1. City with a Past
THE CITY GAME
Q. I’ve heard of a street game, called ring-a-levio, ring-a-lerio or relievio, which was played by children in New York City in the 1950’s. It sounds a lot like a game I played, called home-free-all. What were the rules?
A. Ring-a-levio probably has a half dozen other names, which have varied slightly from neighborhood to neighborhood. Like all games children play in city streets and vacant lots, it is highly improvisational, adapting itself to the peculiarities of local geography, the age and size of players and the hour when everyone has to go home to bed.
The rules of ring-a-levio are deceptively simple. A five- or six-foot square or circle is drawn in chalk and designated the “jail.” One team runs away and hides, the other team sets out to hunt them down. A hiding player is apprehended when he is seized and held while his captor yells, “Caught, caught, caught-a-levio 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3!” Meanwhile, the victim is free to wiggle, squirm, claw and fight back, and the struggle can become intense.
A captured player is led to the jail, which is guarded by a member of the seeking team. At any time, however, a daring member of the hiding team can free the prisoners by dashing into the jail and shouting “Home free all!” while avoiding capture. Only one prisoner can be freed at a time, and after an entire team has been captured, the two groups switch roles.
Evidence suggests that some form of the game has been popular in New York City since at least the 1920’s, and it is probably still played in scattered neighborhoods. Children playing the game in the 1970’s and 1980’s knew it as “Manhunt.”
PENN STATION’S REMAINS
Q. I’ve heard that after it was razed nearly 40 years ago, the architectural remains of the old Pennsylvania Station were dumped somewhere in the New Jersey Meadowlands. Where might I look?
A. The remains of Penn Station certainly aren’t standing in the swamps of New Jersey like some moss-covered Roman ruins, and it would seem likely that any rubble or debris from the demolition has by now sunk into the mud, been bulldozed over or simply disappeared beneath the tall grasses of the Hackensack Meadowlands. Yet some, obsessed, still search.
Demolition of the sooty, majestic station began in October 1963. This enormous, complicated operation allowed the lower, track-level parts of the station to remain in use even as the sprawling Roman shed overhead was razed. The rubble, including 84 monumental Doric columns, 17 million bricks, and 660,000 cubic feet of pink Milford granite, marble, travertine and stone, was carted off to the Meadowlands, and by summer 1966, the old station, completed in 1910, had disappeared.
The Hackensack Meadowlands cover 32 square miles, including parts of 14 towns in Bergen and Hudson Counties, and at least 14 landfill sites were in use during the 1960’s. Dozens of landfills have opened and closed in the area since the 1960’s. Working from old photographs of the dumping ground, one enthusiast recently searched for remains in the area below Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen. He found a field of old architectural debris, including broken columns, dentils and chunks of granite, but nothing he could positively identify as a fragment of the old station. Robert Sullivan, author of a book on the Meadowlands, believes that he found parts of columns from the station while searching the old dumping sites on the border of Secaucus and North Bergen.
Q. I’ve seen an ancient-looking neon sign that says “Longchamps” in sloping, Art Deco letters, hanging from the face of a small building at 423 Madison Avenue, near 48th Street, above a Japanese noodle shop. Was there once a restaurant here by that name?
A. Yes indeed. Longchamps, like Schrafft’s, Childs and Horn & Hardart, was a chain of local restaurants in the days before fast-food franchises transformed the city’s commercial corridors into an overlit Formica Disneyland. Named for the race track in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, the first elegant Longchamps opened in 1919, and by the 1950’s there were 10 in Manhattan, most clustered around Midtown. The chain was bankrupt by the mid-1970’s, but former patrons still grow misty-eyed at the mention of Longchamps specialties like oxtail ragout, crabmeat à la Dewey, Nesselrode pie, baked apple and “21 percent butterfat” ice cream.
LIFE AT THE TOP
Q. When did the first penthouses appear atop New York apartment buildings?
A. The construction date and the location of the first true penthouse is a matter of some dispute, but scholars generally agree that the advent of the rooftop terrace apartment in New York reflected technological and social shifts that occurred between the 1880’s and 1920’s. According to Elizabeth Collins Cromley, author of Alone Together: A History of New York’s Early Apartments, rooftops were typically used for drying clothes in the late 19th century, in virtually every type of apartment house. By the 1880’s, luxury buildings, which, given their location, often had the most spectacular views of the city, began to set aside small areas to be used as viewing terraces or promenades, some with gazebos or wooden trellises.
Rooftop gardens also began to appear atop theaters and civic arenas, affording visitors a sense of privacy and sanctuary above the public din. Such rooftop oases became commonplace in the exclusive apartment houses of the 1880’s and 90’s. At about the same time, electric elevators were introduced into apartment houses, rendering the rooftop more accessible and opening up basement space formerly devoted to generators and hydraulic equipment. With stairs no longer an issue, tenants began to pay more, not less, to rent the light-filled apartments above the third or fourth floor. And though the automatic drier was still decades away, new kinds of equipment appeared that could be used to dry clothes at basement level. As Professor Cromley wrote, “Technological changes supported conceptual changes, and the notion of the roof as servants’ territory was gradually reinterpreted after the turn of the century to the dream of a penthouse apartment for well-to-do tenants.”
ENVYING THE JONESES
Q. I’ve heard that the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” refers to a wealthy East Side family that lived in an area known as Jones’s Wood in the mid-19th century. Can you shed any light?
A. Some. Keeping Up With the Joneses was a popular comic strip by Arthur R. Momand, which ran in The New York World from 1913 until the early 1940’s. Mr. Momand said the strip was based on his observations of life in Cedarhurst, N.Y., where he and his wife had lived “far beyond their means” in a vain effort to keep pace with “the well-to-do class.” The Joneses were often mentioned in the strip, but never seen. The cartoonist said he considered using the name Smith, but decided on Jones because it was more “euphonious.”
There was, however, a wealthy and prominent Jones family in 19th-century New York. The patriarch was Joshua Jones (1757–1821), a merchant who made his country home in a hilly, wooded area on the East River, between what are now East 66th and East 75th Streets. The Jones house was a simple, square wooden structure with broad verandas and a rooftop gallery. By midcentury the Jones land had become a popular picnic spot, known as Jones’s Wood.
Joshua Jones’s eldest son, Edward Renshaw Jones (1785–1839), became a merchant as well, and amassed a fortune. His wife, Elizabeth, belonged to the equally prosperous Schermerhorn family. Edward and Elizabeth had five children. One, George Frederic Jones, was the father of the novelist Edith Wharton. In 1853, a daughter, Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones, built one of the most extravagant homes of the era, overlooking the Hudson in Rhinecliff, N.Y. Some believe that the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” was inspired by the 24-room mansion, a melange of Norman, Gothic and Italianate themes, called Wyndcliff.
RED STAR IN THE BRONX
Q. I heard that Leon Trotsky once lived in the Bronx. How did it go for him there?
A. Not so well at first. In January 1917, Trotsky, his wife, Natalya, and their two sons arrived by ship in New York, which he referred to in a 1930 autobiography, My Life, as a city of “capitalist automatism.” Trotsky, who became Lenin’s chief lieutenant in revolutionary Russia, wanted to live in a “workers district,” so he moved his family into an $18-per-month apartment in the Bronx. Some historians believe that the apartment was at 1522 Vyse Avenue, near 172nd Street, just east of Crotona Park. But in his autobiography Trotsky gave 164th Street as the location (he made no distinction between East and West).
Before occupying the apartment, Trotsky’s wife paid the janitor three months’ rent in advance. She got no receipt, and upon moving in, Trotsky learned that the janitor had absconded with rent from several tenants. But when he unpacked boxes of belongings that he’d stored in the apartment, Trotsky found his $54 carefully wrapped in paper. “He did not mind robbing the landlord, but he was considerate enough not to rob the tenants,” Trotsky wrote of the janitor. Things got better. Trotsky’s sons were won over by the apartment’s amenities: electric lights, a gas stove, a bathtub, a telephone and a garbage chute.
The day he arrived, Trotsky visited the New York Public Library with a Russian editor, Nicolai Bukharin. The next day he began writing for Bukharin’s East Village newspaper, Novy Mir. While lecturing in New York, Trotsky discussed politics with Alexandra Kolontay, an expatriate Bolshevik and free-love advocate who informed on Trotsky in letters to Lenin. He also met Eugene V. Debs, the five-time Socialist candidate for president, whom he described as “a sincere revolutionary.” Trotsky had been in New York only a month when revolutionary uprisings began in Petrograd.
Soon the red flag was flying over the Winter Palace. Trotsky was anxious to return home and bought his family tickets on the first available ship. On the eve of their departure in March, Trotsky’s younger son, Sergei, who was 8 or 9, went for a walk. He was curious about whether First Street existed, and while searching for it, became lost. Sergei was found by the police, and policemen played checkers with him at a station house until Trotsky’s wife showed up. In his autobiography, Trotsky said of his departure from New York: “My only consolation was the thought that I might return. Even now I have not given up that hope.” Trotsky, who was assassinated in Mexico in 1940, never lived in New York again.
Q. I live in an exceptionally narrow apartment, which a friend likes to compare to the Spite House that stood many years ago on Lexington Avenue. Just how skinny was that legendary dwelling?
