Leonard Street & Maujer Street (Williamsburg Houses)

11 Mar

There’s more I want to say about public housing.  Well actually, what I really want to do is to go through all the NYCHA developments in chronological order – but then, I want to do a lot of things. I guess I’ll just add it to the list of all the other lists I want to get around to someday: skyscrapers, churches, oldest buildings in New York, tangents related to President John Tyler (and yes, I have some really wild weekends).

But in thinking about whether public housing is a failure or not – or maybe I mean to say in rethinking the idea that public housing is implicitly a failure – I keep thinking how desperately private developers in gentrifying neighborhoods must want to get rid of them.  They’re impossible to gentrify! (Well maybe not impossible – the whole nefarious practice of selling open NYCHA land to private developers is a step in that direction, though one for the time being that’s perhaps been halted).  But still, when public housing is torn down – as it has been in numerous American cities besides New York – it’s almost never replaced by brand new 100% affordable housing.  Of course not! 100% affordable housing is terrible for people who want to make a lot of money….and kind of hand in hand with that, who hate “excessive” government involvement.  It sets a really bad precedent – a precedent that these people have been trying to kill for a long time (and quite successfully).  In these public housing replacements there’s always a mix – and often a majority mix – of market rate buildings and apartments.  There’s almost always a loss in the net total of affordable units.  Well of course again! That’s the whole point of getting rid of public housing.

So give New York its credit: it wasn’t just the first builder of public housing, it’s also been good about not tearing its public housing down.  Hell, some of it is landmarked even – including First Houses that we talked about last time.  Another one is the Williamsburg Houses – made up of 20 four-story buildings covering 12 city blocks between Maujer and Scholes Street and Leonard Street and Bushwick Avenue.  Williamsburg Houses were begun in 1936 – just one year after the first tenants moved into First Houses – and opened in 1938, making them some of the earliest public housing projects in New York.  Unlike First Houses however, Williamsburg Houses weren’t built by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) alone, but instead were a collaboration with the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration (PWA).  It wasn’t until 1957, almost 20 years after opening, that the project was turned over to NYCHA’s full jurisdiction and ownership.


It’s worth noting this distinction for a moment, because it points in part towards why public housing really isn’t built anymore.  The PWA – the  builder of Williamsburg Houses – was a federal program; this was federal money building affordable housing.  What made the PWA especially unique is that it wasn’t just federal money (ie. financing) but actual direct involvement of the federal government in the planning and construction of public housing.  This was something new entirely.  Prior to the PWA the first federal agency to involve itself with housing was the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC).  The RFC was created in 1932 to (among many other things) provide low-interest loans to limited-dividend housing corporations.  It only made 2 such loans though during the first two years of its existence.  So when the PWA, and its housing division especially, with its more robust involvement, came along in 1933 (as part of FDR’s New Deal – and originally called the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, until 1935) it represented a pretty big change. In the scheme of things its housing program was actually pretty short-lived, but in a 3 and half year period (starting in 1933) it collaborated on the construction of some 51 projects in 36 cities (though as its critics (it’s critics on the left I mean) would point out, that apparently only created some 29,000 units).  The Housing Act of 1937 (aka the Wagner-Steagall Bill), while strengthening the federal government’s commitment to housing, began to shift greater control to local authorities – returning the government’s role to essentially that of financing.

Maybe it was PWA’s influence, or maybe it was just the excitement of the early days of NYCHA but when it came time to design the Williamsburg Houses it seems they went all in.  NYCHA had a 5 person architectural board, including Richmond H. Shreve – a partner in Harmon, Lamb and Shreve of Empire State Building fame – and William Lescaze, considered one of the pioneers of modernism in American architecture.  Shreve appointed Lescaze as the chief designer for the Williamsburg Houses.  He opted for 4 “super” blocks, turned at 15 degree angles to the street grid – oriented to the sun and prevailing winds (prevailing winds?!) – and featuring a number of large and small courts that would flow into a large public space in the center of each block.  The facades were light-colored, in tan brick and exposed concrete, with entrances marked by blue tiles and stainless steel canopies.  The whole thing, though controversial at the time for its use of the “super” block, its breaking from the street grid, and its use of tan instead of red brick, was praised upon completion and has since been called by AIA, “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”


