Lost New York

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Carmen Nigro, a librarian at the New York Public Library’s Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, has an interesting blog post on the history of the term “Gotham”: “So, why do we call it Gotham anyway?

Also recommended is Kristen Doyle Highland’s piece on the subject in the Lost New York volume that Bryan and I edited last year. You can download a PDF here.

[Image: High buildings in New York at night. Pochoir print postcard, circa 1900. NYPL, Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection. Digital ID 836959.]


Anyone who’s ever had the good fortune to dance the night away to Ruby’s jukebox after a day at the beach will be saddened to learn — if they haven’t already heard — that Thor Equities has given the beloved boardwalk dive just two weeks to vacate. This isn’t the first time Ruby’s has had Thor’s gun to her head: a couple winters ago ugly Spaces for Lease signs went up on the storefront, though the bar was eventually able to buy some time.

The Coney Island blog Amusing the Zillion alerts readers to a November 6 rally to save Ruby’s and the other establishments facing eviction. There’s also a link there to an electronic petition to Bloomberg. As Jeremiah put it yesterday: “What’s to come? Upscale restaurants and middle-brow chains, the Xeroxed world we’re all subjected to, inured to, numbed to–and powerless to stop. Between Thor’s demolitions and Zamperla’s evictions, Coney Island is going to look like a massive car-wreck victim after multiple plastic surgeries. We won’t recognize her.” Among new businesses rumored to be circling like vultures: Shake Shack. Blech. Can anyone say Fauxny Island?

Ruby’s photo © Bruce Handy/Pablo 57 via flickr and Amusing the Zillion.


David Byrne gave a TED Talk last February, which has now been posted online. TED is a  nonprofit organization that devotes itself to what it calls “Ideas Worth Spreading.” It started in 1984 as a conference that brought together leading practitioners from the worlds of design, entertainment, and technology. It now sponsors two annual conferences — the TED Conference in Long Beach and Palm Springs each spring, and the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford UK each summer — as well as a number of other programs.

Speakers who are invited to give TED Talks “are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).” Here’s how Byrne describes his talk:

My own talk (it wasn’t a musical performance) was based on the idea that the acoustic properties of the clubs, theaters and concert halls where our music might get performed determines to a large extent the kind of music we write. We semi unconsciously create music that will be appropriate to the places in which it will most likely be heard. Put that way it sounds obvious … but most people are surprised that creativity might be steered and molded by such mundane forces. I go further — it seems humans aren’t the only ones who do this, who adapt our music to sonic circumstances — birds do it too. I play lots of sound snippets as examples, with images of the venues accompanying them.

The talk makes a nice follow-up to our Faculty Resource Network seminar on the idea of “Lost New York,” because Byrne (a crucial member of the downtown scene that we discussed in our consideration of the work of Arthur Russell) talks about  the relationship between architecture and music. He even begins with CBGB, which cropped up frequently last week.


Horn & Hardart's Flagship Automat, Broadway and 46th Street, 1912

Author David Freeland visited our Faculty Resource Seminar today and offered us a glimpse of the city as it appears to him: as a palimpsest with layers of meaning waiting to be rediscovered if one knows where to look and what to look for. He took us through sites that animate his book Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure: the Atlantic Garden on the Bowery, once the city’s most popular German beer garden; the American Mutoscope Studio, once located atop the Roosevelt Building on Union Square; Tin Pan Alley; and Horn & Hardart’s flagship automat on Times Square. As David puts it in his book, one reason he has chosen to “spotlight buildings of entertainment and leisure (as opposed to those devoted strictly to government or business) is because these are the places that most often disappear after their economic usefulness runs out, casualties of an American popular culture that is always moving to the next trend.” What interests David mosts are culturally significant sites that little chance of being landmarked.

One question that arose for which none of us had a ready answer was related to the discussion of “Tin Pan Alley” on the south side of 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. Asked the origin of the nickname, David recounted the anecdote that he tells on page 87 of his book, in which journalist and songwriter Monroe Rosenfeld asked his friend, music writer and publisher Harry Von Tilzer, something like: “What is that you’ve been playing on? It sounds like a tin pan.” David noted that the name probably stuck because it was a pun on an extant street, “Tin Pot Alley,” now Exchange Street just south of Rector Street. But to what, we wondered, did “Tin Pot Alley” refer?

Oldstreets.com has an answer for us: “Tin Pot Alley. (L18?-M19) An anglicization of the Dutch name Tuyn Paat, meaning Garden Alley. It is now Exchange Alley and Edgar Street.”

