Monday, August 25, 2014


Location:   Newburgh, New York 
Year:   1949 

Motorcyclepedia is a comprehensive museum of the motorcycle. Started as a private collection by father and son Jerry and Ted Doering, Motorcyclepedia now showcases motorcycles of all makes and nationalities, from the most out-of-the-box Hondas to early steam-powered bikes, to German World War II half-tracks.

The earliest motorcycle in the collection dates to 1867. Many of the displays are one-of-a-kind designs. Motorcyclepedia's collection of Indian-brand motorcycles is the most complete in the world.

The museum houses custom Harleys, movie props like Peter Fonda's bike from Easy Rider, and a police motorcycle that served in JFK's motorcade the day he was assassinated.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Hall of Fame of Great Americans

Location:   Bronx Community College
Year:   1900
The Hall of Fame of Great Americans is the country’s original Hall of Fame. It was founded by New York University when NYU opened a Bronx campus (now Bronx Community College). 

Its main architectural feature, a 630-foot-high, open-air colonnade designed by the noted architect Stanford Law White,  gives visitors a panoramic view of the Cloisters across the Harlem River. 

The colonnade is home to 98 bronze busts, including those of Alexander Graham Bell, Eli Whitney, George Westinghouse, and President Franklin Roosevelt.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Cooper Union Dome

Location:   Lower Manhattan
Year:   1859

Peter Cooper established Cooper Union in 1859. Famed for many reasons, Cooper Union was the site of Abraham Lincoln's greatest early speech, the 1860 speech that ultimately propelled him into the White House. 

When Peter Cooper built Cooper Union Hall he included an elevator shaft --- even though the elevator had not yet reached its final, usable design. When Elisha Otis finally perfected the elevator, it took the shape of a rectangle, not the egg-shaped container that Cooper had anticipated. The original elevator dome however still graces the roof of Cooper Union Hall.     

The Pooh of New York

Location:   The New York Public Library
Year:   1921

In 1987, the publisher E.P. Dutton granted an odd bequest to the Children's Room of the central branch of the New York Public Library --- Winnie-the-Pooh.  The original Pooh is a stuffed bear purchased by A.A. Milne in 1921 at Harrod's in London as a gift for his son Christopher Robin. Milne later added other stuffed toys to his son's collection, including a tiger, a donkey, and a pig. As Christopher Robin grew a little older, Milne began making up bedtime stories for the boy in which his stuffed animals played the heroes. When Milne decided to write them down a beloved series of children's books was born. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Of Bears and Bulls . . . and Pigs

Location:   Manhattan
Year:   1860

The New York City Sanitation Department was established in 1860. Prior to that time, the city had no real trash collection system. Instead, herds of roaming pigs were allowed to do the job. Garbage was simply dumped out in roadways and alleys, and the pigs ate of it what they could, including the ubiquitous horse droppings that were everywhere.  Wall Street was particularly overpopulated with refuse-eating swine.

Using pigs was far from perfect. In the rain the streets became pits of disease-ridden goo, the pigs became rabid and feral (and in poorer areas sometimes ate small children), rats "big enough to wear saddles" competed with the pigs, and the muck all found its way into the city's water supply, causing typhoid and a dozen other infectious diseases even among the city's upper classes. 

Given New York's population explosion of the 1840s (Irish and German immigrants arrived by the million), the decision to employ humans as trash collectors came late to City Hall. But since 1860, the Sanitation Department has traveled every highway and byway of New York City in safe neighborhoods and bad, in all kinds of weather on a daily basis, keeping the city (relatively) clean.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The City of The Dead

Location:   Hart Island
Year:   1869

Marking the invisible boundary between the East River and Long Island Sound, Hart Island (the easternmost of the Pelham Islands group) lies just northeast of City Island, one of the major centers of recreational sailboating in the Northeastern United States. Known to the irascible sailors of City Island as "F*****g Island" due to the fact that it acts as a wind block in the channel, Hart Island is small (131 acres) and currently uninhabited, though in the past it functioned as the site of a psychiatric asylum, a tuberculosis quarantine, and a Civil War POW camp.  The ruins of each still dot the island.

City Island (left) and Hart Island (right). The Bronx is at the top. Due North --->

Since 1869, the City of New York has used Hart Island as its potter’s field, a burial ground for the indigent and unidentifiable. It is also the place that the deceased find their rest when emotionally distressed family members blindly check the "city burial" box on hospital forms. The potter’s field now takes up roughly 101 acres and is the largest tax-supported graveyard in the world.

More than one million people have been buried on Hart Island, and approximately 2,000 burials occur each year, including dismembered body parts. With one exception ---“special child baby 1 1985” (the first child to die of AIDS in New York City) --- the bodies are buried in mass graves. Hart Island is in fact the most densely populated unpopulated area in the City.

Children are buried in trench graves holding as many as 1,000 bodies each. One third of Hart Island's burials are young children. 

One of the memorial markers on Hart Island

Adults, who are sometimes later claimed, are buried in mass graves holding 50 corpses each. Incomplete records are kept of the burials on Hart Island, maintained, oddly enough, by New York City's Department of Corrections. The Department of Corrections also oversees burials, using convicts interned on Riker's Island for gravedigging and the actual labor of burial. The prisoners are paid fifty cents an hour for the work. The burials are conducted without services, a practice discontinued in the 1950s.  At least 85,000 of the dead are John and Jane Does "known only to God." There is not even an official map of the cemetery.

