GREENWICH VILLAGE STORIES Edited by Judith Stonehill

GREENWICH VILLAGE STORIES
Edited by Judith Stonehill

As someone who blogs about memories of a bygone New York, the recently published Greenwich Village Stories, edited by Judith Stonehill, speaks to my heart and my mind.  Whereas I gather people’s recollections about pre-1990 SoHo, Stonehill collects stories of Greenwich Village pre-now, to create a mosaic portrait of this ever-changing neighborhood.  Published by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation in collaboration with Rizzoli, this “love letter to Greenwich Village, written by artists, poets, playwrights, musicians, restaurateurs, and other neighborhood habitués who each share a favorite memory of this beloved place. The sixty-six stories in this collection of Village memories are original and vivid—perfectly capturing the essence of the Village.”

Even people who have never been to NYC or who were born too recently to have “been there” have their own “memories” of Greenwich Village, through the countless films, television shows, songs, novels, poems, and images they have seen that focus on this famous (and infamous) neighborhood.  People who have lived or worked there have more concrete memories.  For some, the Village means their very first apartment, a walk up facing Sheridan Square for $40 a month, for others it is the cupcakes at the Magnolia Bakery, enjoyed only vicariously through the taste buds of Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City.

That all of these are “memories,” no matter where or how they originated, speaks to the mythical nature of this neighborhood as well as its ability to transform itself depending on the eye of the beholder.  This is what makes these stories, these individual memories, so remarkable, especially when considered together as a group. At heart, they all describe the same essence of a place, one where creativity is nurtured and opportunity abounds, also a place where hard lessons are learned and children become adults, but the experiences surrounding this core vary spectacularly. Even so, Greenwich Village is recognizable to us in every tale.

Judith Stonehill has done a fantastic job curating this collection of gems. These stories and their accompanying illustrations are a record of a neighborhood and community, ever evolving. She has captured a very unique place that we all cherish, but, due to its singularity, that we know will never exist again as it was.

GREENWICH VILLAGE STORIES
Edited by Judith Stonehill
In Association with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
Universe Publishing, an imprint of Rizzoli
New York
Hardcover / 192 pages / 77 color and black-and-white illustrations
6 1⁄2 x 8 1⁄2
PRICE: $29.95 US & CAN
www.rizzoliusa.com

 

The following excerpts provide only a glimpse of the riches that are to be found in Greenwich Village Stories.

 

Bleecker Street Cinema. Photo by Robert Otter. 1965. (GVS, page 65)

Bleecker Street Cinema. Photo by Robert Otter. 1965. (GVS, page 65)

Graydon Carter

In an age of cities,
there is just one village
that is known by people the world over:

Greenwich Village.

It got there by being small.
Let’s keep it that way.

(Page 31)

John Guare

I found my first apartment a while later on the corner of West 10th Street and West 4th Street where those streets collide in a burst of Village logic. I lived in a four-story walk-up with a twenty-foot ceiling and skylight, wood-burning fireplace, eat-in kitchen, bathroom with a tub and shower, looking out into a bunch of back- yard gardens. The rent? $32 a month. The previous tenants were two sisters who had lived there for forty years at $22 a month.

I found out Lanford Wilson lived cater-corner to me on the 4th Street side and knew him by this time. I’d open my window and sit there violently tapping the keys of my typewriter to torment him or he’d do the same to torment me.

In 1973, John Lennon and Yoko Ono moved out of their apartment at 1051⁄4 Bank Street up to the Dakota and I got the apartment, which had been a sculptor’s studio built in the garden. It had a thirty-foot ceiling with skylights and a spiral staircase up to the roof. That rent was a massive $500 a month. Pilgrims who didn’t know their idol and his wife had moved uptown flocked to my door and left me love letters.

(Page 64)

High Line train running on elevated tracks through what is now Westbeth. 1936. (GVS, page 66)

High Line train running on elevated tracks through what is now Westbeth. 1936. (GVS, page 66)

Robert Hammond

There were maybe twenty people there, and we heard a presentation by the Regional Plan Association, which had been commissioned by CSX, the railroad that owned the High Line. They discussed different options, from demolition to using it for freight to making a park up on top of it.

After that, people got up and spoke about why it was a bad idea to repurpose the High Line. It was a blight on the neighborhood. It was going to fall down any day. It was holding up the economic development of the area. It was dangerous. It was dark underneath. A whole litany of arguments, and really vehement. I was surprised at how strongly these people felt. I had been thinking about speaking at the meeting, but not after all that.

I stayed behind afterward, trying to find anyone else interested in saving the High Line. There was no one except the guy who had been sitting next to me. He told me his name was Joshua David.

I said, “Well, you know, I’m very busy, but if you start something, I could help.” And he said, “Well, I’m also very busy. Maybe you should start something.” We exchanged business cards and agreed to talk later.

(Pages 67-8)

Washington Square Serenade. Drawing/collage by Tony Fitzpatrick. 2008. (GVS page 35)

Washington Square Serenade. Drawing/collage by Tony Fitzpatrick. 2008. (GVS page 35)

Ed Koch

I moved to Greenwich Village in 1956. My first apartment was at 81 Bedford Street and subsequently, 72 Barrow Street and later, 14 Washington Place, from which I moved to Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s residence. There were lots of things to like about the Village. One was my involvement with Citizens for [Adlai] Stevenson, the predecessor political club to the Village Independent Democrats (V.I.D.). He was running for president of the United States at the time against Dwight Eisenhower. Stevenson’s speeches have never been equaled in style or substance. They were thrilling. I campaigned for him nightly in Sheridan Square, standing literally and occasionally on a soapbox.

While that was a very involving activity for me, there was one other even more fulfilling: eating dinner. At that time, there were three restaurants that I regularly went to because the food was truly delicious and very cheap. The oldest of the three was Louie’s, a bar in Sheridan Square in a building that is no longer standing. Louie’s veal parmigiana was $1.75, and beer was a dime a glass. Another restaurant was the Limelight on Seventh Avenue, which had prix-fixe dinners for $1.80, which I think ultimately increased to $2.50. With a delicious three-course dinner, plus coffee, you also got the opportunity to peruse photographs in a gallery provided by the owner of the restaurant.

Then there was the Lion’s Head on Christopher Street in Sheridan Square, near the offices of the Village Voice, where the food was superb and even more varied than the others and just as cheap, but not prix fixe. The reporters and authors of books, plus the politicians, made it their dinner table away from home. It is no longer there.

Later, when I was mayor, about 1978, a fourth restaurant, the Buffalo Roadhouse, opened on Seventh Avenue. I really loved it, especially during the summer, because it had outdoor space. Its hamburgers and soups have never been equaled, at least for me. I believe the owner wanted to upscale and changed to French cuisine. It ultimately closed, and I didn’t miss it.

(Page 92)

The Cardplayers, on Horatio Street. Photo by Ruth Orkin. 1947.

The Cardplayers, on Horatio Street. Photo by Ruth Orkin. 1947.

Jesse Malin

I think about the cycles a city goes through historically. People come and go; neighborhoods are built up, broken down, and reborn to find their place in time again. The streets walked by Emma Goldman, Bob Dylan, Charlie Parker, Diane Arbus, Allen Ginsberg, and Joey Ramone are the same streets my grandfather traveled from his tenement apartment to his high school to hear Albert Einstein speak. Even through all these changes, you can still find the art, the beauty, and even some trouble on these East Village streets. The sun still rises over Tompkins Square Park shedding light on a spray-painted wall that reads “The Future is Unwritten.”

(Page 105)

Wynton Marsalis

In 1981 I lived in the Village with my brother Branford. We had an apartment on Bleecker Street near Broadway. We must have been eighteen and nineteen years old then. Art Blakey lived there, too, and he got us into the building. I remember we used to leave the apartment at twelve o’clock at night and go to all of the clubs in the Village. We would go to the Tin Palace, the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate, and Sweet Basil. I played a lot at a place called Seventh Avenue South, too. And then, we would go to get us some break- fast at Sandolino’s around 5 a.m. and come home about 6:30 in the morning. We called that “doing the circuit,” doing all the clubs like that in one night. I remember all the musicians and gigs down here in the Village. It was very colorful—it reminded me a lot of the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was much more integrated than the rest of New York City, with a lot of different people, no judgment, and a lot of freedom.

(Page 107)

Swimmer, Back Flip. Pier 49, Bank Street. Photo by Shelley Seccombe. 1979. (GVS, page 127)

Swimmer, Back Flip. Pier 49, Bank Street. Photo by Shelley Seccombe. 1979. (GVS, page 127)

Isaac Misrahi

My mother used to say, “If you want to be young forever, move to the Village.” I arrived more than twenty years ago and have lived here ever since. I will probably move out feet first.

