December 2008

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And it should be a happy one indeed, considering the change of administration headed our way. (In the picture above, folks are celebrating the arrival of 1938.)

I don’t have much to offer by way of Year in Review. I’ll send you here and here and here for good ones instead.

I will note, though, that we’ve finished the year stronger than we started here at AHNY. Our first post of 2008 announced the table of contents for our Cambridge Companion to the Literatures of New York City. We’re happy to report a year later that the manuscript is on schedule to be delivered late next month, which puts it about a year away from actual publication.

For most of the spring, we posted only in relation to our Writing New York course — blurbs on our weekly films, etc. But around July we began posting almost daily on a wider variety of topics, and I’m glad to say we’ve been able to keep the habit. Stay tuned as we attempt to do the same while actually teaching the course in the coming semester.

As for favorites, my favorite thing Cyrus posted last year had to do with Corlears Hook; runners up included his series of posts on Moby-Dick adaptations. My favorite from among my own posts had to do with the angel at the Bethesda Fountain, followed by the post on the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality. We’d be happy to hear from you if there were things here you particularly enjoyed — and hope to provide more of the same (and some things new) in the coming year!

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Lost City had better luck than I when it came to dragging progeny to the MTA’s recent (and annual) moving museum — a 1930s subway train that ran, each of the past several Sundays, on the V line between 2nd Ave in Manhattan and Queensboro Plaza.

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If you, too, missed the ride, you can still catch — in addition to LC’s account and a more humorous one by East Village Idiot — a bonus video of the working ceiling fan, spinning just inches above straphangers’ heads. Reminds me of the spinning shadows in the subway scenes from Pickup on South Street (1953). When I first saw that film I thought the subway ceiling fans were somehow a production goof introduced via a fake subway car set!

Photo from stationstops.com

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Lots of folks have ably blogged the death of the old South Ferry station, which will close sometime in late January. (My favorites were from Forgotten NY and Second Avenue Sagas.) It’s on my list of things to do with the kids over the break to go see the old station before it’s gone.

Among the best things people can say about the new terminal are that a) it’s clean — though some say “sterile,” like an Apple store; b) it will shave approximately six minutes off the full 7th Avenue commute (for those Staten Islanders who work at 242nd Street); and c) it’s ADA-compliant. The last is certainly something to appreciate.

Among the old treasures that will be lost to the public, though, are the fifteen ornate Heins and LaFarge ceramic plaques depicting a sloop in the harbor:

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The old station will apparently be used to store extra trains to dispatch during rush hour. I imagine it will become a destination for those who scheme for peeks at the forbidden NYC underground — the way the old City Hall station is now.

What’s been less discussed in the hubbub over the new terminal are the things uncovered during excavation. The MTA’s own site has a useful overview, and the rhetoric, at least, is friendly to archaeology and history, unusual for NYC construction projects.

The most major find during the dig, back in the fall of 2005, was a major chunk of the old Battery Wall, a colonial era bulwark that ringed the lower tip of the Island. From the MTA site:

[T]he battery would have had cannon mounted along it to fire at enemy
ships. Four different sections of the battery wall have been found,
spanning a distance of almost 600 feet. It ranges from about 8 to 10
feet wide. The largest section is about 75 feet long and up to four
feet high, although it would have been much higher when it was built.

The version of the Battery Wall unearthed during construction probably dates to the middle of the eighteenth century and would have been built before the Revolutionary War and was partially demolished and buried when the area was filled in the early nineteenth century to create Battery Park.

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The Battery was, at least during the post-Revolutionary years, a popular promenade. After the war, barracks that had housed British troops during the occupation were pulled down, elm trees were planted, and the walk from the Bowling Green to the Battery was transformed into “one of the most delightful walks, perhaps in the world,” according to one city newspaper.

