February 2009

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what right broadway1.jpgEarlier this week Mayor Bloomberg announced a major makeover for a good stretch of Broadway (between Herald Square and Columbus Circle), designed to offer more pedestrian space and safer biking. From Transportation Alternatives’ StreetBeat:

Broadway and the great public squares that it joins
will be reclaimed as pedestrian space. What was once the Wickquasgeck
Trail will once again become New York City’s great walking street. The
pilot project will be implemented by the DOT this spring, transforming
sections of Broadway in Times Square and Herald Square into pedestrian
zones. The stretches of Broadway between Columbus Circle and Times
Square, and between Times Square and Herald Square, will be endowed
with protected bike lanes, increased pedestrian space, and local
traffic-only vehicle access.

Will people start strutting in their Sunday best?

Previously on AHNY.

And elsewhere.

Oh, and one more for good measure.




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We spent quite a bit of time on this passage from Stephen Crane’s Maggie in lecture on Wednesday:

Evenings during the week [Pete] took [Maggie] to see plays in
which the brain-clutching heroine was rescued from the palatial home of
her guardian, who is cruelly after her bonds, by the hero with the
beautiful sentiments. The latter spent most of his time out at soak in
pale-green snow storms, busy with a nickel-plated revolver, rescuing
aged strangers from villains.

Maggie lost herself in sympathy with the wanderers
swooning in snow storms beneath happy-hued church windows. And a choir
within singing “Joy to the World.” To Maggie and the rest of the
audience this was transcendental realism. Joy always within, and they,
like the actor, inevitably without. Viewing it, they hugged themselves
in ecstatic pity of their imagined or real condition.

The girl thought the arrogance and granite-heartedness
of the magnate of the play was very accurately drawn. She echoed the
maledictions that the occupants of the gallery showered on this
individual when his lines compelled him to expose his extreme
selfishness.

Shady persons in the audience revolted from the
pictured villainy of the drama. With untiring zeal they hissed vice and
applauded virtue. Unmistakably bad men evinced an apparently sincere
admiration for virtue.

The loud gallery was overwhelmingly with the
unfortunate and the oppressed. They encouraged the struggling hero with
cries, and jeered the villain, hooting and calling attention to his
whiskers. When anybody died in the pale-green snow storms, the gallery
mourned. They sought out the painted misery and hugged it as akin.

In the hero’s erratic march from poverty in the first
act, to wealth and triumph in the final one, in which he forgives all
the enemies that he has left, he was assisted by the gallery, which
applauded his generous and noble sentiments and confounded the speeches
of his opponents by making irrelevant but very sharp remarks. Those
actors who were cursed with villainy parts were confronted at every
turn by the gallery. If one of them rendered lines containing the most
subtile distinctions between right and wrong, the gallery was
immediately aware if the actor meant wickedness, and denounced him
accordingly.

The last act was a triumph for the hero, poor and of
the masses, the representative of the audience, over the villain and
the rich man, his pockets stuffed with bonds, his heart packed with
tyrannical purposes, imperturbable amid suffering.

Maggie always departed with raised spirits from the showing places of the melodrama. She rejoiced at the way in which the poor and virtuous eventually surmounted the wealthy and wicked. The theater made her think. She wondered if the culture and refinement she had imitated, perhaps grotesquely, by the heroine on the stage, could be acquired by a girl who lived in a tenement house and worked in a shirt factory.

I love his description of Maggie’s desire for some sort of upward mobility, though we’re painfully aware already that her hopes are most likely to be dashed. And so the scene comes to illustrate something of the false promise of consumer society. In lecture, Cyrus talked about this as related to poor folks who vote against their class interests and put Republicans in office — simply on the promise that they, too, may be rich one day, and if they were, they wouldn’t want government overtaxing them. (We’ll see if such attitudes shift once the recession we’re in really settles in. My guess is that more and more voters will come to back plans to tax the wealthy to fund things like universal health care.)

