Archive | April, 2012

The Tombs

23 Apr

It’s unfortunate we don’t have any catacombs in New York City – those secret, labyrinthine grave sites for the dead.  I can’t think of many things that strike closer towards that secret wellspring of mysticism that I believe all humans share.  Maybe the caves at Lascaux; I’m not sure, I’ve never seen them.  Any underground burials or tunnels you might find here in the NYC are more likely to be of the industrial variety, like the IRT’s old City Hall subway station, which I’m pretty sure is where the Ghostbusters discovered that giant river of slime.  Pretty awesome, although not in the same league as catacombs.  What we do have is The Tombs, a name that whiffs of some type of mysterious adventure, or at least the older New York of Williams Burroughs or Jim Carroll.  Alas, in truth I don’t think it’s a place that anyone would choose to visit.  Its official title is the Manhattan Detention Complex, and it’s the fourth and most recent building in this area to have been called The Tombs as a nickname.  This newest addition of the jail doesn’t look like a tomb at all, but the sobriquet seems too appropriate for a place of incarceration, and so it sticks.  The two versions of the Complex that came before it didn’t look like tombs either.  It was the original building that inspired that name, and passed it on from there to all the others.

The New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention, as it was officially called, was built in 1838 and took up the entire block bounded by Franklin, Centre, Leonard, and what was Elm Street (now Lafayette).  It was built directly on top of the site of the old Collect Pond, a freshwater, spring-fed pond that sometimes overflowed through the Lispenard Marshes west to the Hudson River.   The Collect (a bastardization of the Dutch word for pond) was as deep as 60 feet at some points and was a popular ice-skating spot in the winter; a small island in its center was used as a gallows from time to time as well, just to add to the festive atmosphere.  By the turn of the 19th century though it had become polluted by industry and was considered an eyesore and a health hazard.  It was slowly drained, filled in with land taken from the leveling of a nearby hill, and by 1813 the pond had all but disappeared.  Its removal upset the natural drainage of the area though, making the ground around it a sinking and uneven bog.  A giant ditch was erected in response, cut down the middle of Canal Street, from whence it got its name.  The ditch was supposed to help relieve rain water and carry it to the Hudson, but it ran so slowly that it soon become a disgusting sewer in its own right.  The marshy land and offensive odors brought down property values in the area, and soon most of the surrounding neighborhoods were slums.  All and all, the perfect sort of place to build a jail.

Its design was based upon an ancient Egyptian mausoleum, foreboding imagery for those about to be convicted.  It basically looked like a giant tomb, hence the nickname.  When construction first started wide platforms of hemlock logs were laid into the soft earth, to help shore up the foundation.  It didn’t work; five months before the jail opened it started sinking into the ground.  The movement warped the cells and caused cracks in the walls through which water would often trickle.  It created a damp, unpleasant environment that seemed perfectly fitting for the moniker the place already bore.  The large rectangular complex was laid out around a courtyard, in the middle of which was the free standing men’s prison.  The main building around it housed the women’s prison, boy’s prison, and the courts, as well as “Bummer’s Hall,” for all the bums.  Every person arrested in Manhattan passed through the Tombs on their way to trial, about 50,000 of them a year.  Most, if convicted, would move on to whichever prison they were serving time in.  But those sentenced to death stayed here, albeit for a short time.  The “Bridge of Sighs,” less famous than its Venetian counterpart and namesake, was the path the condemned took between the main building and the men’s prison, on their way to the gallows.  Around 50 convicted murderers were hung here throughout the years.  Once the electric chair was invented in 1890 executions stopped taking place in the city and moved upstate to Sing Sing and Auburn.

It was difficult to prove someone guilty of murder in the days before forensic science.  There were only 13 homicide convictions in the city between 1838-1851, about one a year.  All the more reason for alarm when 13 convictions were registered in the three years following, from 1852-54.  The city was growing, and guns were coming more and more into play.  One of the most famous cases of the era was that of the Daybreak Boys, a gang of river-pirates operating out of Slaughter House Point, near where the Brooklyn Bridge stands today.  Two of its young members were tried and convicted for the shooting death of a ship’s night watchman.  They were hung in the Tombs in 1853, surrounded by a large crowd of Bowyerites who looked on them as heroes.  The Tombs was also the home (though not the final resting place) of the world’s first con man, William Thompson.  Dressing as a gentleman, in a city growing crowded by strangers more and more each day, he would approach his mark as if they were an old acquaintance, striking up a conversation before eventually asking, “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow?”  They often did.  But the city wasn’t big enough for him to hide from his victims forever.  After his arrest in 1849 he was described in the papers as a “confidence man” and the name stuck around forever after.

By the 1880s the Tombs was completely overcrowded, and growing obsolete.  Originally built to hold 200 people at a time it was maxed out at around double that amount.   In 1902 a new, chateau-like building was completed and the Tombs were torn down.  Or were they?  The new building, the Manhattan House of Detention, immediately picked up the old nickname.  Same purpose, same feeling, different building.  When that one was replaced in 1941, with another building on White Street, again the Tombs moniker stuck, and yet again, when the building that we see today went up in 1974.  The site of the original Tombs is a parking lot now, and a tiny concrete patch with benches called Collect Pond Park.  It looks the opposite of its past, barren and sterile, what you might call urban-arid, as opposed to crowded, damp and noisy.  It’s unappealing, just like it must have been back then, only in a completely different fashion.  The Tombs were considered a mausoleum for the living, made up of a whole mess of humanity.  This space now is nothing but a graveyard of history.  I mean a place where history just dies.  I won’t call it a catacomb, although it’s secret and disguised, as if its past was not intended to be found.  There’s nothing moving here.  And where did all those spirits go?  Did they sink back into the ground, beneath the asphalt and the hemlock logs?  Can something ever truly disappear from off the earth?  What else is it that we’re standing on?  Except for that one split second, over and over again, everything that ever happens is the past.  And deep beneath it all the spring that fed the Collect Pond keeps running.

(Originally posted May 1st, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

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19th Avenue & 41st Street

19 Apr

I’ve always thought that the great thing about The Great Gatsby is how much of the story takes place on Long Island, just outside of New York City. It seems like such an unexciting locale for a book regarded as one of the best of the 20th century — all that time spent driving through Queens. Of course that was the whole point; these people were rich and they could have anything they wished for. Their surroundings weren’t the important thing. They created their own surroundings as they went, wherever they wanted to, with no regard to what came before or to what might come after. Someone else says Long Island’s fashionable, and so Long Island is where you go.  Money follows money. Everybody follows money. Hell, that’s still what I get paid with, how bout you? So really, everybody follows everybody else. Someone throw me a dollar.

That’s especially the story of Queen’s development, which has always been more a collection of independent towns and villages than a comprehensive city. Each village had its own start, its nucleus, its separate grid system laid out, its growth of population and of infrastructure, before finally expanding outward at its borders till it touched upon the next town over. Just looking at a map makes it apparent. It’s all a patchwork, each town voting independently in 1898 for consolidation into the city of New York, at which point they became neighborhoods. Long Island City was one of the exceptions – having incorporated itself as a city already in 1870 from the merger of several smaller villages and hamlets, including Astoria to the north. But the idea of actually becoming a city, along the lines of New York or Brooklyn, never took off – the neighborhoods remained too separated, unable to find a common center.  L.I.C. decided to join New York the same year as all the rest of Queens.  Still, its neighborhoods are official referred to as Long Island City to this day.

But they have their own distinct realities. Astoria was founded in 1839 by Stephen Halsey, in a spot along the East River south of Hallet’s Cove. After a contentious debate it was named Astoria in honor of John Jacob Astor, the richest man in America at the time. Halsey was a friend of Astor’s and he hoped that having a village named after him might persuade John to invest some money in the property. Apparently he didn’t invest much, about $500 (he was worth about $20 million). And he never set foot in the neighborhood, although his summer home across the river, around present day 87th Street in Manhattan, afforded him some pretty nice views. Steinway Village (now called Ditmars Steinway), north of Astoria, although more or less considered a part of it today, was founded in 1880 as a company town for the newly built Steinway Piano Factory.  The Steinway family developed the village with their own private finances, laying out a street plan, building houses, a post office, parks, and a streetcar line.  William Steinway bought an existing house in the neighborhood, on what was a beautiful riverfront property.   The Italianate stone villa had originally been built for William Pike, a manufacturer of scientific instruments, in 1850.  Steinway used it as his summer home, spending his winters in the more fashionable Gramercy Park.

Gramercy Park is still pretty fashionable; 41st Street in Queens, not so much.  The house now stands on the very edge of an absolutely gigantic Con Edison power plant.  It sits on a hill, hidden by trees, rising above the warehouses and chain link fences that surround it.  The whole set up put me in mind of that old children’s book, The Little House. Remember that one, how the house stands in a field in the country until the city slowly creeps closer and closer to engulf it?  By the end the house is sandwiched between two skyscrapers, with an elevated train line running in front of it.  I always loved that image.  I liked seeing the little house get swallowed up, becoming a living remnant of the past.  And when we visited the Steinway house the other day it did feel like going back a ways, or at least like taking a visit to the country.  I’m talking just a lazy, quiet vibe out here.  There was a tiny camper parked on the property next door, and a bunch of junked cars.  And then best of all there was a chicken.  He came right up as if to say hello to us.  He was a tiny fella, and he even crowed a few times too.  He doesn’t know he lives in Queens.  He doesn’t know what the hell is going on.  He’s a chicken.  He’s the house chicken of an 1850s mansion in Steinway that’s in the middle of a power plant.  You know what I’m saying?  I’m saying the chicken is a metaphor!  Or else, uh, no, just wait, just wait a minute here.  Or else, you know what?  He’s not a metaphor — he’s a chicken.  The dude is just a little chicken.  Little chicken.  Hey, there’s a dog!

(Originally posted May 1st, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

New Orleans

17 Apr

Bob Dylan gets New Orleans.

And sweet holy Jesus, I think I get it too.

I’ve been here a lot throughout the years. I have a good buddy who lives here, and every time I’ve come down I’m rolling deep with a hefty number of friends, and this time is no exception. That seems important mostly in that the more friends you have with you the more of them that you can lose, running here and there from one place to another. Then you find them again and no one cares, everyone is happy and it’s time to start all over. That sort of expresses the emotion. I’ve generally tried to live my life like the harmonica solo in “Bob Dylan’s Blues,” which is really the most festive little ditty I’ve ever moved my feet to. This whole city feels like that. Good God, it’s heaven. Oh, also it is a stinking, humid hell-hole.

Do you remember that island in Pinocchio where all the kids go and everything bad is allowed to happen? Drinking and smoking and playing pool and music burbling out of every open doorway and flashing lights and heat and smoke and drinking?  And then they all turn into asses? You see where I’m going with this? You know why we have those archetypal images of debauchery and chaos? Because we’re human, and we created them. But we created them because they are inside us—they’re part of our fully formed and nebulous inheritance. It’s like Drinky speaking of the Greek gods—are we insane cause they were or are they insane cause we were? I think I know the answer. There’s no imagining that isn’t born out of the earth. Or else I mean, that there are many different forms of expression that we have access to inside us, and that it’s nice to touch upon some of them from time to time. Or maybe I just mean, go on bender. Act like the Greek gods for a while. Do you know why Drinky even thinks about those kinds of things? Because he’s drunk! He’s crazy! Hey Drinky, move down to New Orleans.

Here’s the thing: New Orleans isn’t like America. It’s a town at the bottom of a giant river, built inside a swamp. When it gets too sticky you don’t wanna do anything. And it’s old. It’s old enough to have built a solid culture before air conditioning. Its houses all have giant porches, its windows stretch from ceiling to floor. Its streets are lined with giant trees that twist and turn and cover everything, their roots cracking through the sidewalk. You know about ten seconds after arrival that you’re “somewhere else.” It’s a hodge podge of life. New Orleans was founded by the French in 1718, given over to the Spanish in 1763, returned back to the French in 1801 and then sold off to America. It had a large Creole population before ever belonging to the United States—a mix of Spanish, French, African and Native-American. That culture, distinctly different than the Anglo-Saxon one of the U.S., has marked it to this day. It’s part of the South for certain, and also unique from it. It has a large and storied Jewish population and a lot of the same European ethnic groups that moved to Brooklyn—Irish, German and Italian. In fact their dialect sounds very close to “Brooklynese,” like pronouncing girl as goil. Wait, wait, now where was Popeye supposed to be from? It sounds like that, like him. And hey, the Popeye’s chain started down here at least.

But New Orleans isn’t a chain or franchise kind of town. It is a giant mess, that’s what it is. At some point each night it leaves me thinking, my god this is a sad world. And at some point each day it has me feeling this world’s overwhelming happiness. But anyway, that’s pretty much the story of reality—that measured up and down. So let’s just please forget the bad things for a minute; there are a lot of them. I love this place. When I first came here I was younger and it learned me something then. There is a joy in that spontaneous arrival of yourself at each new moment. The simplest of things, the interaction. You can celebrate it like an act because it is one; it’s a creation. So what are you creating? What are they creating down here? They’re not creating anything! They’re putting on a dance. And they’re so good at it. Take that away with you and build something. Make it beautiful; that would be nice. Let’s do it cause we’re here, no other reason. Because we love so many people. We don’t want ownership of anything. We’ll keep meeting at all these different moments, over and over again. This life feels so damn long. We’ll lose each other; we’ll come back. Where are my friends? Where are my friends? I’ll find them.

(Originally posted Apr. 24th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

17th Street & Irving Place

4 Apr

I don’t think the Dutch, as a people, stand out too strongly in the American psyche. Speaking in terms of the ethnicities and nationalities that have historically shaped our culture, the Dutch just don’t seem like primary players. They weren’t exactly emigrating over here in the same number as some of their neighbors. They were here before the British though, in the particular here of New York City at least. And they did lay down some roots. It’s interesting to note that before Mr. Obama came along, the only U.S. president to not have a British or Irish last name was Martin Van Buren, who though American born, spoke Dutch as his first language. In a certain sense, you can picture the Hudson River Valley, Mr. Van Buren’s home, along the same lines as the American Southwest, with a non-English, invading European culture having already established itself before the English came along.

It was those Dutch of the Hudson River Valley who played a role in the first American literature to gain any acclaim overseas, “Rip van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” They were both stories by Washington Irving and they’re both probably the earliest American fiction people still read today, beating out James Fenimore Cooper’s works by a couple of years. Both pieces were included in the serialized collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., published between 1819-20, in which Irving created the fictional narrator of the same name. It was a role he would intertwine with his own personality throughout the rest of his life. One of Geoffrey Crayon’s key sources for information was the also fictionalized historian, Diedrich Knickerbocker, a name that would become synonymous with New Yorkers in general. It was also Irving who coined the nickname Gotham, in an earlier literary magazine he ran with his brother and brother-in-law. Diedrich Knickerbocker, and through him Geoffrey Crayon, drew upon the stories and histories of his Dutch ancestors, often with unintentional (or was it intentional?) fallacies.

Washington Irving was sufficiently famous enough by the 1830s to have a street named after him. When Samuel Ruggles, at his own expense, filled in a massive 40 foot deep gully that ran down to the East River to create Gramercy Park, he appealed to the state legislature to create a new north-south access road, thinking it would help to draw tenants. The legislature agreed; above the park it was named Lexington Avenue, after the Revolutionary War battle, below the park it was called Irving  Place. On Irving  Place and 17th Street, amongst some of the oldest buildings in the neighborhood, stands a home that claims to have been the one time residence of Mr. Irving. It isn’t true. The house was finished in 1843, a year after Irving had been sent to Spain as the American diplomatic minister. When he returned to the States in 1846 he settled permanently in Tarrytown, New York, the setting of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” He died in 1859 and was buried, appropriately enough, in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

But it seems fitting that there would be some falsity surrounding his residence, on the street that bears his name. So much of his writing involved intentional half-truths and assumed personas. And for a person considered the “first American writer” he spent a large portion of his life living abroad. Even in the book that first made him famous, most of the stories are set in England. And it was in England and France that he was feted as a success. That’s how it went back then, amongst the classes that had the time to write, it was as important to remain a gentleman as it was to see your copies sell. So how did one remain a gentleman? I’m not sure. It seems like mainly you hung out a lot. That’s why we have all those books about rich people lounging around, meeting each other on the Riviera and all that. And how did you get books to sell? I guess you wrote about headless horsemen, and guys falling asleep in the Catskills for 20 years. Just make up stories or whatever, borrowing from Dutch and German fairy tales at ease. Write what you know, and what you don’t know, make up some guy who claims he does and then pretend you’re someone else who’s stealing from his papers. Yeah, yeah that sounds pretty good. Name your alter ego after a crayon. Make sure it’s Crayon, Gent. because you gotta let them know that you’re a gentleman.

(Originally posted Apr. 17th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)