October 2009

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Stuyvesant Town Oval, October 31, 2009

I’m not even in town and I can do my Friday outside-the-neighborhood blog update:

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Remembering Roy DeCarava, 1919-2009 [Harlem Bespoke; NYTimes]

Historic wood windows on Staten Island [HDC Newsstand]

Celebrate the Poe bicentennial for Halloween with Queens Players [h/t liQcity]

Parrot Safari coming up in Brooklyn, Nov. 7 [Brooklyn Parrots]

Saturday is the last day to catch The Provenance of Beauty, a bus tour/theater outing through the South Bronx. The show is sold out, but stand-bys apparently do get in. [review @ Urban Omnibus]

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Thumbnail image for lost_new_york_cover.jpgThe Fales Library exhibition that accompanied our recent Lost New York conference will remain on view through November 6. If you’re in the area, stop by the Bobst Library (Washington Square South at LaGuardia Place), tell the security desk that you’re going to Fales, and head up to the third floor. It’s a wonderful exhibit. You can read more about it in this post from earlier in the month.

While you’re there you can pick up the volume essays that accompanies the exhibit — not exactly a catalog, the volume takes both the exhibit and the conference theme as a point of departure.

If you aren’t able to visit before November 6, you can download a copy of the volume here in PDF format. (The download is approimately 28.5 MB.)

And, for a limited time, readers of this blog can request a complimentary copy of the book itself, which is printed on glossy stock and makes a handsome addition to any library of books about New York. Just send an e-mail with your mailing address to cyrus@ahistoryofnewyork.com.

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Gothamist has a photo of the recently unearthed WSP tombstone and more information:

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About James Jackson, whose stone this is:

In just under a week the unearthed tombstone has been dusted off and, the NY Times reports, belongs to one James Jackson who died in September of 1799.

The New-York Historical Society believes that he resided at 19 East George Street (the former name of Market Street), and was a watchman and grocer. They say, “There are many fewer Jacksons than I would have expected in the directory. Chances are this is him.” It’s suspected he may have died from yellow fever, which was rampant in the city at the time.

The inscription on the stone, which was just 2 1/2 feet underground, reads: “Here lies the body of James Jackson, who departed this life the 22nd day of September 1799 aged 28 years native of the county of Kildare Ireland.” And while the body hasn’t been found yet (it may have been moved when the area was developed), parks commissioner Adrian Benepe declares: “They’re going to try to unravel the mystery of James Jackson and how the headstone came to be there,” as well as find his body.

Yes, it certainly sounds like yellow fever to me. Someone should have published a necrology, though, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find him there. Young, poor, Irish immigrants were disproportionately represented among the dead during the yellow fever epidemics of the turn of the nineteenth century. Some thought it resulted from intemperance and a heavy meat diet, but it had more to do with living in damp, unsanitary conditions or in the marshy east side, where the mosquitoes that carried the disease were more likely to breed. (It would be another century before people understood that was the case, however.)

It does seem odd for a tombstone to turn up in a potter’s field — especially one this wordy.

A passage from Anna Alice Chapin’s apocrypha-laden Greenwich Village comes to mind:

In 1795 came one of those constantly epidemics of yellow fever which used to devastate early Manhattan; and in 1797 came a worse one. Many bodies were brought from other grounds, and when the scourge of smallpox killed off two thousand persons in one short space, six hundred and sixty seven of them were laid this particular public cemetery. During one bad time the rich as well as the poor brought there, and there were nearly two thousand bodies sleeping in the Potter’s Field.

People who had died from yellow fever were wrapped in great yellow sheets before they were buried,– a curious touch of symbolism in keeping with the fantastic habit of mind which we find everywhere in the early annals of America. Mr E.N. Tailer among others can recall years later seeing the crumbling yellow folds of shrouds uncovered by breaking coffin walls, when the heavy guns placed in the Square sank weightily into the ground and crushed the trench vaults.

It would be interesting to examine, in fancy, those lost and sometimes non-existent headstones of the Field,– that is, to try to tell a few of the tales that cling about those who were buried there. But the task is difficult, and after all, tombstones yield but cheerless reading. That the sleepers in the Potter’s Field very often had not even that shelter of tombstones makes their stories the more elusive and the more melancholy.

She does go on to offer anecdotes about a few of the tombstones that were known to populate the Potter’s Field before Washington Square gentrified in the 1830s.

For more on yellow fever in 1790s New York, you could do a lot worse than read the fifth chapter of this book. (Ahem.) There’s some great stuff on page 204, for instance, which references both the death of large numbers of young Irish in 1795 and later epidemics (the worst that decade being 1798, when 2,000 died; around 500 died along with James Jackson in 1799), as well as the medical rationale for burying yellow fever victims out of town. One physician even lobbied hard to end the practice of Christian burial in the city, especially the vault-style burials at Trinity Church, which he believed were polluting the atmosphere above ground with pestilential miasma and generating the almost annual epidemics.