I don’t know – I don’t really see it, and I feel like most people would probably agree.  But maybe that’s just because I’ve successfully internalized the fact that housing projects equal bad.  I mean, these look like housing projects, ya know? (Though I have to say, they do look better in black in white – nostalgia?)  But hey, 25,000 New Yorkers applied for the 1,622 available apartments when they first opened.  That’s actually a much better ratio than the 58,832 New Yorkers who applied for the 105 “affordable” units in a new development on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint last year (which, of course is mainly composed of market-rate apartments – figure that those 105 “affordable” units make up 20% of the total).  So who cares what Williamsburg Houses look like – these were 1,622 affordable units built all at once.  That’s equal to 15 luxury developments that include 105 “affordable” units but otherwise drive up the rents everywhere around them every place they go up.  And that are also also ugly.  I mean personally, if I have to choose, I’ll take ugly affordable any day.  Who’s with me?



First Avenue & 3rd Street (First Houses)

12 Feb

Should I apologize for my long absence?  Have you all been waiting by the computer for me to write?  I know a lot of bloggers out there post multiple things a day.  But hey, that means by my analysis that I’m only about 264 posts behind since last time.  Piece of cake!  Let me just take a nap first and I’ll get right on it.

There’s still so much I want to talk about!  Remember how we were starting to look at some limited equity co-ops on the Lower East Side – as a kind of warm up to looking at some of the public housing?  Well let’s look at some of the public housing!  I’ve been thinking about it.

Because you read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (for example) and you come away feeling like public housing in the United States has been a failure.  Which it largely has been, both in execution and in design.  I mean in its physical design, which is what Jane especially goes after: the whole tower in the park thing; separating the development from the activity of the street and so ensuring that it will be unvisited by everyone who doesn’t live there and hence (in practice) be unwelcoming and unsafe for almost everyone (eg. you don’t walk through the projects, you walk around them).  In the larger sense of its design, as in the way it was envisioned, you could argue that public housing is a failure as well – made intentionally shoddy so as not to compete with private real estate concerns.  It had to be in essence for the poorest of the poor, because if it was for the working class, or (god forbid) the middle class even, they might start thinking that they didn’t have to get a mortgage (fully insured by the federal government – don’t call that government spending though) and buy their house on the private market.  And once it was for the poorest of the poor that pretty much sealed the deal in terms of execution – namely that the execution would be poor.  Poor for the poorest of the poor.  Spend very little money on the upkeep and security, etc, and then talk about what animals these poorest of the poor are to let their living spaces go this way.

This notion of public housing being a failure goes much further than Jane Jacobs of course (who after all, published her book in 1961) – at this point it’s part of pop culture really: the projects equal bad.  But there’s a kind of a false conflation that goes on I think in this notion of the failure of public housing – namely, equating the failure in design and execution with a failure in intentions or goals.  The point of public housing is to provide affordable housing.  And public housing does this by providing large apartment buildings that are 100% affordable (as opposed to inclusionary zoning’s 20%, for example).  Now yes, these are 100% affordable apartment buildings that in many cases  need a lot of improvement in terms of maintenance and security but these are 100% affordable apartment buildings that a lot of people want to live in (in NYC the waiting list is close to 250,000 families).  So yes, again, it needs some help in the execution, but the fundamental idea is sound.  People need affordable housing.  The private market often does a bad job in providing it.  If the government wants affordable housing it should build affordable housing.  That’s what it used to do!


And it did it first in NYC of course.  New York is home to the first public housing built in the United States – appropriately named First Houses – opened to its first tenants on Dec. 3 1935, as the first project of the newly created New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).  The 4-5 story, 8 building development still stands on 3rd St. between First Avenue and Avenue A, with a portion running down Avenue A to 2nd St. (and yeah, I know they might not be much to look at, but hey, it’s public housing).  The project replaced a number of older tenements on the site as an act of “slum clearance” – one of the requirements of the federal funding it received. The original idea had been to only replace every third tenement with new buildings but it was soon apparent that they were all in such poor structural condition that the whole lot would have to go.  Not all the owners were happy about this, and when one contested (Andrew Muller) – on the grounds that seizing the buildings, even with “just compensation,” went against the New York State (not to mention the United States) Constitution – the case made it all the way to the New York State Court of Appeals.  The court ultimately sided with the city, in what would serve as a landmark case regarding eminent domain.