A. Probably skinnier than yours. A parsimonious developer named Joseph Richardson built two dwellings on the northwest corner of 82nd Street and Lexington Avenue in 1882, on a lot that was 102 feet long but only 5 feet wide. Wags dubbed the bizarre building “The Spite House.” Richardson had hoped to sell the sliver of real estate—left over when upper Lexington Avenue was cut through a larger lot—for $5,000, according to Holdouts! by Andrew Alpern and Seymour Durst. Patrick McQuade, who was building two apartment houses on the adjacent piece of land, would offer only $1,000. Richardson responded—out of spite, it is said—by building two razor-thin apartment houses, completed almost five months before McQuade’s.
Building regulations of the day allowed corner houses to have bay window extensions, so the main rooms on each floor were actually seven feet, three inches wide. But, allowing for the thickness of the walls, the remainder of each apartment had a width of exactly 40 inches. The apartments required specially built furniture, and the corridors and staircase were too narrow for two people to pass. Richardson moved into the Spite House with his wife, and rented the other apartment to a succession of tenants for $500 a year. He lived there until his death in 1897, and his widow stayed on until 1904. The building was demolished in 1915.
BEFORE THE TUNNEL
Q. The block bounded by Varick, Hudson and Laight Streets and Ericsson Place, now a car-choked maze of ramps for the Holland Tunnel, must have had a previous life. What was there before the tunnel was completed in 1927?
A. Some old neighborhoods in Manhattan have disappeared so completely that they cannot be reconstructed in the mind’s eye. This, the site of St. John’s Park, is one of them. In 1804, the vestrymen of the Episcopal Trinity parish built an elegant chapel on Varick Street, then at the city’s outskirts. Modeled on St. Paul’s in London, St. John’s Chapel featured a Corinthian portico of sandstone and a 215-foot spire of oak. Several years later, St. John’s Park, later called Hudson Square, was laid out and fenced off in front of the chapel, on the very block you describe. It was said to be among the loveliest in the city, with gravel paths winding beneath cottonwood, silver birch and willow trees. Wealthy families built brick row houses on the streets surrounding the park, and were given keys to its iron gates.
The enclave was the most fashionable in the city, but by the 1860’s, the area was enveloped by the city’s commercial expansion. Cornelius Vanderbilt bought the park in 1866 and built the Hudson River Railroad Freight Depot on the site, and the red-brick row houses were slowly replaced by boarding houses, warehouses and factories. St. John’s Chapel survived until Varick Street was widened in 1917.
Q. What was the tallest building before the World Trade Center ever to be destroyed?
A. The world’s tallest building when it was completed in 1908, the ravishing 47-story Beaux-Arts Singer Tower had the dubious distinction of being the tallest building ever to be demolished.
The 612-foot structure was designed by one of New York’s preeminent architects, Ernest Flagg, and was the headquarters of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. It was torn down in 1966 to make room for One Liberty Plaza, which was across Church Street from the World Trade Center and survived the Sept. 11 attack.
The loss of the Singer Tower is considered one of the greatest architectural losses to the city since the original Pennsylvania Station was demolished in 1963. The tower’s elegant mansard roof was topped by a lantern, and its multicolored marble lobby was trimmed with bronze and topped by glass-saucer domes. The slender, delicate towers that characterized turn-of-the-century skyscrapers gave way to the enormous open floors of postwar towers, to accommodate the larger number of office workers. The floors of One Liberty, which was originally the headquarters of United States Steel, are 40,000 square feet, almost an acre per floor.
THE CIRCUS ARRIVES
Q. Every time Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus comes to Madison Square Garden, wonder: when did the first circus perform in New York?
A. Probably in September 1786, when Thomas Pool, an equestrian, arrived from Philadelphia to do “feats of horsemanship” in a riding ring and included a clown to amuse spectators between stunts. The troupe of John Bill Ricketts—the first in America to be billed as a circus and the first to include a woman—performed at Broome Street and Broadway, starting in 1793, and returned to the city five times. New York’s first permanent circus was Pepin and Breschard’s, which opened in May 1808 at Broadway and Worth Street.
WILD MEN OF BORNEO L.I.
Q. I understand that, long before my mother first called me by the name, the original “Wild Man of Borneo” was exhibited in a New York City sideshow. Was he an actual primitive, and was he, in fact, from Borneo?
A. P.T. Barnum is generally credited with conceiving of the first “wild man” exhibit in the 1840’s, which he presented along with other human oddities at his American Museum, located on Lower Broadway across from City Hall Park. Actually, there were two “Wild Men of Borneo,” who were costumed in animal skins and encouraged to grunt and scream and otherwise behave in accordance with 19th-century notions of savagery. The wild men were played by Hiram and Barney Davis, twin brothers from Long Island. A more sophisticated public eventually grew weary of such an obvious canard, but until the 1930’s, other wild men, usually said to be from Borneo, were commonplace in circuses and sideshows. In the early 1900’s, a “bona fide” Wild Man of Borneo was presented at Dreamland in Coney Island. He was an Alsatian from the Bronx who darkened his face with burnt cork.
LONG MAY SHE WAVE
Q. I’ve heard that somewhere in Brooklyn is a statue that appears to wave to the Statue of Liberty. Where can I find it?
A. At the summit of Battle Hill in Green-Wood Cemetery, at what is almost the highest point in the borough. A 1920 memorial there, the Altar to Liberty, includes a bronze statue of the goddess Minerva in full regalia. She was positioned facing west with her left arm raised in perpetual salute to the Statue of Liberty, visible across the bay.
The altar commemorates an important early battle of the Revolution, fought in Brooklyn in August 1776 but still known as the Battle of Long Island. The altar was financed by Charles M. Higgins, the inventor of India ink, whose mausoleum is nearby, and was the work of Frederic W. Ruckstull.
Q. Was seltzer invented in New York City, or does it just seem that way?
A. It just seems that way. Naturally effervescent mineral water drawn from springs in Niederselters, Germany, was imbibed as a tonic and called “Selterser waaser” as early as the 16th century. The first United States patent for equipment to carbonate spring water was granted in 1809, to Joseph Hawkins of Baltimore. Seltzer was introduced in New York the same year, and served at the fabled Tontine Coffee House at Wall and Water Streets, according to James Bradley, writing in The Encyclopedia of New York City.
In the 1830’s, an innovative Englishman named John Matthews bought a factory at First Avenue and 26th Street, where he sold carbonated water, bottles, tubes, pumps, tanks and hundreds of his own designs for soda fountains. By the 1860’s, the company had gained worldwide prominence, and soda fountains were popular attractions in drug and department stores by the 1870’s. The Matthews company remained in operation until the 1920’s. Local seltzer production remained strong through the first half of this [the 20th] century, when the water, sealed in 32-ounce glass siphon bottles, was delivered to homes by wagon or truck. That era all but ended when inexpensive plastic bottles of seltzer appeared on store shelves in the late 1960’s, but New York remains the country’s largest seltzer market.
OYSTERS OF YORE
Q. It is said that the original, Indian inhabitants of New York subsisted primarily on fish, oysters and clams, yet locally harvested oysters are uncommon today. What happened?
A. We ate them all. The waters surrounding New York City once contained an abundance of rich oyster beds, and old heaps of discarded oyster and clam shells, some covering several acres, are typically uncovered at the site of old Indian settlements. Most are found where a freshwater stream joined open fishing waters, particularly on western Staten Island and along the Hudson in what is now the Inwood section of Manhattan. Early colonists called Liberty Island Great Oyster Island; Ellis Island was known as Oyster Island until the late 18th century.
Thick local oysters, sold from street carts, dingy cellar bars and fancy saloons, were enormously popular fare throughout the city until the late 19th century, particularly in Lower Manhattan. Served raw, they were consumed with salt, pepper, oil, mustard, lemon juice and vinegar. Entrances to oyster cellars were marked by a cloth “balloon” of red or red-and-white muslin draped over a wire frame and illuminated by a candle. In the 1830’s and 40’s, oyster bars on Canal Street offered the Canal Street Plan: all the oysters a customer could eat, for six cents. By about 1880, most of the established beds off Long Island and New Jersey were utterly depleted, and newly discovered beds were quickly exhausted. Plush oyster saloons continued to prosper by selling choice Eastern Seaboard specimens brought to market in New York, but the days of the inexpensive, abundant local oyster were over.
THE FRACTIOUS FINEST
Q. I’ve been told that for a while in the 19th century there were two police forces in New York City. How did they get along?
A. Not well. In the 1850’s, upset by the extent of Mayor Fernando Wood’s control over the city, the State Legislature passed an act forming the Metropolitan Police Force, and ordered the dissolution of the existing Municipal Police Force. Mayor Wood refused to break up the Municipals, and in 1867 the State Supreme Court ruled that the formation of the Metropolitan force was constitutional. That spring, the rival forces clashed twice in three days. On June 14, 1857, The New York Times reported, members of the Metropolitan force arrested a man for disorderly conduct on East Ninth Street. He was then seized by a member of the Municipal force, but the Metropolitan officers soon regained custody of him, and arrested two Municipal officers. Afterward, a mob gathered around the Metropolitan Police Station on East Sixth Street.