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Cat over at WSP Blog got the scoop on a tombstone unearthed last Friday during the newest phase of park renovations. Boldface and links are Cat’s:

Matt Kovary grew up in Greenwich Village, is working nearby and passes by the location every day. He contacted WSP Blog on Friday after walking by the Park that afternoon when he noticed that there was a large hole dug about 6 feet below the surface in the fenced-off construction area, right at the perimeter of the chain-link fence on the southern edge at Washington Square South and Sullivan Street.

According to Mr. Kovary, there were two people inside the fence, a
man and a woman, poring over and dusting off what appeared to be a tombstone
which he believed had been recovered from the hole. They were taking
pictures of it, and, when he asked whether it was indeed a tombstone,
the woman would only state that it was “sandstone,” admitting she was
not authorized to talk about it.

Mr. Kovary said that the artifact looked like “a tombstone, not unlike those you’d see at Trinity Church – but in much better condition.”
He wondered if it could have been “related to the original land owner”
and questioned whether this came from a “family cemetery” from 200 years ago or more.

Although skeletons and human bones from the Park’s time period as a “potter’s field” (1797-1825) have been discovered as recently as last year (see WSP blog entry “The Skeletons of Washington Square Park“), there seems to be less information about – and discovery related toprivate cemetery usage before the area was a New York City park.

UPDATE

Inside the Apple adds this insight:

It is well-known that the park was once a potter’s field and by
some estimates up to 20,000 people were buried there. (We write about
the park’s early history in depth in Inside the Apple.) However, what has people scratching their heads is the fact that you don’t normally find a tombstone in a potter’s field.
The
tombstone isn’t so mysterious, however. Only a portion of today’s park
was the potter’s field. As Luther Harris writes in his wonderful book, Around Washington Square:
The
land area [of the original square]…was about 6-1/4 acres, a
respectable public space, but not a grand one. Much narrower than
today’s square, the potter’s field was limited on the east by a strip of church cemeteries,
and on the west by Minetta Creek, which ran southwest from the foot of
Fifth Avenue to the corner of MacDougal and West Fourth Street. (italics added)
Thus,
it seems likely considering where the current excavations are happening
that what’s been unearthed is a tombstone from one of these church
graveyards. The Scotch Presbyterian Church owned the largest cemetery
and vehemently opposed the park’s usurpation of their land. Perhaps
this is one of their brethren? We await a full report.

So do we. What a fun Halloween gift!

Previously on AHNY.

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Knickerbocker Missing

THIS DAY IN NEW YORK HISTORY

Two hundred years ago today, the following notice appeared in the Evening Post:

DISTRESSING.

Left his lodgings some time since, and has not since been heard of, a small elderly gentleman, dressed in an old black coat and cocked hat, by the name of Knickerbocker. As there are some reasons for believing he is not entirely in his right mind, and as great anxiety is entertained about him, any information concerning him, left either at the Columbian Hotel, Mulberry Street, or at the office of this paper, will be thankfully received.

P.S.–Printers of newspapers will be aiding the cause of humanity in giving an insertion to the above.

Monday morning music

Over the weekend my copy of Tim Lawrence’s Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Scene, 1973-1992 arrived. I had been otherwise engaged during the conference/book launch a couple weeks ago, much to my disappointment.

Thumbnail image for ARbio.jpgI started reading last night and had to force myself to stop and go to sleep at a reasonable hour. It’s hard to put down: a rich and personal narrative, much like Matt Wolf’s documentary about Russell, and also a rich tapestry of music history. The opening sections on Iowa and California set the stage for everything to follow by offering insight into a web of musical influences that swirled about Arthur during his formative years. The rest of the book promises to be a wide-ranging history of the many downtown scenes Russell stitched together in his work and via his influence, from his first recording sessions in New York (backing Ginsberg with Bob Dylan) to the underground disco scene to his time as curator at the Kitchen to his short-lived stint playing cello with Talking Heads. This is the material I wish had been more fully represented in Wolf’s Wild Combination, and I’m glad now to have Lawrence’s book now as an extensive and indispensable companion piece. Plus it’s the best guide I’ve yet encountered to the full range of downtown music in the 70s, something I’m thinking a lot about as I gear up to write about Television’s Marquee Moon.

foursongs.jpgThe book blurb by Swedish lush-popster Jens Lekman made me finally sit down at the computer and buy the EP Four Songs by Arthur Russell, curated by Lekman a few years back. I’m sorry I took so long to get around to it. The four songs are uniformly great renditions that showcase Russell’s ability as a song-writer. Lekman and Joel Gibb (the frontman for the Canadian indie-pop ensemble Hidden Cameras) come closest to mimicking Russell’s own tone and vocal style; Vera November (formerly of Electrelane, one of my favorite bands of the 2000s) and Taken by Trees (Victoria Bergsman, formerly of the Concretes) put more original stamps on their arrangements, but all the tracks are equally beautiful.

