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Knickerbocker Published

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knickerbocker_1849.jpgTwo hundred years ago today, a volume went on sale with the following title:

A History of New-York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty; Containing, among Many Surprising and Curious Matters, the Unutterable Ponderings of Walter the Doubter, the Disastrous Projects of William the Testy, and the Chivalric Achievements of Peter the Headstrong -- The Three Dutch Governors of New Amsterdam: Being the Only Authentic History of the Times that Ever Hath Been or Ever Will Be Published.
The volume, ostensibly by one Diedrich Knickerbocker, whose supposed disappearance had been publicized in the pages of the Evening Post, was in fact the work of a young lawyer-turned-writer named Washington Irving. The book was well reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic and made Irving a literary star.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

[The image above did not accompany the original edition, but was commissioned for the new edition of 1849.]


Macy's First Parade

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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.]

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On 10 November 1969, on PBS, the first episode of Sesame Street aired, sponsored by the letters W, S, and E and the numbers 2 and 3.

ssCast.jpgThe cheeky parody of the advertising industry -- and corporate sponsorship of television programs -- was only one of the things that tied the show to New York, though the attempt to "sell" educational content using the methods of television commercials was one of the series' originating concepts. It also drew -- like sketch-based variety television more broadly -- on vaudeville traditions long linked to New York's popular entertainment culture, preserved in Muppet slapstick and satire, including Bert and Ernie's comic partnership. The show's creators lived in New York, too, and they came together much as any urban literary or artistic scene had in earlier periods: over conversation, food, and drink. (The idea for the show came, like the decision to move the national capital from New York to the swamplands of what would become DC, out of a Manhattan dinner party.) The set of collaborations born in the late '60s grounded the show in New York and ensured it would be filmed here for the next 40 years. Perhaps more than anything, the Sesame Street set -- a brownstone, weather-beaten storefronts, a pushcart vendor, and a tire swing, for instance -- was clearly drawn from the visual iconography of New York's neighborhoods. "There would be no Treasure House, no toymaker's workshop, no enchanted castle, no dude ranch, no circus," writes the show's most recent biographer, Michael Davis. "To the underprivileged, the target audience, these settings seemed as foreign as the dark side of the moon."

Original sketches for the set were drawn in Harlem, Davis explains, but one early possible name for the show set it more specifically on the Lower East Side: 123 Avenue B was eventually discarded as too New York-centric, and the creators hoped for urban preschool audiences across the country. And so a bit of fantasy slipped into the mix after all, a sort of Jane Jacobsean dream: the show would feature life in a slightly magical neighborhood, where adults of mixed races looked out for kids who were even more diverse. (The show's emphasis on ethnic diversity was aggressive from the start -- so much so that I was shocked to learn, as a young adult, that at least one of my childhood friends in rural Arizona had been forbidden by her parents from watching it, out of a fear that it would promote inter-racial marriage. I was more conscious of its nifty packaging of Spanish vocabulary.)

Magical or not, what Sesame Street offered in its city street scene was a space that felt lived in, worn, repurposed, ordinary. (At least, it started out that way.) And yet it housed something extraordinary: the accommodation, the cosmopolitan celebration, even, of difference. Some sketches, to be sure, established universals: everyone eats, everyone sleeps, even though "everybody" in both cases is shown in the end to be made up of a bunch of differences. (Thanks again goes to Joe Raposo for the score to those daily activities.) The late-breaking, treacly classic "We Are All Earthlings" would also seem to preach a universalist gospel, but even that song begins by articulating difference. The show foregrounded not simply diversity but the experience of being different -- being the one thing that wasn't just like the others -- in language, color, and economic class, even in lifeform. And it made it plain that difference was not simply a fact of life, but that it was okay, maybe even fun. Humans interacted with Muppets. Mr. Hooper represented a generation older than the principal adults on the cast. The humans on set, adult and children, were surrogates for an audience of diverse ages. The show aimed to please children and adults -- including grandparental care-givers -- alike. Only over time did they broaden their focus to include us country kids (see below), though it should be understood that where I lived we already knew where milk came from without Lorne Greene telling us. The differences encountered by watching the show -- even when it rendered me an outsider -- were part of what made it so interesting.

Such differences also tend to make genuine neighborhoods interesting, though some people, of course, will always see neighborhoods as exclusive rather than inclusive. Sesame Street's neighborhood is distinctively urban, as the various "Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?" sketches make clear, operating as they do from the assumption that neighborhoods are relatively self-contained in terms of basic public services rather than suburban. (They also assume not everyone in your neighborhood is pleasant.) The neighborhoods I saw on Sesame Street were quite different from my own. I don't remember this sketch from the mid-70s, but it seems like something that would have drawn me, in my imagination, away from the cow patches I was surrounded by:

Come to think of it, I've looked a lot like that city kid for most of my adult life. It's only the last few years I've had my hair cut short. I wonder if this guy has been burrowed in my subconscious all that time.

