Okay, I admit it. I’m one of those downtowners who hardly gets above 23rd St without a toothbrush and sleeping bag and who visits Brooklyn and Queens a couple times a year. It’s something I’m not particularly proud of. (Don’t ask me the last time I was in Staten Island, let alone the Bronx.)
Even worse, perhaps, my blog reading habits mirror my real life downtown chauvinism. I tend to stick close to home, reading Eastsider blogs like Jeremiah’s and Grieve’s rather religiously. When they venture out or up, I ride along in my armchair, but for the most part I find enough in my own neighborhood to keep me entertained. I suppose the city works that way for a lot of folks, at least those who work where they live.
So to whet my appetite for things beyond walking distance, I’ve decided to try to keep up on uptown and outerborough blogging — at least monitoring a few key sites a couple times a week. Here’s a roundup of highlights from today’s reading experiment:
Looking for something to do in Long Island City, Queens, this wkend? [liQcity]
Brian Berger plugs the NYRB reissue of L.J. Davis’s 1971 from-Idaho-to-Brooklyn novel, A Meaningful Life, including details on an upcoming reading with Jonathan Lethem. [Who Walk in Brooklyn]
Interrupting several thoughtful posts on the relationship between print and digital technologies, Staten Island blogger Dan Icolari stops to notice the flowers. [Walking Is Transportation]
A podcast interview with the Bronx Borough Historian, Professor Lloyd Ultan [Bronx Bohemian]
Bonus: Even though Roosevelt Island technically belongs to Manhattan (all the little islands do), it’s unique enough to warrant an additional Manhattan link here. One of the island’s two active blogs notes that Brangelina will be filming there soon. Brad apparently made a preview trip with all five kids in tow — and did just fine managing them single-handed. [Roosevelt Island 360]
Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming in the 1998 revival of Cabaret
I’m in mourning today for Natasha Richardson, who passed away suddenly yesterday after an accident during a ski lesson at Mont Tremblant north of Montreal. She was, as an Associated Press article put it yesterday. “a proper Londoner who came to love the noise of New York.”
I’d been thinking about Richardson lately after seeing a version of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie at the Metropolitan Playhouse last fall. I’ll always regret missing the 1993 revival of the play in which she starred along with Liam Neeson, Rip Torn, and Anne Meara. Now more so than ever. (I’m hoping it’s been preserved on videotape at Lincoln Center, so that I can view it for, ahem, research purposes.)
Her performance in the edgy Broadway revival of Cabaret eleven years ago remains a vivid memory. Directed by Sam Mendes and featuring Alan Cumming as the Master of Ceremonies and Ron Rivkin as Herr Schultz, and Denis O’Hare as Ernst Ludwig, the production evoked a sleazier version of Berlin nightlife than more elegant vision in Bob Fosse’s original, marvelously translated onto the screen with Liza Minnelli, Michael York, and Joel Grey. My family and I were fortunate enough to have a stage-side table at the “Kit Kat Club” (Studio 54), and we were riveted. Indeed, my poor father seemed more than a little discomfitted by the fact that the tickling boas and wiggling derrieres of the chorus girls were, well, right in his face.
You can get a sense of the production from this YouTube video of Cumming performing “Wilkommen” at the Tony Awards:
Richardson’s “Sally” was more damaged and fragile than Minnelli’s, a wonderful reinterpretation of the role that made you forget (at least momentarily) Liza’s iconic performance.
Here’s what Ben Brantley had to say about Richardson in his review of the production:
Sally Bowles has just stepped into the spotlight, which is, you would imagine, her very favorite place to be. Yet this avidly ambitious chanteuse recoils when the glare hits her, flinching and raising a hand to shade her face. Wearing the barest of little black dresses and her eyes shimmering with fever, she looks raw, brutalized and helplessly exposed. And now she’s going to sing us a song, an anthem to hedonism, about how life is a cabaret, old chum. She might as well be inviting you to hell.
Not exactly an upbeat way to tackle a showstopper, is it? Yet when Natasha Richardson performs the title number of ”Cabaret,” in the entertaining but preachy revival of the 1966 Kander-Ebb show that opened last night, you’ll probably find yourself grinning in a way you seldom do at musicals these days. For what Ms. Richardson does is reclaim and reinvent a show-biz anthem that is as familiar as Hamlet’s soliloquy.