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Lost Penn Station

Bryan and I began our third seminar for NYU’s Faculty Resource Network, which sponsors a variety of week-long programs each summer for faculty from affiliated colleges around the country. The subject of our seminar this year is “Lost New York“:

Has New York always been a lost city? On the heels of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage for the Dutch and the 200th anniversary of Washington Irving’s legendary reimagining of this New World encounter in his Knickerbocker’s History of New York, this seminar will explore the dynamics of creativity and destruction, nostalgia and invention, that have for centuries marked efforts to represent life in New York City. Readings and discussions will address the relationships between the literary imagination and the archives, between migrations and displacements, between loss and remembrance, and between preservation and development in the long and storied history of one of the world’s greatest cities. We will focus our analysis on two famous cultural moments in the city’s history — Greenwich Village Bohemia and the Harlem Renaissance — and explore the ways in which our approaches to uncovering forgotten urban pasts might serve as a methodological foundation for the exploration of urban modernity more generally.

In the end, we decided to cut back on the reading we planned for the course, making it less literary and more interdisciplinary. We’re featuring three guests: David Freeland, the author of Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure; the documentary filmmaker Ric Burns; and the architectural preservationist and Brooklyn maven Ward Dennis.

Our group includes literary scholars, librarians, architects, historians, and a scholar of immigration and public health. During our morning session, we used NYU’s Founders Hall and the old Penn Station to open a discussion of the dynamics of creation and destruction, nostalgia and counter-nostalgia, and the politics of preservation. We showed an excerpt from the seventh chapter Burns’s New York documentary (which we will be showing in its entirety on Wednesday morning in preparation for his visit) and then two scenes from the second episode of the third season of Mad Men, in which Don Draper’s ad agency (on the wrong side of history once again) proposes to represent the Mdison Square Garden Corporation, which is bent on tearing down Penn Station.

The afternoon presented a case study in the loss and recovery of a figure from New York’s downtown scene, the avant-garde cellist and pop musician Arthur Russell. We showed the biopic Wild Combination and afterward Bryan contextualized Russell’s work by linking it not only to the downtown music scene and Allen Ginsberg, but also to Frank O’Hara and his successors. My favorite insight of the day came from seminar member Alma Vinyard, chair of the English Department at Atlanta Clark University: that O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died,” which recounts the poet’s activities on the day that Billie Holiday passed away, might appeal to today’s college readers because it resembles a Twitter feed!

Tomorrow we’ll be talking with Freeland and joining him in the afternoon for a walking tour of Harlem. Stay tuned.

In my last post, I mentioned that older son loves to read series of books — the longer the better. Before he read the Percy Jackson series, he read all of Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House books. He’ll still read the latest one for old times’ sake: he read the latest, Magic Tree House #43: Leprechaun in Late Winter and pronounced it “very good.” His little brother the kindergartener loves them too, so we read them aloud to him on the bus to and from school.

Appropriately enough given this week’s snowy weather on the East Coast, we’ve been reading book #36 in the series, Blizzard of the Blue Moon, which is set in New York in 1938 during the Great Depression. For those of you who don’t know the series, the premise is that eight-year-old Jack and seven-year-old Annie, two kids who live in “Frog Creek, Pennsylvania,” discover a magic tree house in the woods near their house: the tree house is full of books and when you point to one and say, “I want to go there,” well, you go there, wherever “there” is. Their first four adventures take them to the time of the dinosaurs, to the middle ages, and to ancient Egypt. They learn that the tree house belongs to Morgan le Fay, who is portrayed as the magical librarian of King Arthur’s Camelot. (She’s much friendlier than any other version of Morgan le Fay I’ve ever encountered: remember Helen Mirren‘s characterization in John Boorman’s Excalibur?!)

The books are very formulaic, as Morgan sends them on various missions that last about 10 chapters. The description of the tree house embarking on its journey is always the same, and my son can now recite it by heart. He’s learning about genre, which is fine by me. But in book 29 Christmas in Camelot, Osborne varies her formula: it is Merlin who sends Jack and Annie on their missions, four of them to mythical places like Camelot, and four to real-life places like Paris at the time of the Exposition Universelle (for which the Eiffel Tower was built).

Blizzard of a Blue Moon is one of these Merlin missions, and my son is enjoying hearing about places he knows: like Central Park and the IRT subway, which costs a nickel in 1938. Reading the book made me remember those old cross-shaped wooden turnstiles that were still installed in a few subway stations when I was growing up. Here’s a picture from the New York Transit Museum:

Note the fare: 5 cents! (Click here for more information about this particular photo, which comes from a wonderful collection of photos and images at nycsubway.org. The site is a treasure trove for subway buffs; in addition to the pictures, there is a wonderful collection of map PDFs.)