But not all of the owners were so opposed.  In fact the principal owner of the site was one Vincent Astor, son of John Jacob Astor IV, himself the son of William Backhouse Astor Jr. and Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor (man, even when you’re talking about low income housing it’s hard to stay away from these folks).  Vincent Astor had inherited the site – along with a massive fortune – at the age of 20, after his father died on the Titanic.  By the early 1930s he had dedicated himself to philanthropy and was looking to separate himself from the role of slumlord.  He sold his parcels to NYCHA for half of their assessed value – a purchase made possible in large part by the issuance of a tax-free 66-year bond by NYCHA that effectively established the Authority’s credit.

First Houses1

It was a big deal when First Houses opened – serving 122 families at an average monthly rent of $6.05 per room (equivalent to roughly $100 per room today).  The dedication in Dec. of 1935 was broadcast on national radio and besides the reading of a congratulatory telegram from President Roosevelt, included speeches by Mrs. Roosevelt, Mayor LaGuardia, Governor Lehman, Robert Moses (of course! he was everywhere) and a whole host of other names I want to explore someday.  There’s a lot more here I want to explore!  Can you all wait for it?  (By my analysis there are approximately 4 of you).  Take a nap and get back to me.

Hallets Point

14 Nov

Okay, let’s get back to looking back at some of my older posts – but let’s look back while simultaneously staying in the present.  Despite its ominous name, the treacherous body of water known as Hell Gate actually took its moniker from the Dutch word “helleget,” which means beautiful passage, and it looks like that interpretation is coming back into vogue today, with two major developments slated to go up along Hell Gate’s shores, on Hallets Point.  It’s a little hard to keep the two of them straight, which is which, (and anyway that’s what Curbed is for right?) though at the same time it’s kind of fascinating to try.  I mean, this is what the “real world” is all about right?  Really complicated legal and financial arrangements that require a boatload of money and legal representation and political connections to bring to fruition?  Though have you noticed how it’s always the people that have boatloads of money and legal representation and political connections that want to tell you how that’s the real world – something the rest of us couldn’t possible understand?  Well, sorry to tell you, but everythings the real world people!

Anyway, whatever.  The two developments are known as Hallets Point and Astoria Cove.  The Hallets Point development was conceived by Lincoln Equities, though the Durst Organization recently bought a 90% stake in the project, so it seems like they’re in charge now.  The development will include some 2,404 new units (483 of them “affordable”), plus all the requisite public trade offs like open space and public schools (since, you know, government isn’t allowed to build those kinds of things anymore) and has already been approved by the City Council.  Astoria Cove is an Alma Realty project totaling some 1,723 units.  There was some hope among its critics that the City Planning Commission would reject the Astoria Cove project unless it included more than 20% affordable housing, but that didn’t come to pass.  When I started writing this it was still up in the air whether the City Council would approve, as the local councilman (Costa Constantinides) was opposed, and the City Council tends to (though not always) follow the lead of the local councilperson in these matters.  But it turns out just yesterday the Council’s Land Use Committee approved the project, with Constantinides’ support, so it seems like it’s a done deal.  The project is amongst the first to run into the city’s new rules regarding new developments in medium to high density areas that have been up-zoned (that is, rezoned to allow for more square footage) – namely that they have to include at least 20% affordable housing, and that there will not be city subsidies to make that happen (though tax abatements, yes, are still in action).


So there’s a rendering of one of them – Astoria Cove I think – though honestly it could be Hallets Point, or any other waterfront development taking place in the city.  I know that this city is always changing, and I know I’ve said as much before, but at the same time it’s kind of my problem with developments like Astoria Cove and Hallets Point and really pretty much all the giant projects getting built these days: they all look like each other and they don’t look like New York City.  Seriously!  I mean, sure, the trees are nice.  I’ve asked this question before I think, in a less coherent way, but I wonder of the people who want to live in these developments, why do you want to live in New York City?

