November 2009

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I’ll spend most of today making my way back to New York — back over the river and through the woods, if you will — but I wanted to alert readers to mark your calendars for tomorrow: we’ll be offering up some history-oriented holiday suggestions as part of a multi-blog city guide to the season. We’ll include links to the several other fine websites participating. See you then!

photo from’s archive of a 2007 alumni trip to the city.


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


INSKEEP and BRADFORD have in the press, and will shortly publish,

A History of New York,

In two volumes, duodecimo. Price three dollars.

Containing an account of its discovery and settlement, with its internal policies, manners, customs, wars, &c. &c., under the Dutch government, furnishing many curious and interesting particulars never before published, and which are gathered from various manuscript and other authenticated sources, the whole being interspersed with philosophical speculations and moral precepts.

This work was found in the chamber of Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker, the old gentleman whose sudden and mysterious disappearance has been noticed. It is published in order to discharge certain debts he has left behind.


macy's_1924_ad.jpgTHIS DAY IN NEW YORK HISTORY

Eighty-five years ago today, which happened to be a Thursday and therefore Thanksgiving, Macy’s held its first parade. As the ad on the right indicates, it wasn’t called the “Thanksgiving Day Parade”; it was, instead, the “Big Christmas Parade, Welcoming Santa Claus to New York!” The parade route started at Convent Avenue and 145th Street, proceeded down 110th Street to Eighth Avenue, where it turned downtown, finally reaching Macy’s front door at Broadway and 34th Street.

According to the official Macy’s site, the parade was conceived by Macy’s employees, many of whom were European immigrants, [as] a celebration of the Christmas season rooted in the traditional festivals of their homelands.” Instead of the gigantic balloons for which the parade is now famous, there were live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo, as well as floats, marching bands, and professional entertainers. According to the Manhattan User’s Guide, “The giraffe had to stay home because it wouldn’t fit under the elevated tracks.”

The next day the New York Times reported that “beautiful floats showed the Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe, Little Miss Muffet and Red Riding Hood. There also were bears. elephants, donkeys and bands, making the procession resemble a circus parade.” Santa brought up the rear, as he has every year since: “Santa came in state. The float upon which he rode was In the form of a sled driven  by reindeer over a mountain of ice. Preceding him were men dressed like the knights of old, their spears shining In the sunlight.” Some three hours after the parade began, Santa made his way up to the marquis above the 34th Street entrance, where he was crowned “King of the Kiddies.” The Times‘ account concludes by telling us that “when Santa seated himself on the throne he sounded his trumpet, which was the signal for the unveiling of the store’s Christmas window, showing “The Fairy Frolics of Wondertown,” designed and executed by Tony Sarg. The police lines gave way and with a rush the enormous crowd flocked to the windows to see Mother Goose characters as marionettes.”

Sarg would go on to design the first balloons used in the parade — Felix the Cat, a dragon, an elephant, and a toy soldier — which replaced the troublesome live animals. These first balloons were helium-filled and exploded shortly after being released (the designers having forgotten that helium expands as it rises). The following year, Macy’s experimented with a helium-air mixture and safety valves that allowed them to float for a few days. Macy’s address was sewn into the balloons, and anyone who returned a fallen balloon to the store would receive a special reward.

The rest, as they say, is history.

[The Macy’s parade site has a timeline and some film footage of the first parade.]

This afternoon I’ll be heading to Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market to pick up oysters for tomorrow’s dinner, per tradition. I’d thought about making the oyster leek soup featured in NYMag this year, but have decided that, well, we’d rather just eat the oysters.

If you’re hankering for historical holiday reading, check out the posts tagged “Thanksgiving” at The Bowery Boys (where I nabbed the Underdog photo, above), Ephemeral New York, and Forgotten NY.

At Virtual Dime Museum I found this Thanksgiving Dinner menu from the Park Avenue Hotel, dated 1900:


The BBs’ post on Underdog mentioned an old Thanksgiving special I’d forgotten about. For your holiday viewing pleasure, all four parts:

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Here are three reasons New York history buffs should be rejoicing that Metropolitan Playhouse is reviving Augustin Daly’s sensational melodrama Under the Gaslight (1867):

1. It’s the play that defined “sensation” for the New York stage. The debut run, at the Worrell Sisters’ New York Theatre, Broadway at Waverly Place, saw 47 performances. The signal moment — the original train-tracks rescue — originally aimed for extraordinary realism. In “sensation plays” from the Victorian era, audiences hoped to be transfixed by a single, sublime moment on stage: a fire scene, a shipwreck, a volcano erupting. I’m eager to see how this defining element of the genre translates into the Metropolitan’s much more intimate space. I doubt we’ll see a train rush by; I’m hoping to be caught up in the moment nonetheless.

Under_the_Gaslight-Poster-cepia-Resized.jpgPlus a train-tracks bonus: in this protoype for the melodramatic rescue scene, it’s a worthy, lower-class man tied to the tracks, only to be rescued by our heroine, who appears lower-class but is really of aristocratic blood. And virtuous! (Probably because she thinks she’s low-born.)

2. It’s a great “City on Stage” play, one I write about in my chapter in our Cambridge Companion (forthcoming next spring, as we’ve reminded our readers repeatedly). Daly was a major figure in 19c New York theater (and eventually in London) — both as a playwright and as a manager. Gaslight offers a terrific look at class-issues in the years just following the Civil War. Its settings include Delmonico’s and country estates on Long Island, and though it never questions the equation of money and virtue — the truly virtuous are those most deserving of wealth — it does seem to target the brutality of the upper classes, suggesting that not everyone born into wealth deserves it. Upper-class society is compared, by one character, to a pack of Siberian wolves. It’s kind of Gossip Girl for the nineteenth-century stage; the heroine would be the equivalent of Dan Humphrey in drag. That is, the play both revels in the lavish life of the upper-classes and offers a set of qualified critiques.

3. Fans of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) will remember that the heroine got her start on stage in a community production of this play, out in the mid-western hinterlands of Chicago. The narrator refers to it as “Augustin Daly’s famous production, which had worn from a great public success down to an amateur theatrical favourite, with many of the troublesome accessories cut out and the dramatis personae reduced to the smallest possible number.” The Metropolitan’s version, then, may be more akin to the regional production Carrie starred in than to Daly’s original (with all the “accessories”), but I’m confident the crew the Metropolitan has assembled, including Amanda Jones (who sparkled in The Contrast), will outstrip a late-nineteenth-century Chicago Elk’s Lodge by miles.

The play is in previews at the Metropolitan through the end of this week; opening night’s the 28th. It runs through December 10. Cyrus and I (and our colleague Tom Augst) have tickets for Sunday afternoon, Dec. 6, if you’d like to join us. I’ll be sure to report back, though by that point only a few performances will remain.

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Rowdy was the night


Glad I made it out to Bowery Ballroom last night to see the last show of the Dirty Projectors’ four-night NYC stand. (Thanks again to those who conspired to get me in.)

I saw the show with my brother, who’d been to the previous night’s show at Music Hall as well. Together we’d seen Dave Longstreth play solo (as Dirty Projectors) back in 2003 or 2004, maybe earlier, when he was still working out the songs for The Getty Address. In those pre-Amber, pre-Angel, pre-Haley days it was just Dave, a cassette deck, and a laptop, if I remember right, but you kind of had an idea of how big — operatic, even — the stuff was that was going on inside his head. I don’t think I could have predicted that 5 or 6 years later NYMag would feature him as the centerpiece of the Brooklyn indie renaissance.

Full recap of the show at BV (where I nabbed the pictures above and below, too). Highlights, though: if night 3 of the hometown shows had been a Quaker Meeting, as Dave put it, all enlightenment and joy, night 4 turned out to be a dance party. Tune-Yards, opening, had the crowd in the palm of her hand with a set that helped clarify DP’s own African influences. Then the Projectors by turns rocked out — like choir kids doing Max Tundra tunes without the use of computers — and took some acoustic detours, including “Two Doves” w/ just Dave and Angel, which made me wish they’d gone on to play “Edelweiss.” Near the end of the set, The Roots made a guest appearance, folding the place inside out as they backed Amber’s solo vocals on “Stillness Is the Move.” ?uestlove was sporting a killer Cosby kids T-shirt. When they finished he tossed his sticks into the crowd.


Finally, for the second encore number, David Byrne, who through the whole show had been standing with Cindy Sherman against the wall near the front, like a humble presiding spirit, popped out from the wings to join in on “Knotty Pine,” their great Dark Was The Night collaboration. It’s a tricky song (aren’t they all?) and it seemed like a while since it had been rehearsed, which lent to the fun. Earlier I’d said to Nathan that DP seems to me to be the Talking Heads of his generation. Watching Byrne and Longstreth play off each other only seemed to confirm it.


Afterwards, through scenester cache not my own, we ended up in the green room for a post-show toast. Some kids from SNL were there, and my brother pointed out Michael Azerrad across the room. Years ago I gave my brother MA’s book for Christmas, so we shared a little sentimental fraternal moment over that. The first time I’d been in Bowery’s green room, coincidentally, Cindy Sherman had been introducing the act I was performing with. Crammed together into the room’s doorway, I told her so; she remembered the night, though surely not me in particular. (I was buried deep in the rhythm section, safely behind the star power.) And can I just conclude with an early New Year’s resolution? If I’m ever standing awkwardly in the same hallway with David Byrne again, I won’t chicken out from the chance to introduce myself properly. I kicked myself all the way home.


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If you’ve been digging Alex’s downtown then-and-now photos, check out these archival images from Harlem — paired with what’s (not) there now. [Harlem Bespoke]

Parks Department calls for volunteers on Saturday to clean up and help preserve the old New York State Pavilion in Queens. Meanwhile, Queens Crap readers raise their eyebrows. [HDC Newsstand; Queens Crap]

Or you can spend the weekend on one or more Brooklyn gallery tours. [Bed-Stuy Blog]

Brooklyn bonus from Brooks! “FYI, there is still room for a few
more on the Nov. 29, Thanksgiving weekend walking tour of Carroll
Gardens West/Columbia Heights Waterfront District.
Please let me know if you’d like to join us.” [Lost New York]

Or you can get ready for Thanksgiving by giving thanks with “Native American Circle” on the Harlem River. [Bronx Mama]

And plan ahead for a post-Thanksgiving tour of historic Richmond Town with the Staten Island Historical Society [NYC Arts]

Photo of the old Corn Exchange Building from Harlem Bespoke: “This was the section that was largely visible from the Metro North
platform for the last 100 years until the city demolished it in the
past six weeks.”

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Jazz Loft Project

jazz loft.jpgHave you been listening to the Jazz Loft Project radio series airing this week on WNYC? If not, it’s not too late to catch up. Episode Three’s coming this afternoon. The whole thing is highly recommended.

Here’s an overview from the station’s site:

“Photographer W. Eugene Smith moved into a loft at 821 Sixth Avenue, in
the heart of New York’s Flower District, in 1957. The place had already
become a hangout for artists, writers and especially jazz musicians,
who rehearsed and jammed there. Among the visitors to the loft:
Thelonious Monk, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans, Steve Swallow, Mose Allison,
Bob Brookmeyer and hundreds more, over a period of about 8 years.” (Read more here.)

Smith eventually recorded over 4,000 hours of life in the Jazz loft, from jam sessions to conversations to what happened to be playing on the radio or television. The tapes are an audio supplement to the 40,000 photos he took during the same period — or vice versa: maybe the photos supplement the audio tapes.

Either way, the series makes for a fascinating slice of New York’s arts scenes in the late 50s and early 60s. Sam Stephenson of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies discovered the tapes in an Arizona archive in the late 90s. No one had listened to them in the 20 years they’d been housed there. In addition to producing this radio series with WNYC’s Sara Fishko, Stephenson’s also written a book that’s due out next week, and the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts will host an exhibition of Smith’s photography.

Start listening here. Much more, including a blog, at the project’s home page.

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Thanks to Bowery Boogie for posting this today. It’s the life cycle of a single block on Eldridge, between Rivington and Stanton:

See a slower version here, which will also allow you to progress one year at a time or to click on individual buildings for more info.
The artist, a Seattle-based web designer and writer named Zac van Schouwen, explains the project’s origins:

Awhile back, I was trying to find out the history of a building
that my great-great-grandfather had lived in — an old five-story
tenement on Eldridge Street in Manhattan. With some help from
Christopher Gray’s guide to researching New York City buildings, I
discovered that the building had been erected in 1834, on the site of
an old house. It was demolished in the 1940s; its lot later held a
garage, then a housing project.

My mystery was solved, but the project had piqued my interest
anyway. I decided to try a more mammoth task, compiling a complete
record of the life cycle of a single city block. That’s what I’ve
presented here. Beginning in the 1780s with James Delancey’s farm, and
ending with the present public housing structures, erected in 1985,
this is a record of eight generations of buildings on two-thirds of an
acre. (There is a brief gap from about 1802 to 1808, during which I’ve
made educated guesses as to the state of construction.)

Clicking on any building here will give you more details about its
history. The tenement that sparked this interest, #218, is a good place
to start. My great-great-grandfather lived there in 1860. Keep an eye
on it in 1922. Enjoy!

My favorite part is the fire-escapes that pop up in the early twentieth century. 1978 is the saddest year of all.


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

To the Editor of the “Evening Post.”

SIR,–You have been good enough to publish in your paper a paragraph about Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker, who was missing so strangely some time since. Nothing satisfactory has been heard of the old gentleman since; but a very curious kind of a written book has been found in his room, in his own handwriting. Now, I wish you to notice him, if he is still alive, that if he does not return and pay off his bill for boarding and lodging, I shall have to dispose of his book to satisfy me for the same.

I am, Sir, your humble servant,


Landlord of the Independent Columbian Hotel,

Mulberry Street.


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