A more serious conflict took place on June 16. While trying to arrest Mayor Wood, The Times reported, members of the Metropolitan force were repelled by Municipal officers. The Metropolitan force stormed City Hall, which had been blockaded and was being defended by Municipals. A jeering throng of “roughs” joined in the fray, shouting their support of Mayor Wood. The melee was broken up by the National Guard, but not before 50 officers were injured. The forces continued to feud, but order was restored after the State Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the Supreme Court on July 2, 1857. The Municipal force was disbanded shortly afterward.
THE FIRST HOMICIDE
Q. Not to be grim, but when was the first homicide recorded in New York City, and who was the victim?
A. On Sept. 2, 1609, the explorer Henry Hudson and his crew dropped anchor in the lower bay of what later became known as New York Harbor, according to an account of the voyage written by the Robert Juet, first mate of Hudson’s ship, the Half Moon. Hudson, who was backed by the Dutch East India Company, was seeking a northwest passage to the Pacific. The crew’s initial contact with the Delaware Indians, who had welcomed Giovanni da Verrazano when he entered the harbor 85 years before, was friendly and “very civil,” Juet wrote. On the morning of Sept. 6, Hudson sent five men to explore the Narrows and the Upper Bay in a small boat. As darkness fell and the crew prepared to return to the Half Moon, they were set upon by two canoes filled with Delaware braves. According to Juet, two crew members were wounded in the melee, and a third, a sailor named John Colman, was killed by an arrow through the throat. The survivors returned to the Half Moon, and Colman was buried on Sandy Hook the next day.
PARIS, THE LONG WAY
Q. I came across a photograph, taken in Times Square in 1908, showing six cars roaring off at the start of the “New York to Paris Automobile Race.” Could you drive across the Atlantic Ocean back in those days?
A. It takes a moment to sink in, but since the New York to Paris auto race was by definition over land, the six competing teams rolled up Broadway, then turned their backs to the Atlantic and set off for France on a westerly course. The chosen route crossed the continental United States, Alaska and the frozen Bering Strait, continuing through Siberia, Russia, Poland, Germany, and finally to France. The length of the trip, which took about six months, was 19,877 miles. As the canvas-topped cars set out from the New York Times building that uncommonly cold February morning, a crowd of more than 150,000 lined the streets to watch.
Because the drivers were clearly insane. At that time, most roadways were impassable or nonexistent during winter. One of the French cars bored into a snowdrift and quit the race, only 44 miles outside the city. The remaining entrants—fitted out with goggles, fur coats, picks and canvas sails—spent much time in front of their racers, shoveling. Crews fumed, drivers quit and routes were redrawn. The eventual winner was George Schuster, an American mechanic. He piloted his Thomas Speedway Flyer into Paris on July 30—and was promptly stopped by a policeman for driving without a headlight.
COLUMBIA’S OLD CAMPUS
Q. Mosaics in the Chambers Street subway station of the Broadway line depict a Federal-style building with a cupola that I can’t seen to place. Can it be found in the neighborhood?
A. Not anymore. The plaque shows the building and grounds of Columbia College, which was two blocks south of the station—on the plot bordered by Murray, Church, Barclay and West Broadway—beginning in 1760. The campus was moved to 49th and Madison in 1857, and up to Morningside Heights 40 years later. The college building, which occupied land donated by Trinity Church, was used as a hospital when classes were suspended during the Revolution. In this tree-lined view, two robed students can be seen in the foreground.
ESCAPE BY A REBEL
Q. I once read that during the Civil War, Governors Island was used as a prison for Confederate soldiers, and that one escaped and swam to shore in Manhattan. Was he ever caught?
A. No, but accounts vary as to where he was imprisoned, how he escaped and what happened after he did. Most historical sources contend that in April 1865, just days before the war ended, Capt. William Robert Webb of the Second North Carolina Cavalry escaped from Castle Williams, then a prison on Governors Island, and swam to Manhattan, where he wandered unmolested for days before returning south.
But according to Webb, he was initially held in a plague-ridden camp on Hart Island, where, even days after Lee’s surrender, he refused to swear allegiance to the Union. He remained among thousands of sick, exhausted and violent Confederate prisoners until early June, then shipped to a temporary prison at the Battery, where he swam away from a guard while pretending to bathe.
Webb climbed ashore and wandered to P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, where his sickly appearance and tattered Confederate uniform were met with more ridicule than alarm. He endured more jeers at a theater, then a restaurant, but still no effort was made to return him to custody. Finally, tired and hungry, Webb chose to sneak himself back into prison. All the remaining Confederate prisoners were released in the following weeks, and Webb made his way back to North Carolina. In 1870 he founded the Webb School, in Tennessee, which became famous for its strict ethical code. He served briefly in the Senate and died in 1926.
THIS WAY TO THE BABIES
Q. Is it true, as I have heard, that premature babies were once displayed as an amusement at Coney Island?
A. The Infant Incubators were a consistently popular attraction at Coney Island from 1903 until the exhibit closed 40 years later. Stranger still is that the exhibit was, by all accounts, medically and ethically sound.
The exhibit was conceived by Dr. Martin Arthur Couney, a physician from Alsace who specialized in pediatrics at the Maternity Hospital in Paris in the 1890’s. The nursery at the hospital, which was famous for its pioneering work in premature infant care, was directed by a noted obstetrician, Dr. Pierre C. Budin. When Dr. Budin dispatched Dr. Couney to the Berlin Exposition of 1896 to demonstrate six of his newest incubators, he hit upon the idea of showing the incubators with premature babies inside. The exhibit was popular, and reportedly all the babies survived.
Dr. Couney immigrated to America in 1903 and established an Infant Incubator exhibit at Luna Park in Coney Island, among midway attractions like the Streets of Delhi and Trip to the Moon. Visitors to the exhibit viewed rows of tiny infants dozing in their incubators while a lecturer explained the workings of the life-saving machines. The babies, most of whom weighed around two pounds, were born in city hospitals that lacked modern equipment to equal Dr. Couney’s, or in private homes. The infants were attended by a team of crisply uniformed nurses and wet nurses, and a sterile environment and hospital-like conditions were scrupulously maintained.
Though eccentric, Dr. Couney was not considered a fraud or a charlatan. Aspects of his exhibit anticipated American hospital procedures by at least a decade, and contemporary accounts suggest that the infant survival rate at his display was unsurpassed by the hospitals of his era. Dr. Couney’s Infant Incubators closed when the cost of maintaining the exhibit became too great amid the general cheapening of Coney Island entertainments. The doctor died in 1950.
Q. An additional boulevard, between Fifth Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas, was once mapped out for Manhattan. What became of the plan?
A. Since it was first approved in 1811, Manhattan’s grid plan has proven impervious to all but a few attempts to improve on it. One occurred in 1910, when Mayor William J. Gaynor, astounded by the automobile traffic he saw snarling Fifth Avenue, called for a broad new thoroughfare to be carved out of Midtown, just west of Fifth Avenue.
The new avenue, which was to stretch from Eighth Street to Central Park, would be 100 feet wide, and would cost, by the mayor’s calculations, $40 million. Though the street would require the demolition of hundreds of buildings, Mayor Gaynor was convinced that property owners would willingly finance the scheme, since their back lots would be transformed overnight into high-priced real estate on a principal avenue.
Many motorists preferred Fifth Avenue because it was free of street railways and freight traffic from the waterfront. Traffic on the street increased eightfold between 1885 and 1913, while that on Broadway only doubled. A study found that rush-hour pedestrians on the avenue traveled at approximately the same speed as cars.
While the public considered the proposal, newspapers printed cartoons depicting the mayor scooping up buildings with a shovel. The plan was mostly ignored after he was wounded by an unemployed dock worker in the summer 1910, and when the mayor died three years later it was completely forgotten. In 1911, the architect Henry Rutgers Marshall suggested a broad, gently curved boulevard linking the old Pennsylvania Station with Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. It, too, was quickly forgotten.
NEW YORK MISSILES
Q. I understand that during the Cold War, a number of surface-to-air-missile sites were established in the area to defend New York City from a Soviet air attack. Where were they, and what became of them?
A. The radar-guided Nike missiles that once surrounded the city like a ballistic “ring of steel” were removed by the mid-1970’s. Most of the missile batteries were positioned near sleepy towns on Long Island and in New Jersey and Westchester, but a couple were placed in now-abandoned military installations on the outskirts of the city itself. In the 50’s, military planners struggled with the threat posed by Soviet long-range bombers, and about 300 Nike guided-missile batteries were built around large cities throughout the nation. Twenty-four such sites were installed in a circle around New York. In 1955, Nike missiles were positioned at a launching site on Hart Island and at Fort Tilden near Rockaway Beach.
The 21-foot-long Nike Ajax missiles, designed to intercept attacking aircraft and explode with the force of one ton of TNT, could fly up to 65,000 feet high, with a range of almost 30 miles. Twenty were stored in underground magazines at the two Hart Island batteries; twice that number were positioned in the four batteries at Fort Tilden.
After the Soviet Union tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile in 1957, it became apparent that no air-defense system could destroy missiles arriving from outer space, and the Hart Island site was closed in 1958. The site at Fort Tilden, however, was modified to accommodate 24 new Nike-Hercules missiles, which surpassed the Ajax in range and carried nuclear warheads. By the 1960’s these, too, were considered strategically obsolete, and they were removed from the site, now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, in 1974.
