Madeline at the Paris Flower Market. TM and © Ludwig Bemelmans, LLC. (via N-YHS site)

Madeline at the Paris Flower Market. TM and © Ludwig Bemelmans, LLC. (via N-YHS)

“The purpose of art is to console and amuse—myself, and, I hope, others.”
― Ludwig Bemelmans

It seems I’m making the rounds of the great New York cultural institutions.  Once you’ve gone to see the children’s book exhibition at NYPL (see my post on The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter), you MUS MUST MUST go to N-YHS (that’s The New-York Historical Society) to see Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans.  Is it just a coincidence that this, too, is a children’s book-related, as well as a New York-related, exhibition?  Perhaps it’s just in the air.  Or perhaps I have a six-year-old New York kid, so I am tuned in to these kinds of things.

Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962)

Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962)

Regardless of whether or not you have children, however, the Madeline exhibition is a fantastic feast for the eyes.  There are over 90 paintings, photographs, and drawings on view, as well as items such as two panels from murals created for the children’s playroom of Aristotle Onassis’s yacht, The Christina, and two Madeline-themed lamps from Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel.

Ludwig Bemelmans, “Interesting as the hotel was, my ambition was to paint” (1950), from “Adieu to the Old Ritz” in the December 1950 issue of Town & Country. Photo: Courtesy Mr. and Mrs. Charles M. Royce.

Ludwig Bemelmans, “Interesting as the hotel was, my ambition was to paint” (1950), from “Adieu to the Old Ritz” in the December 1950 issue of Town & Country.
Photo: Courtesy Mr. and Mrs. Charles M. Royce.

Bemelmans, who was born in Austria-Hungary in 1898, came to New York in 1914, exactly 100 years ago, where he worked in several hotels and restaurants.  Although he is most famous for his books about Madeline, a feisty young French girl (who he described as his alter ego), he was most certainly a New York artist and writer through and through.  As a matter of fact, he began writing Madeline (dropping the “e” from Madeleine because more words rhyme with Madeline) on the back of a menu at Pete’s Tavern in Gramercy Park.  He also designed matchbooks for Luchows (the long-gone German Restaurant that was on 14th Street), a menu for the Waldorf-Astoria, and murals for the Hotel Carlyle, which he exchanged for an 18-month stay for himself and his family.  He also wrote Hotel Splendide (1941), an illustrated memoir about his years working at The Ritz in midtown, among other books for adults.

The book Hotel Bemelmans collects two dozen of the authors best writing about his life in hotels and restaurants.  From the Barnes and Noble website about the reprint edition with an introduction by Anthony Bourdain:

jpeg“Ludwig Bemelmans was the original bad boy of the New York hotel/restaurant subculture” writes Anthony Bourdain, and with his reporter’s eye for sensory detail and his keen wit, Bemelmans’ humorous autobiographical tales of behind the scenes kitchen life at the Ritz in 1920s and 30s New York never fail to amuse and engage.

Proabaly Bemelmans’ best work—and certainly his most famous essays—Hotel Bemelmans brilliantly evokes the kitchens, back passages, dining rooms, and banquet halls of Bemelmans’ years at the Hotel Splendide—a thinly disguised stand-in for the Ritz. It’s a strange, fabulous, and sometimes terrible universe populated by rogues, con-men, geniuses, craftsmen, lunatics, gypsies, tramps, and thieves—and it’s all here in bitingly funny detail. Twenty-four of the tales are vintage Bemelmans, two have never before been published, and the lot is accompanied by 73 of Bemelmans’ original, charming drawings.

In addition to Madeline, also by Bemelmans is the lesser-known yet entirely charming children’s book Sunshine: A Story About the City of New York, in which a grouchy old man in Gramercy Park rents a room to a noisy woman.  From Kirkus reviews:

sunshineNot entirely for the children is this latest by the fine-knifed master of satire. Although the “juvenile” Bemelmans of Madeline has an imaginative, gentle whimsy, here the verse is often over-sophisticated and relies on experiences familiar only to adults — room renting, lawyers and leases. However, the situations are delightful — how the stuffy Mr. Sunshine (all gloom and thunder clouds) rents a room to quiet, sedate little Miss Moore who, to the horror of Mr. Sunshine, runs an active and noisy music school, how Miss Moore is trapped into paying her rent money for two thousand umbrellas, how the rent is raised and the children and Miss Moore give a concert at Carnegie Hall. The illustrations by the author, full color and black with one color, are delightful. The rain has never rained so hard over New York, nor the snow snowed in Central Park with such glittering brilliance.

