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We're pleased to join with a group of other NYC blogs in a collaboratively produced 2009 holiday guide. See the bottom of this entry for links to participating sites.

nissenbaum.jpgHow about putting a little history in your holiday basket? Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas is a perennial favorite around these parts.

Nissenbaum, in a highly entertaining narrative, shows not only that the American version of the holiday has been commercial from the start (the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade was a late arrival on that front), but also that it's what you'd call an "invented tradition." All the bits about Dutch origins were part of an effort among nineteenth-century New York gentry -- the self-anointed Knickerbocker set -- to create a colonial cultural heritage for themselves by establishing the social preeminence of their Dutch lineage, real or imagined. A byproduct: Santa Claus was able to sidestep an earlier Puritan bias against celebrating Christmas in the American colonies. Cyrus has summarized Nissenbaum's argument here before, but Santa Claus was smuggled into New York by the group of patricians also responsible for the New-York Historical Society (especially John PIntard) and writer-friends such as Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore.

Irving doesn't need so much introduction, but many readers may not have heard of Moore, or if they have they know him only for his poem "A Visit from St. Nicolas," more familiarly known by its first line: "Twas the night before Christmas." But Moore left his imprint all over the city, especially in Chelsea, the neighborhood named after his family estate. (His father was both the president of Columbia College and New York's Protestant Episcopal Bishop; his grandfather, a British officer, had purchased farmland in Chelsea in the 1750s, but the Moores had owned land in Queens since the 1650s.) After graduating Columbia as valedictorian in 1798, Moore dabbled in belles lettres and anti-Jeffersonian pamphleteering, compiled a two-volume English-Hebrew lexicon, and donated the land for the General Theological Seminary, where he was a professor of classical languages for three decades. (The seminary still stands, filling the entire block from Ninth to Tenth Avenues between West 20th and 21st Streets.)

Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas is especially good on making Moore's famous "A Visit from St. Nicolas," written in 1822, come alive in new ways. Ever wonder why the poem's narrator was so quick to spring from his bed to see what was the matter (rhymes with "clatter")? He probably thought a house-break was in progress. Christmas in early nineteenth-century New York, Nissenbaum suggests, had started to take on some of the elements of English seasonal misrule. But what had traditionally served as an escape valve -- allowing laborers to let off some steam but ultimately keeping social order in check -- was turning increasingly violent as a new industrial order demanded more of workers without giving much back. The mobs of working-class carolers who had traditionally demanded that rich folk bring them some figgy pudding -- insisting that they wouldn't leave until they get some -- were evolving into "Callithumpian bands" parading in the street making noise and committing acts of petty larceny. (One contemporary described these roving bands as made up of "Negroes, servants, boys, and other disorderly persons.")

I won't give much more away, but Nissenbaum argues that the significance of Moore's poem was to silence a little of that seasonal clatter, tame it to protect polite audiences. Santa Claus is a housebreaker, sure, but he's bringing gifts for the kiddies. The "patron-client exchange" that had defined seasonal misrule ("We won't go until we get some!") shifted to a parent-child exchange that made Christmas a domestic holiday rivaled only by the invented tradition of American Thanksgiving, taking shape around the same time. Moore's poem helped make Christmas "a practical simple ritual that almost any household could perform." The upshot: we have nineteenth-century New Yorkers, not seventeenth-century New Amsterdammers or their Old World parents, to thank for the cult of St. Nick and for Christmas trees. (Speaking of Christmas trees ...)

How to thank Mr. Moore? You might, like Cyrus's family, make his poem part of your own holiday ritual. (He recommends the pop-up edition by Robert Sabuda.) Or try one of these annual Moore Advent events:

Chelsea Community Church (346 W. 20th St.) holds an annual candlelight service and reading of Moore's poem. This year's event happens on December 13 at 6 pm. According to the NYC Parks & Rec website, at the nearby Clement Clarke Moore Park (W 22nd St. at 10th Ave.), neighborhood folk gather on the Sunday before Christmas for a reading of his poem. A similar event takes place uptown, in Washington Heights, at the Church of the Intercession (155th St. and Broadway), where people gather for carols, a reading of Moore's poem, and a candlelight march to Moore's grave site, in the Trinity Cemetery on 155th Street. This celebration has apparently been going on since 1911; this year it takes place December 20 at 4 pm.

A few other historically oriented seasonal suggestions:

If you'd like to seek out a patrician New York Christmas that predates Moore's poem (and hence is decidedly not Santa-centered), check the seasonal calendar for the eighteenth-century Van Cortlandt House Museum in the Bronx.