But back to the nineteenth-century city. I’m struck that Maggie’s situation is rather different than the one for middle-class theater-goers a couple decades earlier. For one, the display she’s watching isn’t simply a depiction of working-class triumph over oppression: it’s the promise that the meek will inherit all the wealth the city has to offer. It’s the promise of moving up in the world, not just having one’s virtue vindicated. It strikes me that this is rather different than what middle-class viewers get out of a play like The Poor of New York, by Dion Boucicault, popular from the late 1850s to the 70s. First staged in 1857, in the midst of an economic panic, the play was based closely on a French melodrama from the previous year, The Poor of Paris, and subsequently was staged in London and as elsewhere as The Poor of London, etc. The transportability of the play reminds us that “mysteries of the city” fiction and other peeps into urban underworlds emerged in Paris and London either in advance or around the same time they did in New York. Poe’s story “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” set in Paris, was based on a real New York murder case. Realist fiction, like the rising profession of journalism, aimed to expose what had previously remained in the city’s darkest corners.

A huge gulf separates the middle-class melodrama of The Poor of New York and Maggie, however. Unlike Boucicault, Crane is careful to show the effects of a rising culture of consumption (including the effects of melodrama like Boucicault’s) on the lowest members of society, whereas for Boucicault, the truly poor are members of the middle class who have become disinherited in the economic downturn.

Here’s what I have to say, in my piece for our Cambridge Companion, about that play and another like it, Augustin Daly’s Under the Gaslight (the play that launches Dreiser’s Sister Carrie’s ambition to become an actress at the turn of the century):

Sensation plays contained no direct assault on money or fashion. Rather, the most virtuous are uniformly shown to be deserving of wealth, even if economic misfortune has stripped them of it. The real crime in these plays lies in social cruelty, not inequality. When Laura, the heroine of Gaslight, is temporarily thought to be low-born, the ladies of New York’s old money families are “insulted by the girl’s presence” and conspire to exile her.  Her fiancé, though he compares society to a pack of wolves, finds himself unable to defend her in the moment of her exposure. Still, he accurately diagnoses the problem: “Laura has mocked [society] with a pretense, and society, which is made up of pretenses, will bitterly resent the mockery.” In the world of sensation plays, there is no attempt to undo or resist society’s theatricality; it has long since been taken for granted. Either one is born for the role or not. Resolution comes for Laura and her lover only because her aristocratic lineage–which she deserves because she is virtuous–is eventually proven. (Her virtue alone would not have earned her the happy conclusion.) A similar end comes to the hero of The Poor of New York, who has meanwhile complained that the “most miserable of the poor of New York” are not the permanently impoverished but rather those who have lost fortunes in the recent economic downturn; these true unfortunates are bound by politeness to “drag from their pockets their last quarter to cast it with studied carelessness to the beggar at home whose mattress is lined with gold.”

Though Boucicault aimed at realism in one sense — his sensation play featured a highly realistic tenement fire, one of the drama’s major draws — it’s clear that his interest in the realities of class-based experience in the city, in the actual poor of New York, is nothing like Crane’s. Rather, considering the two together seems to seal the deal that the cultural workings of theater at century’s end served precisely to numb the poor to their plight by making them consumers of the theater as much as anything else, of goods that promise to lift you up. In the theater Maggie imagines a fantasy of wealth just waiting to trickle down and be inherited. What chance could she have in such a world?

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WNY Maggie

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Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

Today’s lecture in Writing New York takes us from Jamesian realism to naturalism, via Jacob Riis and Stephen Crane’s Maggie. We’re using the Bedford cultural edition of Crane’s novel, which allows us to set the novel into both its literary historical and its cultural contexts. It also offers the students a model that they can use for their final projects: one of the options is to create a mini cultural edition for one of the texts in the class.

We begin with Ric Burns’s vivid account of Riis from New York: A Documentary Film, but this year I’ve decided to postpone a discussion of the formal Riis photography until next week, when our subject for both lectures is Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Today, I’ll be doing a little more with Courbet to get across the meaning of naturalism.

Part of what I like to think about with Wharton is the ways in which her novel responds to challenges not only from modernism but also from visual culture. So it’ll be an opportunity to think about the realism and naturalism of painting (via Bouguereau and Courbet), photography (via Riis), and film (via accounts of early film and comparisons of the novel’s techniques to those of  Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation).

