Tag Archives: Civic Center

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.


Park Row & Spruce Street

29 Nov

It’s a sad time for newspapers, sure, and sure, it’s not something I’m happy about.  I like to read things on paper – and not just for nostalgia reasons.  If I’m holding a physical paper in my hand I read it all, and so I learn a little more.  If I’m reading news on-line I just don’t do that.  C’est la vie, I guess…I’m not the type to complain really.  As with anything, I can’t help but try to put things in perspective; there was a time (a lot of time) when newspapers as we know them didn’t exist; they’ll be a time to come when newspapers as we know them won’t exist either.  I can live with that, I guess.  I guess I could even live with no more real books (I mean what would I do, kill myself?) Though one question: can we stop saying that e-books and Kindles and i-Pads and things are more friendly for the environment?  I mean aren’t these gadgets made out of plastic and don’t they run on power, and aren’t they designed to be obsolete a couple years from now?  Books are made out of trees – which are things that grow – which means if you do it right they’re a limitless resource.  Honestly, am I wrong about this people?  Maybe I’m wrong about this, people.

I know another argument against the loss of newspapers is the loss of good reporting.  And I’m totally behind that idea.  Was reporting much better back in the days of multiple daily papers competing in every city?  I couldn’t say (I mean I guess I could, if I really studied it).  But if you read a bit of New York City history you inevitably come across the name of all these papers that are now gone: The World, The Sun, The Tribune, The Herald, The New York Journal, just to name a few of the more famous.  I was reminded of them in writing on Richard Morris Hunt last time around, and his Tribune Building specifically, on Printing House Square at Nassau & Spruce Streets – one of the earliest high-rise elevator buildings in the city (and now demolished).  It housed the headquarters of The Tribune and went up in 1875.  Fifteen years later in 1890 the New York World Building was finished nearby (after its earlier headquarters burned down in 1882 – on the site of today’s Potter Building) – sometimes called the Pulitzer Building as well for The World’s owner, Joseph Pulitzer.  Just one year before the new World Building the New York Times Building (1889) was finished, also next door, and also – like the World building – designed by the architect George B. Post.  The whole area running down Park Row was nicknamed “Newspaper Row” – back when close proximity to City Hall was a real asset for the industry.

The New York Times Building is the only one of the three that still stands, though today it’s owned by Pace University.  The Times didn’t stay in the building for very long to begin with; in 1903 they moved uptown to Longacre Square: one year later re-named Times Square by proclamation of mayor George B. McClellan Jr.  (after heavy lobbying by Times owner Adolph Ochs).  Ochs purchased The Times in 1896 and his family is still the principal owner today.  But The Times itself goes back to 1851, founded by Henry Jarvis Raymond as a Republican-leaning daily paper (with the exception of Sundays).  Raymond was a former Whig politician and an instrumental figure in the creation of the Republican Party, serving as the second chairman of the RNC.  The Times‘ star rose in the early 1870s when a series of exposes on Boss Tweed helped lead to the end of his notorious reign over NYC politics.  A decade later in the 1880s they moved away from Republican support to declare themselves a politically independent newspaper – though I’m sure conservatives today would deride them as a wing of the Democratic Party.  I’d counter that The Times strikes me as an impeccably intelligent and fact-based paper – and hey, facts tend to have a liberal bias.

Just like The Times you could look at a lot of these papers (extant and extinct) by looking at the names associated with them.  It’s another thing you come across a lot in looking at New York City history.  The Times had the Och family, and then the Sulzbergers who married into them.  The Tribune was manned by Horace Greeley; The Herald by the Bennett family; William Cullen Bryant was the long-time editor of The New York Evening Post – the same paper we call The New York Post today.  That’s right, this bastard was once the editor of the newspaper that now runs headlines more like this.

Time marches on.

St. James Place & Oliver Street

21 Jul

Who knew the fifties were so amazing?  I mean Fahrenheit-wise, not the decade (although also worth some contemplation – get high and think about it).  This past week has been a revelation; it’s already warm enough in the sun to wander aimlessly around outdoors, and the ability to wander aimlessly around outdoors exponentially increases your ability to pass the time with meaning, humor and consideration.  Sorry, I just liked the way those words sounded.  But the fifties rock!