(Page 121)

Ioannis Pappos

I was part of the cocky Hermès-tie invasion of the West Village. At the peak of the dot-com craze, I moved to New York and leased a loft on Leroy Street at the Printing House, which was practically a frat house for Wall Streeters. The annual rent could buy a small condo in Texas, but it was spacious. My first night I gave my bike a spin around the living room— I had arrived.

Right away I recognized that the West Village was in the throes of collision. It harbored a mishmash of different species and formed a battleground of sorts for MBAs like me with money (at least on paper) and subletting artists. We had Pastis and Da Silvano, they had El Faro and Tavern on Jane. We all mixed at Florent and rubbed shoulders, literally, at snug La Bonbonniere during hangover Sundays. Dog walkers and tattooed musicians would “Hey, man” me at Meatpacking District parties, and I felt somehow abashed—it was as though they picked up on every- thing about our white-collar raid and still they pardoned us. I wanted to see them fighting for rent-justice, I expected contempt and dirty looks, but those madcaps didn’t seem to give a damn. I envied them. As soon as the 9/11 mourning subsided, the Spotted Pig and six, seven (I’ve stopped counting) Marc Jacobs stores sealed my hood’s fate: being poor and marginal in the West Village was now almost suspicious.

(Page 126)

Mary Help of Christians R. C. Church, on East 12th Street. Photo by Allen Ginsberg. 1985. Despite community protest, the church was demolished in 2013.  (GVS, page 135)

Mary Help of Christians R. C. Church, on East 12th Street. Photo by Allen Ginsberg. 1985. Despite community protest, the church was demolished in 2013. (GVS, page 135)

Lou Reed

My favorite moments in the Village are always with the beautiful sun drifting over the Hudson River. And as I look out, I am taking photos in my mind or with one of my cameras. It’s always great for me to start the day with a beautiful photo and then three hours of tai chi, all these golden moments in the Village.

(Page 131)

Brooke Shields

The friendliness one encounters in the West Village is unlike that of any other area in the city. People still make eye contact and are actually interested to hear how you are doing. There is an Old World warmth you feel from your neighbors and a sense that they look out for each other. I am thrilled my girls are experiencing life in a real neighborhood in the middle of such a metropolitan city. I want them to grow up walking to school and knowing and supporting local shop owners and restaurant proprietors. We know our mailman! Whenever I describe our neighborhood to people, they think I live in Vermont or Connecticut. Nope, it’s the Village, I say. And I love it.

(Page 145)

Matt Umanov

In the early 1970s, when my guitar store was very small and located on a then-sleepy block of lower Bedford Street, we had well-known musician customers as well as the occasional clueless walk-in. On a particular day, a somewhat ragged-looking hippie-type kid walked in, took down a guitar from the display wall and started playing, quite badly. After ten minutes of torture, Susie, my wife at the time, and I were just on the verge of shutting this kid down and showing him the door when in walked Bob Dylan, a sometime regular there. Without saying a word, Bob picked up a guitar and started playing with the kid. They were, in a word, collectively awful, and if it hadn’t been Bob, we would’ve tossed them both, on general principles. They never said a word to each other, just played together, and after about fifteen minutes the kid put down the guitar and left.

(Page 161)

 

ABOUT THE EDITOR: Judith Stonehill is the author of New York’s Unique and Unexpected Places, Greenwich Village, and Brooklyn. She was the co-owner of the New York Bound Bookshop. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) was founded in 1980 to preserve the architectural heritage and cultural history of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. GVSHP is a leader in protecting the sense of place and human scale that define the Village’s unique community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tags: , , , , ,

71ZNXNXW9PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In recent posts, I’ve written about noteworthy New York independent bookstores from years past, namely, Sunwise Turn, founded and operated by Madge Jenison and Mary Mowbray-Clarke, which was located in midtown Manhattan from 1916 until it closed in 1927 and Gotham Book Mart, founded by Frances Steloff, an institution in literary New York for 87 years.  Another on the list of great New York biblio-hubs is Books & Co., owned and operated by Jeannette Watson from 1977-1997.

Back when Gotham Book Mart was still going strong in Midtown, Books & Co opened up on Madison Avenue and 74th Street, just south of the Whitney Museum.  Rather than becoming Gotham’s rival, the two stores peacefully coexisted as dual Meccas of independent bookselling.  As a matter of fact, according to Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co. by Lynn Tillman, it was none other than Frances Steloff who once gave Jeanette Watson one of her most precious bits of advice.  “You never say to customers you’re out of a book; you walk them to the section.  Even if you don’t have the book, they may see something else they like,” (57) Steloff told Watson, and she took it to heart, creating an inviting bookstore where one was welcome to browse without the pressure to purchase.

In the beginning, Books & Co. was a partnership with Burt Britton, formerly the manager of the review books section at The Strand, who established some of Books & Co.’s signature traditions. It was Britton’s idea to have their books signed by the authors to add a personal touch, and he also invented “The Wall.”  Just to the left when you walked in to the store, the Wall represented spectrum of important works of literature, including many translations.  As the Wall became well known, writers came by often to see if their books were on it.  In January 1980, however, after falling on hard times due to lax bookkeeping and a large debt due to overstock (singed books could not be returned) Britton and Watson went separate ways.

After this separation, Watson worked tirelessly to make sure Books & Co. remained the cultural hub it had become.  The store hosted book signings, publishing parties, and author readings every week. Watson also had an art gallery in the store, putting up exhibitions of work she personally liked.  In the 1980’s, the store developed an extensive photography section in and had photography exhibitions of works by Andre Kertesz, Geoffrey James, and Lynn Davis, to name a few.

tumblr_n0j8ox1Kb81s30ttco1_1280

Book & Co., founded by Jeannette Watson, was a New York institution from 1977-1997

Big box bookstores also have readings and books signings, but you do not often see the authors themselves browsing their shelves on their own time to see if their books have been placed front and center.  This is all left to publicity departments who pay a premium for advantageous placement.  At Books & Co., it was important to writers and readers alike to be part of the store’s inner-circle, to belong to the Books & Co. family.

When the big box stores started spreading throughout Manhattan, however, things eventually changed for Books & Co., not due to any diminishing sense of community, but due to the almighty dollar.  Sales dipped dramatically, and even the store’s most loyal customers could not resist buying books at a discount despite the fact that it meant shopping elsewhere. Watson recalls that “What Books & Co. offered, in the face of discounting, in place of discounting, was something more personal.  The feeling was we knew who came into our shop and what they like to read.” (Bookstore, 204)

But in the end that was not enough to keep the store going, and it closed its doors in 1997.  “I didn’t know exactly what I should feel, what the bookstore represented,” she says of the store’s closing: “It was greater than any one individual’s feelings.  I felt sad that the city would lose this bookstore—if I were one of my customers, that’s what I would say.  I do feel that the bookstore, in the way its been run by me for twenty years, is anachronistic.  If the bookstore were going to continue, it would have to be totally changed, computerized, Internetted.  Books & Co. was like the last nineteenth-century bookstore in the twentieth century, almost the twenty-first.  I wish I could have passed on the mantle and I wish there were someone who would be willing to take the bookstore, invent it in a new way, a modern way, and continue to have great books, the good books, and all the readings” (Bookstore, 272)

 

 

 

Tags: , , ,

Only by embracing the lessons embedded in our city’s history can we avoid repeating the failed policies of both the recent and distant past, and have true clarity about what action is required to correct today’s public policies. The Poor Among Us is not just a history; it is a foreboding and a call to action.

—Ralph da Costa Nunez, co-author of The Poor Among Us

 

The Poor Among Us: A History of Family Homelessness in New York City - See more at: http://www.icphusa.org/Bookstore/Featured/#sthash.knKu2jPf.dpuf

The Poor Among Us: A History of Family Homelessness in New York City – See more at: http://www.icphusa.org/Bookstore/Featured/#sthash.knKu2jPf.dpuf

Last month, The New York Times ran a much-read and discussed series of five articles entitled “Invisible Child,” profiling 11-year-old Dasani (pseudonym), a homeless child living with her family in the decrepit Auburn Family Residence in Fort Greene, a Brooklyn neighborhood where there are also million dollar homes.  According to the source notes for the series:

Andrea Elliott, an investigative reporter with The New York Times, began following Dasani and her family in September 2012. The series is written in the present tense, based on real-time reporting by Ms. Elliott and Ruth Fremson, a photographer with The Times, both of whom used audio and video tools.

Throughout the year, Dasani’s family also documented their lives in video dispatches from the Auburn Family Residence, which does not allow visitors beyond the lobby. Ms. Elliott and Ms. Fremson gained access to the shelter to record conditions there.