DISINFECTING THE WARDS
Q. The historical literature of New York City politics is filled with references to wards and ward bosses. When exactly was the City’s ward system abolished?
A. Though the ward system was slowly dismantled in the second half of the 19th century, the wards—small political and administrative units, ranging in size from a few blocks to a few square miles—were never formally abolished, and the City Charter continued to define their boundaries until 1938, according to the historian James F. Richardson, writing in The Encyclopedia of New York City.
In 1686, the first City Charter divided the city into the six wards, each of which elected an alderman and assistant alderman to serve in the City Council and chose lesser local officials like tax collectors and constables. Over time, the wards came to be defined as much by their wealth or poverty, ethnic makeup, cultural character and population density as by their geographical boundaries. Wards became centers of political power, and corruption, after 1800, when galloping population growth led to rapid expansion in police and fire protection, sanitation and street and sewer construction.
The ward boss, often a local saloonkeeper, became a pivotal figure in the machine politics of the era, dispensing patronage positions to the working men of the district in exchange for the promise of votes. He also served as an intermediary, relaying views and complaints up and down the ward’s political ladder as he poured out good cheer and drummed up votes for Election Day.
New wards were added and old ones divided as Manhattan expanded northward, and by 1853 there were 22, most of them situated below 14th Street. Brooklyn had 19 wards of its own. Critics saw the ward system as the primary source of municipal corruption and inefficiency, and charter revisions in 1853 and 1857 replaced the wards with newly drawn voting districts. Ward boundaries, however, were maintained for the administration of public schools and census-taking until the turn of the century.
TO DELMONICO’S, FAST!
Q. In books set in 19th-century New York, people are forever diving into carriages and shouting at the mustachioed driver to get to some other part of the city in a hurry. After the whip cracks and the horses gallop off, I’m left wondering what the fare will be and whether the driver will get a good tip.
A. The first carriages for hire appeared in New York City early in the 19th century, when paved streets and private carriages were becoming commonplace, and were usually traditional hackney coaches, called hacks, or the newer, two-wheeled cabriolet carriages, called cabs. Passengers often complained that the carriages were unclean, the drivers rude and the fares exorbitant (in contrast to the decorum and uniform good will that prevail between driver and passenger today).
Prices were considered too steep for the laboring classes—25 to 37 and one-half cents for the first mile for a hackney, and while metering devices existed, evidently they were not used. Altercations between driver and passenger were not unheard of, which suggests that tips were on the stingy side, despite the relative wealth of the clientele.
The Hansom cab, still seen today, had become popular by the late 1800’s, when fares started around 50 cents a mile and ranged upward, and extra charges were assessed for more than one passenger. Electric cabs, which required batteries that weighed more than 800 pounds, were introduced in 1897 but were eclipsed in popularity when a gasoline-powered fleet was introduced in 1907. Called taxicabs, the shiny red cars were equipped with a German device that measured time and distance traveled to establish the fare, and prices—which had risen to around 70 cents for the first mile and 40 cents thereafter—dropped to a level that finally made service available to the nonwealthy.
Q. Is it true that an African pygmy was once exhibited at the Bronx Zoo?
A. For two miserable, tumultuous weeks in 1906, Ota Benga, a 23-year-old pygmy from the Belgian Congo, was put on display at what was then called the New York Zoological Society in the Bronx. The public, appalled and entertained in equal measure, flocked to the primate house, where Benga could be observed playing with Dahong, the zoo’s orangutan, beneath a sign that read in part, “Height 4 feet 11 inches. Weight 103 pounds. Exhibited each afternoon during September.”
Benga was already something of a professional pygmy. After he was enslaved by villagers near the Kasai River in 1904, Samuel P. Verner, an American explorer and impresario, bought Benga’s release and persuaded him to help recruit other Batwa pygmies for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Benga then agreed to accompany Verner to St. Louis, where he was displayed—along with 1,400 American Indians, Japanese Ainus, Eskimos and other “emblematic savages”—in the fair’s anthropology department. Verner and Benga later returned to Africa together, and went to New York in 1906.
Verner, by that time penniless, left Benga in the care of the zoo, where it was agreed he would live and hunt in a forest of several hundred acres, apart from the exhibit area. Benga, who by that time spoke some English and liked to wear white duck suits, was instead displayed before as many as 40,000 spectators a day. Facing protests from newspapers and black clergymen, the zoo’s director, William Temple Hornaday, allowed Benga to leave his cage and wander freely around the zoo during the day, then return to the primate house to sleep at night. But according to The New York Times, the crowds “chased him around the grounds all day, howling, jeering and yelling,” adding, “Some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him.”
Exasperated by the growing scandal, Hornaday released Benga into the care of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. That arrangement proved awkward, since Benga had been married twice, and in 1910 he was placed in a seminary and college in Lynchburg, Va. He later worked on a nearby tobacco farm and taught local boys how to hunt in the woods. In 1916, lonely, despondent and homesick without a home, Ota Benga took his own life.
EYES ON THE DOUGHNUT
Q. Many years ago, after ice skating in Central Park, my parents would take my brother, my sister and me to a little coffee shop on the southeast corner of 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. On the wall were these words: “As you ramble on through life, brother, / Whatever be your goal, / Keep your eye upon the doughnut, / And not upon the hole.” Why?
A. You were in a Mayflower doughnut shop, one of the last in the city, and that bit of doggerel was the personal motto of the founder, Adolph Levitt. Known as the Optimist’s Creed, the words were printed on each box of doughnuts sold in the Mayflower shops, where they were framed by two cartoon jesters, one frowning at a thin doughnut with a large hole, the other grinning at a plump one with almost no hole at all. Levitt, an immigrant from Russia, first saw the anonymous verse in a picture frame he bought in a dime store, according to his granddaughter, Sally Levitt Steinberg.
Adolph Levitt saw many a doughnut. In the early 1920’s, passers-by pressed against the windows of his bakery on 125th Street to watch him fry his doughnuts in a kettle. Determined to find a way to prepare them faster and without the greasy fumes, he hired an engineer to design a mechanized doughnut fryer. Levitt was able to sell the resulting contraption to bakeries around the country, and in 1931 he opened the first Mayflower doughnut shop. At Broadway and West 45th Street, which the city briefly renamed Doughnut Corner, the shop served Maxwell House coffee and featured a working doughnut machine in the window. Mayflower shops, all bearing the Optimist’s Creed, dotted the city for decades, but had all but disappeared by the 1970’s.
THE IMMORTAL TELETYPE
Q. Is that an actual Teletype machine I hear in the background when I listen to WINS, the all-news radio station?
A. Nope. It’s a digitally stored recording of an old Teletype Model 15, according to a technician at the station. The open microphone in the teletype room was removed years ago. “Someone cursed, and it went out on the air,” the technician said. WINS switched to tape cartridges, then to a digital recording about 10 years ago. Teletype machines started disappearing in the 1970’s. “It’s the signature sound of the station,” the technician said. “Every time we turn it down, someone calls and complains that they can’t hear the ticker.”
BYE BYE, BUMPER BOYS
Q. Years ago, I remember seeing adventurous youths riding on the back bumpers of city buses. But I haven’t seen this happen in years. Why?
A. The Transit Authority began to notice the problem in the late 1970’s and clamped down on the reckless fare-beaters. In 1981, all new buses ordered by the authority featured “anti-ride bumpers.” Instead of offering a flat surface upon which a person could get a foothold, the new bumpers slanted away from the bus at a 45-degree angle. Also redesigned was the grille on the back of the bus, which the bumper riders held on to. The grille itself was made smaller and the slats were put so close together that a hand cannot fit between them and get a grip. By the early 90’s all New York buses were equipped with the smaller grilles and anti-ride bumpers. Now anyone trying to hop on the back bumper of a city bus is more likely to get a taste of the pavement than a free ride.
LONG-GONE DOPE DENS
Q. When was the last time anyone raided an opium den in New York City? Are any believed to be in operation today?
A. The kind of opium den you are probably picturing—a cavelike lair strewn with prostitutes and gamblers, dozing beneath hovering strands of smoke and stirring only to draw from a long bamboo pipe, or “yen tsiang”—probably hasn’t existed as such since the 1930’s or 40’s. Police Department and Drug Enforcement Agency officials said no opium dens had been raided in living memory, and the last New York newspaper articles recounting such an effort appeared in the 1920’s.
Opium dens first appeared in the city’s nascent Chinatown around 1870, in the area bordered by Mott, Pell and Doyers Streets, and were from the outset frequented by thrill-seeking whites and working-class Chinese men. The popular press stigmatized and glamorized the parlors, which by the 1890’s had spread to the Tenderloin along Sixth Avenue. In 1914, as addicts outside Chinatown began to turn to heroin, morphine and cocaine, the sale of opiates was outlawed by federal statute. Twenty years later, the old-fashioned opium den had all but vanished.
Q. Decades before the Washington Monument was erected in Washington, construction of a similar memorial was undertaken in New York City. What happened to it?
A. After a parade from City Hall to a rural hilltop site five miles north, a four-foot slab of marble was lowered into the ground on Oct. 19, 1847, as brass bands, uniformed troops and top-hatted dignitaries looked on solemnly. Construction of New York City’s Washington Monument, first proposed in 1843, went no further.
