Tag Archives: Manhattan

Cannon’s Walk – Front Street & Fulton Street

9 Apr

Okay, I know I was claiming the Nassau-Broadway area as my favorite neighborhood the other day (or maybe year) but let’s broaden its boundaries a little and include South Street Seaport in there too. Now I know, I know, South Street Seaport is also kind of terrible – it’s way too touristy and it’s basically a giant mall – but let’s ignore all that and focus instead on the fact that this is all that survives (in any volume) of what a lot of downtown Manhattan used to look like. And that’s amazing, no joke. We’re lucky any of this is still standing! Just take a glance at the modern tower (1 Seaport Plaza) flanking one side of the Seaport’s “entrance” on Fulton and Water Street – or hell, just look down Water Street – and you get a sense of what would likely be here otherwise.

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Though to be fair, one reason the Seaport still exists at all is that its air-rights were banked and then sold to the developers of those Water Street office buildings – so they maybe wouldn’t be quite so huge if the Seaport had been demolished (but screw it, they probably would be). 1 Seaport Plaza, by the way (towering over 4-story Schermerhorn Row in the picture above) is billed by its developer as their first “contextual” office building. Contextual. It’s 34 stories tall. So yeah, we should be happy that we’ve got this many blocks of 19th century houses and warehouses at all. It’s a treasure trove really – tourists or not. And honestly, if you stay off of Fulton Street, you can avoid the bulk of tourists anyway. You don’t even have to stray far. Cannon’s Walk, for example, is right off of Fulton (though the more intriguing entrance is on Front Street, just look for the sign), and every time I’ve gone back there I’m either alone or with other New Yorkers looking for a little respite.

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Cannon’s Walk is a tiny courtyard nestled in the middle of the block bounded by Fulton, Front, Water and Beekman. Created as a public space in 1983, it offers (in addition to the quiet) some great views of the back of 3 Greek Revival warehouses built in the 1830s. Today they house the South Street Seaport Museum’s Visitor Center, its Book and Charts Store and its recreated 19th century print shop, Bowne & Co. Stationers. Now sure, the buildings look prettier from the front, with their granite lintels and muntined double-hung sashes, but the backs have something to offer too and you can stop and stare without people thinking you’re a tourist. And by the way, I had no idea till I copied that last sentence from a book (AIA Guide!) what lintels or muntined double-hung sashes were – but it turns out that lintels are just those rectangles above the window (ya got your lintels on the top and your sills on the bottom) and a muntin is the piece of wood separating window panes (so it basically means a window with window panes). Oh and a sash is actually the panel of the window that you can lower and raise (aka, the frame that holds the panes of glass, separated by muntins) and when it’s double hung it just means you can raise or lower both the top and bottom panel. So now I’ve got some new things to talk about at parties (someone invite me to a party!).

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Cannon’s Walk takes its name from Cannon’s Wharf, which used to run along this spot, back when Water Street marked the boundary of the East River shoreline. Pearl Street, of course, was the original shoreline (taking its name from the oyster pearls that littered its route) but starting in the 1700s, in fits and starts, it was extended out to the aptly named Water Street. The city facilitated this shoreline expansion in general by selling water lots to folks, with the understanding that they would be filled in by the purchaser. John Cannon, from whom Cannon’s Wharf (and hence Cannon’s Walk) takes its name, filled in his water lot by 1721 and erected his wharf soon after.

There doesn’t seem to be too much known about Cannon otherwise. He was born on Staten Island, in 1670, to French Huguenot parents (though I guess by definition Huguenots are French – French Protestants to be exact, back when being a French Protestant could mean a lot of trouble). Cannon’s parents, like many Huguenots, were likely fleeing persecution in their native country – though when they came to New York exactly, isn’t clear. Could they have been descendants of the group of 30 or so French Huguenots and Walloons that were among the original settlers of New Amsterdam in 1624? It seems that some of that group did, in fact, settle on Staten Island, though apparently their initial settlement didn’t last very long. Or maybe Cannon’s parents came over later, or were involved in some fashion with Daniel Perrin, who lead a settlement of Huguenots on Staten Island in the late 1600s. Known locally as “the Huguenot,” Perrin’s moniker is where the Staten Island neighborhood of Huguenot takes its name today.