Jewish historians of Christmas, Episcopalian compilers of Hebrew lexicons, and Tin Pan Alley's Jewish Christmas Broadway musicals notwithstanding, maybe Christmas just isn't your thing? Then you probably already know the traditional alternative for December 25 is dim sum. We're not exactly sure when this practice started, but the big decision, these days, is whether to go with Jing Fong or Golden Unicorn. When you're finished eating, work off some calories on Big Onion's 19th Annual Dec. 25 walking tour of the old Jewish Lower East Side.

George Balanchine's Nutcracker has been a tradition in New York City since 1954. The very thought may make you yawn. If so, did you know that Uptown Dance Academy has been performing Black Nutcracker since 1995? Catch it at the Apollo Theater on December 22nd; proceeds go toward a new studio for the kids.

If you'd like to revive a non-commercial historic NYC holiday tradition, try "calling on" (visiting) as many friends as possible on New Year's Day. You'll need to bring the equivalent of a photographic calling card to leave behind. I suppose you could do something like this on Facebook, but we're fans of the slow media version that requires actual travel from house to house. We wrote about it last holiday season, as did our friend Esther at Ephemeral New York.
A final suggestion for those who'd prefer to bring a little misrule back to your yule: you might consider joining in the annual Parade of Santas in Santacon NYC 2009, on December 12. Be warned: though some participants will be decked out in period costumes, you may also encounter pub crawlers with puke in their beards. (Putting the ho back in ho! ho! ho! since 1994. A little Santacon history here.) We suggest it in the spirit of the nineteenth-century Callithumpian bands, mentioned above. 

Discover lots more in the 2009 "NYC Bloggers Do the Holidays" Guide:

Brooklyn Based: Home for the Holidays
Give and Get: Tis The Season to Volunteer
the improvised life: unwrapping the holidays
Manhattan User's Guide: The Gift Guide
Mommy Poppins: Offbeat and Multicultural Family Holiday Events
NY Barfly: It's the Holidays, Time to Drink
NewYorkology: Big-ticket holiday shows: Nutcracker, Rockettes, Wintuk
Ten Holiday Getaways Near NYC
the skint: 30 days of skintmas - a cheap (or free!) holidays-in-nyc-treat for every day of the season
The Strong Buzz:
Holiday Eats Old and New
WFMU's Beware of the Blog: Happy Freakin' Holidays Playlist
Walking Off the Big Apple
: The Thin Man Walk: A New York Holiday Adventure with Nick and Nora Charles

If you write a NYC-oriented blog and would like to contribute to a future group post, please let us know!
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The following things are happening somewhere other than Manhattan below 14th street:


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:

Skyscraper networking

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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:

2369_Beekman 3 main.jpg

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

Bring out your dead!

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Grieve has the photos of the week. Outside the Mars Bar. Is this in response to recent visits from Drew, Penn, or the guy in the pink sweater?

Lamentations notwithstanding, it's hard to imagine another neighborhood in Manhattan where this mural could go up ... complete with bloodstained sidewalk. Other than the EV/LES, are other neighborhoods in Manhattan facing this kind of identity crisis right now? Do people walk around saying, "The Upper East Side is over!"? Are residents of the sidestreets off Times Square as unhappy about the changes there as LESers are about their 'hood?

I wonder when the first death knell sounded for the EV. Any ideas?

Previously. And recommended.

Museum-of-Chinese-in-the-Americas_V2_460x285.jpgI can't remember when I first visited Museum of Chinese in the Americas in its old location, the second floor of the big red school building at the corner of Bayard and Mulberry. One of our Writing New York TAs, a former museum employee, had offered to take members of our class on a walking tour of the neighborhood -- or was it an earlier class on The Port of New York the first time she led that tour? I can't remember. Either way, we met at the museum for a pre-walk discussion, as we have the several times I've taken that walk since then. "Walking tours are a dangerous epistemological activity," she told us as we headed out toward Columbus Park, by which she meant that as a Chinese American woman from suburban Atlanta, was she an "us" or a "them" when she talked about the neighborhood and Chinese immigration more generally?

The collection at the old space was quaint in some ways -- made up mostly of materials that had been scavenged by the museum's founders (a couple grad students, including our NYU colleague Jack Tchen) as an older generation of Chinatown residents passed away and their kids threw away unwanted old belongings: suitcases, clothing, bottles, letters, laundry signs. Curators had used this cultural detritus to create a compelling account of the issues faced by new arrivals to New York's Chinatown over several decades.

The walking tour is hands down my favorite in lower Manhattan: I continue to be blown away every time I walk through the old secret tunnel running from Doyers Street to the Bowery: once a getaway route for gangs and bootleggers (see Freeland, ch. 2), now a subterranean arcade/strip mall of herbal medicine vendors, temporary employment agencies, and English lessons. As such it continues to teach about the history of immigration to this neighborhood.