Before winter came along I was getting into the Lower East Side, specifically the area below Canal and Grand Street, where the blocks run diagonal to the east-west grid and public housing tends to dominate the sky-line.  And now it’s warm enough to get back to exploring.  I’m particularly interested in the area known as Two Bridges, between the Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge, namely because of how close it is to the Civic Center.  I tend to think of the Civic Center and the Lower East Side as two neighborhoods that are further apart – first you have to pass through Chinatown, then Little Italy (what’s left of it), then hook a right for the LES.  This new approach is almost like a back door entrance.  Now sure, today this area is basically an extension of Chinatown, but historically it’s always been considered the Lower East.  That very proximity in fact played a role in the creation of the Civic Center to begin with.  The land north and east of City Hall was chosen as the site for various municipal buildings almost by default – the boggy ground (thanks to the old drained and buried Collect Pond) made the area undesirable for high-rise commercial development, and the slums of the Lower East Side made it an undesirable location for anything else.

But before any of those buildings came along, when the Collect Pond was still a pond and New York City still lay to the south, one small part of this neighborhood was used as a cemetery.  On present day St. James Place, just below Chatham Square, Shearith Israel, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue – the first Jewish congregation in New York (and the only one until 1825) – purchased land in 1683 and began using it as a cemetery.  It was actually their second burial ground in Manhattan, with an earlier one dating to 1656, though the location of that first one is today unknown.  As such the one on St. James Place is called the First Cemetery of Shearith Israel.  Burials continued there all the way up until 1833.  By that time development had caught up with the area and the city was beginning to nibble at the property; the cemetery shrank in acreage throughout the years, until only the small section we see today remained.

Well before the First Cemetery closed Shearith Israel opened a second one, on 11th Street just east of 6th Avenue.  When burials first began there, in 1805, 11th Street didn’t exist yet.  Six years later the Commissioner’s Plan was adopted, laying out the city’s grid plan for all future development, and the Second Cemetery lay right in the middle of what would become 11th Street.  Burials continued taking place however, as it wasn’t until 1830 that the street was actually cut through.  At that point the majority of bodies were dug up and moved to the congregation’s Third Cemetery, on 21st Street just west of 6th Avenue.  Only a tiny triangle remains of the original Second Cemetery, on the south side of 11th Street.

The Third Cemetery is by far the largest, taking up a whole lot on 21st Street.  It operated until 1851, the year that a law was passed by the City Council banning all burials in Manhattan south of 86th Street and prohibiting the creation of any new cemeteries anywhere on the island.  That law came just a few years after the Rural Cemetery Act of the New York State Legislature, allowing for the construction of large commercial cemeteries in Brooklyn and Queens.  A lot of graveyards in Manhattan were dug up at that time and the bodies moved to the outer boroughs.  This was partially in response to the cholera epidemics that would sweep through the city and partially an attempt to clear the land for more profitable development.  As such it’s a rare thing to find a cemetery in Manhattan now a days, and the fact that all three of these still stand (at least in some fashion) is pretty amazing.  And they aren’t the only three graveyards on the island, which is also kind of exciting to think about.  Do I sense the beginning of a new list?

(Originally posted Mar. 12th, 2010 on Takethehandle.com)

Broadway & Fulton Street

10 Jul

I thought I’d stick with my current trend here and finish off this year with a church (I’m not writing next Friday cause it’s Christmas. Sorry! Hope that doesn’t change your family’s plans! It looks like Avatar is playing at 3:15, if you wanna go see that). And if I’m going to write on a church I might as well go all the way back and write on Saint Paul’s Chapel. This is the oldest existing church building in NYC, and maybe the oldest public building in general that’s still in use. Everything I’ve read seems pretty clear on that (I think). So here we go, sounds like a good way to end a year. Maybe I’ll start the next one with something new. But probably not. If you’re broke, why fix things, right?

Saint Paul’s Chapel was finished in 1766, built by Trinity Church to serve as a chapel-of-ease for some of its “uptown” patrons, who apparently couldn’t make it the five extra blocks down to Trinity. It was probably designed by Thomas McBean (no one seems fully certain) and modeled closely after the English architect James Gibbs’ St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields Church in London. James Gibbs was himself the disciple of the renowned Christopher Wren, architect of London’s famous Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and over fifty other churches. Working off of Wren’s legacy, Gibbs was a chief proponent of the Georgian style of architecture (named after the era of the four King Georges) – which stressed neoclassicism and its symmetrical and geometric proportions, as a reflection of the upper classes desire for order, balance and harmony. Saint Paul’s Chapel was a fine example, with its temple front portico and giant Ionic columns appealing to its genteel congregation. George Washington worshiped here on his inauguration day in 1789 and would continue to do so throughout the year New York City was the federal capital.