Designed by Calvin Pollard, a self-taught architect, the monument was to be a soaring, five-sided Gothic tower of granite, containing a library, a monumental rotunda, a university and, within the spire, a “National Observatory,” according to The City That Never Was by Rebecca Read Shanor. The site was an 18-acre tract at what is now Fifth Avenue and East 65th Street, called Hamilton Square. Pollard’s plan for the memorial, which at 425 feet would have been roughly twice as tall as any building in the city, proved unpopular, and his choice of the ecclesiastical style was galling to a public accustomed to monuments based on Greek and Roman styles.
Two months after the cornerstone was dedicated, as protests reached a crescendo, the association sponsored another competition. In 1848, unable to choose a winner, the committee asked contributors to vote on their favorite plan. Minard Lafever’s proposal, one of six originally passed over by the Washington Monument Committee, was the victor. Consisting of a 500-foot Egyptian obelisk rising from a stepped, two-story pedestal, it was similar in form and scale to the one erected in Washington 40 years later. But funds for the monument were so depleted by that time that the committee was forced to pursue a far more modest tribute. In 1856, a bronze equestrian statue of General Washington by the sculptor Henry Kirke Brown was finally unveiled. It stands today in Union Square Park. When Hamilton Park was cut into streets years later, the cornerstone of Pollard’s tower was forgotten and presumably left in place.
OSWALD’S CITY SOJOURN
Q. Is it true that Lee Harvey Oswald lived for a while in New York City?
A. Yes. After arriving from Dallas in August 1952, Lee Harvey Oswald, 12, and his mother lived in a succession of apartments, first on East 92nd Street in Manhattan, later on Sheridan Avenue and then East 179th Street in the Bronx. The boy was enrolled in several schools, but was frequently truant. Mother and son left the city for New Orleans in January 1954, almost a decade before the Kennedy assassination.
WEST SIDE MUFFINS
Q. Is it true that so-called English muffins were first baked, and sold, in New York City?
A. Yes. Samuel Bath Thomas was born in Plymouth, England, in 1855, and as a young man traveled to New York, where he opened a bakery in 1880, at 163 Ninth Avenue in Chelsea. There were thousands of small bake shops in the city, most of which produced white and rye breads. Seeking a specialty product, Thomas baked a coarse-grained, yeast-leavened cake on an oiled griddle, using leftover dough. The crumpet-shaped result was similar to the cakes baked on griddles in England at the time, believed to be descendants of the “bara maen,” a yeast-leavened cake baked on hot stones in 10th-century Wales. Served fork-split and toasted, the “England muffins” had a rough texture and slightly sour flavor, and the air pockets—relentlessly advertised since the 1970’s as nooks and crannies—sponged up a pat of butter nicely. As demand grew in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, he established a second bakery at 337 West 20th Street. After Thomas died in 1919, his business was inherited by his daughters and nephew, who opened a bakery in Long Island City, Queens, in 1922. The company moved its muffin-making operations out of the city in 1965. The Thomas’s English Muffins sold here today are baked in Greenwich, Conn.
PETS, RADIO AND PRAYER
Q. When I was a child, my father took me to a retail district in Lower Manhattan that consisted only of pet shops and pet supply stores. Where was it?
A. South of Barclay Street, on West Broadway and Greenwich Streets. Like the radio district and the religious-supply district, the pet-shop district was flattened in the mid-1960’s for the construction of the World Trade Center.
WINGS OVER MANHATTAN
Q. When was the first airplane flight over Manhattan?
A. On Oct. 4,1909, when Wilbur Wright flew from Governors Island up the Hudson to Grant’s Tomb and back, in an airplane outfitted with a red canoe for emergency water landings. The flight took 33 minutes.
Q. I understand that electric Christmas tree lights were introduced in New York City. When?
A. Historians generally credit Edward H. Johnson, the vice president of Thomas A. Edison’s electric company, with the introduction of the lights, in the rear parlor of his New York home, in 1882.
The 80 hand-wired, hand-blown glass bulbs were wrapped in red, white and blue crepe paper, and twinkled and blinked as the tree twirled around. A reporter from a Detroit newspaper described the tree as “most picturesque and uncanny … it was brilliantly lighted with many colored globes about the size of an English walnut and was turning some six times a minute in a little pine box.” It was only three years after Edison produced his incandescent bulb, and mere weeks after his Illuminating Company of New York City, the nation’s first commercial power station, opened at 257 Pearl Street.
Victorian consumers were as mistrustful of electric lights as they had been of candles; for years they remained costly, hazardous and bothersome. General Electric acquired Edison’s light bulb business in 1890 and began selling tree lights in the 1900’s, $12 for a box of 28. In 1903, the Ever-Ready Company of New York began mass-producing strings of lights. Prices for the electric lights soon dropped markedly, and by 1920 candles were fading from use. The first electric menorahs appeared after World War I.
HATS OF THE FINEST
Q. When did the New York City police begin wearing the distinctively shaped hats they wear today?
A. The familiar eight-point hats were introduced in the early 1930’s and replaced hats with circular crowns. The new design had historical significance. The eight points commemorated the eight-member Rattle Watch, the first officially recognized police force on Manhattan Island. The Rattle Watch was hired in the 1600’s by the Dutch to patrol New Amsterdam. They carried no weapons, so unlike some of their successors, they could not rap nightsticks on curbstones to summon help. Instead, when one of the force needed assistance, he would swing a large wooden rattle through the air. The rattle would make a loud noise, and others would come running.
The first badges used by the New York Police Department also referenced the Rattle Watch. Those badges were eight-pointed copper shields and were worn by officers from 1845 until 1857, then replaced by steel badges with numbers. For those above the rank of police officer, there is a decorative strap that runs around the base of the polyester-wool hat. Most wear a gilt strap; detectives wear a black one. Also worn on hats are small shieldlike emblems called cap devices.
Most officers own a single hat, but some have a second one for ceremonies. A hat can be bought by officers at several police-supply stores in the city. Many come with plastic pockets inside the crown, which are used to store photographs, documents or other items, like a prayer to St. Michael, the patron saint of the police.
Q. When was the city’s last cholera epidemic?
A. New York suffered no serious outbreaks of this intestinal disease until immigration accelerated in the 1830’s. By the mid-1860’s, four outbreaks had killed thousands, more than 5,000 in 1849 alone. The way the bacterium is transmitted, by contaminated food and water, was better understood by the 1880’s, and in the last outbreak, in 1892, deaths were limited to fewer than 120.
Q. Children in New York used to chant a clapping song, almost like a nursery rhyme, about not wanting to go to Macy’s. How did it go?
A. Like this:
Oh, I won’t go to Macy’s any more, more, more.
There’s a big fat policeman at the door, door, door.
He’ll pull you by the collar
And make you pay a dollar.
Oh, I won’t go to Macy’s any more, more, more.
The authorship is obscure, but the rhyme was popular by the turn of the 20th century, and might have been associated with an incident that occurred when the modern department store was still in its infancy. On Dec. 24, 1870, Elizabeth B. Phelps, a suffragist and woman of no small renown, was accused of petty thievery while shopping at Macy’s, then at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue. At issue was a box of bonbons that Mrs. Phelps dropped on the floor that day. Margaret Grotty, a salesgirl, asserted that Mrs. Phelps was trying to steal it, while the latter insisted that it had fallen as she was trying to extract payment from her coin purse while juggling her packages. The store detective was summoned.
Mrs. Phelps’s arrest was exhaustively covered by the popular press, and it turned out that several other well-to-do women had been detained at Macy’s the same day, for other and seemingly innocent lapses in protocol. A judge threw Mrs. Phelps’s case out of court, and Macy’s was left to struggle with the perception that, whether due to class animosity or confusion over department store etiquette, innocent shoppers were routinely harassed. Though picket lines and boycotts were planned, they never materialized. The rhyme, whatever its origins, survived well into the 1950’s.
THE ORIGIN OF SUEY
Q. I’ve heard a number of versions of the origins of chop suey, but the most intriguing one involves a visit by a Chinese statesman to New York City in the closing years of the 19th century. What can you tell me about it?
A. The true origins of chop suey—generally speaking, a mixture of chicken or pork, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and celery, awash in a gooey broth of water, soy, cornstarch, sugar and salt and served over rice—are still a subject of debate.
A distant, earthier relative of the dish was probably prepared in rural areas south of Canton, where many of the earliest Chinese immigrants to America were born. Many believe that in the 1860’s, Cantonese miners and railroad workers were forced to concoct their meals from whatever leftover meats and vegetables were at hand, and chop suey was the result. When Americans found the bland stew to their liking, the cooks simply named it using the Cantonese or Mandarin words for chopped up odds and ends.
Li Hongzhang, the Chinese grand secretary of state, visited New York City in August 1896, and brought several personal chefs with him. These chefs were later credited with “introducing” chop suey, either to appeal to the minister’s American guests, to combat his chronic indigestion or, as it was recounted on the menu of a Times Square Chinese restaurant in the 1920’s, because Li Hongzhang enjoyed the dish so much at home that he could not live without it.
