SIGNS OF THE TIMES
[Union Square, New York City, 29 May 2009]
Being a … course, companion, blog, and book.
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How did I miss this article from the Times last December? It’s about one of my favorite lower Manahattan secrets — a place I like to take visitors and students while walking around downtown. In the mid nineteenth century, someone installed a stone in Trinity Church’s graveyard with the name “Charlotte Temple” on it. The name belonged to the heroine of one of America’s first bestselling novels, Charlotte, a Tale of Truth (or just plain Charlotte Temple, as it’s now widely known), by Susanna Rowson, published in England in 1791 and in Philadelphia in 1794, after Rowson had moved to America to work as an actress on the Philadelphia stage.
Set partially in New York, Charlotte Temple tells the story of a young British schoolgirl’s seduction by a British officer, who tricks her into sailing with him to America, where he’s bound for the Revolutionary War. Once they arrive, he abandons her and marries another. Charlotte gives birth and then dies, after spending time wandering New York City’s streets mid-winter, having been turned out of doors by a greedy landlady. Her father arrives too late, but does manage to rescue the baby, whom he takes with him back to England. We’re told in the novel’s closing pages that her seducer, Montraville, falls into a delirious fit out of guilt, “during which he raved incessantly for Charlotte: but a strong constitution, and the tender assiduities of [his wife] Julia, in time overcame the disorder. He recovered; but to the end of his life was subject to severe fits of melancholy, and while he remained at New-York frequently retired to the church-yard, where he would weep over the grave, and regret the untimely fate of the lovely Charlotte Temple.”
Sorry for the spoiler! But, really, this is a late-eighteenth-century seduction novel, which means you know the poor girl’s going to wind up dead in the end.
Like Montraville, plenty of New Yorkers and tourists visited the grave and wept — all the way into the twentieth century. The Times piece I missed at the end of last year reports that a church historian, with the help of a construction crew, actually raised the headstone last year in an attempt to find out if there were a family vault beneath. No such luck: just hard-packed earth. (The church’s blog has its own account.) Is there, as nineteenth-century legend attested, a single grave, then, if not a vault? Perhaps the grave of Charlotte Stanley, the supposed prototype for the story? We may never know. The church seems unlikely to undertake an actual dig.
As my guest editor’s introduction to the current issue of Common-place would suggest, I’m a sucker for tourist-destination-literary-heroine graves. (The issue of c-p also includes Barnard Prof. Lisa Gordis’s account of her pilrgimage with students to Charlotte’s grave, as well as UT-Austin Prof. Michael Winship’s take on the novel’s “bestseller” status.) Have you ever visited Charlotte’s grave? For those readers who don’t live in the city, you can do it virtually — and leave virtual flowers — at findagrave.com.
Many thanks to Kristen H., a long-time expert on Charlotte’s grave, who directed me to the Times piece and the Trinity blog during our discussion yesterday in my early American novel grad seminar. Thanks, too, to Pat B., who mentioned the findagrave site.
From a 1967 interview with Steve Cannon, Lennox Raphael, and James Thompson, which originally appeared in Harper’s Magazine (March issue, pp. 76-95):
I came to New York from Tuskegee with the intention of going back to finish college. I came up to work. I didn’t earn the money so I stayed. But while I lived at the Harlem YMCA I did not come to New York to live in Harlem — even though I thought of Harlem
as a very romantic place. I’m pointing to an attitude of mind; I was
not exchanging Southern segregation for Northern segregation, but
seeking a wider world of opportunity. And, most of all, the excitement
and impersonality of a great city. I wanted room in which to discover
who I was.
So one of the first things I had to do was to enter places from which I was afraid I might be rejected. I had to confront my own fears of the unknown. I told myself, “Well, I might be hurt, but I won’t dodge until they throw a punch.” Over and over again I found that it was just this attitude (which finally became unselfconsciously nondefensive) which made the difference between my being accepted or rejected, and this during a time when many places practiced discrimination.