By the way, Jack and Annie’s mission in 1938 New York involves rescuing a unicorn that has been enchanted. Where do you suppose they end up?

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Our friend David Freeland writes:

To all who were planning to attend tomorrow night, I’ve just received word that Dixon Place has decided to cancel this and all other events tomorrow because of the snowstorm that (if predictions are accurate) will be blanketing the entire New York region with lots of fluffy white stuff.  Fortunately, we will be rescheduling, so as soon as we determine a new date I will let you know!

Freelance journliast David Freeland, one of the keynote speakers at last fall’s Lost New York conference and the author most recently of Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure, is taking part in a panel discussion this Wednesday evening February 10 entitled “The Vanishing City: Losing the Fun.” He’ll be joined by architectural historian Andrew Dolkart, author of The Row House Reborn: Architecture and Neighborhoods in New York City, 1908–1929; vaudeville performer and historian Trav S. D., author of No Applause–Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous; and Cindy VandenBosch, co-founder of the New York walking tour company Urban Oyster. They’ll be talking about why it’s important to preserve New York’s historic entertainnent venues and whether that project is economically feasible in these difficult times.

The panel takes place at the Dixon Place Theater (161 Chyristie Street, between Delancey and Rivington). The lounge opens at 7:30, and the panel begins at 8:00 p.m. Admission is $10. Call 212.219.0736 for reservations or go to www.dixonplace.org.

Previously. And.


Full obit from the Times.


Whenever I throw caution — and my bank account balance — to the wind and order another round of oysters, I think about this, one of my favorite paragraphs in all of Joseph Mitchell. He’s describing a semi-fictional character, 93-yrs-old, who hangs out round the old Fulton Fish Market:

To Mr. Flood, the flesh of finfish and shellfish is not only good to eat, it is an elixir. “When I get through tearing a lobster apart, or one of those tender West Coast octupuses,” he says, “I feel like I had a drink from the fountain of youth.” He eats with relish every kind of seafood, including sea-urchin eggs, blowfish tails, winkles, ink squids, and barn-door skates. He especially likes an ancient Boston breakfast dish — fried cod toungues, cheeks, and sounds, sounds being the gelatinous air bladders along the cod’s backbone. The more unusual a dish, the better he likes it. It makes him feel superior to eat something most people would edge away from. He insists, however, on the plainest of cooking. In his opinion there are only four first-class fish restaurants in the city — Sweet’s and Libby’s on Fulton Street, Gage & Tollner’s in Brooklyn, and Lundy’s in Sheepshead Bay — and even these, he says, are disinclined to leave well enough alone. Consequently, he takes most of his meals at Sloppy Louie Morino’s, a busy-bee on South Street frequented almost entirely by wholesale fishmongers from Fulton Market, which is across the street. Customarily, when Mr. Flood is ready for lunch, he goes to the stall of one of the big wholesalers, a friend of his, and browses among the bins for half an hour or so. Finally he picks out a fish, or an eel, or a crab, or the wing of a skate, or whatever looks best that day, buys it, carries it unwrapped to Louie’s, and tells the chef precisely how he wants it cooked. Mr. Flood and the chef, a surly old Genoese, are close friends. “I’ve made quite a study of fish cooks,” Mr. Flood says, “and I’ve decided that old Italians are the best. Then comes old colored men, and then old mean Yankees, and then old drunk Irishmen. They have to be old; it takes almost a lifetime to learn how to do a thing simply. Even the stove has to be old. If the cook is an awful drunk, so much the better. I don’t think a teetotaler could cook a fish. Oh, if he was a mean old tobacco-chewing teetotaler, he might.”

Now that’s what I’m talking about. Of Mr. Flood’s four restaurants, none remain. Lundy’s, way out in Sheepshead Bay, has closed and reopened more than once, and now appears to be closed again. I never managed to make it out there. I’m not sure when Libby’s closed, but  Sweet’s and Sloppy Louie’s have been replaced by a tourist-friendly chain brewpub. (You know, that’s the kind of urban crime I’d like to see on the decline at the seaport, Messrs. Giuliani and Bloomberg.) I moved to the old waterfront neighborhood a year or so after Louie’s closed, though I did manage to catch the last few years of the Fulton Market.

Gage & Tollner was replaced by a TGI Friday’s, which eventually closed, and today in its space we’ll witness the Grand Opening of … an Arby’s. It could be worse, writes Brooks over at Lost City, who got a sneak preview. And it certainly was worse under the TGIF regime, by all reports. But we second Brooks’s call for a plaque or some other way to memorialize G&T. Would it be too much to ask for a raw bar as well?

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