Mayor Bill de Blasioreferred to Dasani and her neighborhood to illustrate the economic disparity that exists in New York when he announced his appointment of Lillian Barrios-Paoli as his Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services by saying:

The story of this one young lady, Dasani, I can tell you–having criss-crossed the city and talked to all sorts of people in the course of this week–that it’s been gripping to a lot of people. It’s been gripping to all of us who are part of this transition. It’s not that we didn’t know these problems exited before, but to see them through the eyes of one child and one family brings it home in a very forceful way. (source: politicker.com)

One of de Blasio’s priorities as mayor will be to address New York City’s homelessness crisis and to change the way the city treats its poor, recently putting out his Five Point Plan to Reduce Homelessness.

Homelessness is a social issue at the forefront of New Yorkers’ minds.  The Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness (ICPH) has launched two indispensable resources to help the public understand this complex and important issue, a book and a website.

The Poor Among Us: A History of Family Homelessness in New York City by Ralph da Costa Nunez, president and CEO of ICPH and professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and Ethan G. Sribnick, senior research associate at ICPH is a new book, published by White Tiger Press, that focuses on New York’s poor children and families.  According to the book’s press release:

Conditions that perpetuate homelessness and poverty today have deep roots in America’s past. The Poor Among Us explores the world of New York’s poor children and families, from the era of European settlements to the present day: their physical and social environments, the causes of their poverty, and the institutions and social movements that evolved to improve and regulate their lives. This comprehensive history examines the successes and failures of past efforts to reduce poverty and homelessness, providing the historical context that is often lacking in contemporary policy debates.

Poor Among Us uses more than 100 photographs, etchings, and maps to bring the reader face-to-face with the experience of poverty and homelessness throughout New York City’s past and present. Dozens of accounts of children and adults — from those experiencing poverty firsthand to the philanthropic reformers working on their behalf — provide a window into what it was like to live during each time period.  Click here to read an excerpt from the book.

At the end of the 19th century, Jacob Riis did this with the publication of How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (1890), a groundbreaking early publication of photojournalism that documents squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the 1880s. Like Poor Among Us, Riis used the power of images to illustrate and underscore the terrible plight of “how the other half lives.”

 

Boys Wait in the Children's Aid Society Offices (image: nypl)

Boys Wait in the Children’s Aid Society Offices (image: nypl)

PovertyHistory.org is a new interactive Web site launched by ICPH detailing New York City’s long history of poverty and homelessness that “investigates public policies that have shaped the lives of poor and homeless New Yorkers. With comprehensive timelines, analytical maps, striking images, primary sources, and informative essays, the site is a valuable resource for students, teachers, service providers, and policymakers with an interest in the history of these seemingly intractable issues.”

Photo from How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis (image: getty images)

Photo from How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis (image: getty images)

One hopes that the work of ICPH, as well as the recent reporting in The New York Times and our mayor’s new initiatives will open the eyes of a public who, though aware of New York’s homelessness and poverty problems, often feels powerless to effect change and thus often look away instead of facing the issue head on.

Read a discussion of How the Other Half Lives from The Big City Book Club hosted by Ginia Bellafante at The New York Times: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/category/big-city-book-club/

View a slideshow of Riis’ images: http://news.yahoo.com/photos/how-the-other-half-lives-photos-capture-new-york-slums-in-1890-slideshow/

 

Tags: , , ,

Habitats: Private Lives in the Big City by Constance Rosenblum

Habitats: Private Lives in the Big City by Constance Rosenblum

Writing my last post about Gracie Mansion and whether or not the de Blasio family will stay in their Park Slope brownstone or move to the Upper East Side (they are moving) got me thinking about homes in general in our great city.  More than anyplace else in the United States, it seems that where you live says a lot about who you are, that your New York address and your New York identity are somehow inextricably linked.

In her book, Habitats: Private Lives in the Big City, Constance Rosenblum, veteran New York Times writer, former editor of the now defunct City Section as well as the Arts and Leisure section, presents forty portraits of people and their New York homes, ranging from rent-controlled apartments to mansions to low-income housing projects to brownstone buildings perhaps much like the one the de Blasios will soon vacate.  These portraits, expanded from a selection of Rosenblum’s long-running Habitats column in the Real Estate section of the Times, give us a glimpse into the diverse ways people define domestic life in 21st century New York City.

The following are excerpts from Rosenblum’s book, a must-read for all of us New Yorkers who are forever obsessed with the never-boring topic of New York real estate and who are forever curious about how our New York neighbors, from across the street to across the river, live their domestic lives behind their curtains, blinds, and wrought iron gates.

 

Habitats 1Unlike so many City Islanders, she doesn’t own a boat; boats make her seasick.  She has, however, plunged enthusiastically into island affairs.  She’s active in the work of the City Island Community Center and, even more than she might have imagined, is savoring the small-town feel and feeling warmly welcomed.  “I’ve felt very comfortable here,” Ms. Gotlieb says.  She admits that she’s hardly a clam digger, the local term for people born on the island.  “I’m very Manhattanish,” she says.  “but I feel I’ve been embraced as a local.” (44-45)

 

Habitats 2

One of the two Beaux-Arts windows in the living room—eight foot-wide half moons that stare like giant empty eyes onto the intersection of Broadway and Bleecker Street—is pocked with a semicircle of bullet holes.  Mr. Hinman suspects that they date from the years the law commune that served the Black Panthers had its headquarters on this floor. (63)

 

Habitats 3

Because Ms. Lewis can’t afford separate quarters in which to make and sell her creations, her apartment does triple duty as home, work space, and showroom.  During the day, the pendants, chains and earrings that she laboriously fashions by hand glitter in the sun that pours through the large window in the living room.  At night, under the inviting glow of the brass chandelier and matching sconces, these same items look rich and festive.  It’s a cliché to say that walking into this little apartment is like stepping into a jewel box, but the image is irresistible.  (105)

 

Habitats 4

If she wanted, Ms. Flowers could probably live somewhere else; with a relatively secure government job, she has options.  But the idea of moving seems never to have crossed her mind. …”This is a place filled with great people who work hard every day to raise a family and put their kids through college,” she says.  “And the families stick together.  One thing about Gowanus Houses: there’s no problem going up to the parents and telling them if a kid seems to be in trouble.  In that way, it’s like the old days.  It really does take a village.” (159)

 

Habitats 5

Shiva, Krishna, Ganesh, and the rest are in attendance partly because faith plays so critical a role in the family’s life.  Ms. Kenraj’s father, Pandit Vishnu Sukul Kemraj, is a Hindu priest, and her two brothers, 12 and 22, are following in their father’s footsteps.  But it’s largely thanks to Ms. Kemraj’s mother, Chandra Sukul Kemraj, that the family ‘s living room feel like a lavishly appointed place of worship, or as Ms. Kemraj sums up the situation with both affection and understatement, “My mother lives in her own dreamy little world.  And what you see in this house is the result.” (171)

 

Habitats 6

In 1956, the year Dwight Eisenhower was reelected to the presidency, Elvis Presley was burning up the airways, My Fair Lady was packing them in on Broadway, and Clairol was posing the eternal question, “Does she or doesn’t she?” an Italian-American couple named Zachary and Mary Sansome bought a two-story brick house in Borough Park, Brooklyn. (180)

 

Habitats 7

This time of year, the house is lavishly decorated in preparation for Mr. Burke’s annual Christmas party.  Fir and tinsel garlands drape the walls and mantelpieces, and a huge tree hung with ornaments, many of them antiques, presides over the back parlor.  Nor is Christmas the only occasion Mr. Burke plays host to a large gathering.  His White Party in the spring is a major social event on the island, lavishly covered in the society columns of the Staten Island Advance, the local newspaper.  At his Plantation Barbecue in the fall, men in high boots and feathered hats and women wearing hoop skirts and carrying fringed parasols feast on barbecued chicken, baked beans, and corn bread.  (203-204)

 

Read a recent interview with Constance Rosenblum in The Architectural League of New York’s Urban Omnibus.

Also by Constance Rosenblum:

Rosenblum, Constance. Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope Along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. New York: New York University Press, 2009. Print.

Rosenblum, Constance. Gold Digger: The Outrageous Life and Times of Peggy Hopkins Joyce. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000. Print.

Rosenblum, Constance. More New York Stories: The Best of the City Section of the New York Times. New York: New York University Press, 2010. Internet resource.

Tags: , ,

Gracie Mansion: A Celebration of New York City's  Mayoral Residence by Ellen Stern

Gracie Mansion: A Celebration of New York City’s Mayoral Residence by Ellen Stern

To move, or not to move, that is the question, for the de Blasio family.  They have not yet decided whether or not they will move from their Park Slope home to the Upper East Side where the official New York City Mayor’s residence stands overlooking the Hell Gate Channel in the East River, and they will probably not make any decisions until Chiara deBlasio, the mayor-elect’s daughter, comes home from college for Thanksgiving later this month.

