninsula --- Breezy Point Tip (at the extreme western end) and Jacob Riis Park (a popular public beach in the center) are now part of Gateway National Recreation Area. With the advent of cheaper airfares, the Rockaways lost their allure as a resort area and became residential.

Neponsit, with the Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge in the background

The communities --- neighborhoods --- of the Rockaways are diverse. Breezy Point, on the western end, is predominantly Irish-American, as is nearby Rockaway Beach, also known as "The Irish Riviera."  

Bayswater, a working class area, is shared by African-Americans and Orthodox Jews. Belle Harbor is affluent and almost exclusively white. Most of its Irish-American and Italian-American residents are civic employees of the NYPD and the FDNY. 

The great fire at Breezy Point, 2012

Neponsit is, and always has been, an expensive beach community of upscale and sturdy homes. It was the site of the origin of the first transatlantic flight in 1919 (with stops). For lack of a proper runway or airport, the pilot used Beach Channel Drive to lift off. 

Arverne, on the other hand, originally a resort community, has always struggled to maintain itself, and underwent extensive urban renewal just prior to Hurricane Sandy.
The Rockaways immediately after Superstorm Sandy

Weather and the sea have always impacted life in the Rockaways, going back to the days of the Lenape. In 1893, Hog Island, one of the numerous barrier islands adjacent to the peninsula, was completely drowned in a storm. The hotels and homes in the Rockaways were built to withstand the constant surrounding marine and weather conditions. In October 2012, much of this building came to naught as Hurricane Sandy (sometimes called Superstorm Sandy) swept over the Rockaways, submerging many areas, flooding others, and causing a raging, uncheckable fire in Breezy Point that destroyed 111 homes and damaged 20 more. Renewal efforts have begun, but the pace has been disturbingly slow, hampered by the stagnant national economy. 


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Mohawk River

Location:   Central New York
Year:   1.1 billion years ago

The Mohawk River is the main tributary of the Hudson River. Rising in north central New York, the Mohawk flows straight east to its confluence with the Hudson right near Albany. This makes the 149 mile long river a critical part of the State's infrastructure. 

The river is over one billion years old, but until 12,000 years ago it was a small stream. When the Laurentian Glacier retreated at the end of the last Ice Age, its major outflow was through the Mohawk Valley, turning the watercourse from a creek to a large river.  

It gets its name from the Mohawk tribe, and demarcated the southern boundary of their homeland. The river and its valley separate the Catskill Mountains from the Adirondack Mountains. 

From the earliest times, the Mohawk River was a major river road, allowing people to cross the Appalachian Mountains with ease. As the only such river road in the northeast, the Mohawk was central to New York's early development and to general westward expansion.  Many future Buckeyes and Hoosiers used the river to pass through the mountains in order to settle Ohio and Indiana.

With the completion of the Erie Canal in 1823, the Mohawk River became the main artery for Midwestern products to travel from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. Suddenly, farmers in distant Minnesota could sell their crops to European buyers. New York City boomed as the great seaport at the end of this vast internal waterway --- largely because the Mohawk River is where it is.

Many of New York's "Rust Belt" towns --- Schenectady, Utica, and Rome among them --- grew up along the river, and the New York State Thruway parallels the river for much of its length.

It remains important today, as the main natural stretch of the New York State Barge Canal System, the successor to the Erie Canal.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Lake Ronkonkoma

Location:   Long Island
Year:   1740s

Lake Ronkonkoma is the largest lake on Long Island. A so-called "kettle lake" scoured out by glacial action, Lake Ronkonkoma is nearly round and measures a half mile across. 

"Ronkonkoma" means "the fishing place on the boundary" in Algonkian, and the lake was shared by local Native American tribes, who had villages around the lake's circumference. In the 1740s, Richard Smith, the founder of Smithtown, took title to the lake, but it was notable mostly as a local fishing hole for most of its history. 

In the 1890s, the lake (and the adjacent village also known as Lake Ronkonkoma) became a popular summer retreat and spa. Several upscale hotels were built to service the New York City elite who flocked to the area. Bass fishing also became a popular pastime. 

As the area shifted from exurban to suburban the town lost its spa quality. Nowadays, Lake Ronkonkoma is a typical Long Island bedroom community. 

Several urban legends exist about the lake being bottomless (its maximum depth is 95 feet), about the lake supporting a school of pirhana (reports that keepers of odd game fish may release them into the lake have not been verified), about pirates having used the lake for nefarious purposes (the lake has no surface outlets),  and about a Native American spirit, The Lady of The Lake, that haunts the area, drowning unsuspecting swimmers.