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Regardless of Cannon’s antecedents, by the time he built his wharf in 1721 he was over 5o years old and must have been a fairly successful and respected merchant. His wharf was apparently one of the busiest in what was then the northern part of the 18th century city, and prominent enough to have been the subject of at least one painting (shown above), View of Cannon House and Wharf (though painted in 1792, long after Cannon’s death). And his daughter, Sarah, married into the prominent Schermerhorn Family, another sign that the Cannons most have been the right kind of people. Her son Peter Schermerhorn would go on to build Schermerhorn Row in 1811 , the most admired of South Street Seaports surviving buildings and considered one of the finest rows of early commercial architecture in the city. By the time Schermerhorn built his buildings – again on water lots that he filled in – Cannon’s Wharf had been torn down and replaced by landfill, part of the shorelines inexorable move towards today’s South Street. When Schermerhorn built his row of “counting-houses” on Fulton Street (then called Beekman Slip) it was still a bit north of the action, but just a few years later Robert Fulton’s Brooklyn Ferry would start landing on Schermerhorn’s wharf and from there the street began to grow in activity. In 1822 Fulton Market (or, more likely, what would come to be called Fulton Market) moved to the block and from that point on the area was a focal point of commercial activity. Well, until it wasn’t – but that story will have to wait till next time. Or sometime. Until then here’s a picture of the port in all its glory. We’re lucky any of these buildings are still standing.

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Ryders Alley & Edens Alley

22 Mar

I spend a lot of time in downtown Manhattan these days – like really downtown, below the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s fairly new for me. It used to be the East Village where I spent my time (for a long time) and then the West Village and now it’s this. I’m happy with it – apparently I was already calling this my favorite neighborhood a couple years ago – and though I don’t spend as much of my time outside in it as I’d like to, I still do get to notice a few things. (Incidentally, isn’t it funny that the most important and powerful people in the world, the ones making decisions that affect all our lives, are essentially inside all of the time – instead of being, ya know, outside in the actual world?)

So yeah, I’m glad I’m not one of those folks (and trust me, they keep trying to recruit me); I can still squeeze in the time to walk around and look at things. When I’m doing that downtown, of course, I often try to imagine some semblance of what the place must have looked like in the way back days of the 1600s and 1700s, when almost every building around here was made of wood or brick, and rarely more than 2 stories high, when most of the roads were dirt, with fences and gardens, tree-lined lanes and brooks and streams, marshy swamps, the river (ocean) lapping right up on the shoreline. I mean, it’s pretty much irreconcilable with today, right? That’s why it’s so damn fascinating to imagine.

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A case in point is Edens Alley. This tiny little jaunt of a street, connecting to the slightly longer Ryders Alley, appears on maps as early as 1776, though it’s likely even older. But look at it today! It’s quite possibly the least attractive or exciting alley in Manhattan, especially when you consider that Gold Street, which it runs into, has been completely covered in scaffolding for some time and so is wreathed in semi-darkness (or downright darkness) at all times of day. But of course that very unattractiveness and lack of excitement makes it fascinating – to me at least. What did this use to look like? I have no idea really, but suffice to say, it wasn’t this.

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Ryders Alley, which Eden Alley connects to, likely takes its name from one John Rider, a prominent British-born lawyer of the late 17th century who lived near here in lower Manhattan (when NYC was only lower Manhattan). There are city records of a John Rider purchasing paving stones for his street, though whether it was the same John Rider as the lawyer we can’t really say. But it appears that the whole L-shaped alley was called some variation of Ryder (or Rider, Rudder, Ridder) from the time its name started appearing on maps. It likely wasn’t until the early 2000s in fact, when the Downtown Alliance started installing new street signs in the area, that this smaller portion of the alley was dubbed Edens Alley at all. In making that name choice the Downtown Alliance were themselves going off an earlier (though apparently not entirely substantiated) claim that Ryders Alley had been called Edens Alley before the 1840s – a claim that some older maps would seem to dispute.