She hasn’t made the number her own in the way nightclub performers bring distinctive quirky readings to standards. Instead, she has given it back to Sally Bowles. Ms. Richardson, you see, isn’t selling the song; she’s selling the character. And as she forges ahead with the number, in a defiant, metallic voice, you can hear the promise of the lyrics tarnishing in Sally’s mouth. She’s willing herself to believe in them, and all too clearly losing the battle.
For pleasurable listening, you would of course do better with Liza Minnelli, who starred in the movie version. But it is to Ms. Richardson’s infinite credit that you don’t leave the theater humming the tune to ”Cabaret,” but brooding on the glimpses it has provided of one woman’s desperation.
He concluded by calling her performance “an electrifying triumph.” You can get a dim sense of Richardson’s Sally from these two recently uploaded YouTube videos:
The last time I saw Richardson was in the role of Blanche Du Bois in the 2005 revival of Tennessee Williams’s A Street Car Named Desire. In stark contrast to her Sally, Richardson’s Blanche was glamorous and lovely (Brantley called her “radiant”) — indeed too glamorous and lovely for some who prefer their Blanches faded, ravaged, and completely delusional. Richardson didn’t inhabit the role of Blanche in the way that she inhabited Sally, but it was a thought-provoking and often moving performance that emphasized Blanche’s deep well of sexuality. I always regretted that John C. Reilly was cast as Stanley and then directed to create a character that in many ways was the antithesis of Marlon Brando’s portrayal: Reilly’s Stanley struck me as an iteration of the character he’d played three years earlier on the screen in Chicago, the sad-sack Amos Hart. I love Reilly as an actor, but how marvelous it would have been to see Richardson playing against a Stanley who exuded Brando’s sexual charisma and air of violence.
Richardson’s passing is a great loss to the world of the performing arts. She will be missed.
For weeks I’ve been meaning to take a camera out on the Brooklyn Bridge and snap a couple shots of something I’ve noticed on my morning bridge runs: The Woolworth Building is gradually being eclipsed by Frank Gehry’s new Beekman Tower. Soon Woolworth’s gothic spire will be no longer visible from most spots on the Bridge, for the first time in its almost 100 years of existence.
See what I mean?
The eclipse effect gets worse as you approach:
Right now the Beekman Tower is, I’m guessing, only about half as tall as it will eventually be. When completed, it will be the tallest building downtown, 76 stories encased in shimmery silver skin. One rendering looking west (note the dwarfed Woolworth):
And another looking south:
It’s been a while since anything this dramatic — building-wise, anyway — happened to the lower Manhattan skyline. I can’t help but feel a little sad for Woolworth, which has enjoyed renewed prominence in the downtown skyline since the Twin Towers, which overshadowed it for the last quarter of the last century, were destroyed.
Given that they roughly shared a birthdate (and were both enabled, probably, by the same advances in steel technology), I’ve always thought of Woolworth as the spiritual sibling of the Titanic.
If there’s any silver lining (er, sorry) to this story, it’s that once the new tower is completed, walkers crossing the Bridge toward Manhattan will reach a point, during the descent toward City Hall, at which Woolworth will spring out from behind the silver behemoth quite dramatically:
It is said that St. Patrick died on this day 1,549 years ago. The Roman Catholic Church canonized him 204 years later (in 664 CE).
St. Patrick’s Day is another holiday that has a historical association with New York City. (Last fall I wrote about the first Columbus Day celebration, which took place in NYC.) The first recorded St. Patrick’s Day parade was held not in Dublin but in New York in 1762 by Irish soldiers serving in the British army. According to the official New York St. Patrick’s Day website:
The first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York was held on lower Broadway in 1762 by a band of homesick Irish ex-patriots and Irish military serving with the British Army stationed in the American colonies in New York City. This was a time when the wearing of green was a sign of Irish pride and was banned in Ireland. The parade participants reveled in the freedom to speak Irish, wear the green, sing Irish songs and play the pipes to Irish tunes that were very meaningful to the Irish immigrants who had fled their homeland.
With the influx of Irish immigrants to the city after the Great Famine in 1848, the parade took on an even more political cast. According to William Federer, the author of St. Patrick: The Real History of His Life, From Tragedy to Triumph, “The Irish population went from two percent to 20 percent in just a decade. Half of New York City was now Roman Catholic Irish! The same thing happened in Boston, and there was an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Irish backlash.” The parade, which became much larger in 1851 after the various societies united under the aegis of a single grand marshal, became a way of suggesting that Irish Americans were an important political constituency in New York. Federer suggests that when 15,000 Irish Americans showed up to march on St. Patrick’s Day, “politicians in New York City said, ‘wait a minute, they haven’t decided who to vote for yet,’ so they decided to march with them.”