Click here to view an animated version of Sunshine:

Sunshine: A Story About the City of New York

This book, along with all of the Madeline books are available for perusing at the exhibition.  There is also a great (free) audiotour that is geared toward children but is quite interesting and informative. The exhibition is on view through October 19.  For more information go to:


The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter (photo: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times)

The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter at NYPL (photo: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times)

If you haven’t yet seen “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter” at the New York Public Library (Stephen A. Schartzman Building), you MUST MUST MUST.  This visually stunning and stunningly informative exhibition, curated by children’s book historian, author, and critic Leonard S. Marcus, presents familiar favorites as well as little known landmarks in children’s book history:

The ABC of It draws from collections across the Library to present literature for children and teens against a sweeping backdrop of history, the arts, popular culture, and technological change.  The books and related objects on view reveal hidden contexts and connections, inviting second looks and fresh discoveries.  They suggest that books for young people have stories to tell us about ourselves—and are rarely as simple as they seem. (The ABC of It Exhibition Program, page 3)

If you have children, they will love the colorful displays and will be delighted to pull books off the shelves to read or share.  But the exhibition should also be viewed solo, so that one can linger over the rare first editions of classics and read excerpts from old favorites.

Toward the end of the exhibit, there is a section devoted to books about New York City.  There are myriad books about our “storied city,” many favorites, and many of which I had never read or even seen (though perhaps you have!).  Here is a selection of titles I discovered that I thought were worth a closer look (all text is quoted directly from exhibition panels):


the blockThe Block

Langston Hughes; Romare Bearden, illustrator
New York: Viking, 1995


This volume’s powerful illustrations of Harlem neighborhood life are segments of a 1971 six-panel collage by Romare Bearden, and were paired for this book with poems by the artist’s contemporary Langston Hughes.  Hughes, like Bearden, was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance.  Although the poet did not compose these lyrics with young readers in mind, accessibility and unadorned truth telling were always high on his aesthetic agenda, and from his very first appearance in print, in the April 1921 issue of The Brownies’ Book magazine, Hughes considered writing for the younger generation a priority.




Ludwig Bemelmans
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950

Ironically named Mr. Sunshine is the Scrooge—like New York landlord who, in this rascally tale by the creator of Madeline, meets his match in a flamboyant music teacher-tenant.  Ludwig Bemelmans, an Austrian-born illustrator and man about town, lived on Gramercy Park for years as well as at the Carlyle hotel, where the café-bar he decorated with murals still bears his name.  Here, the peripatetic artist, drawing in his manic, rapid-fire style, gives us his impressions of a raft of the city’s iconic landmarks, from the Faltiron Building and City Hall to the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty.





 pet metPet of the Met

Don and Lydia Freeman
New York: Viking, 1953


Following World War II, Don Freeman was ready for a change and returned to his native California with his wife and collaborator, Lydia.  As new parents, the Freemans began making picture books.  In Pet of the Met, the couple introduced readers to Maestro Petrini, a musical mouse in residence at the gilded old Metropolitan Opera House.  In this charming story, the maestro, who ordinarily works as the prompter’s trusted page-turner, enjoys a rare onstage moment during a performance of The Magic Flute as his adoring mouse family looks on from the balcony.



all of a kind family

All-of-a-Kind Family

Sydney Taylor; Helen John, illustrator
Chicago: Wilcox and Follett, 1951

A sort of Loew East Side Little Women, this episodic novel set in the year 1912 dramatizes the daily routines and holiday observances of a first-generation Jewish American family with five daughters.  Taylor based er first novel and its four sequels on memories of growing up in lower Manhattan and the Bronx. She modeled Sarah, the middle child, on herself.







next stop gran centralNext Stop, Grand Central

Maira Kalman
New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1999


In 1998, Maira Kalman, a New Yorker cover artist and deadpan chronicler of the everyday, agreed to paint a series of temporary murals to conceal a major renovation project being planned for Grand Central Terminal.  Kalman began her research by simply “watching people go about their business”—commuters rushing to and fro and the usually unseen personnel who make the bustling rail hub function.  Based on the murals, Kalman’s picture book has taken its place as a classic depiction of the city’s kinetic energy and organized chaos.




William Low
New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1997


New Yorkers often assume that Chinatown has always occupied a prominent place in the city’s downtown landscape.  But Chinatown did not become a thriving ethnic enclave until the 1960s, when a new federal policy opened the door to greater numbers of Asian immigrant.  William Low, a Bronx-born first generation Chinese American artist, here celebrates the vibrant street life and durable traditions of the New York neighborhood that has become synonymous with Chinese food and culture.

Here’s a roundup of NEW(ish) New York books:


whitmanilluminated_crawfordWhitman Illuminated: Song of Myself
By Walt Whitman, Illustrated by Allen Crawford
Tin House Books
256 pages


From Tin House:

Walt Whitman’s iconic collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, has earned a reputation as a sacred American text. Whitman himself made such comparisons, going so far as to use biblical verse as a model for his own. So it’s only appropriate that artist and illustrator Allen Crawford has chosen to illuminate—like medieval monks with their own holy scriptures—Whitman’s masterpiece and the core of his poetic vision, “Song of Myself.” Crawford has turned the original sixty-page poem from Whitman’s 1855 edition into a sprawling 234-page work of art. The handwritten text and illustrations intermingle in a way that’s both surprising and wholly in tune with the spirit of the poem—they’re exuberant, rough, and wild. Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself is a sensational reading experience, an artifact in its own right, and a masterful tribute to the Good Gray Poet.


illustration from WHITMAN ILLUMINATED


j10060The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City
by William B. Helmreich
Princeton University Press
480 pages

From the publisher:

As a kid growing up in Manhattan, William Helmreich played a game with his father they called “Last Stop.” They would pick a subway line and ride it to its final destination, and explore the neighborhood there. Decades later, Helmreich teaches university courses about New York, and his love for exploring the city is as strong as ever.

Putting his feet to the test, he decided that the only way to truly understand New York was to walk virtually every block of all five boroughs–an astonishing 6,000 miles. His epic journey lasted four years and took him to every corner of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. Helmreich spoke with hundreds of New Yorkers from every part of the globe and from every walk of life, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former mayors Rudolph Giuliani, David Dinkins, and Edward Koch. Their stories and his are the subject of this captivating and highly original book.

We meet the Guyanese immigrant who grows beautiful flowers outside his modest Queens residence in order to always remember the homeland he left behind, the Brooklyn-raised grandchild of Italian immigrants who illuminates a window of his brownstone with the family’s old neon grocery-store sign, and many, many others. Helmreich draws on firsthand insights to examine essential aspects of urban social life such as ethnicity, gentrification, and the use of space. He finds that to be a New Yorker is to struggle to understand the place and to make a life that is as highly local as it is dynamically cosmopolitan.  Truly unforgettable, The New York Nobody Knows will forever change how you view the world’s greatest city.


9781580054942Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York
Edited by Sari Botton
Seal Press
288 pages
$16.00 (paper)

From Powell’s:

Goodbye to All That is a collection of essays about loving and leaving the magical city of New York. Inspired by Joan Didions well-loved essay by the same name, this anthology features the experiences of 28 women for whom the magic of the city has worn off—whether because of loneliness after many friends marry, have kids, and head to the suburbs; jadedness about their careers; or difficulty finding true love in a place where everyone is always looking to trade up to a better mate, a better job, a better apartment.

With contributions from authors such as Cheryl Strayed, Ann Hood, Dani Shapiro, and Emma Straub, this collection is relatable to anyone who arrived with stars in their eyes, hoping to make it. Each essay reveals the authors own unique relationship with New York City, and together they encompass the complicated emotions all New Yorkers have about leaving.


9781623650209Unhooking the Moon
By Gregory Hughes
335 pages


From Kirkus Reviews:

Astonished to hear that their father had a drug-dealing brother in New York, newly orphaned Bob and his live-wire little sister, Marie Claire (aka Rat), hitchhike to the city from Winnipeg. For lack of a better plan, they wander Manhattan and the Bronx asking passersby if they know him. This strategy leads to encounters with a host of colorful city types, notably a pair of softhearted con men and a lonely rising rap star, plus plenty of terrific street theater and nights spent sleeping in, alternately, Central Park and a hyperluxurious apartment. And ultimately the children’s search is successful! Their information about Uncle Jerome is even (more or less) accurate, as he turns out to be the CEO of a huge pharmaceutical company. Though many of Hughes’ characters will sink emotional hooks into readers, Rat takes and earns center stage by glibly charming the pants off every adult, showing a winning mix of quick wits and vulnerability, and taking wild flights of imagination—her explanation of the (subtle) differences between a Windigo and a pedophile being a particular highlight. So appealing are they that when one of them suffers a tremendous blow, readers will feel it as intensely as the other characters. The dizzying highs intensify but also ameliorate that devastating low. Middle grade; ages 9 to 12.


9780763656966Tap Tap Boom Boom
by Elizabeth Bluemle, illustrated by G. Brian Karas
Candlewick Press
32 pages

From Publisher’s Weekly:

In toe-tapping, jazz-chant verse, author, bookseller, and PW blogger Bluemle (How Do You Wokka-Wokka?) writes about the way a sudden thunderstorm “makes friends/ of strangers.” At the story’s start, two boys in a playground gaze through iron railings at a girl in a yellow dress hurrying to keep up with her father. On an ordinary day she’d disappear into the crowd, but when the rain starts pelting down, the boys, the girl and her father, and half a dozen others dash for the subway station: “Feet wetter?/ You’d better/ go down/ underground,/ where the water/can’t getcha./ You betcha.” Over photographic images of subway fixtures, Karas (The Apple Orchard Riddle) draws people chatting, sharing pizza, and shrinking away as their dogs shake themselves off, balancing the force of the storm with the warmth of city-dwellers sharing an unexpected break in their day. Bluemle’s story unfolds on a scale just right for preschoolers, with plenty of hullaballoo, subtle attention to the senses, and an affirmation of the way misfortune can lead to small miracles. Ages 3–7.

Illustration from TAP TAP BOOM BOOM

Illustration from TAP TAP BOOM BOOM





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Babette Mangolte, Roof Piece (Trisha Brown), 1973, photograph of Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece performed from 53 Wooster to 381 Lafayette Street, New York City, 1973. Courtesy Babette Mangolte via  From Art on the Block by Ann Fensterstock.

Babette Mangolte, Roof Piece (Trisha Brown), 1973, photograph of Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece performed from 53 Wooster to 381 Lafayette Street, New York City, 1973. Courtesy Babette Mangolte via From Art on the Block by Ann Fensterstock.

While recently re-revisiting my SoHo book idea that seems forever stuck in Neverland, I was thinking about books of note have recently been written about SoHo.  There is, of course, Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of Soho (2010) by Roslyn Bernstein and Shael Shapiro, a history of the evolution of SoHo as told through the history of 80 Wooster Street and the people who lived there, as well as Soho: The Rise and Fall of an Artists’ Colony (2003) by Richard Kostelanetz, which is soon to be out in a revised edition, among other excellent books that have come out over the years (see list below).

There are two new books, however, published within the last year, that merit particular attention in case they’ve been overlooked by my fellow SoHo memoriticians.  The first is Ann Fensterstock’s Art on the Block: Tracking the New York Art World from Soho to the Bowery, Bushwick and Beyond that follows the evolution of New York’s arts hubs over the past fifty years.  There is also the novel The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, about a young artist who moves to New York from Nevada and then finds her way to Italy where she becomes involved in a radical movement.  Although neither of these books focus solely on SoHo, the sections that do are quite compelling and each do their part in shaping our collective memory of SoHo in the 1970’s.

art on the blockIn Art on the Block, Ann Fensterstock, an art collector and art historian, traces the migration of the art world over the past fifty years, with a sharp focus on gallery owners, from Midtown to SoHo to the East Village to Brookyln and beyond to:

…reveal the impact of shifting real-estate markets, economic cycles, political movements, art-world producers, and consumers on contemporary art’s evolution. Rejecting any one explanation for the art world’s geographical, commercial, and aesthetic restlessness, Fensterstock instead presents “variables” to consider as she adeptly guides readers through the decades, from the decline of late-1960s Midtown modernism to 2010’s Lower East Side revival. (Publishers Weekly, June 24, 2013)

Chapters 3-6 of this book are a concise but thorough overview of the development of SoHo from the 1950’s through the end of the 20th century.  Beginning with the early years, Fensterstock explains how, due to the influence of zoning laws, the decline of manufacturing, LOMEX, and the specific needs of New York artists, SoHo came into being as a residential and commercial neighborhood for artists and then recounts how the pioneer gallerists of the SoHo art world shaped it into an international destination.

When it comes to I pleasure-reading, I tend to shy away from non-fiction, but I found Art on the Block so very readable and engaging.  Fensterstock is a seasoned storyteller, and although I felt that some the of sections on SoHo began to resemble shopping lists of galleries and their star artists, I knew who many, if not most, of them were, and I was thus drawn into the orbit of this history.  In addition, because this book places SoHo in a larger New York context, with an art world both pre-dating and existing elsewhere after SoHo was no longer a Mecca for gallery-goers, it presents the “big picture,” with SoHo being only one of the many stops on the art train.  SoHo is by no means a bit-player in this story, but Fensterstock’s longer lens provides a welcome perspective to my often myopic viewpoint.

flamethrowersAnd speaking of pleasure-reading, Rachel Kushner’s new novel, The Flamethrowers, is a true literary pleasure.  This woman knows how to write.  From the book’s jacket copy:

The year is 1975 and Reno—so-called because of the place of her birth—has come to New York intent on turning her fascination with motorcycles and speed into art.  Her arrival coincides with an explosion of activity in the art world—artists have colonized a deserted and industrial SoHo, are staging actions in the East Village, and are blurring the line between life and art.

Kushner’s Reno is a diminutive protagonist when compared to the entirety of the New York art world in Fentsterstock, but her world and words are no less expansive.  The reader is immediately drawn in to Kushner’s vast landscapes, the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, the gritty streets of 1970’s downtown New York City, and the tumultuous streets of Rome filled with demonstrators and riot police, while simultaneously drawn out for a bird’s-eye view.  I’m no literary critic, but that seems like one groovy parlor trick.

Reno moves organically from place to place in search of the new and the fast, much like the art world does in Fensterstock’s book.  In the sections that take place in SoHo, we follow Reno as she experiences loft living at its most glamorous, a raucous dinner party complete with wacky characters and their scintillating conversations, to its most mundane, the brute work of gutting an industrial space of its machinery to make room for art and life, to its most disturbing, a mugging on a desolate street late at night.

Kushner’s SoHo is familiar without being predictable, as are her characters.  We meet several artists and strivers at various levels if success and renown as well as gallery owners vying for the favor of potential cash cows, all familiar-seeming and perhaps based on real people.  Judging from her author photo, Kushner is too young to have lived actually lived it, but she creates characters with authenticity without resorting to the hyper-reality of character types. Reno eventually leaves New York for Italy, where she is invited to drive a race car, and we are introduced to other landscapes peopled with other characters.  SoHo is once again one stop of many that Reno will probably make in her lifetime.

Anyway, this all is beginning to sound a lot like a college paper, so I think I’ll stop now.  My intention here was not to write book reports, but to let you all know that, in case you missed these books, there is some great new writing about SoHo out there.  I’ve included a list below of other books I’ve come across in my research.  This list is by no means exhaustive so please write in if you know of others!


Anderson, Laurie, Trisha Brown, and Gordon Matta-Clark. Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s. Munich: New York, 2011.

sohoguideAnderson-Spivy, Alexandra, and B J. Archer. Anderson & Archer’s Soho: The Essential Guide to Art and Life in Lower Manhattan. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.

Attie, Dotty, and Sharyn Finnegan. Better Than Ever: Women Figurative Artists of the ’70s Soho Co-Ops. Brooklyn: Long Island University, 2009.

Bernstein, Roslyn, and Shael Shapiro. Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of Soho. Vilnius, Lithuania: Jonas Mekas Foundation, 2010.

Block, René, Ursula Block, and Kurt Thöricht. New York, Downtown Manhattan, Soho: Ausstellungen, Theater, Musik, Performance, Video, Film : 5 September Bis 17 Oktober 1976 : [katalog]. Berlin: Akademie der Künste, 1976.

514yGItNS0L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Davidovich, Jaime. The Live! Show. Astoria, N.Y. (35th Avenue at 36th Street, Astoria, N.Y. 11106: American Museum of the Moving Image, 1989.

Dolkart, Andrew. Touring Lower Manhattan: Three Walks in New York’s Historic Downtown. New York: New York Landmarks Conservancy, 2000.

Edelson, Bob. Soho, Nyc. Soho, N.Y: Soho Book Project, 1993.

Fensterstock, Ann. Art on the Block: Tracking the New York Art World from Soho to the Bowery, Bushwick and Beyond. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

112-Greene-St-coverFiore, Jessamyn, and Louise Sørensen. 112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970-1974). Santa Fe, New Mexico: Radius Books, 2012.

Gayle, Margot, Robin Lynn, and Edmund V. Gillon. Friends of Cast Iron Architecture Presents a Walking Tour of Cast-Iron Architecture in Soho. New York: Friends of Cast Iron Architecture, 1983.

Gayle, Margot, and Edmund V. Gillon. Cast-iron Architecture in New York: A Photographic Survey. New York: Dover Publications, 1974.

Glassman, Carl. Soho, a Picture Portrait. New York: Universe Books, 1985.

Gratz, Roberta B. The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. New York: Nation Books, 2010.

Hudson, James R. The Unanticipated City: Loft Conversions in Lower Manhattan. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

Kahn, Steve. Soho, New York. New York: Rizzoli, 1999.

sohokostKostelanetz, Richard. Soho: The Rise and Fall of an Artists’ Colony. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Robinson, David. Soho Walls: Beyond Graffiti. New York, N.Y: Thames and Hudson, 1990.

Siegfried, Alanna, and Helene Z. Seeman. Soho: A Guide. New York: Neal-Schuman, 1978.

Simpson, Charles R. Soho, the Artist in the City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Stratton, Jim. Pioneering in the Urban Wilderness: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Houston/galveston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Minneapolis/st. Paul, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Portland (maine) San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Tampa, Washington D.c., New York. New York: Urizen Books, 1977.

61Y6JQ5684L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Tannenbaum, Allan. New York in the 70s: Soho Blues, a Personal Photographic Diary. New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2009.

Taylor, Marvin J. The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Taylor, Paul, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, and Allan Schwartzman. After Andy: Soho in the Eighties. Melbourne, Australia: Schwartz City, 1995.

Tricarico, Donald. The Italians of Greenwich Village: The Social Structure and Transformation of an Ethnic Community. Staten Island, N.Y: Center for Migration Studies of New York, 1984.

Zukin, Sharon. Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.


byrdByrd, C L. Soho. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1981

Innaurato, Albert. Coming of Age in Soho. New York, N.Y: Dramatists Play Service, 1985.

Kushner, Rachel. The Flamethrowers: A Novel. New York: Scribner, 2013.


NY Soho Arts Magazine. New York, N.Y: NY Soho Arts Magazine, 1996.

Soho Guide. New York, NY: Soho Partnership, 1994.

Soho Journal. New York, NY: SoHo Partnership, 1994.

Soho News. New York: Soho Weekly News, inc, 1973.

The Soho Weekly News. New York: Soho weekly news, 1973.


Soho-cast Iron Historic District Designation Report. New York, 1973.

Soho/noho Occupancy Survey. New York City: Dept. of City Planning, 1985.

Other Media:

dr-videovich-with-toys_WEBA Visit to Soho. New York: Inner Tube Video, 1980. Video.

Chinatown, Little Italy, Soho. New York: Pathfinder, 1982. Sound recording.

The Live! Show. Chicago, Ill: Video Data Bank, 1982. Video.

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GREENWICH VILLAGE STORIES Edited by Judith Stonehill

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.

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


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.













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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.


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)




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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:

The Poor Among Us: A History of Family Homelessness in New York City – See more at:

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:

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) 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:

View a slideshow of Riis’ images:


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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.

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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):

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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.












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