In reality, chop suey restaurants had appeared in the city several years before his visit, serving a dish that probably combined bean sprouts with livers, gizzards and other kitchen scraps. The city, however, was captivated by Li and his famous yellow tunic, and it is not inconceivable that Chinese restaurant owners used his visit to promote the dish. According to The Chicago Tribune, a restaurateur named Albert Lee told a reporter in 1931 that he invented a dish he called Li Hung-Chang Chop Suey shortly after the 1896 visit, while working in New York at the Tuxedo Café. Other versions say the dish first appeared during a Chinese general’s visit to Japan, or in a San Francisco restaurant. During his visit, Li planted a gingko tree at the site of Grant’s Tomb. It’s still there.
EAST SIDE TRADE CENTER
Q. Was the World Trade Center originally planned for another site? I’ve heard that it was first envisioned as an East Side development.
A. The initial scheme for the World Trade Center was presented at City Hall on Oct. 14, 1958, by David Rockefeller and the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association. An aerial photograph of Lower Manhattan showed a 20-block area outlined in white, but it was located along the East River, extending from the financial district to the area where the South Street Seaport stands today.
The center, conceived as a port-enhancing development, had been authorized by the Legislature in 1946, but plans languished after the city’s Board of Estimate defeated the proposal three years later. By the time the scheme was resurrected in the late 1950’s, it had become a more aggressive redevelopment plan, with extensive new building construction and wholesale clearance of “slum districts.” The first site, bounded by Fulton, Water and South Streets and Old Slip, was to include a tall, slab-like office building, a vast international trade mart and a potential new home for the New York Stock Exchange. A separate plan called for 21,000 apartments to be built below the Brooklyn Bridge.
The project could not proceed without approval of the Port Authority, which in 1961 agreed to take over the operation of the nearly bankrupt Hudson and Manhattan Railroad, now called the PATH trains, to gain the support of New Jersey officials. To coordinate trade center construction with improvements to the railroad, which terminated on the West Side near the Hudson, the site was shifted to Manhattan’s old electronics district, which was bordered by West, Vesey, Church and Liberty Streets. In 1964, Minoru Yamasaki, the project’s architect, unveiled his plans for a pair of 110-story towers.
MOVE OVER, MILWAUKEE
Q. New York was once a brewery capital because of its German immigrants. How many breweries were there at the peak?
A. German brewers brought a popular form of beer called lager, which required cooling, to New York in the mid-19th century. In 1866, the Hell Gate Brewery was the nation’s largest, and Ruppert’s Beer, fondly remembered by sports fans for their sponsorship of the Yankees in Joe DiMaggio’s day, and fight nights at the old Madison Square Garden, was the fourth largest, according to The Encyclopedia of New York City. The height was in 1879, when there were 78 breweries in Manhattan and 43 in Brooklyn. Because of consolidation in the industry, there were only five local breweries in 1950, including Schlitz, which operated the Hell Gate Brewery until 1973. Micro-breweries, small producers of so-called craft beers, took off in the 1980’s, and there were a dozen in the mid-90’s. By the early 21st century, only four small breweries were left: Heartland Brewery and Chelsea Brewing in Manhattan, and the Park Slope Brewing Company and Brooklyn Brewery in Brooklyn.
AN ACCIDENT, MAYBE
Q. The attempt to sabotage our postal system with anthrax spores after the attacks of Sept. 11 made me wonder: What was the biggest case of sabotage by a wartime enemy in New York before this?
A. It might have been the burning of the ocean liner Normandie. Two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the luxury French liner was being retrofitted as a troopship when it caught fire and capsized at Pier 88, at the foot of West 49th Street, in the early morning hours of Feb. 9, 1942. Two hundred were injured, with one fatality. The circumstances of the fire are still mysterious.
It was immediately suspected that Nazi fifth columnists had set fire to what would have been one of the fastest and largest troopships in the fleet. The Manhattan district attorney, Frank Hogan, assured the public there was no evidence of sabotage, and concluded that the fire had been started by an errant spark from a welder’s torch. But in secret, the Navy turned to the imprisoned Charles (Lucky) Luciano to enlist his waterfront connections in ferreting out saboteurs. As a result, eight German spies who landed from a U-boat soon afterward were arrested with explosives, maps and sabotage blueprints.
In the 1975 book The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano, the ailing mob boss, who had been deported to Italy, told Martin A. Gosch and Richard Hammer that his own men set fire to the Normandie, to pressure the government to release him from prison. Luciano, though, was known to exaggerate his own cleverness. Bronze portals from the Normandie, featuring Norman churches and ocean liners, were salvaged and used as the doors for the south and west portals of Our Lady of Lebanon Roman Catholic Church at 113 Remsen Street in Brooklyn Heights.
PUTTING IT IN LIGHTS
Q. Every time I’m in Times Square, I wonder: What was the first illuminated sign in, the city?
A. The first, which was gaslit, promoted Coney Island’s refreshing breezes in 1892 at the intersection of 23rd Street and Madison Square. Times Square’s whizzing, blinking, moving billboards are appropriately known in the trade as spectaculars. Wrigley’s had two of the earliest, in 1917 and 1936. One of the most fondly remembered was the Camel smoker blowing smoke rings (actually Con Ed steam), designed in 1942 by Douglas Leigh, who wanted to turn the heads of passers-by even though a wartime blackout was in effect.
NEW YEAR’S, THE OLD WAY
Q. How did New Yorkers celebrate New Year’s before the dropping of the ball in Times Square?
A. In the Dutch colony of Nieuw Amsterdam, settlers celebrated the New Year by going house to house and consuming eggnog, rum punch and pickled oysters. This tradition, which became more boisterous as the years progressed, lasted until the mid-19th century, when New Yorkers gathered on Broadway at the foot of Wall Street to hear the chimes from Trinity Church ring in the New Year. One of Trinity’s bells, dating from 1797, is among the city’s oldest; most of the rest of the church’s bells were cast in 1845. On Dec. 31, 1904, The New York Times celebrated the company’s move into the new tower at 1 Times Square with a fireworks display. The city later banned the shooting of fireworks over the heads of the crowd, and The Times rung in 1908 by inaugurating the tradition of dropping an electrified ball. The ceremony has continued uninterrupted except for the World War II blackout years of 1943 and 1944.
Q. Where was the Hippodrome, and when was it demolished?
A. It depends which Hippodrome you mean. There were two. The earlier one was built by the irrepressible P. T. Barnum in 1874. Barnum bought an abandoned railroad shed at 26th Street and Madison Avenue, and opened what he modestly called “Barnum’s Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome.” The roofless open-air site featured waltzing elephants and chariot races à la Ben-Hur. In 1879, the site became the first of three Madison Square Gardens. The block is now occupied by Cass Gilbert’s gilt-crowned New York Life Insurance Building from 1928.
The second Hippodrome, which once stood on the east side of Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets, was one of the more extravagant sites of an extravagant era. It was built by Frederick Thompson and Elmer S. Dundy, the team that created Luna Park in Coney Island. When this Hippodrome opened in 1905, it was billed as the world’s largest theatrical structure, with a seating capacity of 5,300 and a stage that featured two circus rings and a giant elliptical water tank.
Turn-of-the-century diversions were featured there, including trained animals, boxing matches, the “million-dollar mermaid” Annette Kellerman and extravaganzas like “A Yankee Circus on Mars.” The building was closed in 1939. An undistinguished 1951 office tower at 1120 Avenue of the Americas is still called the Hippodrome Building in memory of the site.
MONUMENT TO THE SLUM
Q. I’m told that New York’s first tenement building is still standing. Where is it?
A. The first building in New York constructed specifically as a tenement is at 65 Mott Street, near Pell Street, Tyler Anbinder writes in Five Points, his history of the notorious 19th-century slum in Lower Manhattan. Mr. Anbinder calls the building “a living monument to the evils of the tenement system.”
In the early 19th century, buildings that housed many unrelated tenants became known as tenant houses, and by the 1840’s as tenement houses. Built about 1824, 65 Mott Street was a seven-story walk-up that towered over its two-story wooden neighbors. In a typical apartment, the 12-by-12-foot front room served as kitchen, dining room and living room. The 8-by-10-foot back room was an unventilated “sleeping closet.” One of these apartments might house as many as 12 people. In the 1880’s, The New York Times commented that 65 Mott Street “stands out like a wart growing on the top of a festering sore.”
The Tenement House Law of 1879 had restricted the area a building could cover and made the “dumbbell tenement,” which had air shafts, the standard. More improvements were mandated by a 1901 law; tenements built after that date are known as “new law,” to differentiate them from their predecessors, which were known as “old law.”
BEFORE THE DONALD
Q. What was the first building to bear the Trump name?
A. Even before Donald, the Trump family did things on a grand scale. Donald J. Trump’s father, Fred, built the 2,484-unit Trump Village in Coney Island in 1964. The 23-story apartment complex was designed by Morris Lapidus, famous for opulent, over-the-top Miami Beach hotels like the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc. Trump Village, built of white brick with accents of blue ceramic tile and red brick, was taller than the 250-foot parachute jump at the nearby amusement park and could be seen from 20 miles out at sea. Donald Trump’s first big deal was converting the old Commodore Hotel, next to Grand Central Terminal, into the glittery Grand Hyatt in 1980 with the architect Der Scutt, complete with gold Mylar tablecloths.
