Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Tree at Rockefeller Center

The Rockefeller Center Tree.
There probably isn't a more recognizable or iconic symbol of Christmas in New York City than the tree at Rockefeller Center. It has got to be one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city, and the crowds say it all. I went down there for the lighting ceremony once years ago, and, man, I hate to say it, but what a mistake that was. It was an early taste of how unbearably crowded these touristy places can get, and I couldn't get anywhere near the tree. As I recall, police barricades guarded the ceremony from blocks away and I could barely even see the jumbo-tron they had set up.

So I realized that the Christmas tree lighting is right up there with the ball dropping on New Year's Eve as far as events to avoid in this city go. But despite all this negativity, I've got to hand it to this city for having yet another event that is recognized and admired throughout the world. And so I took a walk down to Rockefeller Center, and as always noted how the sidewalks got increasingly more crowded as I came from the Upper East Side.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., leased the space in 1929 from Columbia University with the intention of building a new theatre for the Metropolitan Opera. However, due to the Stock Market crash, the plan fell through, and, left with only a few options, he decided to fund a new project entirely with his own money, making it the largest private building project undertaken in modern times. On the land was built a complex of fourteen office buildings. Rockefeller originally didn't want his name associated with the new development, but public-relations pioneer and prominent family advisor Ivy Lee persuaded him that it would attract more tenants.

A major controversy was avoided in the mid-30s when Lee and other advisers attempted to lease a number of buildings to German commercial interests and be dubbed the "Deutsche Haus", but strained relations with Hitler prevented that from happening. They were instead dubbed "International House North", and became the center for British in the U.S., and later Allied Intelligence during World War II.

Rockefeller Center actually kind of represented the end of an era in the history of architectural sculpture because it was one of the last major building projects in the country to sponsor a program of integrated public art. Sculpture Lee Laurie contributed twelve pieces, including the statue of Atlas across the street from the main doors of St. Patrick's Cathedral. Acclaimed architect Paul Manship was commissioned to create a masterwork for the central sunken plaza, and produced the gilded statue of the Titan Prometheus that is seen today. Although many sources throughout the world consider it to be the fourth most recognizable sculpture in the United States, followed by the Lincoln Memorial, Mount Rushmore, and the Empire State Building, it was not a work that Manship was particularly proud or fond of. Other sculptures that were at first commissioned and planned for throughout the plaza were all abandoned, and instead on Christmas Day, 1936, the ice rink opened up.

The first tree, however, was hastily and unceremoniously put up by construction workers in December, 1931. At a mere twenty feet, workers decorated the tree with strings of cranberries, paper, and even tin cans and the foil ends of blasting caps. Two years later, when 30 Rock opened, the official tradition began, and lasts to this day, with trees picked from around the tri-state area ranging from seventy to one hundred ten feet. Due to the width of the streets passing through, the tree can't exceed this height.

Plus, the star placed on top of the tree ways five hundred fifty pounds. All in all pretty extravagant, but that's New York for you I guess. Time for me to go to country for a while and get away from the hustle and bustle of this place. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Old St. Patrick's Cathedral Becomes a Basilica

The altar at Old St. Patrick's.
The umbrella presented to the church, signifying its new rank as a basilica.
A closer shot of the altar
Another shot of the organ.
The organ.
A Chinese family that wished to take their picture with me.
A shot of the crowd during the reception.
Another shot of the crowd.
That skull on a cell phone that is common on condemned buildings.

This past week I got an e-mail from the Hibernians that Old St. Patrick's Cathedral, on Mott and Prince Streets in Little Italy, was being upgraded to a basilica, an honor sometimes given to important churches in a city, making Old St. Patrick's the Pope's official church in New York. Completed in 1815, it's unique-looking because it has no windows in the front, and high walls guard the graves on either side, a reflection of the anti-Catholic sentiment at the time, as rioters would destroy the stained-glass, and at one point nativist mobs even tried to burn the church to the ground. Despite its centrality to early Catholic life in this country, the Archbishop said that while filling out the paper work to apply for basilica status, he needed to prove that the church was still an active and important house of worship, and the Archbishop noted that despite all it's history, this church was not a "museum", but a "living, vibrant parish", as could be seen by the hundreds of Chinese faithful who packed the sides of the church, while some important guests took up the pews.