 

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The Eden that Edens Alley refers to was one Medcef Eden, a brewer who lived and worked on Ryder Street (or Alley) in the mid- to late 1700s. In fact he owned almost 20 buildings fronting the street; it’s been posited that Eden Alley was essentially a driveway for horse carts, a loading zone for Eden’s brewery. In Eden’s day the alley would have climbed Golden Hill – what was, at the time, the highest point in (very) lower Manhattan, and where Gold Street takes its name. There’s not much left of the hill today, though you can still see some of its incline in Edens Alley.

Golden Hill, according to an 1898 New York Times article, took its moniker from an “abundant crop of grain, which it’s said waved gracefully in response to the gentle breeze and looked, in truth, like a hill of gold.” By Medcef Eden’s time it had become a residential enclave as well as the site of the first “blood incident” of the American Revolution: the Battle of Golden Hill (and something, personally, I had never heard mentioned before). Coming some six weeks before the Boston Massacre – on January 19th, 1770 – the “Battle” (which maybe more appropriately should have been titled the “Riot”) occurred a few days after British soldiers had chopped down a “liberty pole” erected by the New York Sons of Liberty – the third or fourth pole to have been erected and destroyed since 1766. On Jan. 19th, British soldiers were patrolling the city posting handbills decrying the Sons of Liberty as enemies of society when they were waylaid by a mob of patriots – led by the ubiquitous Isaac Sears (someone I can hopefully write about again some day).  Sears and company seized some of the soldiers and tried to haul them off to the mayor’s office; when reinforcements came (from both parties) things turned violent, with injuries suffered on both sides – and maybe, or maybe not, one death.

 

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So yeah, that all happened on – or at least near – this shitty (amazing) little alley, which today is essentially some asphalt between 3 giant walls of concrete and brick – probably holding some very important and powerful people, no doubt. But do any of them even think about the past? About all the other things that happened here? The other ways of living? I mean just take a walk, outside, and think about it? It puts me in mind of Sebald, (though I guess I’m always only half a step away from Sebald): “I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.” Not to be too much of a downer, but it’s true! Though to be fair, last time I walked down here some kids were smoking weed. Outside. That made me happy.

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“The Row” (Washington Square North)

7 Mar

Back to Snug Harbor! Or, more specifically, all that land they owned in Greenwich Village. Or really, even more specifically, one small portion of all that land they owned in Greenwich Village. (I’ve maybe gotten in the bad habit of explaining my selections too much, so I’m trying to cut to the chase.) As you may recall, the creation of Snug Harbor was stipulated in the will of “Captain” Robert Richard Randall, upon his death in 1801. It was his desire to house the asylum for old sailors on his estate, Minto Farm – some 21 acres of Manhattan in the area today bounded by Fourth and Fifth Avenue, 10th Street and Waverly Place (aka, Washington Square North). His trustees had other ideas however and successfully petitioned the state legislature to allow them to build Snug Harbor elsewhere (specifically, on Staten Island). And who could blame them? The land value of Minto Farm and its neighbors was rising so precipitously that they simply couldn’t resist; by leasing out the land instead and building Snug Harbor elsewhere they would ensure that it became, by the late 19th century, the wealthiest charity in New York. And to be honest, for Snug Harbor’s sake at least, it probably was the wiser move – there’s no way those 21 acres of farmland could have survived as an intact estate anyway, once shit really started getting developed.

Who knows if Robert Randall could have imagined that when he purchased the property, acting as his father’s agent, in 1790, for the sum of $12,500. His father, Thomas Randall, was a well known, and wealthy, sea captain and merchant who’d first made his name as a privateer during King George’s War in the 1740s. (King George’s War, by the way, was one part of the War of the Austrian Succession, an all out European battle royale running from 1740-1748, and coming just two years after the five year long War of the Polish Succession ended and only six years before the Seven Years War (aka The French and Indian War) started. This, incidentally, is part of why I never buy it when people say we live in violent times. Uh, every country in Europe used to fight every other one every fricking decade! Shit’s pretty cool now really.) Thomas Randall’s success apparently let Robert Randall live the life of a gentlemen, and, at age 40, with his father’s purchase of Minto Farm, Robert settled down to enjoy some country living in what was then a bucolic setting 2 miles north of New York City – albeit a decidedly elite bucolic setting, made up of large family estates. His closest neighbor for example, Henry Brevoort, was the fifth of that name, living on the land his family had farmed for the past 150 years, running from (today’s) 10th to 16th Street. Incidentally, his refusal to let the city cut through his land to implement the 1811 street grid plan (despite two city ordinances to that effect) is why 11th Street doesn’t run between Fourth Avenue and Broadway today.