The sketch puts a primary difference up front, both to value that difference and to affirm one's identity -- and also, I would argue, to allow one to imagine other identities than the ones you were born into.

Sesame Street didn't have to wax metaphysical to make New York seem enticing. All it took was a Raposo melody and some seemingly random footage of the city in winter. Can you identify places pictured here? Things that remain the same? Things that have vanished?

Against the grain of 1970s images of the subway as a scary place, Sesame Street offered this Sam Pottle and Grace Hawthorne song from 1974, which the MTA should really consider picking up as part of an official campaign. It begins with urban rudeness and accounts for all sorts of frustration -- missed stops, the heat, crowds -- but somehow still affirms the democratic joy of it all:

On the first episode of Sesame Street (which you can get on the Old School Vol. 1 DVD set or with this book, but which I can't seem to find on YouTube), Gordon escorts a little girl named Sally -- clearly a proxy for child viewers -- around the neighborhood, introducing her to human and Muppet characters. "Sally, you've never seen a street like Sesame Street," he tells her. "Everything happens here. You're going to love it." Michael Davis responds to this line: "everything and anything can happen on Sesame Street -- except bad stuff." Not necessarily so -- at least not mildly bad stuff. One of the show's genius strokes was to let characters -- usually Muppets or characters in animated segments, but sometimes the humans, too -- feel all kinds of unpleasant emotions, from frustration, to the isolation of difference (even if it's a difference that makes you feel ordinary), to embarrassment over mistakes, to annoyance at your friends, to miscommunication. In some cases, but not all, these issues are worked through. But things work out for  different people in different ways. What's remained constant for 40 years is the affirmation that no matter how isolated or different you may feel, someone else somewhere -- maybe just a ten-ton Muppet no one else can see -- cares enough to make the loneliness go away, that someone who's different from you may be able to care about you nonetheless.
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Babe Ruth's 500th

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Babe Ruth with a fan in 1929. [New York Times photo]

Eighty years ago today, New York Yankees outfielder Babe Ruth became the first major league ballplayer to hit 500 home runs. He accomplished the feat at Cleveland's League Park in the second inning against pitcher Willis Hudlin.  Ruth was 34 years old at the time, and the homer was his 30th of the season. The Indians won the game, however, beating the Yankees 6-5.

Cleveland's League Park in 1924 [Plain Dealer file photo]

Ruth would hit his 600th homer 2 years and 10 days later; it would take him almost 3 more years to hit his 700th.

Two other players hit their 500th home runs while playing for the Yankees: Mickey Mantle in 1967 at the age of 36, and Alex Rodriguez in 2007 at the age of 32 (making him the youngest player to reach the milestone). Former Yankee Reggie Jackson hit his 500th after leaving the team to join the California Angels. The only player to hit his 500th home run while wearing a New York Mets uniform is Gary Sheffield, who hit his dinger earlier this year, becoming the 25th man to accomplish the feat and the only player whose 500th home run was also his first home run for a new team.

Here's an interesting tidbit about the year 1929, the Indians, and the Yankees. This was that major-league baseball players wore numbers on the backs of their jerseys. The Indians had experimented with numbers in 1916, with the players wearing numbers on their left sleeves, but they soon abandoned the practice. The Yankees were supposed to be the first team to have players wear numbers on the backs of their jerseys, but their home opener was rained out in 1929, so Cleveland got the honor. And it was a game between the Yankees and the Indians on May 13, 1929 that was the first to feature both teams wearing numbers. The practice was adopted by all major league teams by the mid-1930s. At the start, the numbers corresponded to the players' numbers in the batting order, so Ruth wore the number "3."

(By the way, if you like the photo of Ruth above, you can order your own museum-quality copy here from the Times.)

DRT 20th Anniversary

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Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz has declared today to be "Spike Lee Day" in Brooklyn to mark the 20th anniversary of the release of Lee's film Do the Right Thing.

Readers of this blog know that Do the Right Thing is one of the staples of the Writing New York course that Bryan and I have been teaching at NYU since 2003. I wrote a couple of posts about the film here this past spring. The first invited readers to compare the openings of Lee's film and the film that serves as its foil in our course, Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979). The second suggests that the film dramatizes a culture of incivility in which cosmopolitan opportunities fail to be realized.

Brian Lehrer did a segment on the film yesterday on his radio show at WNYC. [You can listen to or download a podcast here.] The segment featured two writers from The Root, an online magazine devoted to African American culture and politics. First, senior writer Kai Wright discussed the impact of the movie twenty years ago and the ways in which the problems it dramatized remain problematic today. Then, political reporter Dayo Olopade talked about what the film signifies for Barack and Michelle Obama, who reportedly saw it on their first date.