Gracie Mansion was home to New York City’s mayors for most of the twentieth century, beginning with Fiorello H. LaGuardia in the early 1940s, but it has not been used as a residence since 2000, when Mayor Giuliani moved out so that he could live with his then-girlfriend Judith Nathan, who could not live in the mansion due to a stipulation stating that the tax-payer funded house may be used only for official business and only house public officials and the mayor’s family, even for one night.  Giuliani’s successor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg never resided in Gracie Mansion.

Brochure for the Museum of the City of New York in Gracie Mansion, which opened in 1923 (page 31)

Brochure for the Museum of the City of New York in Gracie Mansion, which opened in 1923 (page 31)

The mansion has not always been the Mayor’s official residence, however.  In Gracie Mansion: A Celebration of New York City’s Mayoral Residence, author Ellen Stern recounts the history of the residence.  The merchant and shipowner Archibald Gracie built the house in 1799 as his country estate until he sold it in 1923 (for $20,500), after which it was still occupied as a residence until 1896, when the City integrated the house and the land surrounding it into Carl Schurtz Park.  From 1924 until 1936 the building housed the Museum of the City of New York, after which it was shown as a historical house until 1942, when the house began being used as the official mayor’s residence after a major renovation.  The house was recently restored by Mayor Bloomberg, who dubbed it the “People’s House” in 2002.

From the book’s preface:

Gracie Mansion, an exquisite relic and unique political showcase, has come full circle.  Built over two hundred years ago by Archibald Gracie as a country retreat in which to entertain the noble and notable of his day, it has been splendidly restored by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as a place in which to entertain the people of today, including the many city workers who contribute so much to New York’s well-being. (page 11)

Gracie Mansion, ink on cardboard by Abram Hosier, ca. 1830-1883 (page 112)

Gracie Mansion, ink on cardboard by Abram Hosier, ca. 1830-1883 (page 112)

A good portion of Stern’s lavishly illustrated book is dedicated to the Mayors themselves, beginning with Fiorello H. Laguardia and ending with Mayor Bloomberg, and their relationships to Gracie Mansion.  These very telling stories reflect the different and varied characters of each mayor.  A few excerpts:

Fiorello H. Laguardia

As the first mayor of New York to occupy an official residence, LaGuardia relished the grit of his job but chafed at the nobility of his home.  From the day he moved in to the day he moved out, he persisted in calling it not Gracie Mansion, but the Mayor’s House or Gracie Farm. (page 49)

John V. Lindsay

To celebrate the fiftieth birthday of the mayor and his twin brother, David, Mrs. Lindsay and her sister-in-law threw a surprise party.  “John loved belly dancers,” so they hired a belly dancer.  But first there was a small dinner for close friends in the dining room, and the birthday boys got cowboy hats. (page 72)

Edward I. Koch

“If you’re the mayor,” he says, “everybody wants to come [to Gracie Mansion], so it wasn’t hard to get some of the brightest and most interesting people in town.”  One of these was Woody Allen, who in 1989 cast Mayor Koch as Mayor Koch in “Oedipus Wrecks,” his segment for New York Stories.  Another was Mother Teresa, whom he sent home with a freshly baked batch of his chef’s chocolate chip cookies. And then there was John Cardinal O’Connor, who, upon the death of Koch’s father, came to sit shivah at Gracie Mansion. (page 81)

Michael R. Bloomberg

Today’s mayor has much in common with yesterday’s merchant.  Both men came to New York from out of town to make their success in business and then, with deep pockets and bountiful inventions, to make changes for the common good. (page 95)

 

Mayor Bloomberg reading in the library at Gracie Mansion (page 95)

Mayor Bloomberg reading in the library at Gracie Mansion (page 95)

The question remains, will Mayor Bill de Blasio continue the tradition that began at the dawn of this century of New York City mayors living in their own private residences (as they did before LaGuardia moved in)?  Or has the past 13 years been an aberration in a longer standing tradition of Gracie Mansion as the White House of New York City?

According to at least one New Yorker, Kyle Smith of the New York Post, the answer is clear: Anybody running for mayor of this town is already living in New York. Why uproot mayors from the streets and send them to live in Green Acres? They should have to walk around the garbage mountain at the curb just like the rest of us.

 

Further reading on Gracie Mansion:

Black, Mary, and Joan R. Olshansky. New York City’s Gracie Mansion: A History of the Mayor’s House. New York: Published for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy by the J.M. Kaplan Fund, 1984.

London, Mitchel, and Joan Schwartz. The Mitchel London Gracie Mansion Cookbook. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989.

Stern, Ellen S. Gracie Mansion: A Celebration of New York City’s Mayoral Residence. New York, NY: Rizzoli, 2005.

The Bowery Boys: Gracie Mansion: How a bucolic summer home survived a couple wars, a society feud and a few live-in mayors

Huffington Post: Gracie Mansion Slideshow

Gracie Mansion in popular culture (from Wikipedia):

Tags: , ,

BMC-Logo

We love books. We wish there were a bumper sticker that says; I’d rather be reading. We really love it all—thrillers and mysteries, literary novels, histories, biographies, cookbooks, how-to’s, self-improvement, science and more. We started this book club years ago because we wanted to share our passion and let people know about great new books. We’ve changed and evolved over the years—some of our books would probably make the founders blush. Bottom line, our editors still want to make sure devoted fans get the latest books by their favorite authors. And we like nothing more than to introduce exciting discoveries that readers will recommend to their friends. What inspires us to do it? Simple, we love books.

—from the Book of the Month website

 

To “read” a “book” these days can mean many things.  The definition of a book can mean so many things.  But there was a time when a book was a book, and for a book to be chosen as the “Book of the Month” was to be given the book-keeping seal of approval, so to speak.

The Book of the Month Club (BOMC) was founded in New York City in 1926 by Harry Scherman, former copyrighter for J. Walter Thompson and co-founder of the “Little Leather Library,” a mail order service for miniature reprints of “great books.”  Scherman, along with partners Max Sackheim and Robert Haas, established the Club as its own household brand, going from 4,000 subscribers to 550,000 in twenty years, where they became seen as a sound selector of good books and sold titles by means of its own prestige.  A title or author did not need to have an existing reputation before being chosen as a Book of the Month, as the act of being chosen in itself was the barometer of success.

According to the list of “Privileges of Subscribers,” the Club works as follows:

Every month the best book of the month, chosen by the Selecting Committee, is sent to each subscriber (unless he specifies some other preference) and is billed at the current price set by the publisher in each case, plus the few cents for postage.  The book sent each month ranges in price from $1 to $3, but in no case more than $3.

A 1965 magazine advertisement for The Book of the Month Club

A 1965 magazine advertisement for The Book of the Month Club

When it was launched, one of BOMC’s key selling points was free access to its “selection service,” where a Selecting Committee of five members determined each month what was the “best” book to read, leaving the subscriber the peace of mind that the choice had been made democratically and thoughtfully by a committee of qualified members by secret ballot.

The original members of the Selecting Committee were:

Henry Seidel Canby (1878-1961), Chairman, a critic, editor, and professor at Yale University. He edited the Yale Review and then the Literary Review supplement of the New York Evening Post, the most influential literary weekly in the United States in its time.

Heywood Broun (1888-1939), a journalist and founder of the American Newspaper Guild best remembered for his writing on social issues and his championing of the underdog.

Dorothy Canfield (1879-1958), a best-selling author as well as an educational reformer, social activist, and best-selling American who supported women’s rights, racial equality, and lifelong education.

Christopher Morley (1890-1957), journalist, novelist, essayist and poet and the the well-known author of many books including Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop.

William Allen White (1868-1944), a renowned editor, author, and leader of the Progressive movement.

This is indeed an impressive group of referees, although how much variation in taste and opinion one can find in any group of five individuals is questionable.  According to the BOMC brochure, “In order to be chosen as the “book-of-the-month,” a majority of these five individuals has to give a book first place among all the books considered.”   The Committee members decided what titles and authors would be read by the Club’s thousands of members and could create a literary success in an instant.  The brochure does go on to point out that:

It should be clearly understood that this combined judgment is not set up as being either final or infallible.  The judges themselves would be the last ones to consider it so.  It is simply a practical method of arriving at the most outstanding book each month.  The theory is—and it works!—that any book appealing strongly to five individuals (of such good judgment and such differing tastes themselves) is bound to be an outstanding book.

Enough subscribers agreed with this theory to ensure the lasting success of the BOMC into the twenty-first century.  Its status as arbiter of literary taste has diminished significantly over the years as new technologies brought new ways of bringing books to the public.  In the age of the big box stores, Amazon, Audible, iTunes, and Abe Books, not to mention sites such as Goodreads and Shelf Awareness, individual readers make informed choices based on industry recommendations and audience reviews and can “consume” their reading material in a plethora of media, only one of which is the good ol’ fashioned printed book.

