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101 objectsA History of New York in 101 Objects
By Sam Roberts
336 pages, Simon and Schuster
$30.00

 

From the New-York Historical Society website:

 Can one object define New York City? Can 101? New York Times urban affairs correspondent Sam Roberts has assembled a kaleidoscopic array of possibilities in a new book, A History of New York in 101 Objects. Featuring objects from the New-York Historical Society collection, this exhibition assembles some of Roberts’s choices, which together constitute a unique history of New York.  By turns provocative, iconic, and ironic, and winnowed from hundreds of possibilities, his selections share the criteria of having played some transformative role in the city’s history.

tokenFrom the New York Observer:

The history of New York City has always been nuanced, its narrative hidden in everything from ticket stubs to water tanks. Now, Sam Roberts, the urban affairs correspondent at the New York Times and a Brooklynite at heart, has taken on the ambitious task of excavating the meaning within some of NYC’s most noteworthy artifacts in his new book, A History of New York in 101 Objects.

“It’s sort of an inanimate Humans of New York. It is a subjective, labor-of-love collection of objects that epitomize the transformation of New York over four centuries into the city that we know and love today,” Mr. Roberts said.

“It is not the history of New York,” he added. “It’s not even a history of New York. It’s really my history of New York through 101 objects.”

Within his compilation, Mr. Roberts left no room for nostalgia or ephemerality. Instead, he chose “things that would be more quirky. Things that would be more conversation pieces. Things that would make people think of history in a new light.” For him, it doesn’t matter if something’s trending at the moment. The real objects that define New York are those that will endure for decades to centuries.

 

knishKnish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food
By Laura Silver
300 pages, Brandeis University Press
$24.95

 

From the Daily News:

Brooklyn ‘knish lady’ Laura Silver writes the definitive book about Eastern European potato staple from its roots in Poland to Brighton Beach, the knish is a part of American Jewry. And the city is experiencing a bit of a knishaissance.

She gained from loss.

When Mrs. Stahl’s knish shop closed in Brighton Beach in 2005, most New Yorkers shrugged and moved on at the departure of yet another neighborhood institution.

But Brooklynite Laura Silver took action, researching the seminal Eastern European staple, teasing out family stories, and even connecting with Mrs. Stahl’s descendents for “Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food,” a new book that is nothing short of a biography of the Polish potato-filled pastry.

 

new york modNew York: A Mod Portrait of the City
Written by Zdenek Mahler, Illustrated by Vladimir
128 pages, Universe
$24.95

 

From Amazon.com

Exactly half a century old, this timeless illustrated classic artfully captures the “Mad Men” era of New York City for readers of all ages. The unique essence of New York City is poetically celebrated in Vladimir Fuka’s brilliant, colorful illustrations and collages and Zdenek Mahler’s playful accompanying narrative. The book takes readers on a charming journey of discovery through the magnificent metropolis’s architectural landmarks, cultural hot spots, and neighborhoods, from uptown to downtown, from Wall Street to Coney Island, and the Guggenheim Museum to Yankee Stadium. Interesting historical fun facts about the city and its inhabitants are combined with descriptions of the reality of everyday New York.

 

nyc 3DNew-York Historical Society New York City in 3D
 
In The Gilded Age: A Book Plus Stereoscopic Viewer and 50 3D Photos from the Turn of the Century

 

By Esther Crain and the New-York Historical Society
 
160 pages (paper), Black Dog & Leventhal
$34.95
 

From the publisher:

This smart, upscale, and unique package contains 50 rarely seen stereoscopic images – including spectacular 3D views of bygone architectural marvels, as well as once-in-a-lifetime events such as the construction of the Statue of Liberty – and a paperback book that brings history to life.

Be transported to New York during the Gilded Age and experience daily life in one of the world’s most vibrant cities through mesmerizing, contemporary 3D photography and exciting tales of the time.