Anyone who’s read Royall Tyler’s 1787 play The Contrast, celebrated as the first play by an American playwright to be staged by professional actors, will recall that it opens with one of the leads, the coquettish Charlotte, recounting for a friend the previous night’s walk on the Battery:

It would have delighted you to have seen me
the last evening, my charming girl! I was dangling
o’er the battery with Billy Dimple; a knot of young
fellows were upon the platform; as I passed them I
faultered with one of the most bewitching false steps
you ever saw, and then recovered myself with such a
pretty confusion, flirting my hoop to discover a jet
black shoe and brilliant buckle. Gad! how my little
heart thrilled to hear the confused raptures of–
“Demme, Jack, what a delicate foot!”  “Ha! Gen-
eral, what a well-turned–“

Her friend stops her, scandalized: “Fie, fie, Charlotte! I protest you are quite a libertine!”

01Battery_Wall.jpgPortions of the newly-discovered Battery have been preserved in the mezzanine wall of the new station.

Thumbnail image for medallion1.jpgWhat else has turned up at the old Battery? Pottery shards, bones, over-sized oyster shells, and yellow bricks used in Dutch construction. One fun find is a “counter,” or non-negotiable coin, commemorating the 1758 British capture of the French Fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia.

But it’s hard not to think about what will be lost, especially when you compare the old signage with the new:

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Could they at least photograph the old station lettering, the way they’re apparently doing at some stops in Brooklyn?

Photos from MTA, Forgotten NY, and NY1

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City Ham

I’m setting about making a white bean and ham soup, with leftovers from yesterday’s Christmas dinner.

This year’s ham came, I’m afraid to confess, from Whole Foods on the Bowery, a store with which I have an increasingly conflicted relationship (meaning I use it more than I should). The little pig was was tasty enough — I glazed it with brown sugar, dijon mustard, and fig preserves — and I’m sure the remains will make for a lovely soup. But I did feel a little guilty about the Whole Foods thing. While I was throwing about online for ideas about preparing what I’d bought, I made the realization (via this piece from the Times a couple years back) that I should have made my purchase at the East Village Meat Market or another local butcher. Oh, well. Next year. Or maybe I’ll actually go for the traditional goose.

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For more on how ham became a favored American food, see this recent piece by the cultural historian and literary critic David Shields.

And what was on your holiday table?

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St. Nicholas

Last night’s bedtime story was our annual reading of Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Our favorite edition these days is the wonderful pop-up version created by Robert Sabuda and titled The Night Before Christmas Pop-up.

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Afterward, I thought about updating the verses …

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were laid on the table with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of Bakugan rolled in their heads;
And my wife with her laptop, and I with a pen,
Were settling in for the finale of Mad Men  . . .

My older son is just on the verge of no longer believing in Santa. He tells me that more than half his classmates think “it’s just your parents.” By an act of sheer willpower, he’s chosen to believe for another year.

St. Nicholas wasn’t always associated with Christmas. In fact, he was brought to America by John Pintard, who had founded the New-York Historical Society in 1804. Pintard sought to make St. Nicholas the patron saint of New York City and the symbol of the Historical Society, which voted in 1809 to name the saint — in Dutch, Sancte Claus — the patron of New Amsterdam, retroactively.

The transformation of St. Nicholas into Santa Claus was helped along by
Washington Irving, who published his comic Knickerbocker’s History of New
York
— in part a response to the Historical Society’s call for archival information  — on St. Nicholas’ Day in 1809. The book contained numerous
references to St. Nicholas, depicted as Dutch burgher, a trickster with
pipe. St. Nicholas’ Day was traditionally celebrated on December 6.

The following year the Society sponsored the publication of a broadside (funded by Pintard) that featured a bilingual (Dutch/English) poem that began: “Sancte Claus goed heylig man” (“Saint Nicholas good holy man”). It was accompanied by an illustration that showed Santa Claus bringing gifts to children on St. Nicholas’ Day.

st_nick_broadside.jpgIt was, however, Moore’s poem, published in 1823, that
completed the transformation of St. Nicholas into the jolly red-suited
figure who brings gifts on Christmas Eve. Moore was a friend of Pintard’s and an arch-conservative who opposed the abolition of slavery. In the annals of American poetry, Moore was a one-hit wonder, but like Ernest Lawrence Thayer with “Casey at the Bat,” the one poem is a classic of American popular culture.