So anyway, whatever again.  I was thinking it would be interesting to look into these various developers who are involved: Lincoln Equities, Alma Realty, and especially the Durst Organization (as I believe they’ve been around the longest) but I’m already pretty tired from trying to look at all this “real world” stuff – so let’s look at some old history instead.  It seems so much cleaner doesn’t it?

Hallets Point takes its name from the Hallet Family – owners of a large estate along the shores of Hell Gate (in present day Astoria) from at least as early as 1655.  That date is known because it was the year their house was burned to the ground by Indians (part of the short lived Peach Tree War? who knows!).  The estate was founded by one William Hallet, an Englishman (born in 1616) who emigrated to Bridgeport Connecticut no later than 1647 (and maybe well before) before moving to Long Island with his wife and two young sons.  After their house was burned downed they settled in Flushing, where William was appointed sheriff in 1656.  That same year he was also fined and briefly imprisoned by the New Netherland Director-General (and all around dictator) Peter Stuyvesant – who, you might recall from last time – was still fresh from his conquest of the Swedish colony of New Sweden in present day Delaware (the Swedish in Delaware! Not quite as well known as the Pilgrims right?).  William Hallet was imprisoned for allowing the Reverend William Wickenden of Rhode Island to preach in his house.  Wickenden was a Baptist, and by preaching in the colony was breaking Stuyvesant’s ban on practicing any religion in the colony outside of the Dutch Reformed Church (ooh, I wonder how the Dutch Reformed Church differs from Presbyterianism, aka the Reformed Church).  And I thought the Dutch were supposed to be known for their religious freedom.

William Hallet didn’t stay imprisoned for long at least; at some point later in his life he moved back to an estate along Hell Gate – dividing it between his two sons – William Jr. and Samuel – in 1688.  William Jr. went on to have ten children himself and presumably divided his land between some of them.  The eldest, William Hallet III, had his own estate in the area when he was murdered in 1708 – along with his wife and their five children – by two of his slaves (back when slaves made up about 18% of New York City’s population).  The murders were apparently in retaliation for Hallet not allowing his slaves to “go abroad on the Sabbath day,” though I’m sure the fact that they were, you know, slaves probably had something to do with it.  The culprits were caught and executed after being “put to all the torment possible for a terror to others.”  That didn’t stop a full on slave rebellion from taking place some 4 years later in Manhattan however, in 1712, when nine (white) people where killed in the uprising – leading to the execution of over 20 slaves in response.


So anyway, just some cheery thoughts as you’re moving into your new development.  Enjoy the trees!

Yonkers (Part One)

20 Sep

From the present to the past.  Why not?  In thinking about our changing city (and maybe getting a little down about it) I feel like it’s important to remember that’s it’s always been changing.  And what change was bigger, in the scheme of things, than its actual creation.  I mean it wasn’t that long ago that all this shit was woods and streams and marshes – insanity!  And sure, I want to talk about Yonkers today, not New York City itself, but Yonkers alone is in fact the fourth largest city in the state (after NYC, Buffalo, and Rochester) so still, we’re talking about something urban and man made (though wasn’t isn’t around here?).  And it turns out it’s connected to old Francis Doughty too (remember him?  Of course you don’t! hehe) and you know I like nothing better than running down a tangent (well, except maybe writing things in parentheses).  So let’s run it down!