So it was with some sadness that I realized, last spring, that my class's Chinatown walks would no longer include a stop by that DIY museum space on Mulberry. But my disappointment was more than compensated for by the awe-inspiring Maya Lin-designed space on Centre street, slated to open officially this Tuesday, the 22nd.

moca.jpgThe museum's scope and capabilities -- not to mention funding -- have expanded dramatically and the new space will host exhibitions that range far beyond the history of New York's Chinatown. The two inaugural shows suggest the range of what MoCA will now be able to offer visitors: The new core exhibit, With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America, will focus broadly on the history and experience of Chinese immigration to the Americas. From the museum's site:

The core exhibition presents the diverse layers of the Chinese American experience while examining America's journey as a nation of immigrants--from an historical overview of Chinese immigration to the United States, to the individual stories that reveal what it has meant to be Chinese in America at different moments in time, to the physical traces and images left behind by past generations for us to consider, reflect and reclaim.

A key element of the exhibition is its dialogue with Maya Lin's architectural centerpiece - a sky lit courtyard at the heart of the museum. The exhibit wraps around and engages with the courtyard, which represents the idea of China - a collective origin, which for many after the first generation, becomes a constructed, rather than an actual, memory. Not unlike the rooms of a Chinese house, each section of the exhibit is connected to the courtyard via portals. Each one containing films of people narrating personal life stories, demonstrating how history is propelled by individual moments of decision-making in the face of circumstances larger than themselves. External walls dialogue with the inner, in order to provide the larger historical context for Chinese American struggles and achievements.
The second major exhibit opening Tuesday, Here & Now, focuses on contemporary Chinese American artists in New York:

The exhibition will also be accompanied by a series of panel discussions, artist workshops, and a full-color, illustrated catalogue that features interviews with artists Xu Bing and Wenda Gu. The exhibition is organized into three seven-week long chapters--Visual Memories, Crossing Boundaries, and Towards Transculturalism.

The first chapter, opening September 22 and running until November 2, features the following artists:

  • Xu Bing (b. China, 1955; U.S. arrival, Wisconsin, 1990)
  • Yun-Fei Ji (b. China, 1963; U.S. arrival, Arkansas, 1989)
  • Lin Yan (b. China; U.S. arrival, New York, 1986)
  • Cui Fei (b. China: U.S. arrival, Pennsylvania, 1996)
The subsequent chapters of the exhibition will be mounted on November 19, 2009 and on January 10, 2010.

In other words, repeat visits will reward you. And you can still book the walking tour I love so much. Take note: The first five days will feature free admission:

Tuesday, September 22: 1:30 pm - 4:00 pm (last entry at 3:30 pm)
Wednesday, September 23: 11:00 am - 5:00 pm (last entry at 4:30 pm)
Thursday, September 24: 11:00 am - 5:00 pm (last entry at 4:30 pm)
Friday, September 25: 11:00 am - 5:00 pm (last entry at 4:30 pm)
Saturday, September 26: 10:00 am - 5:00 pm (last entry at 4:30 pm)

Given that the museum is just down the street from where I live, I'm digging the ways in which it's evolving into a vibrant artistic and intellectual center that will impact multiple neighborhoods.

Oh, and p.s.: If you missed City Room's three-part Q&A series on Chinatown gentrification (with Hunter College professor Peter Kwong), it might make good reading before you head down to the museum sometime this week.


San Gennaro obviously requires the eye of a teenager. Or maybe just a deep-seated passion for deep-fried Oreos.


Via Grieve: Today in Tompkins Square (assuming the rain hold off, but maybe even then), a few local acts of some historical significance will take to the stage, including David Peel and the Lower East Side:


Here's Peel and the group in early 1972 on the David Frost Show -- with special guests John and Yoko! "Merle Haggard has the Okie from Musckogee ... Our people have the hippie from New York City!"

Here's John on how he met David Peel in Washington Square Park:

Welcome back

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School's almost back in session. Our students have begun to return to the city in droves, which terrifies -- perhaps even terrorizes? -- people in multiple neighborhoods. What those neighbors don't realize is that those of us (adults and families, that is) who live in student residence halls are utterly relieved to have our own students back and the "summer associates" -- the khaki-clad douchebags from everywhere else who are only here for the summer as interns, and who love to leave beer cans in the elevator on their way out for the night -- scurrying back to the Big Country. Seriously, I know NYU and New School students have a bum rap, and some of them deserve it. But many of the people I live among and teach are eager to be here and to engage with the city in a meaningful way. Maybe the nice ones self-select into the courses and buildings I inhabit.

Anyway, in a different context today I was musing about the phrase "welcome back," and how for me -- like many who grew up in the 70s -- it inevitably makes me want to break into the Welcome Back, Kotter theme song. The show's opening shots of a graffiti-covered F train in Brooklyn were among the most lasting images of New York that populated my imagination before I finally visited the city in my late teens.