The best history of the transformation of St. Nicholas and the American celebration of Christmas is Stephen Nissenbaum’s The
Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Christmas that
Shows How It Was Transformed from an Unruly Carnival Season into the
Quintessential American Family Holiday
(1996). You can also find information online at the St. Nicholas Center: see, in particular, their page on “St. Nicholas and the Origin of Santa Claus.”

And yes, Santa did come to our house this year, and he did bring Bakugan. And Lego sets. Ho, ho, ho!

Broadcast in December 1948, and starring the same actors as the film from the previous year, a Lux Radio Theatre radio play of Miracle on 34th Street, in seven parts. Part the first:

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One of my favorite moments in Ric Burns’s New York: A Documentary Film comes near the end of the episode on the fight over Robert Moses’s proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have cut a huge swath through the old Cast Iron District (now known as SoHo) in order to build an elevated, supposedly high-speed freeway that would have connected the bridges on the East side to the tunnels on the West.

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The plan was opposed vigorously during a six-hour knock-down-drag-out fight at City Hall in early December 1962, during which Assemblyman Louis DeSalvio famously called Robert Moses a “cantankerous, stubborn old man” and said the time had come for him to release his grip on the city’s development. (The plan was on-again-off-again for almost another decade.) Burns follows the announcement of the proposal’s defeat with some news footage in which an older downtown resident, looking a bit of the gentleman bum with hat in hand, New York accent thick as lower Manhattan fog, says something like: “This’ll be the best Christmas present the people on Broome Street ever had!”

I think of that old fellow quite often when I walk through my neighborhood — most of which used to be part of a more sprawling Little Italy. The building I live in on Broome Street, along with the rest of the buildings on the north side of the street for several blocks, would have been razed to complete Moses’s moronic shrine to the automobile. I wonder if that old man lived to the end of the decade, when the completion of Southbridge Towers down by the seaport — built on 16 acres of demolished waterfront warehouses and tenements — led to a mass exodus from Little Italy. Or did he hang out up here? Are his kids still in the neighborhood, or did they move to larger spaces way out in Brooklyn?

A few old timers still inhabit our neighborhood. You see them around some of the restaurants and bars, which, truth be told, we pretty much avoid. You see some older ladies in the grocery store or on occasion hanging out a fourth-floor window watching the supermodels walking dogs and shoppers consult guidebooks on the streets below. I see one older resident on occasion when I bike my daughter to school. She scowls at us and clutches her little dog close if I pop the bike on the sidewalk to avoid traffic, exactly the sort of thing old ladies in neighborhoods should do in response to obnoxious newcomers.

esb_little_italy_3jan04.jpgAs annoying as festival season can be in Little Italy, what with all the sloughed off oil and puke in the gutters come morning, I love the street decorations and the Christmas music rising from loudspeakers on the corner or, better yet, from an occasional strolling brass ensemble. This is one moment in the season, too, when you can tell where the old timers actually live: they tend to decorate their fire escapes early in December, lights and fake pine garlands wrapping cast iron bars and ringing windows, giant cardboard candy canes wired firmly in place.

The intrepid writermama, who’s much better than I am about carrying a camera to catch candid shots of Lower East Side life — evidence of magic that still remains in crevices and corners — took this shot of a tenement on Mott Street, below Houston, my favorite set of holiday decorations this season. (At least I’m pretty sure that’s the building she’s caught here! If not, there’s one a lot like it.) I’d like to think these lights have gone up like this as long as anyone can remember.

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What do the old timers do in your neighborhood this season?

Photo of Empire State Building from Little Italy via Wired New York. 

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Our friend Mannahattamamma has begun writing for the New York City Mom’s Blog, a collective of bloggers that is affiliated with a larger network of blogs called the Silicon Valley Moms Group. The New York bloggers describe themselves as “a collaborative group of women living or working in New York City. They wrestle strollers down subway stairs and struggle with taxi cabs
on every corner. But whether they™re parenting without backyards,
extra storage space or carpools, or enjoying their recent escapes to
the suburbs in spite of their horrific commutes, these moms are living
proof that ‘the city never sleeps.'” The writers include businesswomen, freelancers of various kinds, full-time moms, journalists, professors — all of whom offer observations on the ups and downs of parenting in the City with humor and even poignancy.