From a piece by James Alan McPherson, which originally appeared in Atlantic Monthly, 226 December 1970, pp. 45-60:
Ralph Ellison, a pair of high-powered binoculars close to his eyes, sits by the window of his eighth-floor Riverside Drive apartment, looking down. Across the street, in the long strip of green park which parallels the Hudson River, two black boys are playing basketball. “I watch them every afternoon,” he says, and offers the binoculars to me. I look down and recognize the hope of at least two major teams, ten years hence, developing. Perhaps future sociologists will say that they possess superior athletic abilities because of biological advantages peculiar to blacks; but perhaps by then each of these black boys will have gained enough of a sense of who he is to reply: “I’m good at what I do because I practiced it all my life.” The encouragement of this sort of self-definition has become almost a crusade with Ellison. But I also recognize that if I ran down and waved my arms and shouted to them: “Did you know that Ralph Ellison watches you playing every afternoon?” they would continue to shoot at the basket and answer: “Who is Ralph Ellison.”
Both of these passages can be found in Conversations with Ralph Ellison, edited by Maryemma Graham and Anrijit Singh (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995).
The picture above can be found at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s by the photographer Jeff Wall, Canadian, born 1946. This print (2001): Silver dye bleach transparency (Ilfochrome);
aluminum light box.
“I can lick any man in the House,” thumped a braying John Morrissey,
twice holder of the American bare-knuckles boxing championship, Dead
Rabbits gang leader and the man who, after losing a humiliating fight
to him, ordered Bill the Butcher murdered.
The “House” he
mentions was not a local saloon. It was the United States House of
Representatives, a gang to which Morrissey — boxer, gangster, murderer
— had been elected, not once, but twice.
Follow-up installments include his treatments of the Five Points and Bowery entertainment culture. As you’d expect if you’re a regular reader, these historical nuggets are interspersed between the blog’s more typical fare: jeremiads denouncing Bloomberg‘s anti-neighborhood development ethos and petitions to save the Bowery.
When he’s not blogging to save the neighborhood, Rob (and friend Ferarra) are busy saving its history in other ways — including the founding of the East Village History Project and its new East Village Visitors Center, where you can find information about taking Ferrara’s Gangsters, Murderers, and Weirdos tour, among others.
*The tshirt above isn’t affiliated with the blog; rather, it’s produced by WORLD NYC, located at 187 Chrystie.
A few entries back I posted a short film, 3rd Avenue El, which I’d run across thanks to Bowery Boys. When I first watched it, I noticed at the end a tag indicating the film had been posted to the web by weirdovideo.com, which sounded like something worth checking out. Turns out they do have weirdo videos of all stripes, though I was particularly interested in their archive of vintage New York films. They’ve got an eclectic selection, ranging from classic Edison shorts, to footage of a dangerous baby elephant being put down at Coney Island, to the trailer for a mid-century meta-porn extravaganza called The Smut Peddler.
One of the most rewarding things I watched (next to The Smut Peddler, of course) was an early-1960s short called How to Live in a City — a sort of Jane Jacobs-esque brief on behalf of well-designed urban public space. It’s clearly coming from a moment when public space in the city is highly contested (though one could argue public space is always highly contested in a city like this). The filmmakers oppose new directions in public and private housing that favor individualism over community: the “private terrace” is a blight on traditional neighborhood life, while the stoop is idealized. There’s great footage here of several sites — Washington Square Park, Mulberry Street during San Gennaro, Seagram Plaza, the MoMA sculpture garden, and long-vanished bocce courts at Houston and Bowery, where old Italian men, we’re told, were happily teaching their game to new Puerto Rican immigrants. Now their more fortunate descendants can buy grass-fed beef and dandelion greens at Whole Foods. Enjoy!
The cover of our friend Eizabeth Bradley’s soon-to-be-released book Knickerbocker: The Myth behind New York is up at amazon.com. Betsy tells us that an advance copy is on the way to her doorstep this minute. The book can be pre-ordered now; it’ll be published by Rutgers University Press on July 15.
Betsy and I are headed up to SUNY Plattsburgh two weeks from now to speak at the 2009 Conference on New York State History (June 4-6). The conference is organized by the New York
State Historical Association in collaboration with New York State
Archives Partnership Trust and is co-sponsored by New York Council for the Humanities. We’ll be on a Saturday morning panel called “Knickerbocker’s History of New-York: The First Two Hundred Years.”