Never mind that just before the American Revolution Trinity Church had officially sided with the British (they were after all an Anglican congregation) and gladly welcomed them into the city after Washington’s retreat following the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776. In September of that same year what was known as The Great Fire broke out, ultimately destroying one-fourth of the city, including Trinity Church. American forces across the Hudson in New Jersey cheered while the church caught fire and fell. Saint Paul’s was able to avoid the same fate thanks to a hastily organized bucket brigade. It would serve as the main Anglican church (and then Episcopal – just a name change there) in the city until the second Trinity Church was completed in 1790. That second church was itself torn down in 1839 to be replaced in 1846 with the current Trinity Church we see today. Saint Paul’s stuck it out through all of that.

I’m reminded of a quote from Aguirre, the Wrath of God when the priest says, “For the sake of God, the church has always stood with the strong.” Pretty heavy stuff there and pretty spot on. That seemed to be the case in New York – once the Revolution was over the Episcopal congregation of Trinity (and with it Saint Paul’s) included some of the most powerful folks of the day, amongst them Alexander Hamilton, who’s buried in the Trinity church yard. The Anglican Church was the church of the British establishment and so the Episcopal Church in the United States would become almost the same, once the U.S. had achieved its independence, although perhaps not so officially. The split between the churches was one caused by politics, and not theology. In that sense it mirrors the Anglican churches original split from Catholicism – which had much less to do with protesting than with a king wanting to get divorced. I just like to lay this all out to keep it straight in my own mind. I mean, is there a path to history, an arc or spirit that shines through? Is there an actual direction that it’s heading – or does it just make sense retrospectively, the way that we look back on it? Was 2009 the culmination of all that came before it, or was it just a bunch of things that happened? Which reminds me, what’s everybody doing on New Years Eve? It’s gonna be the current end result of history!  I don’t have any plans yet.

(Originally posted Dec. 18th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

Park Row & Beekman Street

24 May

I was just around here, I know, but I forgot that this was the corner I actually wanted to write about. It’s one block up from the Park Row Building. And it’s so much prettier! Do you know when you see a building that just sings so loudly of its time period? Simply looking at it makes you feel you understand a little bit of how these people must have lived? And no doubt about it — these people really lived. They had beliefs, in things material. But maybe that’s the red brick talking, which I would call the color of our golden past. Which time period does everybody want to go back to? I’m guessing the 1880s to the 1920s, or somewhere in that range. Good red brick country.

The Potter Building fits that bill nicely. It was finished in 1886, the era just preceding the development of full-on skyscrapers. Before 1870 most big commercial buildings in New York were built along the lines of an Italian Renaissance palazzo, four stories with a mansard or towered roof. As the technology that would lead to skyscrapers developed – steel-frame construction and elevators – the architectural possibilities for office buildings increased. There was more you could do with them. The Potter Building’s facade was a mixture of many different styles, including Queen Anne, Neo-Grecian, and Colonial Revival motifs. Now do I really know the difference between those types of things? What stands out stronger to me is the terra cotta relief, used extensively on the exterior. Now do I know a lot about terra cotta? Well let me ask you something: do you?

Terra cotta served the dual purpose of being a relatively inexpensive building material and an almost fire-proof one. This was especially important to Orlando Potter when he was putting up his building. Potter had initially bought the lot at Park Row and Beekman Street in 1857, and erected the five story Park Building, right next door to the original New York Times Building which had opened in 1851. Park Row at that time, up until the 1920s, was the center of newspaper publishing in the city, and went by the moniker of “Newspaper Row.” The Park Building eventually became the home of the New York World, founded in 1860, and was known as the World Building there after. It burned down in a fire in 1882 in which several people died. An account of the day called it “notorious the country over for burning up in the shortest time on record.” Potter began his new building on the same spot almost immediately after the fire, eager to make sure the same fate didn’t occur.  It’s cast-iron frame, surrounded by brick and terra cotta, made it as fire-proof as the times allowed.