Francis Doughty, as I’m sure you don’t recall, led the brief settlement of Maspeth, Queens, in 1642, before being driven out by Indians just one year later.  That Indian attack was likely a small part of the ongoing conflict known as Kieft’s War – aka the Wappinger War – that ran from 1643 to 1645.  As the name suggests the war was started by Willem Kieft, the Director General of New Netherlands (and the man who had granted Francis Doughty his land in Queens to begin with).  Kieft, who was in charge from 1638 to 1647, followed a string of unsuccessful Director Generals of the Dutch West India Company’s fledgling colony, and he proved himself no exception.  His war was started when he ordered a surprise attack on the Wiechquaesgeck and Hackensack Indians encamped in Pavonia (today’s Jersey City) for allegedly harboring the killers of some Dutch settlers, an attack that quickly turned into a full scale massacre.  Not that Kieft was particularly displeased by that; the heads of some of the Indian victims were brought back to New Amsterdam for display and the soldiers thanked and rewarded.  The carnage caused the the majority of Indian tribes in the whole of the lower Hudson Valley to band together and attack the Dutch in turn, throughout their territory.  It was a disaster for the colony – though a worse disaster for the Indians in the end (are you surprised?); they lost some 1,600 lives in the conflict.  Still the effects on the Dutch and their interests were so pronounced that it directly led to Kieft’s recall a few years later.

But first he had to bring the war to a close, something mainly credited to the merciless tactics of one John Underhill.  Underhill was a New Englander, famed for his brutality during the Pequot War of 1637, and he brought his hard-drinking, short-tempered style to New Netherlands to help them win their own conflict with the natives.  He succeeded – hence the 1,600 Indian casualties (some 500-700 occurring at the hand of his militia).  When time came to negotiate peace with the tribes however Kieft needed the help of someone a little less murderous than Underhill and so he turned to a fellow Dutchman, Adriaen van der Donck.  van der Donck was still fairly new to the colony, having arrived in 1641, but in those 4 years he’d been a tireless explorer, and booster, of the territory, learning the local Indian language and eventually writing a book extolling the virtues of this new world.  Knowing the ways of the natives van der Donck brought ample amounts of wampum to the peace negotiations, lending some to Kieft – who perhaps unsurprisingly had no idea of the tradition – so he could present the appropriate amount as a gift.  It was apparently appreciated – by Kieft I mean – because one year later he granted van der Donck some 24,000 acres of land along the Hudson River north of Manhattan (to put things in perspective Manhattan itself is close to 15,000 acres) making him, as Russell Shorto put it, “lord of much of what is today the Bronx and southern Westchester County.”

Beschryvinge van Nieuvv-Nederlant

van der Donck’s “Description of New Netherlands”

By the time van der Donck was granted the estate he was already married to Mary Doughty – daughter of Francis Doughty (did you think I had forgotten him?) – so settling new territory was becoming something of a family affair.  van der Donck named his newly-granted estate Colen Donck, and proceeded to build some saw mills along the large creek that would come to be called, surprise surprise, the Saw Mill River.  In light of the size of his land holdings the local Dutch started to call him Jonkheer, meaning “young gentlemen” or “squire” and it was from that word that the city of Yonkers would derive its name.  I’m not sure if the name came about in van der Donck’s lifetime; he would die some 10 years later, in 1655 or 56 – how or exactly when no records have been found to tell us, though the consensus seems to be he was most likely a casualty of the so called Peach Tree War.  The Peach Tree War was another conflict with the natives, lasting all of one day – September 15, 1655 – though this time the natives were the ones leading the surprise attack.  The attackers were members of the Susquehannock Nation, and they were retaliating for the capture of the Swedish colony, New Sweden, by the Dutch (under Willem Kieft’s replacement Director-General, Peter Stuyvesant).

Now if you’re anything like me, right now you’re saying, “wait a minute, did you just say New Sweden?” And I did! I said New Sweden – the Swedish actually had a colony in the United States for a brief period.  The Swedish!  You don’t exactly think of them as colonizers (or maybe think of them at all?).  It was in present day Delaware – another place you probably aren’t thinking about too much.  But maybe it’s time to start.  I hardly even really got started on Yonkers though, and this has already gotten longer than I thought it would.  That tends to happen.  So let’s call this Yonkers Part One, I guess.  I should probably call it Part One, question mark, cause at the rate I’m going am I ever really going to get back to it?  There’s so damn much to write about!  I’m not complaining mind you.  I mean, New Sweden!