Black Dog & Leventhal has partnered with the New-York Historical Society to present New York in the Gilded Age as it’s never been viewed before. This innovative package includes a sturdy metal stereoscopic viewer and 50 stereoscopic photographs of turn-of-the-century New York. The package also includes a 128-page paperback that provides a brief history of the stereograph craze and an overview of the city’s evolution during that time.

rebel soulsRebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians
By Justin Martin
368 pages, Da Capo Press
$27.99
 

From The Boston Globe:

In the late 1850s Walt Whitman was living at home with his mother in Brooklyn, scraping by on journalism, not poetry. A compulsive rambler, Whitman found his way to a dark little spot on Broadway and Bleecker called Pfaff’s. Here, he found another family of sorts in the company of writers, wits, actors, and artists. Beer (and banter) flowed freely. It wasn’t quite Cheers, but there, everyone knew the struggling poet’s name.

Whitman now is a central figure in the American canon, but his Pfaff’s pals are all but forgotten. In “Rebel Souls,” biographer Justin Martin brings them wonderfully to life in his enjoyable romp through the milieu. Whitman is the emotional core of the book — Martin’s passages on Whitman’s romantic travails and his experiences tending to wounded soldiers during the Civil War are unforgettably moving. But the other members of the Pfaff’s coterie almost steal the show.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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 Flavorwire.com.  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 Flavorwire.com. 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!

Books:

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.

Fiction:

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.

Periodicals:

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.

Reports:

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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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: 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/

 

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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.

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street book coverDid you ever wonder after whom Bleecker Street or Abingdon Square were named?  Is Union Square named so after Civil War soldiers?  Was there a spring running down Spring Street?  New York’s history can be gleaned from the history of its street names as outlined in Henry Moscow’s The Street Book: An Encyclopedia of Manhattan’s Street Names and Their Origins, one of several books available about the namesakes of our city’s streets.

Here are excerpts from a few of many interesting ones:

Abingdon Square

The Namesake: Charlotte Warren, a pre-Revolutionary War Greenwich Village belle, who became the bride of the Earl of Abingdon.  Here father was Admiral Sir Peter Warren, a naval hero and New York social lion, and her mother was the beautiful and wealthy Susannah de Lancey. (page 20)

Bowery

The Namesake: Peter Stuyvesant’s farm, bouwerij, to which the road led from the more settled parts of New Amsterdam,  The farm’s main house stood between 15th and 16th streets, just east of First Avenue.  (page 29)

The mansion of Sir Peter Warren, through whose property Bleecker Street ran.

The mansion of Sir Peter Warren, through whose property Bleecker Street ran.

Bleecker Street

The Namesake: Anthony Bleecker, an early 19th-century Greenwich Village literatus.  The street, the land for which was deeded to the city in 1807, already ran through the Bleecker family farm.  … Bleecker was a friend of Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant. His prose poetry appeared in a variety of periodicals during some thirty years, and Bryant once reported that Eliza Fenno had left town in 1811 simply to get away from Bleecker’s puns. (page 29)

William Bedlow Crosby (1786-1865) painted by Samuel Lovett Waldo

William Bedlow Crosby (1786-1865) painted by Samuel Lovett Waldo

Crosby Street

The Namesake: William Bedlow Crosby, early 19th-century philanthropist.  When both of his parents died two years after his birth in 1786, Crosby was adopted by his mother’s uncle, Henry Rutgers.  Crosby inherited the Crosby wealth and devoted his life to good works. (page 42)

Rivington Street

The Namesake: James Rivington, publisher of the pro-British newspaper Royal Gazette in New York during the Revolutionary War. …Because the paper printed both sides of every poitical issue, an unprecedented practive, its plant was wrecked by patriot extremists and put out of business.  Under British occupation of the city, Rivington resumed publication, and supported the King.  Rivington Street was named for him during thewar.  The street name was retained and Rivington himself was allowed to stay after British evacuation because he publicly repented his Tory sympathies and because, it was said, he had secretly aided Washington’s spies in the city.