Further reading:

  • The Hidden Public: The Story of the Book-of-the-Month Club by Charles Lee (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1958) provides a history of the club, the book selection and membership procedures, and a list of all selections, dividends, and alternates from 1926 to 1957.
  • The Books of the Century, a website compiled by Daniel Immerwahr, lists the Club’s main selections from 1926 until the mid-1970s.
  • Janice Radway, A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (Chapel Hill, 1997) offers a cultural analysis of the BOMC and its readers.
  • William Zinsser, A Family of Readers; An informal portrait of the Book-of-the-Month Club and its members on the occasion of its 60th Anniversary. New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1986. 74 pp.

 

A letter inviting readers to subscribe to The Book of the Month Club

A letter inviting readers to subscribe to The Book of the Month Club

 

The Book of the Month Club enrollment form (1927)

The Book of the Month Club enrollment form (1927)

View a PDF of the 1927 Book of the Month Club brochure here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tags:

The following are a few NEW New York books that caught out attention, in no particular order:

RNPicking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City

By Robin Nagle

Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux
304 pages, $28.00

From the NY Observer:

Once upon a time, in a world before the Department of Sanitation, New York City’s streets flowed with raw sewage. Slaughterhouses and farms dumped animal waste in the drinking water, and the number of yellow fever-driven deaths and exiles stretched into the tens of thousands. By the 1850s, New Yorkers were up to their necks in an accumulation of rot and bodies that became known as “corporation pudding.”

That’s the cautionary tale behind a new book out this month, Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks With the Sanitation Workers of New York City, in which author Robin Nagle reminds readers that we ought to be a little more appreciative of the men and women who clean up after us, lest we tempt such a fate—or, God forbid, have to deal with our own trash.

For the last 12 years, Ms. Nagle, a New York University anthropology professor, has been studying and advocating for the city’s “garbage faeries,” the vital yet largely invisible work force whose labor gets noticed only when it hasn’t been done. Sanitation workers have a higher on-the-job mortality rate than any other uniformed department in the city, she writes—including police officers and firefighters—yet their duties aren’t remotely as revered.

 

9780060882389_custom-c735802ed61fa746973aa6d2f8518c1bea5cbef5-s6-c30Miss Anne In Harlem

By Carla Kaplan

Harper
576 pages, $28.9

From The Daily Beast:

When Etta Duryea, the white wife of black prizefighter Jack Johnson, killed herself in 1912, contemporary newspapers reported it as “the logical outcome for a ‘woman without a race.’” The boundaries were clear, the consequences of crossing the color line dire in the years before World War I, when American assumptions about everything from patriotism and class to gender and race were secure, bigoted, and unchallenged. But in the 1920s and ‘30s, a small but dauntless group of white women flung down a gauntlet to these assumptions, declaring their alliance with African-American culture during the height of the Harlem Renaissance.

In Miss Anne In Harlem, Carla Kaplan’s clear-sighted, empathetic assessment of a half-dozen of these women, she casts a fresh eye over people and relationships too often reduced to stereotypes. She explores the complicated reality of individual lives to illuminate our collective struggle with fraught questions about race and identity that are as uncomfortable and unresolved today as they were in the 1920s and ‘30s.

 

pb3485-300x450Hell’s Kitchen and the Battle for Urban Space: Class struggle and progressive reform in NYC 1894-1914

by Joseph J. Varga

Monthly Review Press
269 pages, $18.95

Hell’s Kitchen is among Manhattan’s most storied and studied neighborhoods. A working-class district situated next to the West Side’s middle- and upper-class residential districts, it has long attracted the focus of artists and urban planners, writers and reformers. Now, Joseph Varga takes us on a tour of Hell’s Kitchen with an eye toward what we usually take for granted: space, and, particularly, how urban spaces are produced, controlled, and contested by different class and political forces.

Varga examines events and locations in a crucial period in the formation of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, the Progressive Era, and describes how reformers sought to shape the behavior and experiences of its inhabitants by manipulating the built environment. But those inhabitants had plans of their own, and thus ensued a struggle over the very spaces—public and private, commercial and personal—in which they lived. Varga insightfully considers the interactions between human actors, the built environment, and the natural landscape, and suggests how the production and struggle over space influence what we think and how we live. In the process, he raises incisive questions about the meaning of community, citizenship, and democracy itself.

 

lost synogoguesThe Lost Synagogues of Manhattan: Including Shuls from Staten Island and Governors Island

by Ellen Levitt

Avotaynu Press
204 pages, $26.00

From the Lost Synagogues Press Release:

Ellen Levitt completes her trilogy of books about former synagogues throughout the five boroughs of New York City, with the publication of The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan. It describes existing buildings in Manhattan (as well as Staten Island and Governors Island) that once housed synagogues but are now being used as churches and other houses of worship, private residences, schools and community centers, even restaurants and an art gallery. Her first book The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn was published by Avotaynu in 2009; her second book The Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens was published by Avotaynu in 2011.

Each of the 83 featured formerly Jewish houses of worship in the new book includes one or more photographs showing how it appears today with a narrative that explains the history of the building and, in some cases, interviews with former and current congregants and occupants. Many of the facades still have Jewish symbols. Some buildings have been faithfully preserved, while others are in disrepair. This is supported by extensive research and stirring stories.

 

9780195099881From Pariahs to Partners: How Parents and Their Allies Changed New York City’s Child Welfare System

by David Tobis

Oxford University Press
$29.95, 336 pages

From Publishers Weekly:

After being approached by an anonymous donor, Tobis, who has worked in New York City’s child welfare system since 1979, used the donation to co-create the Child Welfare Fund, which aims to help children and families in need and reform the city’s welfare system. His account begins with a brief history of child welfare efforts in N.Y.C. before 1995. Many reform efforts were doomed before they began, despite good intentions, due to institutional inertia and limited social services. Tobis details his efforts, and those of his allies, to make parents and foster children more aware of their rights within the system, and provides statistics that highlight flaws in the system. Whether the efforts to transform New York’s child welfare efforts into something more effective and humane will survive rotating agency heads and funding issues remains to be seen, but Tobis, at least, seems optimistic. This potentially important book, however, is hampered by an over-reliance on anecdotes. While a useful and engaging introduction to the subject, the treatment remains cursory, leaving the reader yearning for a more thorough text.

 

9780813558684_p0_v1_s260x420Pizza City: The Ultimate Guide to New York’s Favorite Food

by Peter Genovese

Rivergate Books
200 pages, $22.95

From the NPR website:

New York City’s Lombardi’s Pizza opened its doors in 1905, marking a special centennial for a food that has become an American staple.

Food writer Ed Levine is a regular contributor to the Dining pages of The New York Times and is the author of New York Eats and New York Eats More. His new book is Pizza, a Slice of Heaven: The Ultimate Guide and Companion.

Levine and a host of other writers weigh in on questions that liven up tables of pizza eaters daily. From style distinctions — New York vs. Chicago vs. gourmet — to comparing the U.S. version to pizza’s Italian roots, Pizza dishes facts and opinions of a cultural force.

 

NotoriousCoverMy Notorious Life

by Kate Manning

Scribner
448 pages, $26.99

From the author’s website:

Based on a true story from the scandalized headlines of Victorian New York City, My Notorious Life is a portrait of Axie Muldoon, the impoverished daughter of Irish Immigrants who becomes an enormously successful—and controversial—midwife. Separated from her siblings, apprenticed to a doctor, Axie parlays the sale of a few bottles of “lunar tonic for relief of female complaint” into a thriving practice as a female physician known as “Madame X.” But as she rises from the gutter to the glitter of Fifth Avenue, Axie discovers that the right way is not always the way of the law, and that you should never trust a man who says, “trust me.” But what if that man is an irresistible risk-taker with a poetical soul? Soon, Axie’s choices put her on a collision course with one of the most zealous characters of her era: Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and it will take all of her power and wealth to outwit him and save herself and her family from ruin.

A love story, a family saga, and a vivid rendering of a historical time and heated political climate, My Notorious Life is the tale of one woman making her indomitable way in a difficult world. Axie Muldoon is a heroine for the ages.

9780618859900_lresThe Big Crowd

By Kevin Baker

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
424 pp., $27.00

From the Houghton Mifflin website:

From “the lit world’s sharpest chronicler of New York’s past” (Rolling Stone), a novel of two Irish brothers who travel from the gangland waterfront to the halls of power.  Based on one of the great unsolved murders in mob history, and the rise-and-fall of a real-life hero, The Big Crowd tells the sweeping story of Charlie O’Kane. He is the American dream come to life, a poor Irish immigrant who worked his way up from beat cop to mayor of New York at the city’s dazzling, post-war zenith. Famous, powerful, and married to a glamorous fashion model, he is looked up to by millions, including his younger brother, Tom. So when Charlie is accused of abetting a shocking mob murder, Tom sets out to clear his brother’s name while hiding a secret of his own.The charges against Charlie stem from his days as a crusading Brooklyn DA, when he sent the notorious killers of Murder, Inc., to the chair—only to let a vital witness go flying out a window while under police guard. Now, out of office, Charlie lives in a shoddy, Mexico City tourist hotel, eaten up with regrets and afraid he will be indicted for murder if he returns to the U.S. To uncover what really happened, Tom must confront stunning truths about his brother, himself, and the secret workings of the great city he loves.Moving from the Brooklyn waterfront to city hall, from the battlefields of World War II to the beaches of Acapulco, to the glamorous nightclubs of postwar New York, The Big Crowd is filled with historical powerbrokers and gangsters, celebrities and socialites, scheming cardinals and battling, dockside priests. But ultimately it is a brilliantly imagined, distinctly American story of the bonds and betrayals of brotherhood.