With Crane today, I’m going to try to get across the ways in which Crane’s philosophical determinism is tempered by ironic formal techniques that offer the hope that literary fiction might serve as an agent of social change, over against the kind of popular culture that creates false hopes for people like Maggie. My favorite of Crane’s techniques is synesthesia, in which one form of sensory experience is depicted through the invocation of another. Here are the first two paragraphs of the novel:

A very little boy stood upon a heap of gravel for the honor of Rum Alley. He was throwing stones at howling urchins from Devil’s Row who were circling madly about the heap and pelting at him.

His infantile countenance was livid with fury. His small body was writhing in the delivery of great, crimson oaths. [Emphasis added.]

Crane goes on to use color imagery to heighten his melodramatic effects so that the novel almost feels like a work of expressionism.

I remember that the first time we taught Writing New York, we used a paperback of edition of Maggie that used the later version of the text — from which many sexually suggestive phrases and passages and almost all of the melodramatic color imagery had been expurgated. I, however, had based my lecture on the first edition. So when I began talking about the color imagery, the students looked at me as if I were going off the deep end. Nothing worse than having to say to 120 students, “Well, if you had read the original edition, you would have found that …”

(Note: Updated w/ pictures and links)

As Cyrus noted yesterday, and as Meg indicated in her lecture to our students on Monday, we take the setting for James’s Washington Square to be anything but incidental. To push that point a little harder I want to offer a chronology of the Square’s history, adapted from Emily Kies Folpe’s It Happened on Washington Square (Hopkins, 2002). One of the things I’m hoping to suggest here is that Dr. Sloper’s preoccupation with surfaces — both as a physiognomist and in his attention to the exterior details of his houses — is related to the efforts of urban planners to make over the Square, to give it a pretty surface. But, as recent construction efforts in the Square have reminded us, the spot has a rather spotty history, one that belies Sloper’s confidence in surface appearance.

The chronology:

1797-1822: New York suffers recurring yellow fever epidemics, with particularly bad years in 1798, 1805, and 1822. Washington Square, as Meg noted, is used in this period as a “Potter’s Field,” a place to bury the poor, slaves, criminals, the unknown dead, and undesirables generally. Public hangings take place at the northwest corner of the Square. During the 1822 epidemic, residents flee deeper into what is now the West Village, where new homes and businesses quickly spring up.

1825: Nearly full, Potter’s Field is officially closed and no more burials are permitted. As the growing city fills in the gap between lower Manhattan and the Village, city officials look to develop Potter’s Field.
 
1826: The Common Council votes to turn the Potter’s Field into a military parade ground, then a public park. This attracts the attention of wealthy businessmen, who soon fill up the houses in the surrounding area.

1831: The state legislature grants a charter to the University of the City of New York (later NYU). The first group of students begins classes the following year.
 
row.jpg1829-1833: “The Row” built at the North side of the square, numbers 1-13. Numbers 18-26 (1829-1839) are also red brick, Greek Revival style. (The 1830s witnessed a burst of Greek Revival architecture in New York; the style can be taken as a statement of republican civic virtue, of the sort Dr. Sloper fancies himself to possess.) Number 18, demolished to accommodate 2 Fifth Ave., was James’s grandmother’s home. Through much of the 19th century, the north side continued to attract rich and leading citizens, while the south side was populated with immigrants living in tenements.

1834: Stonecutters’ Riot breaks out in response to tensions over free labor versus convict labor (see my previous notes on marble quarried by Sing Sing convicts). Dispute arises out of the University’s decision to rely on convict labor in erecting new school buildings. As our colleague Daniel Walkowitz writes: “The events surrounding the [riot] make it clear that both military authority and the economic achievement of the mercantile class were real, but that the enduring order they attempted to project and defend was only that — an image.”

1835: The Morning Herald declares: “The most fashionable end of town is now decidedly Washington Square and the surrounding neighborhood. … The elegance and beauty of this section cannot be surpassed in the country.”

nyu1850.jpg1837: NYU’s original “University Building,” pictured at left, begins construction. (Demolished in 1894 and replaced by Main Building, now known as “Silver.”)

1843: April 15. Henry James is born at 21 Washington Place.

1849: May 10. Riot at Astor Place Opera House, which we’ve posted about before. James’s family lives on 14th Street at 6th Ave.

1850s: Immigrants begin filling up tenements on Bleecker Street, find work at nearby factories. Many aristocrats choose to move uptown to escape the industrialization, and the park slowly falls into disrepair.