Spring Street

The Namesake: a spring that originated there, at West Broadway, and once served as a source of water for residents.  (page 96)

Union Square

The Namesake: the junction of many roads and streets there. The square was named Union Place in 1808, when the commissioners who were laying out the city onthe grid plan decreed that the area should remain open.  It was renamed Union Square in 1832. (page 102)

 

This and other books about New York street names:

Feirstein, Sanna. Naming New York: Manhattan Places & How They Got Their Names. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

McNamara, John. History in Asphalt: The Origin of Bronx Street and Place Names, Borough of the Bronx, New York City. Harrison, N.Y: Published in collaboration with the Bronx County Historical Society [by] Harbor Hill Books, 1978.

Moscow, Henry, and Thomas Tracy. The Street Book: An Encyclopedia of Manhattan’s Street Names and Their Origins. New York, N.Y: Fordham University Press, 1978.

Rogerson, Don. Manhattan Street Names Past and Present. New York: Griffin Rose Press, 2013.

Ulmann, Albert. A Landmark History of New York: Also the Origin of Street Names and a Bibliography. New York: D. Appleton and Co, 1906.

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whalen 1The saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  This expression came to mind the other day as I was browsing in Housing Works Bookstore and came upon a book by Richard J. Whalen entitled A City Destroying Itself: An Angry View of New York.  Whalen, a native New Yorker, originally wrote a shorter piece on the same theme for Fortune Magazine that was so popular, he expanded the article to a book-length diatribe about all the myriad things he feels are destroying New York.  Written in 1965, it is noteworthy that the complaints he had then are the complaints we still hear today in 2013.

The opening of chapter 3 reads:

New York shows alarming signs of spiritual malnutrition and death-by-inches. It is frowning, tight-lipped, short-tempered, the most nervous city in America.  It is a city without grace.  It is humorless, able to mock and taunt, but too tense to gain the release of laughter.  It is a city that cried “Jump” to a would-be suicide perched on a window ledge.

Richard J. Whalen

Richard J. Whalen

I, too, am a native New Yorker, and I happen to disagree with Whalen here, but I have heard this sentiment expressed by countless others, although usually from those who were born and raised in other, more peaceful and bucolic, places where people are polite, even if they don’t mean it.

Whalen opens the book with:

All but a few years of my life have been spent in and around New York City, but I cannot claim an intense feeling of identification with the city.  In a sense, one is cheated by being born here.  The newcomer never entirely recovers from his stunning first impression, while the native becomes aware of the city gradually and without a thrill of wonder.

whalenPoint well taken.  I do find newcomers to New York have a strong reaction to it, whether negative or positive.  The excitement in the eyes of those whose lifelong dream it was to move to “The Big Apple” is almost blinding, whereas this is all I ever knew, I thought everyone grew up riding graffiti covered-subways and having year-round access to the world’s greatest museums.

Here is another refrain, oft heard, especially from old-time natives:

New York exists only in he present tense.  Just as there is no sense of obligation to the future, so there is no feeling of pride in the past.  Although Manhattan is quite old—it was first settled in 1615—is, as Alexander Woollcott once remarked, “a town without any attics.”  The city seems to regard the past with contempt and hastens to obliterate its heritage.

In 1965, the Landmarks Preservation Commission New York was a newly established institution, and was born too late to save the old Penn Station:

Symbolic of New York’s self-destructive frenzy is the demolition of Pennsylvania Station. Now being razed to make way of a $120 million complex including a new Madison Square Garden arena, an exhibition hall, bowling alleys, and a thirty-three-story office tower.  This will be the fourth Madison Square Garden in eighty-five years.  There will never be another Penn Station.

I wonder what Whalen would have to say about our city’s current plans for Moynihan Station, an attempt to harken back to a time when trains arrived in terminals both grand and central.

What fun I had perusing this volume of complaints and criticisms that also contains thirteen illustrations by Feliks Topolski.  The jacket copy declares, “Here is a city of endless human discomfort, inconvenience, harassment and fear…one which strives and dehumanizes its inhabitants…a city destroying itself.”  Though obviously rather one-sided, Whalen’s prose is very readable and his arguments astute.  Had he been writing today, he would have made a first-rate blogger!