I was hastily given the job of an usher and a green, white and orange sash, and told to seat a well-dressed older Chinese woman in pew 5. She was with Father Jonathan Morris, who often appears on Fox News. I knew I recognized him but didn't say anything ... then I took the obviously important Chinese woman 5 rows to the back of the church instead of the front. My mistake. I just told her it was my first day here. I tend to say that a lot.

Anyway, it was a little unorganized as I had to guard two pews for Hibernians marching in the procession, trying my best to stop a whole slew of octogenarians who were trying to sit there, most of them with canes, one of them even blind. I didn't exactly feel comfortable asserting my authority over these people, and nobody was really going to listen to me anyway. But even though the Hibernians and Knights of Columbus bickered for a little while over who needed to sit where, and that two seats in the second pew needed to be saved for Justice Scalia and his wife (who I don't think showed up), eventually everything got settled just in time for the ushers to start spreading the word to each other that the Archbishop was coming through the door at any minute.

I stood in the back throughout most of the service mainly hoping that I wasn't in the way, until the head of the Hibernians asked me to go up to the front of the church so that I could help supervise the filing out at the end. So I walked up the center aisle alone during the closing prayer while the Knights of Columbus flanked me, about twenty on each side, a bunch of old guys in full uniform and swords drawn. When I got to the front of the church I made sure not to trip or fall backward or anything because I knew everyone would see me but at the end of the service Cardinal Egan came up to me and said, "Thanks for coming."

Next was off to the reception, where I went straight for the buffet table because I hadn't eaten all day. The place was packed and the line barely moving, and unfortunately prevented me from talking to Archbishop Dolan again. By the time I spotted him, he was already leaving. He gave a general wave in my direction and then a cop escorted him out the door.

I did meet Cardinal Egan, though. He was signing programs, and luckily had time for one more. He said, "So tell me about yourself."

Now, I knew I'd get about thirty seconds to talk, so I tried to make it count. "Well, Your Eminence, I'm with the Hibernians, I'm the Division 1 Historian, and I'm happy to be a part of all this. This is a great church with a lot of history." (Or something like that.)

He signed my program and then said, "And off we go." And quickly walked out the door with a priest. He had said something similar the last time I saw him ... he's obviously coached.

While wandering around the reception, a Chinese woman who barely spoke any English and had two small children came up to me and gestured to a camera. I thought she wanted me to take a picture, but soon realized that she wanted her four-year-old son to take a picture of her with me. The lady obviously thought I was more important than I really was. Her son could barely work the camera, taking a couple of pictures of the ceiling, so I suggested that someone get a picture of all of us.

On a side note, after I left, I saw a big picture of a skull talking on a cell phone, on a dumpster outside the Puck Building. I was surprised to see it because I'd seen the same picture on the side of McGurk's Suicide Hall, at 295 Bowery near East 1st Street, which was unable to receive landmark status and was demolished in 2005, but around the turn of the twentieth century prided itself as being "the roughest joint in town", a very dangerous dive bar where at least five back-room girls killed themselves by drinking carbolic acid.

I've added a video here that I found on YouTube of a news report of the ceremony, but, no, I wasn't able to spot myself.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Gentrification and Change in Brooklyn

St. John's "Church of the General's" in Bay Ridge, built 1834.
For the first time, I thought I'd venture out of Manhattan, and write a little something about Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, my father's hometown, and nearby Coney Island, which is undergoing a makeover that is forcing many businesses that have been around since the early twentieth century to pack up and leave. Gentrification throughout the city has, as we all know, had its good and bad points, as it has made the city a safer, more family-friendly place to live, it has also made it absurdly over-priced. I can't help but think that these changes will redefine what a "New Yorker" is altogether. The born-and-bred "New Yorker" or "Brooklynite" of my father's day, a middle-class type who lived and worked in the city, will be weeded out, being replaced by the very wealthy, and as some other bloggers whose work I've read have attested, the city will become an private enclave for the rich. I think it's kind of a disgrace, but that's the way of the world I guess.