Franklin Street & Noble Street (American Playground)

22 Aug

All right, I wanted to stay close to home for this one, I’ll admit it.  I work right around the block, on West Street and Noble, and of late there’s been a lot of construction activity going around.  The two old industrial buildings on either side of Noble and West are finally getting renovated, and I imagine in a year (or months? or longer?) from now they’ll probably be rented out to somebody (and by the way, just because I say finally doesn’t mean I’m necessarily happy about it).  Oh also, the Brooklyn Expo Center is coming – whatever the hell that is – across the street from American Playground.  So yeah, this strip is changing for sure (but aren’t they always?).  I’ve been trying to find out what exactly is coming into those two old industrial buildings – 56 and 60 West Street – but it’s hard to tell; according to the Department of Buildings for example 56 West Street has a work permit for conversion to commercial space and a work permit for sprinkler installation for a residential building.  So go figure.  It’s cool I guess that these old industrial buildings are being renovated at least, regardless of what it’s for, as opposed to being torn down and replaced by boring condos.  Although you have to assume that the open lots and old industrial buildings on the other side of West Street, along the East River (including where I work), will be torn down eventually and replaced by really tall and probably boring condo towers.  Why?  Because the zoning allows it.  And if the zoning allows it someones probably gonna build it someday.  Why?  Because the higher the zoning the more money to be made, so why would you ever build anything else?

Although those really tall and probably boring condos will likely include affordable housing, so that’s something going for them.  And assuming those old industrial buildings are being turned into condos themselves I’d say there’s no chance that they will, so that’s a strike against them for sure.  This whole area is included in the Inclusionary Housing Program, which means – as it currently stands – that if developers choose to include affordable housing, to the tune of 20% of their floor area, they can build an additional 33% of floor area on top of what the zoning allows.  You know, the whole incentivize public good by rewarding with private profit thing.  It’s the same idea as all the new waterfront parks that run along the front yards of the new condos – privately funded and not managed by the NYC Parks Department – and ostensibly created to fill the public desire for new parks and waterfront access.  Which they do – kind of – they’re also, ya know, the front yards of the new condos: an extra little selling piece.  And they all look the same!  When the really tall and probably boring condos do come they’ll bring their parks with them and it will essentially be a new neighborhood grafted onto the edge of this one.  Now, will I still try to live in the affordable housing? Maybe!


But the neighborhood won’t look like this anymore, that’s all I’m saying.  Though hell, it doesn’t look like this anymore right now either, so why should I complain (56 West Street – the building to the right with the metal structure on top – is the only building in this picture that still stands – you can just see it in the picture below on the left).  This whole area has a storied industrial past (as I’ve mentioned before), going back to the shipbuilding days of the 1850s and seeing in its time such highlights as the launching of the first caisson for the Brooklyn Bridge and the building of the Civil War ironclad The Monitor.  Around 1890 the American Manufacturing Company began operations and quickly grew; at their peak before the First World War their factories and warehouses encompassed some 14 acres, 16 buildings and 6 city blocks, employing just shy of 2,500 men in what was supposedly the largest rope manufacturer in the world.  At some point the lot that is now American Playground must have become unnecessary, because American Manufacturing started renting it out to the city for park use, at the price of $1, paid every third year when the lease was renewed.  In 1955 it was presumably bought outright, because that year it was assigned to Parks Department control (still under the administration of the first-ever Parks Commissioner Robert Moses by the way) and officially named American Playground in honor of the American Manufacturing Company and their generosity.


By then you have to assume the end was close to nigh for the company – if it hadn’t come already.  I’m not sure exactly when they closed up shop but for decades, running right up to today, their old buildings stood essentially vacant – American Playground one small spot of activity amongst the ruins.  It isn’t much to look at, as playgrounds go, but it’s got swings and jungle gyms and sprinklers, handball courts and basketball and they’re all used and used well.  So honestly what more do you need?  And it’s publicly owned – being run by the Parks Department and whatnot.  That matters to me for some reason.  And that’s also of course probably one reason why it ain’t so pretty.  But again, what more do you need?  I’m not sure exactly what I’m trying to say here: I mean it’s a good thing that these old abandoned buildings are being used again but I guess I just wonder why we have to make it all look so pretty.  Like, who are these new grafted neighborhoods and parks supposed to be for?  I guess they’re supposed to be for people who think American Playground isn’t good enough.  But what more do they need?



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?