Hart Island is, by all accounts, a dreary place. Covered with scrub grass that is dull green in the warmer months and rust brown in the colder months, most of the island is a flat expanse. Except for a few scattered generic monuments provided by charitable organizations there are no grave markers --- individual or collective --- on the island. Plain white posts indicate used ground. The only individual memorial is a plaque near the dock paid for by the staff in honor of a colleague, a backhoe operator, who worked on the island for decades and elected to be interred in one of the island's anonymous mass graves. 

The only buildings of any size are the 19th Century ruins. A small Administration Building and garages for the cemetery's vehicles cluster around the access dock, and a small decrepit gazebo stands nearby, where rare visitors, usually family members of the deceased, may leave flowers or other memorabilia. No one is allowed into the cemetery itself except for staffers and the laboring convicts.   

What We Found at Hart Island, The Largest Mass Grave Site In the U.S.
A typical interment on Hart Island

Visitors are discouraged. There is some interest in making Hart Island more accessible, but in a city of eight million living, the concerns of the dead rank very low.

Unsurprisingly, Hart Island is said to be haunted by the spirits of the unquiet dead. Sailors claim that the moan of the wind passing between City Island and Hart Island is made up of the cries of lost souls.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Giving Vent . . .

Location:   Midtown Manhattan
Year:   1929

Thrilled by the success of the giant helium balloons that were the centerpiece of the 1928 Thanksgiving Day Parade (aka The Christmas Day Parade until the 1930s) Macy*s decided to add more balloons to the parade in 1929. 

All the 1929 balloons were new, since none of the 1928 balloons had survived last year's parade. At parade's end, the balloons had been dramatically released into the sky. Unfortunately, balloon designer Tony Sarg had forgotten that helium expands as atmospheric pressure lowers at higher altitudes, and the original balloons had exploded, startlingly, over Midtown. 

A charmless Captain Nemo on hooved feet floats down the Avenue in 1929. In the early years of the Parade the balloons all had a strange, surrealistic appearance.

For 1929, Sarg designed the balloons with a high altitude pressure valve. This allowed the helium to vent, and the balloons were anticipated to return safely to earth. Each balloon was printed with instructions asking the finder to return the balloon to Macy*s postage paid by the store, and offered a small honorarium for doing so. As the Great Depression had just begun, the honorarium, however small, was thought to be an incentive to return the balloons.

Unfortunately, this plan did not work out so well. A number of the balloons came down as planned, but were snagged in trees, on rooftops, or on chimneytops, and were torn, or were shredded by the wind, or were damaged during recovery by their well-meaning finders. Other balloons simply vanished: A few probably floated out over the Atlantic and fell into the sea; and undoubtedly, one or two became the found property of souvenir hunters. Not one usable balloon was returned to Macy*s. 

Having lost the giant balloons two years in a row, Macy*s decided in the future to forego the dramatic and popular balloon release ceremony, and focused its attention on making the arrival of Santa Claus the ultimate point of the Parade.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"Cut . . . and print!"

Location:  The Five Boroughs
Year:   Annually

There are over 40,000 location shoots per year on the streets of New York City,  including commercials, feature films, television shows, music videos and documentaries.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"The Hole"

Location:   Ozone Park, Queens
Year:  Whenever!

"The Hole" is a run-down area in Ozone Park, in the Borough of Queens. Low-lying, and lacking sewers, The Hole routinely floods after any heavy rain. Flooding is so common in this area of New York City that the residents own boats to move around locally. 

The Hole was also notorious for years (and still is) as a dumping ground for bodies. John Gotti, "The Teflon Don" of the Gambino Crime Family preferred The Hole as the Family's potter's field for whacked mobsters.

On March 18, 1980, Gotti's youngest son Frank, aged 12, was killed when he rode his motorbike into the path of an oncoming car. The unlucky driver, John Favara (who was not part of the rackets) soon after disappeared. When investigators searched The Hole for his remains they found the corpses of dozens of missing men. Favara's death ultimately caused Gotti's downfall, since other mobsters decided that Gotti, having killed a "civilian," was too bloodthirsty to remain in power, and he was ratted out by his own men. Gotti died in prison in 2002.

When the area floods, corpses are still occasionally washed from their shallow graves. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

City of Immigrants

Location:   New York City
Year:   2014

There are 800 languages spoken daily in New York City, making it the most linguistically diverse city on earth.  New York City has the largest Chinese population of any city outside of Asia. New York also has the largest Puerto Rican population of any city in the world.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

"The Howard Stern Bill"

Location:   New York State
Year:   1994

Howard Stern ran for Governor of New York in 1994 promising to limit road work to night hours. He eventually withdrew, but later that year, "The Howard Stern Bill" was signed into law which limited road construction in New York City and Long Island to night hours. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Westminster Kennel Club

Location:   Manhattan
Year:   Early 1876

The Westminster Kennel Club, America's premier forum for Show Dogs, is founded by a group of sporting young swells gathered together and talking about their favorite dogs over drinks. They name their group "Westminster" after their favorite New York hotel;  but the first organized dog show of the WKC is held in Philadelphia in July as part of the nation's Centennial celebration. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Having a blast at the Macy*s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Location:   Herald Square
Year:   1927

In 1927, as part of its third annual Thanksgiving Day Parade (oddly enough called the "Christmas Day Parade" in its early years), Macy*s asked the creator of Macy*s Christmas windows, Tony Sarg, to design giant balloons to capture the crowd's fancy.  Filled with helium, Sarg's first designs --- Felix The Cat, a dragon, an elephant, and a toy soldier --- were a huge success, and the balloons became the signature pieces of  the parade. The initial parades also featured live circus animals.

Sarg's original balloons were released into the sky at the parade's end, and startled everyone when they exploded over Manhattan. Sarg and his assistants had forgotten that helium expands at high altitudes.