1861-65: The Square deteriorates further from heavy use as a training ground for Union soldiers during the Civil War.
 
[Here’s where we move beyond the novel’s setting, but not yet its composition]

1870: Washington Square redesigned: strict symmetry of the old parade ground rejected in favor of curving pathways outlined by plantings and interrupted by small, round gathering places.

1873: Economic downturn throws the neighborhood around the Square into disrepair and increases class tensions.

1875: Unable to afford living in New York, James moves to Europe, where he will remain nearly all his life.

1880: Washington Square serialized simultaneously in American and England.

[Now we’ve moved slightly beyond the chronology that concerns the novel’s plot or production]:

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1889: Arch in Washington Square commemorates the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration as president.

How can this overview help us read James’s novel?

The chronology suggests, first of all, that the Square and its inhabitants are deeply bound up with commercial culture. The Square is enabled by mercantile interests, even as Dr. Sloper imagines that it serves as a shelter from the commercial culture found farther downtown.

If the Doctor sees Washington Square as representing a model of bourgeois privacy or domesticity, we need to think more carefully about what’s being kept out of his sanctuary. The answer is pretty much everything we’ve been talking about in class for the last several weeks: poverty, disorder, riots, immigrants, the whole Five Points shebang. 1834, the year before Sloper moves his family up to the Square, was known as the year of the riots, and yet, as Walkowitz notes, the merchant class labored mightily to create an image of containment and contentment in their newly renovated neighborhood.

In spite of the narrator’s efforts to make it seem otherwise, the Square, in the 1830s, doesn’t yet have a “social history,” at least not in the sense he and Sloper value; the new inhabitants invent the appearance of one and use it to cover a different kind of social history: one of class division, crime, slavery, disease.

We can also see again that Sloper’s genteel flight uptown isn’t much different than his nephew Arthur Townsend’s. Arthur “always tr[ies] to keep up with the new things of every kind” and wants to move uptown. (He also cites Longfellow inappropriately, suggesting he’s not too bright.) But we also read early in the novel that the houses on Washington Square North, when Sloper moved there, were supposed “to embody the last results of arch
itectural science.” They are the “new things of every kind” in 1835; they only have the “look” of a social history, although the novel, like the Square, works hard to make you forget this. Please ignore the bodies under the sidewalks and pretty bushes.

This little sleight of hand trick is crucial to understanding the novel and its characters. In spite of the fact that he works to create a safe, domestic, interior space, the Doctor is consumed with appearances, surfaces. The exteriors of his houses speak to this, especially the one in Washington Square, with a front balcony and drawing-room windows: his interiors and the house’s occupants and goods will be on display. We would call this, following the turn-of-the-century cultural theorist Thorstein Veblen, conspicuous consumption. He has a fondness (like the even wealthier tennants of nearby Colonnade Row) for marble–stone that’s susceptible, as are people, to polishing. His preoccupation with exteriors makes him believe he can see through false facades. He thinks he can read immutable aspects of personality–Morris’s “vulgar nature”–simply by scrutinizing his facial features.

But the park has taught us that surfaces can deceive even careful observors. Are people what they appear to be on the surface? (Morris may well be, in which case the Doctor needs to ask whether he knows what’s going on beneath Catherine’s rather simple appearance.) Sloper himself eventually admits to his daughter that he isn’t everything he has appeared to be: in that horrifying scene in the Alps he says to her: “I am not a very good man.” This confession unsettles her. Things may not be what they appear. “Men so clever as he,” she thinks, “might say anything and mean anything.” And neighborhoods as pretty as the Square might be covering up all sorts of meanings as well.

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Henry James, age 70, painted by John Singer Sargent.

Today’s lecture in our Writing New York course is devoted to Henry James’s Washington Square, and it’ll be given by one of our teaching assistants, Meghan Hammond. We’ve typically stressed the importance of the title and the New York setting, in opposition to those critics who have suggested that the title and setting are incidental.

That view of the novel seems to be losing ground these days. Brian Lee, the editor of the Penguin edition that we used in the early years of the course, begins his introduction to the novel by citing this critical tradition: “One of the criticisms that has consistently been made of Washington Square is that its title gives a misleading clue to its contents. According to this view, the promise of social history, or, at least, a strong local interest is never fulfilled as it is in, say, The Bostonians.” Lee goes on to disagree, arguing that “the naive vigour and parochialism of mid-century New York is present in every line James writes.”