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It was a neighborhood made up of powerful and wealthy people, is what I’m saying, and they likely got a lot wealthier as the boundaries of New York City began creeping north. They were surely helped along in that pursuit when, in 1826, what had been an old potters field (ya know, a common grave for the burial of poor people) was turned into a military parade ground named after George Washington – soon to become Washington Square Park. Snug Harbor/Minto Farm happened to border half of the northern portion of the newly created grounds, and, incidentally (though, I’m sure, not entirely coincidentally), it was mayor Philip Hone who proposed and oversaw the creation of the park – a man who, by dint of simply being mayor (as per the stipulations of Robert Randall’s will), was also president of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Board of Trustees. So yeah, I’m sure it helped them make more money.

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Case in point, in 1832 that stretch of – now more desirable – Snug Harbor property was leased out to three socially prominent businessmen (James Boorman, John Johnston and John Morrison) who erected a row of Greek Revival mansions, number 1-13 Washington Square North. Eventually dubbed “The Row,” they were judged by the Landmarks Commission (some 130 something years later) to be “the most important and imposing block front of early Nineteenth Century townhouses in the City.” Snug Harbor gets some credit; in leasing out the land they stipulated that any houses built were to be “good and substantial, three or more stories…of brick or stone.” What they got were a unified group of houses: red brick with high basements, a uniform roofline pierced by small attic windows, marble porticos – some with Doric columns, some with Ionic (again the whole Greek Revival thing) – 12 foot deep front yards, and a block long iron fence topped with Greek anthemions (kind of like flowers), lyres and obelisks.

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Part of the idea, of course, in requiring “good and substantial” houses was to attract a wealthy and distinguished clientele, and in that they surely succeeded; amongst some of The Row’s first notable occupants were six of the founders of New York University. Officially incorporated by the New York State Legislature in 1831 as the University of the City of New York, New York University (NYU) started off holding its classes in rented rooms downtown, near city hall. But, perhaps from knowing the spot so well, in 1833 land was purchased on the east side of Washington Square Park and construction began on the “Old University Building,” a kind of grand Gothic-Revival castle that would house all of the functions of the school (visible on the left in the lithograph below.)

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The founders of NYU must have been dreaming big, as they made the University Building much larger than their requirements actually dictated. When it opened in 1835 it was too large for the student body and so its extra rooms were rented out as studios and residences for artists and inventors – including Samuel Morse, creator of the telegraph, and Samuel Colt, inventor of the six-shooter. NYU has obviously come a long way since then, outgrowing the University Building eventually (it was torn down in the 1890s) and moving on from there to gobble up more and more of the neighborhood – including The Row. After World War II, Snug Harbor leased the entire block bounded by Washington Square North, Fifth Avenue, Eight Street and University Place (including the amazing Washington Mews), to NYU for a period of 200 years, with options to renew. And frankly today they might even own the land outright – I believe Snug Harbor sold all their Manhattan real estate when they moved their whole operation down to North Carolina. Sorry I can’t tell you more but this is very long already and it’s honestly more research than I can stand to do at the moment – the real estate holdings of massive “non-profit” (I know what that means, but, come on, what does that really mean?) organizations that got their start in large part because wealthy people bought land on this tiny island a long time ago. And to think, one of them actually thought he could leave the land as a home for old sailors! But that’s a little too non-profit, right?

Catherine Street & Monroe Street (Knickerbocker Village)

16 Apr

In continuing our exploration of public housing last time, I mentioned the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), created by Congress in 1932 with a whole slew of mandates that included providing loans for low-income housing.  This was really the first federal involvement in affordable housing of any kind (pre-dating the First Houses, the first public housing built in the country) and it turns out its first loan went to somebody we’ve mentioned before – Frederick French.  So a connection! I love a connection (and in fact last time I talked about Fred French it was kind of all about how I love a connection) so of course I gotta dive right in.  Don’t worry, this also fits with our whole exploration of the large housing complexes of the Lower East Side too, so we’re really batting 1.000 today. As I mentioned, the RFC was created to deal with a lot more than affordable housing financing; it was essentially an attempt to combat the effects of the Great Depression by stimulating lending.  The RFC had a mandate to provide financial aid to state and local governments and to make loans to banks, railroads, and yes, private real estate developers.