For a general appreciation of where you are, it helps to know who came before you and what was done.  Especially if it helps you now.
—Philip Copp in “One Track Mind”

Copp-bowlinggreenIn 1978, Philip Copp intended to spend a month working on an article about the art in New York City subway stations that he hoped to sell to a magazine.  Today, thirty-four years later, Copp, also known as Philip Ashforth Coppola, a nom de plume of sorts, has probably not spent a day during which he did not work on this “article,” now a multi-volume collection of books, some self-published in limited edition and some in manuscript form.

As he discovered the artistic riches displayed in each station, Copp was overcome by the need to record what all the engineers, architects, artisans, and artists had done, before their work faded and they were forgotten forever.  The environment underground, vandalism, and, most of all, time is eating away at the intricate mosaic designs that adorn the walls of each and every station, and many are being replaced by plain white tiles that forever erase any trace of what was once there.

Phil Copp (image: Jeremiah's Vanishing New York)

Phil Copp (image: Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York)

Jeremy Workman, a filmmaker who recently made a documentary about Copp entitled “One Track Mind,” describes his subject in an interview with Jeremiah Moss of Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York:

Phil is a subway historian extraordinaire. He is a regular guy from New York and New Jersey who works at a printing press. A kind sweet man. A bit on the quiet side. An avid church-goer. But he’s had this lifelong obsession with the decor and design of the New York City subway stations. He’s spent most of his adult life creating a study called “Silver Connections,” a massive homemade, self-published, illustrated encyclopedia of the decor in the stations. He’s studied it historically, artistically, and sociologically. It’s like a billion pages and it has literally thousands of amazingly detailed hand-drawn sketches and diagrams.

In the same interview, Copp describes his own work:

My study has two purposes. First, to record the art & architecture of the NYC subway stations in word and picture. Second, to reveal the persons who designed or crafted the decor. Both subjects of my study were neglected and unheralded (especially in the late 1970′s, when I began this undertaking).

Volumes from Copp's SILVER CONNECTIONS (image: Jeremiah's Vanishing New York)

Volumes from Copp’s SILVER CONNECTIONS (image: Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York)

It seems Copp is adding to Silver Connections every waking moment that he is not at work or church.  All day on weekends and most evenings, sometimes into the night.  He is a man obsessed, possessed even, single-mindedly cataloging the disappearing artwork of the 496 stations, according to his count, of the New York City subway system.

In addition to “One Track Mind,” Copp has been featured in The New York Times, on New York 1, the BBC, and even on Japanese television.  He says he enjoys getting media attention and is willing to take a day off to do interviews, but you can tell what he really wants to do is to get back to work on his magnum opus, his epic love letter to New York City.  “The city cannot be what it is without rapid transit,” he says.  “Buses are great, subways are better.”

 

Silver Connections

Silver Connections

We are very pleased to be the distributor of the newly revised 2013 edition of Silver Connections Volume I (Books 1 & 2), as well as  Silver Connections Volumes III & IV.  For more information and to purchase copies, please visit our Silver Connections page.

Watch “NYC Subway Buff Chronicles Past In Full Detail,” Jose Martiez’s piece on Phil Copp in NY1 here

To watch the film One Track Mind directed by Jeremy Workman on Amazon Instant Video, click here.

Tags: , , , ,

“I learned long ago that if I go out somebody I’ve been wanting to see very badly is sure to come in.  I’ve missed so many I’ve grieved about.”

—Frances Steloff

wisemenfishheresignThe Gotham Book Mart (GBM) was an institution in literary New York for 87 years.  Founded on West 45th Street in 1920 by Frances Steloff, the shop was frequented by writers such as Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, H. L. Mencken, Arthur Miller, John Updike, J. D. Salinger and Eugene O’Neill, and its customers included a host of prominent New Yorkers —George and Ira Gershwin, Charlie Chaplin, Alexander Calder, Stephen Spender, Woody Allen, Saul Bellow, John Guare, Katharine Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to name only a few, as well as numerous high-profile visitors who would make sure to drop in when they were passing through town. At various points, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, Tennessee Williams, and Patti Smith worked as clerks there.  The shop also exhibited the works of the artist Edward Gorey and is credited with launching the artist’s career.

gotham40317Steloff is credited with supporting the careers of major writers back when they were unknown or unaccepted, including James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. Although censored, Steloff sold James Joyce’s Ulysses.  She also sold D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover in the 1920′s and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer 1930′s, which led to lawsuits and landmark decisions on censorship.

Despite its renown, GBM was a very personal bookshop, as Steloff put her heart and soul into the store, working long hours and hand picking stock.  A beloved figure, Steloff was also very exacting and an economizer, and many who worked for her did not or could not meet her high standards.  She was also known to be extremely generous, sending money to writers needing to make rent or pay bills without any guarantee of repayment.

Steloff lived a childhood of abuse and poverty in Saratoga Springs and then Boston. She eventually made her way to New York City where she worked in a department store, starting in the corsets department and later moving on to the magazine subscriptions counter.  Using the connections she made, she secured several clerk positions in bookstores, the last of which was Brentano’s, a major New York bookseller.

On her way to work, Steloff often passed Sunwise Turn on Thirty-Fifth Street.  Founded by Madge Jenison and Mary Mowbray Clarke in 1916, this bookshop specialized in quality publications, particularly fine art books.  Taking Jenison and Mowbray as inspiration perhaps, Stelhoff took a chance and rented a 15 by 12 foot ground floor room with a window and named it Gotham Book & Art.

gotham20315W G. Rogers, in his book Wise Men Fish Here: The Story of Frances Steloff and the Gotham Book Mart muses that it was Steloff’s difficult and deprived childhood that propelled her toward a successful life in bookselling:

…The Gotham Book Mart, sanctuary of the written word, did in fact originate in the unliterary vacationland of Saratoga Springs.  A perceptive girl learned key lessons from hardships, developed a love for all living creatures, and grew up to have an irresistible passion for the very things she was deprived of: books and education.  Given plenty of reading matter, books might never have become a necessity and she might not have felt driven to her long-sustained efforts.  She was teased and tantalized into success.  Young Steloff and books were donkey and carrot.  (23-24)

Though a slow and an uphill climb at first—the store was open from 9 AM until midnight and Steloff alone performed all tasks, from cleaning to bookkeeping to clerking—she eventually cultivated a loyal clientele.  Her very first customer was a Broadway idol of some note who was performing in a show in the theater next door.  More theater people from the neighborhood began coming to her for books, as well as acquaintances from Brentano’s and other bookstores.  No doubt Steloff exuded an air of determination and dedication that attracted her customers and made them want to return.

Steloff’s specializations came to her by chance: theater books because she was in such close proximity to so many theaters, and art because she once bid on a collection of hunting images, only to be given Japanese woodblock prints when she went to claim her purchase.  Duped and dispirited and knowing nothing about Japanese art, she put the prints out for a dollar a piece with the hope of recouping her expenditure.  It turned out, through the tips of collectors who bought pieces from her, that the prints were true collectors pieces and could fetch much more.

After a move to Forty-Seventh Street, a divorce, and a name change to Gotham Book Mart, Steloff’s shop began taking on its identity as a place that nurtured both writers and readers.  She began stocking “Little Magazines” that printed artistic work that was not money-making for larges presses. She began her career in magazine sales, and she later supported them by displaying magazines in her shop’s window, buying magazine advertisement space, and listing the magazines in her catalogs.  Rogers explains in Wise Men Fish Here:

As editor and writers commenced to urge the untried, untested, and often inscrutable avant-garde writings on GBM, it stocked more and more of them.  The proprietor describes her role modestly: “Perhaps it would be more flattering to believe that we were prophets about the great new writers who were then emerging in these little reviews.   But on the contrary I was led step by step by opportunities, and I simply responded to the needs and requests for an outlet.”  Her customers were still educating her.  (113)

Steloff went far beyond stocking obscure literary magazines to help authors.  She often lent or even gave them money when they were in need.  She cashed checks for them found them rides and places to stay and even once tried to begin a fund for poets to give money to those most in need but found that need greatly outweighed available funds.

gothambookmart

Steloff became friendly with the writer Christopher Morley, who brought his friends Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller and W.S. “Bill” Hall to the shop where they turned the back yard of GBM into an art gallery and hangout.  Although many of the great minds of New York spent time there, it was not an intellectual salon but more of a place to have fun with like-minded peers.  Rogers explains:

It was good-fellows-get-together, laughter in the cloister, wit and fun spiced with learning.  Some of the decade’s best minds relaxed in congenial company; they dashed off doggerel, quipped in ancients and modern languages, and recited limericks that were for reciting only, not for printing. (160)

In the mid-1940s, Steloff almost went out of business, but through Christopher Morley she was able to buy a building owned by Columbia University.  After two decades at #51 she moved to #41 Forty-Seventh Street on the same block.  She continued to be exacting and and frugal in the postwar era but fewer people were willing to earn a living on her terms anymore, hard work and low pay in exchange for the opportunity to be among books.