In the introduction to the new Penguin edition that we’re currently using, Martha Banta also cites the idea that the story James tells in the novel “could have taken place anywhere,” but like Lee argues that despite the “thinness of reference” to the New York setting, James chose his location deliberately and carefully: “Washington Square would help to provide the ‘scenic’ intensity he tried to introduce into all his tales.”

Readers who are interested in how the New York setting functions in the novel should take a look at the long paragraph in the third chapter that James’s narrator describes as a “topographical parenthesis.” Click on the continuation link to read it. Click here to read an e-text of the novel at Project Gutenberg.

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Blood on Wall Street

baker-650.jpgSaturday afternoon I took a small group of students on a walk from Broome Street south through the Civic Center, past City Hall, then down Broadway to the lowest tip of the island: destination, Melville’s birthplace. A good time was had by all.

While we were on Wall Street we talked briefly about the anarchist bombing of 1920, which left several dozen people dead or injured and pock marks that remain in the marble walls of the JP Morgan building, just across the street from the New York Stock Exchange.

By coincidence, the novelist Kevin Baker (Dreamland, Paradise Alley, Strivers Row) reviews a new book on this very event in today’s New York Times Book Review. The Day Wall Street Exploded, by Yale historian Beverly Gage, situates the bombing not only in its Red Scare context but also in the longer history of labor, unions, anti-union violence, and leftist terror tactics. The review begins:

At the stroke of noon on Sept. 16, 1920, a bomb exploded along Wall
Street, killing 38 people and maiming hundreds more. It was the worst
terrorist bombing in the United States until the Oklahoma City attack
in 1995, the worst in New York until the 9/11 attack on the World Trade
Center.

The bomb was an immeasurably cruel device, most likely dynamite tied to
iron sash weights that acted as shrapnel. It blew people apart where
they walked out on a cool, late-summer day, tore arms and legs, hands
and feet and scalps off living human beings. Others were beheaded or
eviscerated, or found themselves suddenly engulfed in flames. Still
more injuries were caused by a cascade of broken glass and the
terrified stampede that followed.

The rest of the review is here.

Someone asked when the NYSE buliding at Broad and Wall was erected. I promised to look up the answer and report back: according to the NYSE timeline it was 1903.

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While we’re on the topic of unique NYC architecture from the 19th century, I’ll throw out a link to the blog Colonnade Row — the only blog I follow that purports to be written by a dog (in this case, little Kirby Carnegie, an opinionated bulldog “trying to make sense of things around me!”).

The blog is written from — and named after — the remaining marble Greek Revival row houses on Lafayette Street below Astor Place, across the street from the Public Theater. Recently Kirby offered up what I think is the best “25 things” post ever, a list of odds and ends about the building he lives in. The list includes:

1. When it rains, the people on the top floor of my building have
to throw a nylon tarp over the front of the building to prevent water
from seeping in their windows and rotting their ceiling.
2.
 The fireplaces in the rear apartments began to crumble from inside a
few years ago and had to be sealed. They’re now unable to be used.
3.
 It is unlikely that the facade of the Colonnade will ever be restored.
 The limestone that was used was of poor quality and pollution and age
have rendered them beyond help.  Also, the two parties that own the
buildings will never be able to agree (or afford) the cost.
4.
 There are four separate townhouses in the remaining Colonnade,
although most people think it looks like one.  Originally there were
nine.  There is no connecting passage from within the buildings to each
other although the front balcony does run uninterrupted.

You can find the rest here.

The post prompted me to dig around online to find out a little bit more about the buildings’ history. A couple tidbits, especially ones that relate to my recent entries here:

For one, Colonnade Row, when it opened in the early 1830s was named La Grange Terrace, after Lafayette’s estate in France. It was originally built as part of the gentrification of Bowery-bordered neighborhoods. (The timeframe coincides as well with the gentrification of Washington Square, which has some important Greek Revival remnants of its own.)