The Silicon Valley Moms Group features some 300 writers — all “opinionated moms” — whose posts “the ups, downs, outrages, struggles, victories, and the everyday humor of motherhood.” The related sites include the Chicago Moms Blog, the DC Metro Moms Blog, New Jersey Moms Blog, the 50-Something Moms Blog, the Deep South Moms Blog, and the Los Angeles Moms Blog. Sites devoted to Philadelphia and the Rocky Mountain area are planned for next year.

Mannahattamamma’s latest post for NYCMB is about finding unexpected holiday cheer during walk through Union Square with her younger son. An excerpt:

At home, we’d been passing around a nasty stomach bug, which had
attacked me all day Monday, and now I was ready to eat something but
nothing sounded right … in short, by Tuesday evening, I was grumpy,
cold, and hungry — utterly devoid of holiday spirit.

To make matters worse, I had to pick Caleb up at nursery school,
which meant slogging through the after-work crowds in Union Square, and
walking past Blue Water Grill, which sits on the edge of the Square and
has big windows looking out onto 16th street. Walking past the
restaurant, especially in the winter dark, I always want to press my
nose against the glass and gaze inside, past the blue-lit Christmas
trees that decorate the terrace. Who are those people, lounging inside at 5 o’clock on a weekday?

You can see all of her posts by clicking here.

artbook_2029_38437712.jpgWatching Wild Combination last week, I had my curiosity piqued by references to a club called Tier 3. I’d heard the name before, but never really paid too much attention — it seemed third tier to more famous (and more fully chronicled) places like Mudd Club, CBGB, etc. More references turned up last week, though, in a book I bought as a Christmas gift for a friend: Soul Jazz Publishing’s New York Noise: Art and Music from the New York Underground, 1978-88.  (Review here. Fun fact: I once played in a band with someone featured in the volume.)

I’m sad to admit I didn’t even know where Tier 3 was located. So I poked around. God bless the internets.

Turns out it was an early TriBeCa club, West Broadway and White, that catered to post-punk/new wave acts, a lot of them British acts that provided the soundtrack to my teenage years in faraway rural Arizona. Post-punk photo chronicler Eugene Merinov has a set of Bauhaus photos online from a 1981 gig.

Must be something in the air right now about Tier 3 nostalgia; the current issue of the online music magazine Perfect Sound Forever has a profile on the club by Andy Schwartz, based primarily on an interview with founding booker Hilary Jaeger. The piece is part of an ongoing series about defunct NYC venues. Hilary recalls the club’s origins:

I was waitressing at the L&M Coffee Shop, at
Second Avenue and 10th Street, and I had a friend named June
Giarratano. Her mother, Kathleen Giarratano, and Kathleen’s friend
Maureen Cooper somehow got the lease and the liquor license for Tier 3.
June told me they needed a waitress, and I started working there in
March or April 1979… TriBeCa at that point was just a no-man’s-land.
There was hardly anybody there.

You walked up a few steps to enter the place, and
the bar was on the right-hand side of a sort of narrow room. We built a
DJ booth to the left, and behind that a couple of booths with bench
seating. The whole space was divided by a half-wall, so you could see
over and into the rectangular space where the bands played, to the left
and a few steps down. Because of how low the ceilings were, the stage
was only about ten inches off the floor and maybe fifteen feet wide.

I don’t who named it Tier 3, but in fact it did have
three levels. The second floor was a more brightly lit room with tables
and chairs. People didn’t really go to the third floor–there were
bathrooms up there, and a disco ball, and in the very beginning there
was a DJ booth there. At some point we showed films there, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. God knows what else went on up there!