The picture above, an engraving from an original drawn by Lucius gray in 1874, shows the parade marching through Union Square (the German Savings Bank can be seen in the upper right hand corner of the frame). The float in the center bears a bust of the Irish national hero, Daniel O’Connell. The picture comes from the collection of the Library of Congress.
I’m sure some of our students are wondering if I saw tonight’s Gossip Girl/Age of Innocence crossover, and the answer’s yes. (Of course it is! Didn’t I already make my obsessions clear enough early in the semester?) I hope none of our students missed the crucial moment when an audience-watching scene (see still at right) allowed Dan to realize that Rachel was the bad guy. Too bad we didn’t have a few of those clips earlier for lecture.
My quick response: Though it’s long been known that the original GG novels took some inspiration from Wharton, I think the writer of tonight’s episode must have been one of our students! Just kidding, but how many talking points re: Wharton, Scorsese, and Wyler seemed to be cribbed from Cyrus’s lecture notes? That said, I understand why they had to cast Serena as May, even though that was all wrong. Blair’s much more like May (and said as much in her opening lines in the episode) and Serena’s much more the Countess. Dan should have been Beaufort, of course, but needed to be Archer in order for the star-crossed lovers subplot to work itself out. (Student sex in the costume closet? They should have stuck with the kiss on the wrist.)
All that having been said, the most awesome parts of the episode, as usual, were Derrota’s moments — trying on Blair’s hairpiece, and then sizing up the catty “maids” dolled up for the play. I’m not sure Wharton would have known what to do with Derrota.
The Bowery Boys have been busy recently chronicling the Great Fire of 1835, which destroyed much of the area now known as the financial district. Don’t miss their thrilling podcast or the follow-up post from today recounting a tremendous explosion in a munitions warehouse a decade later, a devastating reprise to the blaze.
I’ve long been fascinated by the ways in which the Great Fire’s scars are still visible. Walk down Wall Street, for instance, and almost everything dates from the immediate aftermath: huge Greek Revival structures built of stone — as little wood used in construction as possible, so as never to feed such a fire again. (Bowery Boys borrow the map at the right from CUNY’s Virtual NY entry on the fire.)
I’d taken the devastation sort of personally, too. When I spent a couple summers in the city doing my dissertation research (for the project that would later become my book, Republic of Intellect), I’d take the train downtown after the N-YHS closed and walk distances mentioned in the diaries and letters I was working with. How long did it take to get from Cedar to the Battery? What would a late-eighteenth-century walker in the city have seen? Heard? Smelled?
I also visited cemeteries at Trinity and St. Paul’s, looking for names I knew, or taking in just how many headstones bore the dates of yellow fever outbreaks (1798, 1805, etc.). I was particularly eager to find the burial place of my project’s chief protagonist, a young Connecticut-born physician and poet named Elihu Hubbard Smith, the organizing force in the club I was writing about. Smith had died in the 1798 epidemic, and I’d seen references to him being buried at the Presbyterian Church on Wall Street.
Problem was, there was no Wall Street Presbyterian Church to be found; nor was there any sign of its cemetery. Even though I knew Trinity was Episcopalian rather than Presbyterian, I checked its cemetery’s burial register anyway, just in case, but as expected I had no luck. Dissertating in a pre-Google Books age, I gently set aside the question of where Smith’s body now lay and went on to wrap things up and graduate.
A few years later, and a lot more ephemera on the Internet, I returned briefly to the question of Smith’s burial as I was preparing the book for publication. I learned from some Presbyterian Church websites that the Wall Street Church had been lost in the Great Fire. (You can see it in the fore to the right in this 1824 image; Trinity lurks in the background.) I assumed its graveyard was overbuilt when the church was replaced by whatever stone structure sprung up at number 5 Wall Street. I even tried to correspond with some official church historians to find out if they knew about graves being moved, but with no luck. Would some descendant of Smith’s sisters have dug him up and carted him back to Connecticut? I’d probably never know.