GBM’s stock was divided into three sections, new, secondhand, and rare.  It also stocked magazines, regular and “little.”  Steloff lived in an apartment above the store and was therefore able to continue to work long hours devoting herself to the bookstore.  When Steloff turned 80, she finally decided to “retire.”  She sold the shop to Andreas Brown, a devoted customer and book lover, in 1967 on the condition that she could continue living in the apartment above the shop for the rest of her life and work at the store.  Frances Steloff died in New York in 1989 at the age of 101.

lss+april+1975

Steloff with Andreas Brown

A New York Magazine listing for GBM describes the shop in its later years under Brown:

Owner Andreas Brown and his flock of charming misanthropes are happy to help—or engage in fiery intellectual debate—when called upon, but they’re also just as content to read in a corner and leave browsing customers alone. (Sometimes, they don’t even look up when you walk in.) While the store stocks a little bit of everything, its specialty is 20th Century Arts and Literature, so if you need a signed play by Samuel Beckett or the complete works of James Joyce, you’re in the right place.

In 2007, GBM closed its doors for good.  Brown, who had major financial difficulties, was forced to close the store, and its stock was sold in a general sale, its inventory going to The University of Pennsylvania Libraries after an anonymous donor purchased over 200,000 items worth millions of dollars and donated it to the library.

Gotham Book Mart was an icon in a particular tradition of bookselling in New York.  Like the back room of Charles Wiley’s bookshop on Reade Street in the 1820’s, known as the “Den,” and Jenison and Mowbray Clarke’s Sunwise Turn, as well as Jeanette Watson’s Books & Co. and the 21st century Greenlight Books and McNally Jackson Bookstore, GBM was always more than just a store.  To quote Rogers once again:

It is significant that she always refers to the Gotham Book Mart as a shop, not a store.  Even more in the 1920s than now, there was a distinction.  A store was for selling, a shop was for building and creating.  She always did more than sell.  If salesmanship has satisfied her, corsets would have, too.  If selling just any book had satisfied her, she would have stayed on Vesey Street where she had earned more than she did now. (78)

Yes, Frances Steloff was a builder and creator and Gotham Book Mart was most certainly a shop in the true sense—a place where writer, reader, and proprietor harmoniously coexisted and commingled, a place where the written word came alive.

***********************

The history of the store is covered in the documentary film, Frances Steloff: Memoirs of a Bookseller, directed in 1987 by Deborah Dickson.

Rogers, W G. Wise Men Fish Here: The Story of Frances Steloff and the Gotham Book Mart. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965. Print.

Tannenbaum, Matthew. My Years at the Gotham Book Mart with Frances Stelloff, Proprietor. S.l.: Worthy Shorts, 2009. Print.

 

 

Tags: , ,

 

Today’s guest post by Benjamin Feldman of The New York Wanderer describes, step by step, one of his many journeys through the streets and archives of New York City in search of, what?- a pot of gold, buried treasure, the lost ark—call it what you wish.  In the tradition of Indiana Jones, he is driven to uncover the past, or, in his words, he seeks veracity.  A chance encounter with a de-accessioned lantern slide leads him down a windy road that leads uptown and  back down again, to the Bowery.

 

lantern-slideA Miner’s Lantern

By Ben Feldman

 

Why?

People constantly ask me this question: Why are you learning modern Hebrew? Why did you learn Yiddish? Why is it so enticing to you, that old newspaper article, that strange lantern slide? I listen, and then I stare off into space, speechless. All I can think of is that corny phrase my superannuated Yankee torts professor, Willis Livingston Mesier Reese, taught us at Columbia Law School. Res ipsa loquitur. The thing speaks for itself. These people ! I meet their Why? with equal vigor: I have no idea how anyone with a brain in their head could not be fascinated by the things that enthrall me. And it’s not as if I expect universal interest in my pursuits. What amazes me is the rarity of passion itself. It’s the least common denominator of intellectual fanatics, this overarching symptom of a wonderful disease. I hope to die from it.

As a child, and now as a so-called grown-up, the prospect of finding buried treasure continues to thrill me. Whether it’s a wind-blown bank note on the sidewalk or hardware scavenged in the street as I bike my way through New York, whether salvaged furniture from Yorkville trash piles or scouted-out scuz bars on the Brooklyn waterfront, I’m always up for a casual encounter with windblown wealth.

At Green-Wood Cemetery’s History office, I’ve stumbled upon a mother lode. You might think that working among the dead would be creepy. Quite the contrary. Imagination grows best in a quiet room. There among gentle, living souls I’ve found my looming mill, factory of dreams and recollection. High above Gowanus rooftops, threads spin tightly on whirring bobbins, shuttles shooting back and forth. Memory and anticipation, warp and woof, I weave a precious psychic cloth.

Wednesdays are my special days. I work mid-week in a hyper-chilled room with a view out over one of the “Public Lots” where hundreds of unrelated folks lie peacefully. In a locked cage I sort and catalog paper ephemera and random objects. My deal as a volunteer is unbeatable: there’s one for the boss, and one for me. I take my sweet time, reading and dreaming, enveloping myself in a comforter of knowledge. At the end of the day, I leave the storied brownstone gates laden with gifts, my mind overflowing with new-found riches. Six weeks ago, though, I got extra-special lucky. Opening a bubble-wrapped tiny parcel, I held in my hand an object unlike any I’d seen before.

Wherein lies the power of a simple piece of tinted glass? Some ink, a bit of silica, a century old, it was plucked from the refuse by an E-bay entrepreneur and sold for a pittance to my hungry historian friend Jeffrey Richman. After a cursory inspection, the questions began to flutter in my mind like feathers spilling from a bursting old bed-pillow:

What is that big fat stone in the foreground ?
Where was this taken and what year was it?
Who are these window-shoppers?

One question encircled all the others. In it perhaps lies an answer to the complained of Why? Embedded in the passion that drives me is a core of curiosity, the desire for something more than knowledge. It’s veracity I seek. With every query I repeat, How can I know? How can I be sure?

Excitement’s flammable vapors are invisible and odorless. One dasn’t light a match when I get in this state. Some people race Harleys, their pipes blazing, cylinders roaring. Others head straight for the gym. Flexing and spinning, they push their limits, seeking to conquer, finding out just how far they can go. I’ve a different Nautilus contraption, though, albeit inchoate, one more akin to the littoral kind. In each of my finds lies a swirling darkness, crustacean mystery. I hold them close and hear briney whispers. They’re as common as sea-shells, these gilded invites, cleverly disguised as chance encounters. They’re free for the taking. Who needs a Benz?

*****

Lantern slides are small glass plates, positive images that were projected in auditoriums in the 1800s in Europe and America by traveling showmen. In Harrisburg and Lower Podunk, Carlsbad and Yukhupetz-ville, lantern slide shows offered the masses the Eight Wonders of the World, theatrical tableaux. In the days before motion pictures, scenes that only the wealthy and well-traveled could experience first-hand were brought to life for common people, first with oil-lamp projectors, and then electricity.

After I blinked to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, my eyes focused on my new treasure and the search for answers began. Look at the clothing the man and boys wear. When was it stylish and who could afford it? Knickers: there’s the very first clue. And a bowler on the man, his jacket short and snug. With that I could bracket things, narrow the window. Experience told me, it’s the turn of the 20th century. But where are they standing and what is that stone, stuck in the sidewalk in the foreground?

A faded label on the edge of the slide got me off to a healthy start. The Museum of the City of New York somehow de-accessioned this slide: the label marks it as part of a collection once maintained there. So it must be New York City, this funny old scene. That tan stone column looks like a milestone, but where in New York did such a thing stand, as late as maybe 1900?

Some bell went a-ringing deep in my cranium: I’d heard of these stones and seen one, I thought, up on the 7th floor at New York Historical Society. Two minutes on the internet confirmed my memory. And then came an historian’s choicest moment: The original site of this particular stone, which I now could fix in front of 216 Bowery, I found misidentified in authoritative texts.