Bowery Boogie has faithfully covered a sad saga in my neighborhood: the imminent closing of our local video rental store, Cinema Nolita. (Even the Times has chimed in with lamentations.) Formerly in a tiny, exposed-brick sliver of a storefront on Elizabeth, for the last year and a half or so the store has occupied much roomier digs on Mulberry, between Broome and Kenmare. Not quite Nolita, but whatever -- we don't dig real estate broker neologisms anyway, and a store this quaint makes the "Nolita" seem kind of ironic to boot. The new location should have been good for the store, but apparently the customer base didn't expand as much as hoped. They've been in business only for seven years but have the feel of a community mainstay nonetheless, at least for those of us who make several trips there a week. (They have over 8,000 members on record.)

Cinema Nolita is one of the last of a dying breed: a video store that not only still stocks plenty of VHS tapes (much to the delight of my 13-year-old daughter, who has a huge case of technological nostalgia) but has a large and varied DVD collection that leans toward classics and foreign while still covering all the requisite new release bases. Perhaps even more importantly, it's the kind of store where knowledgable employees remember your name and call up your membership before you get to the counter, and where they remember your rental history and taste and may even warn you away from a turkey -- though they'll not sneer at your guilty pleasures or shame you if you have to ask who directed what (since many films are filed by director's last name). They screen cult favorites late on weekend nights, sometimes with directors present, always with cheap beer. Staff members produced hand-made posters for these films to display in the front window.

When Cinema Nolita loses its spot on Mulberry this month -- which seems to be a foregone conclusion -- it will be the first time since the early 1980s that I haven't had a video rental store at least a bike's ride from my house. And though I'm guilty, like many, of shelling out my monthly $16 to Netflix, those little red envelopes have never replaced the need for a local store. Your queue rarely matches your mood, for one thing, or a desire for instant gratification (last night I wanted to see Sherman Alexie's Smoke Signals, for instance, which I brought home on VHS) might not even be able to find fulfillment in streaming options.

And in addition to a knowledgable, friendly, human staff, there are other things Netflix will never replace, just like Amazon -- for all the wonders of one-click used book shopping -- will never completely replace the emotional experience of a bookstore. Browsing. Real time. Handling objects. Reading jacket blurbs. Discovering something you never knew existed, or being reminded of your favorite filmgoing experiences of the past and returning to them on a whim. Overhearing someone else's conversation about what they'll rent, or seeing a bit of something on the store screen while you wait in line, and making a note to check it out later.

Cinema Nolita seems to be about $8K in the hole. The "Store for Rent" sign in the window is down, but I'm taking that to mean the space will have a new tenant soon. The owner and staff had originally announced a fire sale on the collection, but rethought that plan and now hope to keep their library together -- perhaps to find a new space, perhaps a new business model. They want, above all, to maintain a presence in a neighborhood community they've helped to organize.

How to give back? Anthology Film Archives will be hosting a benefit screening, TONIGHT (8/15) at 10 pm, of Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (1992), starring Harvey Keitel, with Ferrara director present for discussion and Q&A. If this event goes well, we're told, there may be another Ferrara event in store next weekend. $15 donation. "Abel uses the video store as his library," says one store employee. "He's been such an advocate of saving the shop, and he said, 'Anything I can do to help in any way. We've gotta save this shop, you know, man, we've gotta save it.'" She admits Ferrara has been known to keep films out well past their due date, but "by doing these screenings he's essentially paying his late fees."

Anthology Film Archives
32 Second Avenue
New York, NY 10003
(212) 505-5181

Also, on Monday (8/17), neighborhood hotspot Santos Party House will host a musical extravaganza to benefit the store. The Beets and The Virgins will play, followed by an Animal Collective DJ Set featuring Avey Tare, Geologist, and Deakin. $20 donation, doors @ 8 pm.

Santos Party House
100 Lafayette St
New York, NY 10013
(212) 584-5494

PLUS: You can donate to the store directly from its website -- or drop by and drop off a check!

Photo from Bowery Boogie's Flickr pool.

Knickerbocker Slide Show

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knickerbocker_feather.jpgBetsy Bradley, one of the authors in our forthcoming Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York City, recently curated a little Knickerbocker slide show for The New York Times. You can find it here.

Slide number five (above), which shows the side of the restaurant Superfine, housed in the former Knickerbocker Feather factory, also happens to be the place where Betsy held her wedding reception last month -- a bit of serendipity, because Betsy had no idea of the site's history when she chose the restaurant!

Betsy's book, Knickerbocker: The Myth that Made New York, was published last month by Rutgers University Press.

[Photo credit: Jessica Ebelhar/The New York Times]

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