The possibilities for terra cotta were so great, and so underdeveloped in New York, that Potter started his own New York Architectural Terra Cotta Company in 1886, the same year the Potter Building opened. He must have been doing something wrong though because his new factory in Long Island City burned down completely the year it opened, although he rebuilt it again right away. I guess he was the type to take it all in stride. It seems like he was good at diversifying, expanding his options. He first made his money as president of a sewing machine company. Sewing machines! That used to be a hot racket. Shirt collars, vacuum cleaners, ball bearings, newspapers. Things that you could pick up in your hand. The Potter Building today has been converted into a cooperative, with loft apartments, like a lot of the old office buildings in the area. There are larger office buildings now, where people make more money working at more abstract things – a world away in a certain sense from the old red brick days.  They’re still humans though, you know what I mean?  I’ll bet they still take lunch breaks.  They wonder what they’re going to eat.

(Originally posted July 3rd, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

Park Row & Ann Street

23 May

Remember how we were going to keep some lists? We had our oldest churches in New York, and we had our skyscrapers. I’m thinking now that the best way to approach the churches will be to go by denomination, or rather to write on a different denomination each week. That seems to be the surest way to learn something (eg: what are Methodists, as opposed to Lutherans?). And learning something is what it’s all about right? Of course it is! It fills the time at least, you know? Just try to pass it in whatever fashion makes you happiest. And be smart enough to recognize the relationship between present happiness and future happiness, that certain balance played.  Like – thinking about the future makes me happy in the present, just like thinking about the past will make me happy in the future. But wait, wait, where am I right now? Hmmm, I think the Calvinists were all about this kind of thing. Or maybe I’m thinking of Pentecostalism. I’ll get back to you on that one.

Cause shit, we’re talking about skyscrapers today anyway. Now, we know about the Woolworth Building already, the tallest in the world from 1913 to 1930. We know that it replaced the Metropolitan Life Tower, on Madison Square Park, which had itself replaced the now demolished Singer Building downtown. Before the Singer Building it was Philadelphia’s City Hall that held that title. But what the hell? We’re not interested in Philadelphia are we? (I mean besides the fact that we’re interested in absolutely everything). We want to know about New York. What came before the Singer Building? What came before it in those early days of skyscrapers, before they had completely changed the landscape of this city?

Well, the answer is: the Park Row Building, and I hope that doesn’t disappoint you. It isn’t too impressive I’ll admit, doesn’t really catch the eye, the way the Woolworth does across the street say. Or maybe it catches the eye for being unattractive. That seemed to be the feeling when it was completed in 1899, standing 29 stories tall, a good fifteen or twenty stories over its neighbors. One reviewer wrote, “New York is the only city in which such a monster would be allowed to rear itself.” Huh, I don’t think this gentleman quite realized what lay ahead. The recent advance of steel-frame construction had just made it possible to build about as high as anyone wanted to. Prior to steel, any structure taller than eight or so stories, except let’s say a church steeple, would have had to have incredibly thick walls at its base to support the weight. Steel-frames would change all that. And not to everybody’s liking. In 1896 the New York Chamber of Commerce officially announced its opposition to skyscrapers, saying that they were unsafe, blocked the light, and defaced the city.

Well that didn’t stop the Park Row Building from going up, backed by its financiers under the leadership of August Belmont. Belmont would go on to found the Interborough Rapid Transit Company in 1902, the group that brought the first subway lines to Manhattan. The Park Row Building would be their initial headquarters during their fledgling years. Belmont bought the pre-existing Manhattan Railway in 1903, operators of the four elevated railway lines in Manhattan (with one extending up into the Bronx). When his IRT subway lines opened in 1904 the company had a monopoly on rapid transit in New York.  They would eventually face some competition from the Brooklyn based, Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation as well as the city-owned Independent Subway System.  That would last until 1940, the year the city forced the take-over of both the IRT and BMT.  The IRT’s lines would become the A Division of the subway, and encompass all services designated by a number.  The BMT and the Independent’s lines would become the B division – all services designated by a letter.

The Park Row Building sits across from City Hall Park, the downtown hub for the first subway opened, an event that caused real estate prices to jump at the time.  The back of the Park Row Building runs along Theatre Alley, between Ann and Beekman Street.  Theatre Alley takes its name from the Park Theatre, which opened in 1798, on roughly the spot where the Park Row Building stands today.  The alley served as a road for carriages bringing patrons to the theatre.  But all the congestion caused by carriages pulling up from either end caused New York to take the radical step of making Theatre Alley a one way street, the first ever in the city.  So here we go, both back and front touching upon some type of transportation history, from one way streets to subways.  But what the hell?  Do I sound like some sort of Park Row enthusiast?  All dressed up like the building.  Like I should work at the museum?  I mean, I would work at the museum.  I mean I basically work at it already, for free.  Because it makes me happy.

(Originally posted June 26th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

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)