The Boston Post Road dated from early colonial times, and at least nine milestones marked the Manhattan portion of its route. Three of them are on display at NYHS, where the audio guide claims that they date from the early 19th century. I’ve no reason to contest this information (the stones at NYHS may not be the originals, which were in all likelihood placed along the Road during the previous century) but the lantern slide tells me that unless milestone #1 was relocated before the photo was taken, its home was different than the placement along the Bowery, south of Canal Street, that I found quoted in several research sources.

Fever erupted in my brain, so I hopped on my bike and raced downtown. I had to see where the stone once stood. 216 Bowery lies far north of Canal Street; on the west side of the Bowery between Rivington and Prince. How the apparently erroneous location of milestone #1 came to be accepted is anyone’s guess. I’ve got the goods on it now I think…

Like wrestling a slippery, angry hog, it’s best to come at the dating question for this slide from as many angles as possible. “I. Silverman – Picture Frames” gleams from inside the showcase window on the right hand side of the image. What can we know from these simple block letters? The shabby storefront and modest use had screamed Bowery to me even before I checked out the milestones. An hour at the NYHS’ hushed library yielded the story for me forthwith.

Trow’s Directories are a cornucopia, and they led me straightaway to the truth. I can see him now, Mr. Israel Silverman, making his way to his fancy new frame shop. There Silverman was in Trow’s in cold hard type, starting in 1902, living and working on the Lower East Side for almost a decade. He made his home on East Broadway, then on Eldridge, with his shop on Chrystie in ’02 and ’03. In 1908 Silverman’s shop made it over to the Bowery. Probably a step up, better foot traffic, more out-of-towners. I blew the image up on my computer. Just look at that rolling vitrine, out on the sidewalk, holding its stock of framed prints of hunting scenes and other genteel images. Even cold-water tenement walls in sweatshopper’s walk-ups could use a bit of goyish class. The Bowery in those days was also the center of a low-class entertainment district. Think of Times Square in recent decades. Storefronts beckoning to the unsuspecting; “Art Treaures” and “Antiques” vying for window space with the latest in electronics gray-goods deals.

It’s the left-hand window in the slide that truly grabbed me, though. Despite the slides’s tattered paper label that mentioned the milestone as the object of interest, the theater broadsides you see in the window of what must be 214 Bowery are the reason I stumbled upon this gem. My buddy Jeff bought this slide on e-Bay when he searched for items with a connection to Henry C. Miner, one of the many eminences entombed in Green-Wood in ornate mausoleums.

Giant block letters scream the message to passersby: MINER’S THEATER “The Bowery Hall of Fame” OUR PATRONS DEMAND WEEKLY AMATEUR PERFORMANCES EVERY FRIDAY NIGHT. MINER’S METHODS WIN. I had no idea what these words meant, notwithstanding their imposing scale. Down below, with blurry capitals, another line peers out from the glass. ENORMOUS ATHLETIC JUBILEE ! WEDNESDAY NIGHT ONLY APR. 15. It must have been fisticuffs: Jim Galvin vs. Young Sharkey is a featured match. Again bells rang: I knew the name Sharkey, so off I ran again to the internet. I’d no idea that arcane boxing history was so easy to find.

Sharkey, Sharkey: Jack Sharkey, that’s the name. My mind had not failed me: he beat Max Schmeling in ’31 for the world heavyweight title. Held it for one year ‘til Primo Carnera whipped him in ’32. Sharkey was the only guy to fight Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey. But wait a second… Wouldn’t Jack Sharkey have been too young at the turn of the century to be doing prize fights at Miner’s as “Young Sharkey?” Jack was born in 1902, so I guess it could be the same guy if the photo is from 1917 or so. But it seemed unlikely. Back to the salt mines.

Turns out that many, many fighters went by the appellation “Young” back in those days. “Young Sharkey” could have been one of several guys. Website boxing records are enormous. Date, ring site, combatants, decision after enumerated rounds: if you type in a name at Cyberboxingzone.com, you peek at a world that’s vanished today. Another site devoted to pre-WW II boxing in Britain lists 16 fellows by the name of Sharkey who boxed in the years 1913-4 and/or 1920-1939, three of whom went by the nickname “Young.” I fixated, though on someone else: one of the most famous American boxers in 1910, memorialized in cigarette and candy premium cards, was Tom Sharkey.

Tom-SharkeyI would have bet that this is the guy advertised in the Miner’s poster as “Young Sharkey,” but another internet source made me stop short. Tom Sharkey was born in 1873, hardly young even by 1900. And his fight career had a large hiatus during the years 1904-1923. Wikipedia and Cyberboxingzone.com make it clear that Tom Sharkey’s ringside moniker was “Sailor Tom,” so my best guess is that Miner’s put up a Sharkey wannabe against Jim Galvin, another pug whose modest turn of the century fight career is verifiable.

Joe Wagner, also a featured pugilist at Miner’s that week, is an easier case: Wagner was active in New York during 1908-17, fighting in the Bronx, Albany, and Brooklyn. Another 1910 collectors card I found on e-Bay shows Wagner in classic pose.

Joe-WagnerThe funnel narrows on the date of the lantern slide photo when you look at the date advertised for the “Athletic Jubilee” in which Wagner and Sharkey (Young or not) went a few rounds. Wednesday April 15th. Reverse perpetual calendars are handy things. 1903, 1908, and 1914 had such a date. Wagner’s career probably didn’t start ‘til 1908. Israel Silverman’s frame store is not listed in the 1914 editions of Trow’s directories. QED, we have a winner: 1908 is the date of the lantern slide, in all likelihood.

Miner’s Bowery Theater touted in the broadside as “The Bowery Hall of Fame” was perhaps the most famous of the Miner performance halls in New York. Harry C. Miner got his start in New York after Reconstruction, managing theaters for other owners as well as owning and operating eponymous establishments. His Bowery hall at #165 (the number varies a bit over the years) appears in Trow’s by 1879, and the structure still stands on the east side of the boulevard, just south of Delancey Street. Home today to a carpet store and known as #169, Miner’s Bowery was soon joined by Miner’s Eighth Avenue Theatre at 312 8th, and by the People’s Theatre, erected by Miner at 201 Bowery in 1883.

English-language productions were a fixture on the Bowery starting in the late 1820s, but tides of Germans, Jews, Italians and Chinese changed the tongues heard on local stages as these immigrant swarmed into the neighborhood later in the century. By the end of the 1800s only two English language houses remained. German theater had already folled the wholesale exodus of its fans from the Lower East Side’s Little Germany to Williamsburg, Bushwick and uptown Yorkville. An unquenchable thirst among “nativist” Americans for low-class vaudeville and risque tableaux kept the box-office humming at the oldest Miner establishment with devotees from throughout the metropolitan area. Though its second Bowery location closed and moved to the Bronx, Miner’s Bowery remained a neighborhood staple, with amateur nights showcasing future legends well into the 20th century.

amateur-night-at-miners-rt-sizeGeorge M. Cohan, Al Jolson, Weber and Fields, and Eddie Cantor all made their debuts at Miner’s Bowery, where one Friday night in 1903 “give ‘em the hook” was heard for the very first time. Long periods of darkness and foreign languages finally took over the house, and Miner’s tenure on the street ended ingloriously when the building burned in 1929.

Walk down the Bowery now day or night; it’s hard to imagine all that once was. The screech of the Third Avenue elevated drowned out even the heartiest calls from the masses of sailors and drovers, gamblers and pimps who swaggered and staggered from Park Row up and back to Cooper Square. Even the drunks and the whores are mostly gone, their empty bottles of cheap wine and sorry trade now supplied elsewhere. Nowadays, an eerie quiet descends on the post-rush hour Bowery from Canal north to Houston, after traffic down to the Manhattan Bridge plaza slackens. Things get slow and sometimes still, though hipsters have started a small rebirth. Out at Green-Wood’s Dell Water shimmer, Henry Clay Miner sleeps in peace. The roar of the greasepaint makes the only sound.

Henry-Miner-rt-sizeWhat can you find when you turn a rock over? Worms by zillions live under the loam. Why would you do it, kick that stone over? You see some mud, some dirt and bugs. I see rubies, sparkles of gold.

Why? they ask me. I just stare. It’s pointless to try, I can’t explain. Res ipsa loquitur, close your eyes. Come with me, I’ll show you where…

 

This post was originally published November 22, 2006 on The New York Wanderer

 

Benjamin Feldman has lived and worked in New York City since 1969.  His essays and book reviews about New York City, American history, and Yiddish culture have appeared online and in print in CUNY’s Gotham History Blotter, The New Partisan Review, Columbia County History and Heritage, and Ducts literary magazine.  Read more about Feldman and his work on his blog, The New York Wanderer.

« Older entries