Though I’m long since done with the book on Smith and his circle, The Bowery Boys podcast scratched the itch to know where Smith’s body rests. I tried googling a bunch of related terms, and these days, thanks mostly to Google Books, there’s a lot more online. I gather the cemetery remained on Wall Street until 1844, when according to one book on NYC graveyards, it was “removed” — but to where? Even more intriguing, I found a lead via the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, which apparently has a manuscript blueprint of the Wall Street cemetery. At least I can find out where in the cemetery he would have been. I’ll have to become a member to go access the document, but I should probably be a member anyway, right? (If I had been writing a different sort of history I would probably have become one to complete the book.) By coincidence, the Society is currently having a moving sale, and all the titles from its online store are 50% off the listed price through the end of the month — an appealing offer if slogging through the names of the dead sounds like good times.
One of my chores during NYU’s spring break this week is to organize the various computer parts, cords, and power supplies that have accrued around my desk area and in our storage space with an eye toward getting rid of outdated or orphaned parts.
Luckily for me, the Lower East Side Ecology Center is sponsoring another e-waste recycling event in Union Square Park three weeks from today (April 5, 2009). The event takes place on the north side of the park and runs from 10
a.m. to 4 p.m. The
following items will be accepted for recycling:
You can find out more information from the LSEC’s e-waste FAQ.
Further e-waste recycling events are planned around the city: Queens, April 18 (Travers Park, southside of 78th Street between Northern Blvd & 34th Avenue Jackson Heights); the Bronx, April 19 (Pelham Bay Park, Middletown Road Parking lot, off Stadium Avenue); and Manhattan, May 2 (119 W 23rd Street at Tekserve between 6 & 7th Avenues).
Although it kicked off last fall, I’ve only recently become aware of the Tenement Museum’s blog, which, like the museum itself, promises to be a great resource for New York history — especially as it relates to immigrants and the LES (the blog seems to focus a lot of attention on immigrant and neighborhood foodways in particular). I’ll be sure to add it to my daily reads.
Check out this recent post on foodstuff discovered while doing repair work on the 97 Orchard tenement, the museum’s centerpiece.
Channel 13 has a new episode of The City Concealed, dealing with the nineteenth-century African American village Weeksville, now swallowed up in Central Brooklyn. By way of prose intro, here’s some background from the Weeksville Heritage Center:
In 1838, only eleven years after slavery ended in New
York State, free African American James Weeks purchased a modest plot
of land from Henry C. Thompson, another free African American. That
land in what is now Central Brooklyn became Weeksville, a thriving,
self sufficient African American community. Weeksville quickly became a
safe haven for southern Blacks fleeing slavery and free northern Blacks
fleeing racial hatred and violence, including the deadly Civil War
draft riots in lower Manhattan.
Established as a suburban enclave on the outskirts of Brooklyn, by 1850
Weeksville became the second largest known independent African American
community in pre-Civil War America. Weeksville was also the only
African American community whose residents were distinctive for their
urban rather than rural occupations, and the only one that merged into
a neighborhood of a major American city after the Civil War. Moreover,
Weeksville had a higher rate of African American property ownership
than 15 other U.S. cities and more job opportunities than ten other
By the 1860s, Weeksville had its own schools, churches, an orphanage,
an old age home, a variety of Black-owned businesses and one of the
country’s first African American newspapers, Freedman’s Torchlight.
Almost 500 families headed by ministers, doctors, teachers, tradesmen
and other self-reliant citizens lived in Weeksville by the 1900s. Its
citizens included Alfred Cornish, a member of the 54th Regiment whose
story was told in the film Glory; Dr. Susan Smith McKinney-Steward, the
first female African American physician in New York State and the third
in the nation, Moses P. Cobb, the first African American policeman in
Brooklyn’s Ninth Ward, and Junius C. Morel, a well-known educator,
journalist and activist.
Weeksville covered seven blocks and was a model of African American
entrepreneurial success, political freedom and intellectual creativity.
Its residents participated in every major national effort against
slavery and for equal rights for free people of color, including the
black convention movement, voting rights campaigns, the Underground
Railroad, the Civil War, resistance to the Draft Riots in New York
City; Freedman’s schools and African nationalism. According to one
historian, Public School 83 in Weeksville became the first public
school in the nation to integrate fully its teaching staff.
The community still existed through the 1930s, but by
the mid-1950s, Weeksville was all but forgotten, with many of its
structures and institutions replaced by new roads and buildings. In the
1960s, Weeksville was only an historical footnote that historian James
Hurley and pilot Joseph Haynes set out to research–from the air.
The rest of the historical piece can be found here. And here’s the episode from The City Concealed: