Bryan: July 2009 Archives
Ephemeral New York has a great post up that includes this 1938 Weegee photo of a pile of kids sleeping on a city fire escape, hoping for cooler air than they'd find in the apartment. Other popular ways to keep the heat down, apparently, included sleeping on the beaches at Coney Island and Brighton, which people did in the thousands in the 30s, ENY reports.
Historic taverns of the Old Post Road in Inwood [My Inwood]
More uptown stories: Tweeting a Caddy car chase in Washington Heights! [The Streets Where We Live]
Bronx Flavor featured in the Times. [via BoogieDowner]
Carroll Gardens Basil Wars have ended. [Lost City]
When Beer Gardens Ruled Queens [Queens Courier via Queens Crap]
Biking the Staten Island Greenbelt: Where are the bikes? [SI Notebook]
Bonus: Free Camping in City Parks: Ranger Kathy added: "You'll see a lot of crabs and ocean life [in Pelham Bay]. But, for instance, if you did family camping at a Brooklyn park, it would definitely focus on bats. There are a lot of bats in Brooklyn." [NYTimes]
ArtForum recently published a quickie interview with Sorkin by the critic Brian Sholis (also available on Brian Sholis's personal blog, which I've long enjoyed). It begins this way:
The idea for the book came about fifteen years ago. Walks are contemplative times and spaces, and going over the same territory day after day gave me the opportunity to see things over the relatively longue durée: construction projects, seasonal activities, changes in commercial life, in culture, in the population. After dilating internally on the happy accidents produced by the city and on the quality of my immediate environment, I thought I'd begin to write about it. Not only did I want to do something a little bit popular, but also to bring together discourses that are normally segregated: formal, economic, sociological, political, quotidian. I wanted to show, for example, how the ratio of a stair riser has ramifications up to the organization of property and beyond. Twenty Minutes turned out to be frequently delayed; I probably completed half a dozen other books while writing this one. I was also gentrified out of my old studio midway, which changed my route. But the walks were comparable and in the same neighborhood. The only historical event that doesn't fully register in the pages of the book is 9/11, in part because I have dealt with it at length elsewhere."Elsewhere" would be here.
As a more personal postscript, I have to say: Brian Sholis has taste. In a post earlier this year he noted some high quality reading on his nightstand.
Converse lived in the Village in the 50s and performed mostly for her friends. She never released a record and, apparently frustrated by that fact, left the city around 1960 for Michigan, where she spent the next years editing academic journals. In 1974, at age 50, she packed her belongings in an old Volkswagon bus, left good-bye letters for family, locked up a filing cabinet of poems and type-script journal entries, and then drove away, never to be heard from again.
I heard the song "Father Neptune" on the WFMU show Inner Ear Detour with David last Friday. It stopped me cold by the third line. Before the song was over I'd purchased a download of the album and shut off the radio. Before long I was scouring the Web to find out what I could about this enigmatic singer.
The best way to hear her story is to listen to the episode of WNYC's "Spinning on Air" David Garland devoted to her earlier this year. Garland had unwittingly been part of a fifty-year quest to find Converse an audience when, a few years ago, the cartoonist and animator Gene Deitch played a home recording of Converse on Garland's show. He had been friends with her in the Village in the 50s and had recorded a handful of her original compositions. Converse had moved to the city after dropping out of Mount Holyoke, hoping to make her way as a songwriter and performer. Her songs -- somewhere between the American songbook of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway showtunes, and what would later be termed singer-songwriter -- were apparently too hard to pin down for mainstream record companies. Listening to these recordings, made by Deitch fifty years ago, you can hear the progenitor of Joanna Newsom, Larkin Grimm, and Leslie Feist, but you also hear some of her contemporaries -- Shirley Collins, say, or a few years later Vashti Bunyan -- and wonder how these songs have remained hidden for so long.
When Deitch played Converse on Garland's show, they inspired listeners Daniel Dzula and David Herman to launch Lau derette Records simply to put out a CD of those old tape recordings. Lau derette is currently working on an album of other artists covering Converse's songs. (Wish list, wish list! One can only hope Sam Amidon, Will Oldham, Bill Callahan, and Angel Deradoorian may be on there.) They've also planned a tribute show at Joe's Pub for September 5, what would have been Converse's 85th birthday.
I'd like to write more about these songs once I've had more than a week for them to settle into my brain. It's a serious body of work that deserves thoughtful consideration and a much, much larger audience than she's yet enjoyed. Maybe you'll be part of it.
Stream some of Connie Converse's songs here.
Andrew Kelley contemplates leaving the Shire -- er, Park Slope -- for the wilds of Red Hook. What part of Middle-Earth would that be? [The Great Whatsit]
I had such a great time rowing in Central Park the other day -- a cliche, I know, but an underrated one! Next I'd like to try paddling through the New York Botanical Garden with the Bronx River Alliance. [Bronx Bohemian]
Stranger than fiction department: "A former teen underwear model who made headlines bedding a second-grade Queens teacher was busted Thursday for being part of a gang of bandits." [Queens Crap]
The most neglected green space in St. George, Staten Island [Walking Is Transportation]
Free weekend tours of Little Red Lighthouse and Highbridge Water Tower [Uptown Flavor]
Photo from Trish Mayo's flickr page.
North Brother Island lies in the East River, between The Bronx and Queens, just west of Rikers Island and directly under the flight path of departing jets from LaGuardia. It was once the site of Riverside Hospital, a tuberculosis facility later converted to GI housing after WWII. Previously, it was home to the infamous "Typhoid" Mary Mallon during her years of quarantine. Throughout the 1950s, the city operated a drug rehab center for adolescents there, but the hospital closed in 1963, and North Brother was abandoned. Nature slowly reclaimed the island. (More here.)
Last year, when I met Judy Berdy, the official historian of Roosevelt Island, one of the things she told me that I'd never before realized is that all of greater New York City's islands belong, borough-wise, to Manhattan. That would include the North Brother sanctuary, Roosevelt, and several others. Forgotten NY has a great page dedicated to that little factoid.
And, if you've not exhausted your appetite for the New York islands, check out Jeremiah's recent account of a trip to Governors Island, one of my favorite summer spots, which has gone from ghost town to leisure destination in a matter of a few short years.
The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.Maybe it was Farrell's quoting that letter, or maybe it was the fact that I finally had a chance to see the John Adams HBO miniseries, or perhaps it's that, in the wake of the film, I've been reading an old biography of Abigail I've had sitting around forever, but I've had the Adamses on the brain in the last week, and it has me thinking about their poor kid Charles, who came to New York in the 1790s to be a lawyer and died a drunk in the gutter in 1800, only 30 years old.
"Let silence reign over his tomb," his younger brother Thomas wrote. John seemed to concur: "There is nothing more to be said," he wrote.
Poor Charles, the only New Yorker Adams. Did the city kill him? His story would seem to be the template for a temperance melodrama, the kind that P. T. Barnum made popular half a century later. I first ran into Charles's story because he had, early on his arrival in the city, become a member of the literary circle I wrote about in Republic of Intellect. He appears to have been a rather lackluster member, though, irregular in attendance, and only really considered part of the club for a year or two. I wish I'd had time to do a little more with his story, but books having deadlines and all I let it drop. This book has a bit more, and there's a website or two out there with various speculations on the cause of his depression and alcoholism, including the possibility that he was gay. The HBO series makes him a victim of his dad's devotion to politics; in real life, but not on TV, he made a major journey to Europe as a child with his dad and older brother JQA, then returned in the company of some friends -- crossing the Atlantic without parents at age 10 or so -- and was diverted and delayed by several months. At one point his poor mother thought him shipwrecked.
If Charles's friends, once he'd settled in New York in his twenties, knew about his problems with booze, they were pretty circumspect in their diaries and correspondence. One close friend and fellow club member, Elihu Smith, mentions Charles frequently in his voluminous diary and provided medical attention to Charles's family on occasion. He never mentions Adams's personal problems and may not have been aware of them. In any case, Smith died two years before Charles did, a victim of the city's recurring yellow fever epidemics, so he clearly missed the worst of Charles's decline.
Smith does include in his diary, however, a few descriptions of early July 4 celebrations in New York, and I found myself thinking about these too last week. In 1796 Smith wrote in his diary: "It being the Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the day was observed as a festival--& I devoted it to visiting [friends]. Called at [James] Kent's--[William] Dunlap's--[William] Woolsey's--[Isaac] Riley's--[William] Boyd's--[Amasa] Dingley's--: [Richard] Alsop [was] here--He, Wm. [Johnson] & myself drank tea at S[eth] Johnson's. S[eth], Wm. & I went into the [public] Bath--after which we spent the evening at S[eth] Johnson's." The names he mention form a little catalog of literary, legal, and medical professionals his own age, many of them, like himself, Connecticut expats. Several of them would become quite famous in their own time.
The following year Smith was less social in his celebrations and even seemed a little annoyed by the holiday: "The anniversary of American Independence--celebrated with increasing parade & noise," he noted in his diary.
Smith's friendship with Adams allowed him one unusual experience related to the history of Independence -- in particular the question of how that history would be written and remembered. On 30 November 1796, four years to the night before Charles would die on the eve of John Adams's failed bid for re-election, Elihu met the President at Charles's home in New York. His description of the encounter may be interesting to people who've cultivated some familiarity with the Adams story:
This, tho' not the first time of my seeing him, was the first time of my being in his company; & till now I had a very imperfect idea of his countenance. The opportunity was good, & I spent near two hours with him. Some interruptions broke the chain of a conversation, concerning the origin of the American Revolution, which promised to be very interesting. Mr. Adams considers James Otis as "the father of the Revolution." Mr. Otis's publications have never been collected. Mr. Adams exprest a fear lest there should never be any good history of the Revolution written. The ground of this apprehension was, that the material facts have never been published; that they were in the memories of individuals, who were dying, one after another; & that no person qualified for the purpose, was employed in collecting the anecdotes which these individuals might afford. He remarked that, could their papers be published, the most authentic history, or the best materials for such a history, would be found in those of the Tories. He particularized Hutchinson, Oliver, & Sewall, who died a short time since, in Nova Scotia. These men, he knew, preserved notes of all the events, & had the originals of the principal papers; but, events having happened so contrary to their wishes, expectations, & endeavour, it was to be feared that their executors & friends would suppress or destroy them, from a regard to the honor, or reputation, of their authors & possessors. In the course of some remarks on Pennsylvania, Mr. Adams said that "William Penn was the greatest land-jobber, that ever existed; & that his successors in the administration of that government, had continued the same policy." The remainder of the conversation was on the topics of the day; & the state of parties in this State. Mr. Adams's manners are more agreeable than I supposed them to be. There is no affectation, or pride observable in him; yet he can hardly be called a sociable man. It is not proper to judge from one interview only but such is the impression left by having been once in his company; &, for at least an hour, alone in his company.
Heap was featured yesterday in a post on the Times's City Room blog:
In 1884, a headline in The New York Times proclaimed: "A fashionable London mania reaches New-York. Slumming parties to be the rage this winter."Read the rest of the entry here.
It was one of the early indicators of what grew to be an entertainment phenomenon that lasted decades: well-off white New Yorkers exploring black, Chinese, gay or poor working-class communities. Popular neighborhoods for this voyeuristic pastime included Chinatown, Harlem and the Lowest East Side tenements, home to the "Hebrews."
Many were inspired by Jacob Riis to see how the other half lived, to the point that people would go into tenements unannounced, knock on doors and push their ways into the living spaces. "They masquerade as charity workers," said Chad Heap, an American studies professor at George Washington University, whose book "Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife 1885-1940″ was released last month.Slumming seemed particularly en vogue among the children of luminaries. In 1895, a United States senator's son asked the police to accompany him and his friends on a slumming party in Chinatown. And part of the thrill was getting caught up in a police raid. In 1896, the son of the commander of the Salvation Army was arrested with a disguise of wig and fake whiskers while also slumming in Chinatown.
I won't give away too much of our take on these books -- though we may post a few pieces from the cutting room floor as we go -- but for now I just wanted to counter the idea that slumming was imported from London as late as the 1880s (which is the impression CR -- and, indeed, the 1880s Times -- gives, not necessarily one that Heap propagates). One of my favorite earlier slumming narratives turns up in 1843 in the diary of Richard Henry Dana, a writer and friend of Melville's, and is collected, among other places, in Ken Jackson's anthology Empire City. Dana begins with an innocent stroll down Broadway, but soon finds himself diverted to darker ways:
Passing down Broadway, the name of Anthony street, struck me, & I had a sudden desire to see that sink of iniquity & filth, the "Five Points." Following Anthony street down, I came upon the neighborhood. It was about half past ten, & the night was cloudy. The buildings were ruinous for the most part, as well as I could judge, & the streets & sidewalks muddy & ill lighted. Several of [the] houses had wooden shutters well closed & in almost [each] such case I found by stopping & listening, that there were many voices in the rooms & sometimes the sound of music & dancing. . . .Read the rest of his delightful entry here. Rest assured, gentle reader, he eventually makes it back to the comfortable glare of Broadway's lights, but not without losing a little money.
Passing out of Anthony street, at the corner of one next to it, a girl who was going into a small shop with a shawl drawn over her head stopped & spoke to me. She asked me where I was going. I stopped & answered that I was only walking about a little, to look round. She said "I am only doing the same," & came down from the doorstep toward me. I hastened my pace & passed on. Turning round, I found she had followed me a few steps & then gone back to the shop.
The night was not cold, & some women were sitting in the door-ways or standing on the sidewalks. From them I received many invitations to walk in & see them, just to sit down a minute, &c., followed usually by laughter & jeers when they saw me pass on without noticing them. At one door, removed from sight & in an obscure place, where no one seemed in sight, two women were sitting, one apparently old, probably the "mother" of the house, & the other rather young[.] . . . They invited me to walk in & just say a word to them. I had a strong inclination to see the interior of such a house as they must live in, & finding that the room was lighted & seeing no men there . . . I stopped in almost before I knew what I was doing.
I've been meaning to post this photo all week. Lafayette and Prince the morning after.
Also, one of my favorite DJs, Monica, long-time NYC music biz insider, played a set last weekend that's probably unrivaled out there on the intertubes. Mostly early stuff, Jackson 5, only a couple hits. Man that kid could sing a song.
On this date in...
1893...President Grover Cleveland secretly undergoes surgery aboard a yacht sailing up the East River. The successful operation removes a cancerous growth from his mouth.
1898...New Yorker Teddy Roosevelt and his "Rough Riders" capture San Juan Hill in Cuba in one of the most important battles of the Spanish-American War.
1946..."Oklahoma" becomes the longest-running Broadway musical of its day, with its 1,105th performance.
1948...Straphangers face the first fare hike, as the subway's original five-cent price is jacked up to 10 cents.
1956...A young Elvis Presley appears on the "Steve Allen Show" at NBC Studios, singing "Hound Dog" to a hound.
1970...The nation's most liberal abortion law goes into effect in New York.
2000...Actor Walter Matthau, a product of the Lower East Side, dies at age 79.
The detail about Oklahoma! reminded me that I'd wanted to write an appreciation for Richard Rodgers sometime this week. Sunday was the anniversary of his birth, in Queens, in 1902. Jonathan Schwartz played a special commemorative set during his Sunday Show on WNYC, during which I learned a couple interesting facts. "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," from Oklahoma! (1943), was the first song Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote together; "Edelweiss," from Sound of Music (1959), was their last. Schwartz also claimed that Rodgers is the most performed composer of all time, beating out Mozart and Beethoven.
Sometime last year, looking for the track "Manhattan" on iTunes or Amazon, I ended up purchasing a hefty anthology of tunes Rodgers wrote with his prior lyricist, Lorenz Hart, which I've thoroughly enjoyed having on my iPod. My current favorite from that compilation -- though everything's great -- is a version of "Where Or When," from Babes In Arms (1951), performed by Lena Horne. It's a little brisker than the version recorded here:
For good measure, here's Ray Charles doing "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" in 1982; I have another version on a fantastic CD called Standards that was released sometime in the late 90s, though the track had been recorded, I think, in the 70s. This is the song my mother woke us up with every morning. You'd think that would be grounds to hate it, but I absolutely love this song:
Like Jonathan Schwartz, I think it's fair to say Rodgers tunes probably populate my unconscious more than just about anything else -- even more than the Bizet or Grieg or Prokofiev tunes so omnipresent in Warner Bros. cartoons.
Anyway: Richard Rodgers. So there. Sometimes I wish I knew more about the history of Broadway.