There was a catch of course: the private developer had to build affordable housing.  The goal was two-fold: to increase the supply of low-income housing and to help stimulate the construction industry.  Except there was another requirement, that any new construction be part of slum clearance; that is, the new “affordable” housing had to replace “slums.”  This would become pretty standard housing policy for the federal government and it seems that it was baked in pretty early.  The outcome essentially (whether it was truly the intention) was that there would be no net increase in the number of affordable units – you tore some down and replaced them with some new ones.  And in fact those new ones were often more expensive than the old (just like now! so hey, this tactic isn’t so new after all).  That was the case with Knickerbocker Village at least.

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In fact the story goes that Fred French originally purchased tracts of existing tenements in the Lower East Side with the idea of tearing some down and putting up a high-end development for junior Wall Street executives.  But this was during the Depression (1931) and there was no credit to be had.  So when the RFC was created Fred French took a different tack.  He chose the worst parcels in his holding – the so called “Lung Block” for its high prevalence of tuberculosis – and proposed it to the RFC as a worthy place for slum clearance.  They agreed – ultimately lending somewhere between 85%-97% of the total $10 million cost to build.  Some 650 families were evicted and their homes torn down, replaced by twelve 13-story buildings surrounding 2 court-yards.  Despite the low-interest loan it was still a seemingly expensive project; to keep the monthly rents low the tax assessment on Knickerbocker Village had to be reduced by 2/3.  This made the monthly rent $12.50 per room (as required by the RFC); the buildings that they replaced, by comparison, had rented for about $5 per room.  So most of those evicted families weren’t coming back (but hey, that’s why we were soon to build public housing right? For the poorest of the poor?).

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It was instead largely middle-class professionals who moved into Knickerbocker Village.  But when they did (in 1934) they found the development essentially unfinished – things like no working elevators or fixtures in the bathrooms and kitchens, and none of the promised public facilities, such as laundry rooms or play rooms, in working order.  Their complaints to the Fred French Company fell on deaf (and apparently rude and dismissive) ears.  French and co may have forgotten that they weren’t dealing with the poorest of the poor here – a large number of Knickerbocker Village tenants were lawyers and journalists – and within weeks they’d joined together to form a rent strike and a highly visible political and press campaign against the building.  It was a campaign they won, with management agreeing to repairs and reimbursements (some $25,000 in total) within 6 weeks of the rent strike.  The successful tenants were emboldened to form a permanent Knickerbocker Village Tenants Association, to undertake a program of cultural and educational activities within the development (albeit with an activist tilt).  The Fred French Company wasn’t impressed and fought back through various methods – denying meeting space, starting a rival tenants association, and ultimately declining to renew the lease of a number of tenant association leaders.  The association sued to force renewal of the leases and though they lost the court case, the move by the Fred French Company backfired – the “eviction” of these tenants caused so much sympathy that the tenants association grew to over a thousand members.  Leaders of the group would go on to help form the Citywide Tenants Council in the late 1930s – a group we’ll hopefully explore more a little later.

Because as always there’s too much to follow in one sitting here.  Knickerbocker Village was also where Julius and Ethel Rosenberg lived, before they were arrested and executed as alleged Soviet spies in the early 1950s (see what happens when you start a tenants association?).  Knickerbocker Village was also home to numerous members of the Bonanno Crime Family, including Benjamin Ruggiero, portrayed by Al Pacino in the movie Donnie Brasco (see what happens when you start a tenants association?).  And today (and for some time) Knickerbocker Village has been part of the Mitchell-Lama program, which is something I definitely want to write about someday.  And then there’s all the other things of course that don’t even have to do with housing!  I know I tend to end too many of these with exclamation points, but why not?  It’s spring again!  It’s in the 60s!  Okay, okay, calm down. I’m gonna end this one with a semicolon. ; Damn. ;

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!

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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.

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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.

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?