John Jacob Astor lived in La Grange Terrace as an old man; the Public Theater inhabits a building he originally erected as the Astor Library in 1854; the Astor Place Opera House, roughly where the Starbucks is now, was erected in 1847. When Lafayette Place, as the street was formerly known, was first cut from Art Street (now Astor Place) to Great Jones Street in 1826–shortly following General Lafayette’s return tour of America in 1824-25–it reduced the size of Vauxhall Gardens by half. Lafayette Place was protected from traffic by virtue of its small size–it was only two blocks long–and the nine townhouses that made up Colonnade Row took up almost the entire length of the west side of the street between Art and 4th.

“Built of marble quarried by convict labor from Sing Sing prison,” as Eric Homberger notes in Mrs. Astor’s New York, “‘Colonnade Row’ was the grandest of all the nineteenth-century attempts to reproduce the upper-class townhouses and aristocratic neighborhoods of London and Paris.”

Famous residents, over time, included Astors, Vanderbilts, Morgans, Delanos (including FDR’s maternal grandparents), Washington Irving, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Julia Gardiner, who married the sitting U.S. President James Tyler in 1844. Charles Dickens stayed there during his trip to New York in 1842. Schermerhorns, mentioned in yesterday’s post, lived in the neighborhood.

There’s a great picture and map of the neighborhood in Homberger’s book. I’ve flagged the relevant pages here. The photo above comes from nyc-architecture.com.

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Channel 13’s latest installment of the online video series The City Concealed ventures into one of my hands-down favorite places in New York: the old Fulton Ferry Hotel rooms hidden above the South Street Seaport Museum (and several tacky mall shops) on Schermerhorn Row, Fulton Street between Water and South.

scherm1.jpgThe row of warehouse buildings and countinghouses, which date from 1811 to 1849 (they were built in sections, one at a time, eventually extending 600 feet into the East River), were landmarked in the late 1970s and partially restored in the early 1980s, when the seaport area was redeveloped for commercial tourist purposes. At least on the ground floors: the upper rooms remained largely untouched, as they had been for much of the twentieth century.

The ground floor of the South Street end of the Row had long been home to a restaurant called Sloppy Louie’s, which operated from 1930 to 1998. The restaurant, and the old hotel above, featured prominently in one of Joseph Mitchell’s most famous New Yorker essays, “Up In the Old Hotel” (1952). According to Mitchell, Louie Moreno liked knowing that his restaurant occupied space built by the nineteenth-century merchant Peter Schermerhorn; it made him feel a tie to Old New York. Mitchell’s piece starts out with a deliberate echo of Melville’s Moby-Dick:

Every now and then, seeking to rid my mind of thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market. I usually arrive around five-thirty, and take a walk through the two huge open-fronted sheds, the Old Market and the New Market, whose fronts rest on South Street and whose backs rest on piles in the East River. At that time, a little while before the trading begins, the stands in the sheds are heaped high and spilling over with forty to sixty kinds of finfish and shellfish from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast, and half a dozen foreign countries. The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me. I wander among the stands for an hour or so. Then I go into a cheerful market restaurant named Sloppy Louie’s and eat a big, inexpensive, invigorating breakfast–a kippered herring and scrambled eggs, or a shad-roe omelet, or split sea scallops and bacon, or some other breakfast specialty of the place.

I won’t spoil the essay; all you need to know is that its main event takes place when Mitchell and Sloppy Louie himself pull themselves up a dumbwaiter into the old, abandoned hotel Thumbnail image for sloppylouiematchbook.JPGrooms above — several of which remain intact today, preserved ruins belonging to the South Street Seaport Museum but only rarely opened to the public.

One of my great regrets in life is that I moved to the seaport neighborhood three years too late for breakfast at Sloppy Louie’s. I did get there in time, though, to witness the market in action. (It moved to Hunt’s Point in the Bronx, after many delays and much foot-dragging, in 2005, after having inhabited its spot at the seaport since 1822.) I took a group of students there early one November morning in the fall of 2004, and it looked and smelled just like it had to Mitchell half a century earlier. Our tourguide was the Museum’s historian, Jack Putnam, who can recite whole chapters of Moby-Dick from memory and who narrates the City Concealed segment in a dapper bowtie and some amazing fuchsia socks:


The City Concealed: Up in the Fulton Ferry Hotel from Thirteen.org on Vimeo.