GOLDEN AGE OF GREETINGS
Q. Is it true that New York used to have an “official greeter,” some dapper fellow who would meet dignitaries at airports, piers or train platforms and sit beside them at receptions, pageants and ticker tape parades?
A. Others held the post, but the official greeter was, for all intents and purposes, one man, Grover A. Whalen, who shook the hands and slapped the backs of visiting heroes and monarchs from 1919 to 1953. The debonair Whalen, with his carefully trimmed mustache, black homburg, blue suit and white carnation, appeared in newspapers and newsreels with such regularity that out-of-towners would mistake him for some sort of perpetual mayor. Urbane and effusive, he was labeled the Billion-Dollar Barker and Doorman of the Western Hemisphere.
Whalen, a devoted Democrat, began his career as a secretary to Mayor John F. Hylan. As leader of the committee to honor homecoming troops at the close of World War I, Whalen organized the first city-sponsored ticker tape parade up Broadway, still considered the quintessential hero’s welcome. Parades, receptions and luncheons in the thousands followed, with Whalen appearing beside everyone from Albert Einstein to Queen Marie of Romania. His official title was Chairman of the Mayor’s Reception Committee, which paid $1 a year, though he held a half-dozen other prominent positions, including police commissioner, at various times.
In 1953 Whalen was replaced by Richard C. Patterson Jr., but the advances of the jet age had already made the arrival of overseas visitors less newsworthy, and the position of official greeter began to lose its ceremonial luster. Greeters of the 1960’s and 1970’s—by then attached to the Commission for Protocol—never matched Whalen’s flamboyance, or achieved his level of prominence.
LITTLE CABLE CARS
Q. A friend who works in the building at Broadway and Houston Street that houses the Angelika Theater noticed that the structure is called the Cable Building. Did New York City once have cable cars?
A. Yes, New York once had little cable cars, although they did not climb halfway to the stars as they do in San Francisco.
The nine-story Cable Building, designed by Stanford White and completed in 1894, is among the city’s often-overlooked Beaux-Arts gems. White was always the most sensuous of architects: witness the two caryatids by the sculptor John Massey Rhind flanking a large oval window on the Broadway entrance. The light court is also stunning, a variation on the square doughnut shape then popular in Chicago office buildings. In its basement, the Cable Building contained a powerhouse for the Broadway Cable and Seventh Avenue Railway Company. The cables wound underneath Broadway from Bowling Green to West 36th Street. The building’s all-steel frame dampened the noise and vibrations of the 100-ton wheels, 32 feet in diameter, that pulled the cables.
New York had both the first and last cable lines to be installed in the country. The first commercial passenger cable railway ran along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue in 1868. In the last quarter of the 19th century, cable street railways ran along 125th Street, Third Avenue and Columbus Avenue. The final railway built, on Lexington Avenue in 1895, had the nation’s longest cable line, at 43,700 feet. Cable cars gradually gave way to electrified streetcars and the Broadway line was electrified in 1901. The Brooklyn Heights line was the last in the city, going electric in 1909.
THE COPPERHEAD MAYOR
Q. Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin campaigned to make New York City the 51st state in their legendary 1969 mayoral bid. Have any mayors entertained similar ideas?
A. Fernando Wood, who was mayor when the Civil War broke out in April 1861, had proposed in January that if the Union should break up, New York City should not only become a separate state but also secede. Wood had an ulterior motive: he was a leading defender of Southern slavery, because of the city’s reliance on the cotton industry, and his own racism. His concept was that New York should become a “free city of itself” so it could trade with both North and South. The interests of New York’s merchant class were entwined with Southern slavery, including ship owners who transported cotton, bankers who accepted slaves as collateral on loans, and brokers of Southern railroad and state bonds. The new entity was to be called Tri-Insula, for the islands of Manhattan and Staten Island, and the combined Brooklyn and Long Island.
When the Confederacy announced in March 1861 that import duties in Southern cities would be half that of New York, the city’s upper classes did an abrupt about-face and favored war. In April, as Lincoln and the North prepared for war, Wood joined them and dropped his secession plan. As a Peace Democrat who supported the Union but with slavery intact, Wood was voted out in November. He remained a leading Copperhead, or Northern sympathizer with the South, for the rest of the war, and then ran in 1867 as a Democrat for Congress, where he served until his death in 1881. Wood, mayor from 1855 to 1858 and from 1860 to 1862, was the prototypical machine boss, handing out favors and patronage, and was the precursor for the notorious William Marcy Tweed of Tammany Hall.
THE WAR ON VICE
Q. Not that I want to see it return, but whatever happened to the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice?
A. The society dissolved in 1950 upon the retirement of the last of the only two men to have led it. Not many people, after all, have considered themselves up to the task of suppressing vice in New York. One who did was Anthony Comstock, a New England Congregationalist and dry goods clerk who arrived in New York in the 1860’s and was appalled by the moral decay he found. He began reporting saloons open on Sunday to the police and brought charges against publishers of indecent material.
In 1872 Comstock helped form the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which was given the power to investigate and serve warrants on peddlers of indecent material. As head of the society, Comstock pursued hundreds of cases, railed against Walt Whitman, demanded that medical journals remove sections on contraception and insisted that department stores remove unclad mannequins. In 1905 he tried to block the New York production of George Bernard Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s Profession, about a high-class madam. Shaw coined the term “Comstockery,” for the strict censorship of material thought to be immoral. In 1913 Comstock made a sensation of a painting of a nude woman called September Morn when he ordered it out of a West 46th Street gallery window.
By 1915 even moral New Yorkers were beginning to tire of Comstock and were made particularly uncomfortable by his boasting that 15 victims of his campaigns had taken their own lives. That year Comstock was replaced as head of the Society of the Suppression of Vice by a young lawyer, John Sumner. While less flamboyant than Comstock, whom he called “somewhat of a religious fanatic who loved notoriety,” Sumner was equally determined in his task and spent 35 years trying to free New York of vice. Sumner sought prosecutions against James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Mae West, various radio shows and magazines and the Roman Catholic Church, which Sumner said was corrupting parishioners with raffles. But as years went by, the society became less of a force.
ELEVATOR’S GROUND FLOOR
Q. I know that New York had the world’s first passenger elevator. Where was it?
A. In 1854, Elisha Graves Otis demonstrated his first “safety elevator” at the Crystal Palace, in what is now Bryant Park. The world’s first commercially practical passenger elevator was installed by Otis in the Haughwout Store at 488 Broadway, at Broome Street, on March 23, 1857. The steam-powered elevator took more than a minute to reach the top of the five-story building. The original cab and engine were replaced at the turn of the 20th century, but the sign that reads “Elevator” in cast iron on the Broadway facade is original. The Haughwout Store was named for the merchant Eder V. Haughwout, who specialized in china, glassware and silverware. Built in 1857 by John P. Gaynor, it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The building’s facade consists of a single design motif, a keystoned arch with fluted columns, repeated 92 times. The cast iron was produced by Daniel D. Badger’s renowned Architectural Iron Works, which supplied many buildings in New York. In a catalog of Badger’s work, the preservationist Margot Gayle described the Haughwout Building as “the finest of existing iron-front commercial buildings produced by the Architectural Iron Works (or any other foundry for that matter).”
HOUDINI’S SUNDAY DIP
Q. The magician David Blaine attracted attention recently for sitting atop an 80-foot pillar in Bryant Park. I’m told Blaine’s hero, Harry Houdini, once jumped off a tugboat in New York Harbor. Is that true?
A. Like Houdini, Blaine seems to be making New York his stage of choice. So far he has been buried alive at the Trump Place development, near West 68th Street and the Hudson River, frozen in ice in Times Square and perched high above Bryant Park with nothing to steady him. But the magician has a way to go to reach the fame of his idol, the great escapologist who defied straitjackets while dangling from buildings, made a 10,000-pound elephant disappear and was twice thrown into New York Harbor, weighted, bound and boxed.
By 1912, Houdini was already well known for his escapes, and on July 7 of that year New Yorkers flocked to the Battery to see a stunt that would make a star into a legend. Houdini had charted a tugboat from McAllister Towing and was ready to be tossed into the river when he was told it was against the law to hold public performances on a Sunday. Undeterred, Houdini instructed the captain, J. P. McAllister, to pilot the tug to Governors Island, federal property where New York laws did not apply. Houdini was then shackled, with the locks checked by McAllister and others, and put in a pine box that was nailed and roped shut and attached to two sewer pipes to ensure that the container was headed for the bottom of the river. The box was then dumped into the water. One minute later, Houdini surfaced.
Requests for endorsements and book and film deals poured in. For eight weeks Houdini repeated the feat nightly in a tank in a theater for $1,000 a week. He repeated the offshore feat on July 15, 1914, a Wednesday, so those on land could watch his “challenge to death” this time. From 1904 until his death in 1926, Houdini lived at 278 West 113th Street, where he practiced his underwater tricks in an oversize bathtub. He is buried in Machpelah Cemetery in Queens.
DAPPER TO DESIGNER
Q. Whatever happened to John J. Gotti’s old hangout, the Ravenite Social Club, in Little Italy?
A. Quite fitting for the Dapper Don, who died in June 2002, a clothing boutique moved into the ground floor of what was once the Ravenite Social Club at 247 Mulberry Street, near Prince Street. The place got a little renovation, courtesy of federal law enforcement agents.