Whalen, Richard J. A City Destroying Itself: An Angry View of New York. New York: Morrow, 1965.

 

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The Stone Bridge, from The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (1865)

The Stone Bridge, from The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (1865)

One of the many perks of working at New York Bound Books is that I get to pore through lots of rare books about New York, for research and just for fun.  I recently photographed a few for our catalog that included several image of old SoHo, and when I say old, I do not mean when Dean and Deluca on Prince Street old, I mean when Canal Street was a canal old.

Title Page of the Valentine Manual 1865

Title Page of the Valentine Manual 1865

The first image, of the Stone Bridge (see above) in 1800, is from the 1865 edition of the Valentine Manuals.  Officially titled The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York, this series of books was commonly called the “Valentine’s Manuals” for David T. Valentine, the clerk of the Common Council who compiled the volumes that included the city’s annual reports and directories. (read more about Valentine Manuals here at New York Bound Books).

A little research produced an article entitled “The Old Stone Bridge at Canal-street and Broadway” by Capt. Walker Bicker in The New York Times about his memories of  the bridge and its environs in the early 19th century, published April 9, 1886:

Broadway was not paved beyond “the stone bridge” which stood where Canal-street now crosses Broadway.  This was a famous resort for us schoolboys.  It was considered “out of town”—all north beyond as well as the immediate vicinity was country, post and rail fences dividing the land into different sized parcels.  This bridge spanned a small stream which conveyed water from the Collect on the east side of Broadway (where now stands the Tombs) to the west side, where was an extensive meadow covering most of the ground from Broadway to the north River and from Lispenard-street to Spring-street.

Here’s another image of Broadway, just one block to the north, in 1824.

Corner of Broadway and Grand Street, 1824 from The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (1865)

Corner of Broadway and Grand Street, 1824 from The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (1865)

Perhaps even more enlightening than the Valentine Manuals is Edward W. Browning’s New York Real Estate Brochure that lists buildings, apartments, apartment hotels, tenements, and stores to be sold at public auction on June 17, 1929.

Edward W. Browning’s New York Real Estate Brochure

Edward W. Browning’s New York Real Estate Brochure

 

513-519 Broadway through to 84 to 94 Mercer Street from Edward W. Browning’s New York Real Estate Brochure

513-519 Broadway through to 84 to 94 Mercer Street from Edward W. Browning’s New York Real Estate Brochure

 

This brochure contains a lot for sale at “513-519 Broadway through to 84 to 94 Mercer Street,” a plot that contains three buildings on Broadway, two of which go all the way through to Mercer Street, that would bring in an estimated whopping $80,700.00 in rent when fully occupied, presumably annually.  I found a recent article on Curbed about a unit in this lot for rent today:

Hank Azaria, best known for doing his voices on “The Simpsons” (Moe, Apu, Chief Wiggum among others), told the Wall Street Journal that he’s renting out his loft at 84 Mercer Street for a cool $16,000 per month. For that moolah you get a 4,000 square foot loft with 3 bedrooms. He picked the place up from photographer and director Cindy Sherman for $4.25M back in 2005, but he plans to spend a lot more time on the West Coast.

If a renter will pay $16K per month for a loft, imagine how much one of those retail spaces fetches!  I pride myself on being pretty good at math, but I’m not even going to attempt to figure out the percentage of appreciation between 1929 and 2011.  (And I don’t know if Azaria is BEST known for his Simpsons voices, fantastic though they are.)

Last, but not at all least, here is a newspaper clipping from February 9, 1907 of a picture of The Hall of Science, “where the freethinkers foregathered seventy-five years ago.”

hall-of-sciencebway-central-hotel

This building on Broome Street (probably between Mott and Elizabeth)  was purchased for $7,000 by educational reformer Frances Wright in 1829. According to the Encyclopedia.com entry on Wright:

Commencing a career as a lecturer, she bought a Baptist church and renamed it the Hall of Science, housing a lecture hall, a secular Sunday school, and a bookstore for free-thinkers. Wright’s lectures challenged evolving concepts of domestic ideology when she explained the experience and ideals of Nashoba, criticized evangelical revivals, and advocated education and equal rights for women. Her favorite topic was educational reform. She proposed a “guardianship system” through which state government would establish district boarding schools, where Americans could be raised for social equality through a curriculum that instructed all children in free inquiry and the physical sciences. Wright found admirers in New York among the reformers and artisans who comprised the city’s Workingmen’s Party and who also advocated enlightened public education and such issues as the ten-hour workday, abolition of imprisonment for debt, and attacks on the privileges of banks and capitalists.

Three random items.  Three SoHo locales.  Three interesting stories.  All in a day’s work.

 

This post originally appeared on The SoHo Memory Project on December 12, 2012.

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Marking Spaces at the Queens Museum

Marking Spaces at the Queens Museum

The Queens Museum of Art‘s new exhibition, “Marking Spaces: New York City’s Landmark Historic Districts on the Panorama of the City of New York,” commemorates fifty years of the New York City Landmarks Law founded on April 19, 1965.  This exhibition kicks off a two-year anniversary celebration by placing yellow flags on the museum’s Panorama of the City of New York indicating the 109 historic districts throughout the City.

Mayor Robert Wagner enacted the city’s landmarks preservation law a year and a half after the Beaux-Arts Pennsylvania Station, designed by McKim, Mead & White was razed.  The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was formed to protect New York City’s architectural and cultural landmarks.

According to the Queens Museum website:

The designated historic districts of New York City represent some of the oldest and most distinctive areas in the city. Designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, these neighborhoods have been singled out for their unique “sense of place”. Each one is rich with history and architectural character, and together they help tell the story of New York City and its development into the world capital it is today.

Brooklyn Heights was the first historic district designated in November 1965, followed the next year by districts in Greenwich Village, Gramercy Park and the Upper East Side. Today, there are 109 historic districts with 18 historic district extensions numbering more than 30,000 buildings across all five boroughs.

Robert Moses originally had the Panorama, 9,335-square-foot architectural model of every building in the five boroughs, built for the 1964 World’s Fair. By placing the flags on the Panorama to designate historic landmarks, the museum will highlight the work of the Landmarks Preservation Commission over the past fifty years, and, one hopes, will allow the visitor to imagine what the city would look like had the commission not existed.

This exhibition will be on view through June 02, 2013.

Read more about The Queens Panorama of the City of New York, as well as Otis Bullard’s Moving Panorama of New York in my post Struck By Wonder: The Queens Panorama of the City of New York and Otis Bullard’s Moving Panorama of New York

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“St. George’s” by Gene Schermerhorn

In 1888, Gene Schermerhorn, a member of an old New York family, ended a series of letters to his young nephew in the finest spirit of personal recollections:

Now my dear Phil I have tried to tell you what this great city was like when I was a boy but little older than yourself, and I hope I have succeeded in interesting you somewhat. I have begun with my earliest recollections of New York and I will leave it now about 1856 when the population was only 629,810…It is estimated now at over 1,500,000.

I cannot help looking forward and wondering, if it can possibly be that you can tell of as great changes. It is my firm belief that you will be able to do so and that you will live to see the entire island as thickly built as it is now below 59th St. and perhaps the district above the Harlem also. Or it may be that you will see changes that I don’t even dream of, although my faith in the future of New York is unbounded…I hope you will sometimes enjoy reading what has given me so much pleasure to write for you.

Your loving Uncle Gene

First hand accounts like these are sparks of New York life.  Many writers, including Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, E.B. White and Joseph Mitchell, have illuminated the city, but the words of New Yorkers outside of literary circles, people like Gene Schermerhorn, are often equally eloquent and distinctive. Unlike histories, contemporary diary entries, letters, and other eyewitness accounts offer a view of New York life that is umblemished by the sensibilities of a later time. Read the rest of this entry »

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