Betsy will be talking about the early nineteenth-century reception of Irving’s History, and I’ll be speaking about “Washington Irving’s Cosmopolitanism.” We’ll be joined by Elisabeth Paling Funk, whose talk will be called “From Sinterklaas to Santa Claus: Washington Irving’s Transformation of a Dutch Folk Hero.”
It’s going to be pushing 90 today. I’m heading to the beach, which is where all sane people who aren’t chained to a desk should be. I’m taking the last few grad seminar papers from last semester with me, so I won’t be entirely on vacation, but damn it if I’m sitting inside to read them.
Have you ever seen the site hispandex.com? It’s a testament to the other-worldly experience of Brighton Beach, one of my favorite places in the city. To wit:
Tags: Brighton Beach
Via WFMU’s Beware of the Blog: One of my favorite freeform DJs, Maria, has a show of architectural photos opening tonight in Manhattan:
Deborah Berke & Partners Architects LLP
Opening Thursday May 21, 6:30-8:30pm
220 5th Avenue, 7th floor
New York, NY
212 229 9211
Open all summer 2009 by appointment
In her artist’s statement she relates her craft, in a way, to the work of historic preservation:
It is this evidence of disappearance that I desire to record in my
photographs. I look to create images that incite the imagination to ask
the question what could have happened here? and who left these traces?
The photograph itself becomes a trace as the scene continues to change
in time, as many of the locations are demolished or redesigned.
I’d like to think that she conceptualizes recorded sound in similar ways. Among other audio treasures, Maria introduced me to the bass player Henri Texier: I remember very clearly the first time I heard him on her show. (It was one of those moments you drop what you’re doing and call the station to see what’s playing.) I’ll forever be grateful — and can’t wait to see what visual treasures she’s captured in her exhibit. If you want to listen to her radio shows online, click here.
The 2001 photo shown above, left, is of the now-demolished Thunderbolt roller coaster at Coney Island. At the website linked you’ll find historical nuggets like this: “In the “American Experience”
Island: A Documentary Film, Mae Timpano described
her years living under and working at the Thunderbolt, ‘We used to find teeth in the yard. We used to find wigs, glasses, guns. Everything we found in the yard … nobody came back for them, though.'”
This is just one of the great snapshots you’ll find of the new, supposedly improved Washington Square Park if you hop on over to the WSP Blog, which has been a rallying place and an informational clearninghouse for opponents of the park’s redesign. The project, a joint effort (heh heh, WSP … joint!) betwen NYU and the city, took almost two years and cost somewhere between $15 and $20 million. The most controversial features were the removal of historical trees, a decrease in the number of conversation nooks or alcoves, and the shifting of the fountain itself in order to align it with Fifth Avenue and the arch.
Reactions, at least in comments on the WSP Blog, are mixed. Some welcome the face lift. Others have noted a renewed vigilance among park rangers, who’ve apparently been handing out tickets to kids playing football or dipping their feet in the fountain. Somebody’s asking for a sit in!
WSP Blog also reminds readers that just because everything looks nice and pretty, that doesn’t mean there weren’t legitimate reasons to oppose redevelopment plans along the way:
Of course, there were things to oppose. There were serious issues of non-transparency, evasiveness, lies and minimal consideration to community concerns by the NYC Parks Department along the way. There did not have to be such acrimony.
That could all have been avoided if the Parks Department had given true
consideration to some of the changes a majority of the Community asked
for. Yes, people will use the Park but there is a level of bitterness that will never go away. That didn’t have to be. If the Parks Department, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, et al, would realize that in retrospect, and perhaps going forward, then there might be something gained from this.
Have you been yet? What do you think?
Tags: Washington Square Park
Teri reminds us that Fleet Week runs from tomorrow to the 26th. More info here. Not that I get particularly excited by the whole thing, as much as I like ships, even … more than anything it provides another opportunity to watch this:
Not to be confused with this:
I’m teaching two courses this summer. Oy. Blogging may be light, but I’ll try to do my part to keep new content up on a regular basis.