Archive | July, 2014

Broadway & Ann Street

22 Jul

In turning 100 the other day (I’m feeling great, thanks for asking) I was looking back at my very first Corner by Corner post.  And that made me think how it would be fun to slowly look back at all of them and see what tangents were left unexplored.  I mean, that would be fun right?  And it would fit my general theme of making lists of tangents that I can’t ever hope to systematically explore.  So let’s do it.  Here’s my second post ever – written in the days of the great Take the Handle craze of 2008 (heady times my friends, heady times).  I think I remember who I was back then; I remember who I wanted to be at least.  But did I become that person?  Well who cares!  Let’s talk about P.T. Barnum instead. He’s quite a tangent.

I mentioned him all those years ago because he brought the opera singer Jenny Lind – “The Swedish Nightingale” – to the U.S. for her first American tour, which started at Castle Clinton on the Battery.  And we all know him of course as a circus man.  But this guy was what you might call just a straight up American – probably the 19th century’s most important impresario (can you name any others?), the guy who basically invented modern showmanship.  Now what is it that makes us like that kind of thing so much?  Well step right up and let me show you!


Phineas Taylor Barnum was from Connecticut, but he fled the farm and moved to New York at age 23 or 24, to run a grocery store.  Just one year later, in 1835, he caught his break: a Philadelphia showman was displaying an old black woman, Joice Heth, (blind and toothless) who said she was 161 years old and had been George Washington’s slave nurse, with a bill of sale from 1727 that claimed to prove it.  Despite Heth’s sensational story she didn’t draw too big an audience and Barnum figured he could do better; he promptly sold his grocery store, borrowed money, and bought the rights to her.  He spread posters all over New York, drummed up some press interest, and sure enough he turned her into a sensation.  One of his tricks was to spread doubt himself – via the press – as to the truth of her claim, figuring that would make people more interested, not less, in coming to see her.  It was a pretty shrewd notion, and the beginning of Barnum’s mastery of the hoax.

And it really was just the beginning.  After Joice Heth’s death one year later (an autopsy would reveal she was not, in fact, 161, but closer to 80) Barnum traveled the country as a showman, ran an entertainment steamboat on the Mississippi and sold Bibles (I told you he was a straight American).  Then in 1840 he returned to New York and leased Vauxhall Gardens – around today’s Astor Place – and turned it into one of the more popular and lucrative entertainment venues in the city, changing performers and performances by the night to create a novel and exciting new format: “the variety show.”  Still, Barnum had his sights set bigger (and then bigger yet) and in 1841, again just one year after leasing Vauxhall Gardens, Barnum purchased the old Scudder’s Museum on Broadway and Ann Street and turned it into his sensational American Museum.  Now “museum” might have had a slightly different meaning back then, as Barnum’s American Museum was stocked with “jugglers and ventriloquists, curiosities and freaks, automata and living statuary, gypsies and giants…,” not to mention his star attraction, a 2 foot, 1 inch midget known as General Tom Thumb (he toured Europe later and was a hit).  In the process of promoting his museum, at the prime location of Broadway and Ann Street, just below City Hall, Barnum pulled out all the tricks, and even invented some new ones, while again intentionally bringing up questions as to the veracity of his attractions – a seed of doubt that only brought the crowds in more, if nothing else than to see if they could spot the hoax themselves.  By the mid-1840s his American Museum was one of the star attractions in New York.


But what Barnum was still lacking, perhaps, was respectability (and maybe oodles and oodles of money) and that’s where Jenny Lind came in.  To lure the very popular, very respectable, and very shrewd, Jenny Lind over here from Europe Barnum promised her $150,000 (in 1849 mind you) for 150 concerts, plus all her expenses, all paid up front.  Barnum had to mortgage everything he owned and borrow more to make it happen but make it happen he did.  Using his ample promotional powers he helped create “Lindomania” across the United States, making Lind a true celebrity at a time when that word itself had only just come into coinage, and raking in earnings that were “unprecedented in the history of American entertainment” (her New York debut alone at Castle Clinton grossed close to $300,000).  But then this was a man who seemed to know earning potential when he saw it – be it in the form of the vulgar or the sublime.

Incidentally it’s something that I’ve come to realize about myself as well, or about this blog in particular, in reflecting over the many long years I’ve spent at it – namely that it has exactly zero earning potential (Corner by Corner – your first stop shop for general musings about very little that’s actually specific!).  Though I’m just kidding of course – I realized before this blog was even born that it would have no earning potential. It’s worthless!  Don’t try to tell me that it isn’t.  Honestly.  Don’t try to tell me.  I don’t even really want to hear it.  Really.  I’m walking away right now, that’s how serious I am.  Really I’m – wait, what? What did you just say?  Did you just say it was worth someth…Oh, oh, you were talking to that guy.  Oh, that’s cool.  No, that’s cool.  Yeah, okay.  See you later.


Fifth Avenue & 11th Street

4 Jul

My trouble with writing these more often – besides being somehow simultaneously busy and lazy (I swear I am! Both!) – isn’t so much the trouble finding topics as it is choosing amongst the endless topics competing for my attention.  Do you know how many lists or tangents or whatnot I’ve started exploring and dropped and hope to get back to some day?  Do you know what kind of pressure that puts me under?  Do I know I went to 4 delis in the last few days and I couldn’t find a 6-pack of Bud Light Lime at any of them?  I mean, my god people!  What is this summer coming to?  On a happier note, it looks like the Presbyterian Church recently voted to allow gay marriage.  That’s cool.  But what is the Presbyterian Church exactly?  (You know, besides just being, like, Christian.)  Well I don’t know.  Let’s write about it!

They’re Protestant, of course, but I think we knew that already (well they ain’t Catholic right? Or Eastern Orthodox).  Their beginnings lie in the British Isles, especially in Scotland, around the middle of the 1550s, when one John Knox brought the teachings of John Calvin to the country.  The French-born John Calvin was a big name in the Reformation, with his system of Christian theology (Calvinism) that basically said man is totally depraved, only god chooses who will be saved – and not because of merit mind you, just because he’s feeling merciful – and that the ones he does choose will be obvious because they will stay good throughout life (the Perseverance of the Saints) while the ones who seemed good but then ended up being bad were just faking it.  Oh and Jesus only died to relieve the sins of the good people that God elected – not the rest of us (wait a minute, Jesus sounds like a conservative!)  Though French, Calvin put his teachings into practice by reforming and leading the church in Geneva, Switzerland (the French were sticking with Catholicism).  The term Calvinism was actually coined by Lutherans – after Martin Luther, the original Reformation big wig – who disagreed with the teachings of Calvin on several points.  Calvinism was, and still is, also known as the Reformed Tradition – of which Presbyterianism can be considered a subset.


The first Presbyterian congregation in New York traces its beginnings to the turn of the 18th century, back when being a Presbyterian in Anglican (aka Church of England) New York was not particularly welcome.  That dislike had its roots in the English Civil War of the 17th century – a civil war prompted in part by King Charles I trying to impose Anglican “High Church” practices on the Scottish Church.  The church revolted and openly established a Presbyterian form of government – that is, church rule by a representative assembly of elders (you know, as opposed to by some bishops and their ilk).  After some back and forth – and a lot of killing – the Church of Scotland was established as a Presbyterian church, as guaranteed by law by around 1690.

Still tensions were running high enough that the Presbyterian Francis Makemie, a missionary from the Church of Scotland who started preaching in New York in 1706, was eventually jailed by the Anglican government of the city for the “unlicensed” baptism of an infant.  He was acquitted and by 1716 a congregation had been formed supporting him – what would become First Presbyterian Church – with their first building built in 1719, near the intersection of Wall Street and Nassau.  That church would last till the Revolutionary War, when it was taken over by the British and used as a barracks and then a stable (they still weren’t fans of Presbyterianism) and eventually damaged beyond repair.  Two replacement churches burned down – the second one in the Great Fire of 1835 – and soon after the congregation decided to move “uptown” to Greenwich Village.  Their current building on Fifth Avenue and 11th Street – just up the street from the Church of the Ascension – was dedicated in 1846.  The church was designed in a Gothic style by the English-American Joseph C. Wells (one of the co-founders of the American Institute of Architects, which despite its name was seemingly founded by a bunch of Brits) and was supposedly modeled on the Church of St. Saviour in Bath, England.


There’s a lot more I could write about this particular church, I’m sure, but for now let’s add it to the list of things that I’m never going to get back to.  One thing worth noting though is that they are a part of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country – with some 1.7 million members across some 10,000+ congregations.  It’s confusing cause I always thought the religion itself – eg. Presbyterianism – was the denomination – but I guess no, the religion itself is a branch (of Protestant Christianity in this case) and the denomination is a religious body within that branch following a certain set structure and doctrine (no wonder there are some many opportunities for people to kill each other over this shit).  Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is the Presbyterian denomination that recently voted to allow gay marriage – and since they’re the largest denomination in the country that’s a big deal.  But you can’t say that the Presbyterian Church nationwide has now allowed it.  Still they’re a major religious denomination and they allow gay marriage.  That’s pretty cool.  But a bunch of states won’t allow them to express their religious beliefs and marry gay people.  Isn’t that oppression of religious freedom?