Here are two takes on Lekman’s contribution. The first, directed by la Blogothèque, was named one of 2007’s best videos by Pitchfork, though I missed it at the time. The setting for the video reminds me of paintings by the young Brooklyn artist Ryan Mrozowski, whose work I hope to own before it’s completely out of my price range. The video is as disarmingly simple as Lekman’s arrangement for African thumb piano:

The other video for Lekman’s take on this song is, I think, even more intimate, thanks to repeated close-ups. And you get a better sense of the how the instrument works:

Here’s the Arthur Russell original (via an unofficial fan video). His ghostly cello playing somehow makes the song a little sadder, more ethereal, even though it has a faster tempo than Lekman’s cover:

If you’re like me and you can’t get enough of Arthur Russell — and I seriously can’t! — you’ll rejoice to learn that Chris Taylor, the multi-talented Grizzly Bear member (aren’t they all?) who oversaw production on last year’s phenomenal Russell compilation Love Is Overtaking Me, has just released another long-lost Russell track, “Come to Life,” as part of a split single with his side project, CANT. You can find the Russell song here; the CANT track here. Or you could be a good doobie and order the 7″ directly from Taylor’s Terrible Records.

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“Come to Life” seems an especially apt song title for this particular moment in the ongoing Arthur Russell revival. More life! And more life for Russell’s extraordinary music. That’s what we want.

Previously.

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The following things are happening somewhere other than Manhattan below 14th street:

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Forget bedbugs … Queens Crap’s readers debate the great ladybug invasion of 2009! [QC]

Miss Heather’s Greenpoint-based New York Shitty wins the VOICE’s “best of NYC” award for neighborhood blogs [VV]

Roosevelt Islanders want the Google Trike to come before it’s too late! [RI]

Boogie Downer reminds readers that Saturday is It’s My Park! Day throughout NYC [BD]

Move over Meatpacking! When Madonna ruled Staten Island’s North Shore … [SIL]

Okay, that last story deserves its own YouTube link. Now that’s some New York nobody else is singing:

R-R-R-Record Fair!

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It’s time, again, for the WFMU Record Fair! Who knows what treasures you’ll uncover?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been snapping photos of Frank Gehry’s Woolworth-blocking Beekman Tower from various vantage points. As the final floors go up it’s clear just how dramatically the building will dominate the downtown skyline. From all sides it seems omni-present — it’s much more centrally situated than the Twin Towers were, if not nearly so tall. Downtown it seems to pop up everywhere, looming over every intersection. Here’s what it will look like when it’s done:

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I’ll post my photos later. For now I wanted the excuse to link something our sometime commenter, The Modesto Kid, sent me a while back. It’s a piece from the Architectural League of New York‘s blog, Urban Omnibus, about a sort-of social networking site called STACKD,

a new site that helps people in Manhattan office buildings get in
touch – for business or beers. In so doing, his project connects such
themes as excess capacity,
the spatial and local implications of social media and the singular
opportunities presented by Manhattan’s built environment. What’s more,
STACKD just might provide a powerful tool for architects, planners,
developers and even management consultants to interpret how we use
space and how we can use it more flexibly and more efficiently.

STACKD’s developer explains some of its aims:

Clearly, resource sharing requires an open attitude and the desire to change established conventions. However, with coworking communities emerging
throughout New York City, sharing resources between multiple floors may
not be far behind. As we continue to work on STACKD and as it expands
to other buildings, perhaps it can play a role in making the city and
its use of space more legible. Architectural typologies could adapt to
contemporary needs and business cycles. The first step is seeing what
is happening. One of the biggest challenges with large amounts of
information is making sense of it all. As visual creatures, we’re
equipped with sophisticated interpretative capabilities that yield
insights at a glance far more readily than confronted with purely
quantitative information. With the right interface and mapping
capabilities we could gain a more fine-grained understanding of what
kinds of activities are performed in what parts of the city.

The ostensible agenda is to keep resource networking as local and efficient as possible. A worthy end, to be sure. One wonders, will social networking sites for residential towers like Gehry’s (which will house almost 1000 units in its soaring 76 stories) be far behind, a possible way to ameliorate the anonymity — even the suburbanization — of life so far removed from the streets?

Image from worldarchitecturenews.com

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