I’ve also been lucky enough to take students on flashlight tours through the old hotel a handful of times in the last five or six years. Along with the small hotel rooms, some with wallpaper still peeling in multiple layers and dust caking in the corners, the space in the upper floors of Schermerhorn Row includes equipment used to sort and bag coffee beans coming off the ship and other evidence of the buildings’ many functions in the nineteenth century. My favorite part of the whole experience, though — and an aspect that didn’t make it into the segment — is the graffiti, much of it left by hotel residents, sailors, and workers in the countinghouses and coffee plant. A lot of it has Irish content, some of it complains of the bosses or pokes at the competition, but the best parts are the most juvenile: sailing vessels drawn onto the wall with someone’s name alongside them, the way a middle-schooler today might doodle a fantasy hot-rod; or an enormous cock, also (if memory serves) with a name attached. Maybe it was too much for Channel 13; we can only hope the Museum decides to preserve it as part of the planned permanent exhibit.

Schermerhorn Row image from New York Architecture Images; Sloppy Louie’s matchbook from Lost City.

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WNY Whitman

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The subject of my lecture this morning in our Writing New York class is “Walt Whitman: High and Low.” I’ll try to tell two intersecting stories about Whitman and U.S. literary history. The first is the “high” story about his engagement with New England Transcendentalism and, particularly, the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The “low” story concerns Whitman the man of Brooklyn and New York, who works for the penny press, draws on sensationalist writing, and is inspired rather than revulsed by the influx of immigrants into the city. Along the way, I’ll give a quick tour of poetic forms, from Barlow to Bryant, to try to get across just why Whitman’s poetry looked so different to his contemporaries that some of them (most famously Whittier) refused to think of it as poetry.

The lecture makes use of clips from Ric Burns’s film New York: A Documentary History, which does a marvelous job of offering both insightful commentary (including choice words from Allen Ginsberg) and wonderful period images.

We read Whitman’s poetry in the light of Tom Bender’s essay “New York as a Center of Difference,” presenting Whitman as a cosmopolitan thinker who embraces difference in a variety of different forms. Near the close of the lecture, we’ll listen to what is thought to be the one recording of Whitman reciting that survives, a 36-second wax cylinder recording of the poem “America,” published in the New York Herald in 1888:

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love, 

[The last two lines, not in this recording, are: 
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.]

You can listen to the recording here at whitmanarchive.org.

And we’ll close by thinking of Whitman as a realist, an inspiration to the painter Thomas Eakins. This gives me an excuse to talk about the French Realist painter Gustave Courbet (that’s “Realist” with a capital R) and to show his painting The Origin of the World (1866), currently on view at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris:

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I’ll suggest that Courbet’s painting is analogous to Whitman’s poetry in terms of its shock value, using Le Printemps, painted by the “academic” artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau in the same year as Origin to offer a contrast:

bougereau_printemps.jpg
This, by the way, is probably the painting that Edith Wharton was thinking of in The Age of Innocence, when she described the scandalous painting by Bougereau that Julius Beaufort has the “audacity” to hang in plain sight for his guests to see. But I’m getting ahead of myself …

[The photograph of Whitman above was taken in 1888 or so and served as the frontispiece for November Boughs. It and other images can be found at the whitmanarchive.org.]

33 1/3

Bryan and I are big fans of the 33 1/3 series from Continuum Books. Edited by David Barker, the monographs in the series each discuss one rock ‘n ‘roll album. In the past we’ve used Joe Harvard’s account of The Velvet Underground and Nico in our Writing New York class. This term we’re using Patti Smith’s Horses
by Philip Shaw.

The volumes in the series differ widely in their approaches: some make significant use of personal narrative; some make use of interviews. Some discuss individual cuts on each album at length, while others don’t. It’s a quirky series, but the best volumes, like Carl Wilson’s Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson tell us something not only about the albums that are their ostensible subjects, but also about music history and the larger cultural contexts of the albums.

We were pleased, therefore, to find a new call for proposals for the series last fall. Proposals were due by the end of 2008, and Bryan and I each submitted proposals: Bryan for Television’s Marquee Moon, I for Some Girls by the Rolling Stones (which I’m planning to discuss as a “New York album”). If the proposals are accepted, we’re planning to include those volumes in future versions of the Writing New York course.

We just learned yesterday that we’ve each made the first cut — along with 168 other aspiring authors. We’ll know more about 8 weeks from now, so keep you fingers crossed for us!

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