There were really very few places to play in
Manhattan at that moment–basically C.B.G.B., Max’s, and Hurrah. The
Mudd Club was open, but I don’t think they were doing a lot of live
bookings at the time. My sister [singer Angela Jaeger] was in bands and
my friends were in bands and I was completely involved in music. Tier 3
was obviously an auspicious space in which to do something.

New York acts featured regularly: dB’s, DNA, The Stimulators, The Bush Tetras, 8 Eyed Spy with Lydia Lunch, The
Raybeats;
UK bands included the Raincoats, the Slits,
the Pop Group, Delta 5, Young Marble Giants, A Certain Ratio, Bauhaus, and Madness.

All this talk about new wave in TriBeCa reminded me of the great little 10-minute film Soul Jazz included on their ACR compilation Early a few years back. It intersperses footage of the band banging out beats in their TriBeCa loft with a performance at Hurrah’s, the famed “punk disco” venue on W. 62nd Street. The YouTube embedding is disabled; link here.

ACR’s MySpace page has this recollection of the early 80s downtown scene:

In late 1980, the [band relocated] from post-punk Manchester to the
hustle-bustle of the Big Apple, New York City. Romantic Mancunians love
to ponder the similarities between the two cities, the skyline over
Hulme, the great canals running through the cities (born from their
mutual industrial heritage), the fantastic nightlife. Realistic Mancs
know the score — Manchester is fuck-all like New York, but it looks
good in print. The band played gigs with local funk-machine ESG, along
with a fledgling New Order and a little known support act by the name
of Madonna.

For the intellectually and musically curious, our friends at Fales Library and Special Collections have compiled a set of resources for studying the scene.



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Thumbnail image for caledonia.jpgJeremiah Moss at Vanishing New York has a justified rant up about the use of books in promoting luxury lifestyles. Such trends seem of a piece with efforts to market downtown luxury living by appealing to “history” and to a neighborhood’s “bohemian” past — only to have the arrival of such luxury behemoths presage the death of a neighborhood’s distinctive character. They’re also, as JM blogged so entertainingly some time ago, in character with luxury settings that not only displace neighborhood bookstores, but masquerade as them as well. And then there are luxury settings that lead to the closing of libraries.

Apparently the glossy new building The Caledonia, in the meatpacking district — which does, in fact, advertise itself as offering “a new exciting style of living
in a historic downtown location” — boasts a sort of library (or “culture lounge”) as a “literary backdrop” for its residents. Only thing is, it’s sponsored by a publisher of extraordinarily expensive, self-congratulatory design books targeting wealthy readers, and they’re much more “backdrop” than “literary.” Jeremiah laments:

That’s because the books here are provided by Assouline, a publisher of objets that are meant to be seen and looked at, not so much read. They sell themselves as “the first luxury brand in the world that has used its publications as medium.” They have a boutique in Dubai and another just opened in the new Plaza condo. Some of their books come wrapped in Chanel and Coach leather jackets.

Their subjects cater to the affluent and the aspirational. A few sample titles: Megalomania: Too Much Is Never Enough; High Society: The History of America’s Upper Class; and A Privileged Life: Celebrating WASP Style.

A couple of taglines: New York was vulgar, flashy and vibrant” and “Megalomania: excess, folly, splendor, vulgarity.”

He concludes by asking: “Might there not be something vulgar about turning books into shiny
objects without substance for the sole purpose of displaying wealth?” And while I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment, I’m also struck that such conspicuous literary consumption has long been associated with the hazards of new fortunes in the city. (In Boston, too, for that matter.) Some old New York problems apparently won’t go away, though in our day they’ve clearly been taken from personal to corporate levels.

As an antidote, I’d recommend a new mural housed in the belly of the beast — the 30’x10′ mural At Home with Their Books, by artist Elena Climent [slideshow] — recently installed on the ground floor of 19 University Place, where our offices are located. The titles represented there, we hope, could actually lead a viewer to a library or bookstore to satisfy his or her curiosity about New York’s literary heritage. Let’s just hope the exhibit is open to the public from closer range than the sidewalk! (If it’s not, I’ll complain!)

Update: Promoted from comments, TMK reminds us about Gatsby’s library, as well.

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