The Root has a terrific set of articles devoted to the film's anniversary, including a guide to dressing like it's 1989.

To commemorate the anniversary, Universal has just released a Blu-ray edition of the film. The disc features a new 20th-anniversary documentary and a new audio commentary by Spike Lee. (Click here for an online review of the disc at My preferred online highdef reviewing site,, hasn't published its evaluation yet.) My copy of the new disc hasn't arrived yet, but I suspect that fans or scholars of the film will still want the wonderful Criterion Edition of the film, which is in standard definition. I'll let you know how the two compare in a later post.


The Bowery Boys have a terrific post up today commemorating the 70th anniversary of the opening of the 1939 World's Fair. It's packed, as their posts always are, with terrific images, including this one from Life magazine:


The Perisphere, as this structure was known, happens to be the setting for one of my favorite scenes from Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Chabon's hero, Sam Clay, is taken to the abandoned fairgrounds somewhat against his will by his new boyfriend, Tracy Bacon. Chabon describes their entry into the Perisphere this way:

The Perisphere was supported by a kind of tee, a ring of evenly spaced pillars joined to it at its antarctic circle, so to speak, all the way around. The idea had been for the great bone-white orb, its skin rippled with fine veins like a cigar wrapper, to look as if it were floating there, in the middle of the pool of water. Now that there was no water, you could see the pillars, and you could see Tracy Bacon, too, standing in the middle of them, directly under the Perisphere's south pole.
     "Hey," Sammy said, rushing to the wall and leaning across its top.  "What are you doing? That whole thing could come right down on top of you!"
     Bacon looked at him, eyes wide, incredulous, and Sammy blushed; it was exactly what his mother would have said.
After they hoist themselves up through a trap door and explore the interior for a while, lighting their way with cigarette lighters and occasionally stepping on buildings from model towns, we get this end to the chapter:

     "Ow!" Sammy said, dropping his lighter. "Ouch!"
     Bacon let his own flame go out. "You have to kind of pad it with your necktie, dopey," he said. He grabbed Sammy's hand. "This the one?"
     "Yeah," Sammy said. "The first two fingers. Oh. Okay."
     They lay there for a few seconds, in the dark, in the future, with Sammy's sore fingertips in Tracy Bacon's mouth, listening to the fabulous clockwork of their hearts and lungs, and loving each other.
It's the kind of scene Chabon writes best.

The other New York anniversary for today, the BBs also inform us, is Washington's inauguration: April 30, 1789. Two hundred twenty years ago today, America got its first president. The events at Federal Hall on Wall St. were described by William Maclay, Senator from Pennsylvania and inveterate if cranky diarist, this way:

"The President advanced between the Senate and Representatives, bowing to each. He was placed in the chair by the Vice-President; the Senate with their president on the right, the Speaker and the Representatives on his left. The Vice-President rose and addressed a short sentence to him. The import of it was that he should now take the oath of office as President. He seemed to have forgot half what he was to say, for he made a dead pause and stood for some time, to appearance, in a vacant mood. He finished with a formal bow, and the President was conducted out of the middle window into the gallery, and the
Washington takes the oath
oath was administered by the Chancellor. Notice that the business done was communicated to the crowd by proclamation, etc., who gave three cheers, and repeated it on the President bowing to them.

As the company returned into the Senate chamber, the President took the, chair and the Senators and Representatives, their seats. He rose, and all arose also, and addressed them. This great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket. He trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read, though it must be supposed he had often read it before.

He put part of the fingers of his left hand into the side of what I think the tailors call the faIl of the breeches (corresponding to the modern side-pocket), changing the paper into his left (right) hand. After some time he then did the same with some of the fingers of his right hand.

When he came to the words all the world, he made a flourish with his right hand, which left rather an ungainly impression. I sincerely, for my part, wished all set ceremony in the hands of the dancing-masters, and that this first of men had read off his address in the plainest manner, without ever taking his eyes from the paper, for I felt hurt that he was not first in everything.

He was dressed in deep brown, with metal buttons, with an eagle on them, white stockings, a bag, and sword."

More on the day's events here, which is where I found the Maclay account. You can also find some good stuff here, including images of the 1939 medallion that commemorated both the President and the Fair:


Once the oath of office and speeches were through, Washington and company paraded to St. Paul's, a few blocks to the north, and once the requisite prayers had been offered, the President headed home, down Broadway, all the way to the bottom, where the Smithsonian Museum of the Native American now stands.


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I write today about a moment in New York history that took place outside of New York City. It's a moment when New York lost the all-time major league home run record to a player from Atlanta.

Thirty-five years ago today, Hank Aaron hit the 715th home run of his career, surpassing legendary New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth, who had held the record since May 1935.