For much of the 1980’s, Gotti and his associates in the Gambino crime family could be found at the Ravenite on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. While Cadillacs lined up along the curb outside, the men these vehicles carried would meet inside the modest private club, which housed some card tables, a television set and a refrigerator stocked with beer and soda. Gotti often strolled around the neighborhood with friends and associates who met him at the club. Gotti also had an apartment above the club that he used for private meetings. At the time, the five-story building, which had 18 apartments, was owned by Joseph LaForte Sr., a member of the Gambino organization, according to federal prosecutors. The club also attracted the attention of the police and the F.B.I., which secretly installed microphones inside the Ravenite and, based on information from those bugs, raided the club on Dec. 16, 1990, and arrested John Gotti and several underlings, charging them with murder and racketeering.
The federal government seized the building in 1997, gutted the club and sold the building to a developer, Eric Hadar, for $1 million. In 1998 Amy Chan opened her design store on street level. The brickface storefront and screen door were torn out in favor of large windows, and the drab interior was replaced with smooth, brightly illuminated white walls. An Amy Chan sales representative said that every so often, people curious about the old social club would stop by, including some who had frequented the Ravenite for business.
G-MAN CHORUS LINE
Q. My grandmother told me that during World War II the federal government placed security agents in Radio City Music Hall. I enjoy the Rockettes but didn’t realize they are vital to national security. Could that be true?
A. No. Without taking anything away from the Rockettes, the truth is that the government put agents in the Music Hall during the war to guard the stage elevator. When Radio City first opened in 1932 it was the toast of the theatrical crowd, and, with slightly less fanfare, it also wowed the engineering crowd. Principal among its engineering feats was the stage designed by Peter Clark. It consisted of three 70-foot-wide sections, each able to descend 27 feet below stage level and rise 13 feet above it. A fourth elevator allowed the orchestra pit to be similarly mobile.
Each section was powered by two hydraulic cylinders. Cut into each of the three stage elevators is a turntable, creating yet another dimension for the stage. Props and scenery could appear and disappear as never before, and the construction inspired other stage designs, including the one for the Metropolitan Opera House. So innovative was Radio City Music Hall’s stage that it was studied by the Navy, which was interested in its mechanics for aircraft carriers. The elevator was deemed of national importance, hence a government security agent could be found in the basement of Radio City Music Hall throughout World War II. In 2001 the stage elevator was decreed a historic mechanical engineering landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
NEW YORK, D.C.?
Q. To show support for New York after the attacks of Sept. 11, Congress met here in September 2002, for the first time since 1790, but why did it leave New York in the first place?
A. When the first Congress met at Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan in August 1789, one of its first orders of business was to find a new location. Southern states did not like having their country’s capital in what Thomas Jefferson, a Virginian, once called “a cloacina of all the depravities of human nature.” As far as they were concerned, the city was too obsessed with wealth, too immoral and too British. But New Yorkers liked having their city as the nation’s capital and were in no rush to move it. One New Yorker, Alexander Hamilton, saw the schism as his opportunity.
Hamilton wanted the states’ Revolutionary debts assumed by the almost-bankrupt federal government, as a way to establish its credit. Northern states, heavily in debt, supported the idea, while the Southern states, whose debts were smaller, opposed it. Jefferson and Hamilton made a deal: Jefferson would support the debt takeover and get Southern representatives to follow, if Hamilton agreed to move the capital south to some swampland being developed on the Potomac River, after a layover in Philadelphia while the city was being built.
On Aug. 12, 1790, Congress met in New York for the last time, and the move set the stage for something not seen in the European motherlands: a country with two capitals, one political and one cultural and economic. Abigail Adams, wife of Vice President John Adams, might have seen this coming. When informed of the new location of the capital, she noted, “When all is done, it will not be Broadway.”
ALAMO TO STATEN ISLAND
Q. The Mexican General Santa Anna was exiled to Staten Island. Why there of all places?
A. Santa Anna (more formally Antonio López de Santa Anna Pérez de Lebrón) was not banished specifically to Staten Island. In 1855, this soldier and five-time president of Mexico, best known for leading his country’s troops at the Alamo, was banished from that country, mostly for selling millions of acres to the United Sates in the Gadsden Purchase. During his exile, General Santa Anna lived in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Staten Island (there are conflicting accounts as to where).
Even back then, New York—with its many immigrants and vast supply of lawyers, schemers and sympathizers for almost any cause—was popular among people who had offended their native land. It was during Santa Anna’s time in Staten Island that he would, among other things, inadvertently change the lives of school janitors forever. In 1869, with dreams of a million-dollar rubber company, Santa Anna enlisted the help of a Staten Island inventor, Thomas Adams, to help create a new form of carriage tire from the tropical plant chicle. After a year of experimenting and ruining his wife’s pots and pans, Adams was ready to dump his remaining chicle in the East River when, at a drugstore, he heard a little girl ask for a penny’s worth of wax candy. He knew chicle had been chewed in the Americas since the Mayans.
Adams’s chicle experiments quickly took another direction. In 1871, he patented a gum-making machine that stamped out the chicle into long, thin strips. In 1876 Adams formed Adams Sons & Company, the world’s first chewing gum company. That same year, Santa Anna, who had been allowed to return to Mexico City, died there in obscurity.
OUT OF THE DEPTHS
Q. After the attacks of Sept. 11, it was reported that landfill from the World Trade Center was used to create the ground beneath Battery Park City. Could that be true? It seems as if that would require a lot of landfill.
A. Just a small part of the landfill for Battery Park City came from the trade center; the rest has a humbler origin. “Only 20 acres of Battery Park City’s 93 acres came from the World Trade Center, less than one million cubic yards,” said Charles J. Urstadt, first chairman of the Battery Park City Authority, from 1968 to 1979. Construction of Battery Park City, adjacent to the trade center site, began in 1972.
The rest of the landfill, five million cubic yards, was dredged from the entrance of New York Harbor just south of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. “We paid the state $1.50 or $2 per cubic yard for the landfill and barged 17,000 yards at a time over to the site,” explained Mr. Urstadt. “Then we pumped it behind bulkheads, creating about an acre a day, and I swear with all the clams and fish parts the dredging brought up we must have had every sea gull from Harlem to Staten Island down there. It took 12 years of politics, state and local legislation, permission from 43 different state and federal agencies, and difficult financing to create this monumental landfill.”
Q. When did the first ambulance take to the streets of New York?
A. The first ambulance was seen on the streets in 1867, but it was for horses. Two years before, a wealthy New Yorker named Henry Bergh chartered the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Bergh, nicknamed the Great Meddler by newspaper reporters because of his confrontational style, was particularly horrified by the cruelty he saw directed at working horses, the primary beasts of burden at the time. Toward that end, the ASPCA created a horse-drawn ambulance in 1867 to treat wounded animals who would otherwise be left on the street to die.
Two years later, Bellevue Hospital introduced the city’s first ambulances for humans. Each vehicle was equipped with a stretcher, splints, bandages, tourniquets, handcuffs, a straitjacket and a quart of brandy. Today the ASPCA is a nationwide organization. While it now treats mainly domesticated animals, its roots are not forgotten; the official seal of the organization depicts an angel rising up to protect a fallen horse about to be struck.
THE BOSS ON THE RUN
Q. Given a recent rash of suspects escaping from police custody, I’m wondering who was the city’s most famous jailbird to take flight.
A. Few escapees could match the fame of William Marcy Tweed, the boss of Tammany Hall, who went on the lam in 1875. Famously, Tweed was a former bookkeeper and volunteer fireman who was elected an alderman in 1851 and worked his way up the ladder, eventually becoming a state senator and head of the city’s powerful Democratic machine. Tweed oversaw passage of a revised City Charter instituting a Board of Audit, which became the principal means for Tweed and his cronies to siphon tens of millions of dollars from the city treasury. The exact amount is still unknown, though estimates run as high as $200 million.
Whatever the amount, it upset some Tammany members so much that they leaked information to The New York Times, which began publishing a series of exposés in 1871. Meanwhile, the cartoonist Thomas Nast was skewering Tweed in Harper’s Weekly. In December Tweed was arrested on fraud charges and convicted in 1873 on 204 counts of the indictment. Tweed got 12 years in prison and a $12,750 fine, but an appeals court reduced the sentence to $250 and time served.
The day after his release, Tweed was arrested again to stand trial on civil charges and was placed in the Ludlow Street Jail. Still a wealthy man, Tweed enjoyed a fairly luxurious cell and was granted privileges not allowed other inmates. One privilege was carriage rides off prison grounds and visits to his home and the homes of his children. It was on a family visit at 647 Madison Avenue on Dec. 4, 1875, that Tweed escaped his jailer and fled to New Jersey. In March 1876 a civil jury found Tweed guilty in absentia and liable for more than $6 million. Upon hearing of the judgment, Tweed fled to Cuba and then to Spain, where he was identified through a Nast cartoon, returned to New York and placed again in the Ludlow Street Jail, where he died in April 1878.
ONLY IN NEW YORK. Copyright © 2004 by The New York Times Company. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.