Of course, the Babe's 714th and final home run wasn't hit as a member of the Yankees: he had, by that time, become a member of the Boston Braves. Home run number 714 was, by the way, the Babe's third of the afternoon, although the Braves lost 11-7 to the Pirates. You can read eye-witness accounts of those home runs in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ruth played his last major-league game five days later in Philadelphia: he hurt his knee playing in the field in the first inning, left the game, and retired two days later.

Aaron finished the 1973 season with 713 career home run, just one behind Ruth's mark, and during that summer and the winter, he received constant hate mail and several death threats. By all accounts, Aaron was permanently scarred by the experience. Tom Stanton's Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America offers a gripping account of the year leading up to Aaron's breaking of the record. And you can read the piece that Sports Illustrated published about Aaron's home run here.

Aaron held the record until August 7, 2007, when Barry Bonds hit career home run number 756. Bonds currently has 762 career home runs.


A Bold New Talent

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Thirty-six years ago today (January 5, 1973), Bruce Springsteen released his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.  It was recorded in a single week at 914 Studios in upstate New York, 45 miles north of the City. The location and accelerated recording schedule enabled Bruce and his first manager, Mike Appel, to save as much as possible from the Columbia Records' advance.

The album was hailed by critics, but largely ignored by the record-buying public. Two now-classic songs, "Blinded by the Light" and "Spirit in the Night" were released as singles, but went nowhere on the charts. In fact, the album sold only 25,000 copies in its first year. The success of Born to Run two years later led listeners to rediscover Bruce's first album, which would ultimately sell 2 million copies. Rolling Stone magazine would later rank it 379th on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (November 18, 2003).

In a review published that summer in Rolling Stone, Lester Bangs wrote that Springsteen

makes a point of letting us know that he's from one of the scuzziest, most useless and plain uninteresting sections of Jersey. He's been influenced a lot by the Band, his arrangements tend to take on a Van Morrison tinge every now and then, and he sort of catarrh-mumbles his ditties in a disgruntled mushmouth sorta like Robbie Robertson on Quaaludes with Dylan barfing down the back of his neck. It's a tuff combination, but it's only the beginning.

Bangs concluded his review by advising us to watch out for Springsteen: "Bruce Springsteen is a bold new talent with more than a mouthful to say, and one look at the pic on the back will tell you he's got the glam to go places in this Gollywoodlawn world to boot." Yes, indeed.

If you've somehow managed to avoid hearing the album, you can listen to it online at Meanwhile, Bruce's new album, Working on a Dream, is scheduled to be released on January 27. You can pre-order it

Here's the official video for "My Lucky Day," the first single from the new album.

Bangs was fired by the editor Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner, later in 1973, for a negative review of the band Canned Heat that Wenner called "disrespectful to musicians." Bangs went on to edit and write for the magazine Creem and became a legendary, gonzo-style rock journalist and critic. You can read a last interview with him here.

John Lennon Killed

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EOTAW and others noted this one a little earlier today (it's still the 8th for another 20 minutes!) but it's certainly worth covering ourselves. I reported on the murder a few days later in my 6th grade class newspaper, which I edited and reproduced on brand spanking new Xerox technology. Here's the 11:00 NBC news from this day in 1980.

I'm sure there were crowds at Strawberry Fields today. The closest I've come to being at one of the annual Lennon memorial singalongs came when George Harrison died, and crowds spontaneously gathered to the same spot. I'm glad I had my kids with me that day -- seeing what a group of musicians could end up meaning to the world is something I'd hoped would stick with them, and I think it has.

Repeal Day

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It's 5:32 p.m., the precise time that Prohibition ended seventy-five years ago (December 5, 1933). Happy Repeal Day!

Prohibition began with the passage of the National Prohibition Act, known popularly as the Volstead Act after Representative Andrew Volstead of Minnesota, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who sponsored the bill. President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the bill on October 28, 1919, but Congress overrode the veto that very day. The 18th Amendment went into effect on January 29, 1920. Volstead lost his bid for re-election in 1922, after serving for 10 terms. Coincidence?

Here's the text of the Amendment:

Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

Technically, the amendment didn't ban alcohol, but it made obtaining it legally very difficult.
"Prohibition" is the name given to the amendment and the collection of acts passed under its authority. Prohibition made gangsters rich. According to the National Archives site, there were in New York City in 1925 at least 30,000 speakeasies and perhaps as many as 100,000. The policy became increasingly unpopular after the onset of the Great Depression. It was finally repealed when Utah (situational irony!) became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment.

You can find out more about Prohibition at this site from Ohio State University.


As a follow-up to our post on ex-Presidents later serving in other branches of government, today is also the day that John Quincy Adams took up his seat in the House of Representatives in 1831.

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