I used to be all for turning the city into a safer place by any means necessary, even if it meant "Disney-fying" it to the point that it was a very phony, commercialized, over-priced tourist destination, but now I've got to admit I'm not so sure. I've read a few blogs from some aging rockers who grew up in this city and wholeheartedly despise what it has become, and mourn deeply what it was in the '70s and '80s, what seems to be gone forever, and I've got to admit, the more I study the city's past, the more I'm starting to agree with them. Granted, it's great that I can walk through the city at three in the morning and not worry about being mugged, but I'm already beginning to feel that people like myself, who aren't criminals or drug addicts, are being weeded out as well.

But I digress. My grandmother's house in Bay Ridge was sold this past week, and it was the end of an era. In 1923, Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as President, the old Yankee Stadium opened up in the South Bronx because the Polo Grounds couldn't fit all the people who were coming to see Babe Ruth hit home runs, and my great-grandfather from Dundalk bought the three-family row house at 222 88th Street. My aunt used to like to take my father out to Coney Island, to Luna Park, the Steeple Chase and the Cyclone, and now, many of the businesses along the boardwalk are going to have to close up shop and fast.

I've haven't made the trip down to Bay Ridge yet, but need to soon to take some pics, such as the 1834 "Church of the Generals," St. John's, where Robert E. Lee was a vestryman and where Stonewall Jackson was baptized in 1849. I hate to say it, but if we New Yorkers are not careful, it may someday be gone to, and it is up to amateur city historians like myself to keep the memory of places like this alive.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Lord and Taylor

Lord and Taylor's 3rd building, from 1872-1914, on 20th and Broadway.

Lord and Taylor's 4th and current building on 5th Avenue and 39th Street.
This past week I started working at Lord and Taylor ... they need holiday-season sales associates and I, for a change of pace, was hired on the spot. I guess to say that they "need" people is an understatement. I actually got training these past couple of days from a very outgoing sales manager, obviously the kind of personality-type the folks at Lord and Taylor are looking for ... they certainly emphasized that enough, and I hope I'm up to snuff. The key, I think, is to just come across as knowledgeable and approachable. Lord and Taylor has a long history, though, that they seem to be very proud of ... which is a stark contrast from most businesses that only want to concentrate on what's hip and contemporary.

Lord and Taylor was the first department store in the United States, founded in 1826 on Catherine Street and Broadway, and then moving to Grand Street in Broadway by 1861. In 1863, the sales associates were actually given guns to protect themselves and the store during the draft riots -- kind of different from today's standards.

In 1872, the store moved for a third time to a beautiful, Gothic-style, haunted-house-looking building on the corner of Broadway and 20th Street. Broadway in the 1890s was said to have a "champagne sparkle", and was the center of high-society shopping and nightlife. I've walked past this building so many times when I used to work down here. I always knew the Chelsea area maintained a lot of its old buildings, much more so than uptown, but unfortunately it wasn't until after I got laid-off that I knew the back stories to pretty much any of them.

Lord and Taylor, being on Broadway between Union and Madison Squares, was obviously a store for the rich, the "carriage trade", who didn't want to associate with the working class who rode the elevated train along Sixth Avenue and shopped at such bargain stores as Siegal-Cooper and the Hugh O'Neill building. This store on Broadway was state-of-the-art, as ten thousand people visited simply to ride the brand new elevator over the the first three days of business.

However, the city's center continued to migrate uptown, and Fifth Avenue gradually became what it now has been for decades, one of the world's best known shopping districts. In 1914, Lord and Taylor's fourth and current 11 -story flagship store opened up on the corner of 5th Avenue and 39th Street. And each morning, the sales associates gather on the second floor, play the national anthem (a tradition that started in the '70s in solidarity for the hostages in Iran) and have the rally, committing to sell, sell, sell!

As the store sets up its famous Holiday window displays, and people from all around the world come to shop with us, I plan to get in the spirit as best I can so I can make at least a little money this Christmas, and maybe they'll even keep me on. In the mean time, I'll try to wow 'em with my vast knowledge of the rich history of this store.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Open House New York

The Irish American Historical Society on 80th and 5th.
The Ukrainian Institute of America on 79th and 5th.
The Xavier Chapel.
This past weekend was open house New York, and I felt fortunate that I happened to read something about it on Wikipedia just in time to check it out this year. Historic buildings all over the city were offering free tours, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity for an amateur historian like me. Of course, the most famous places, like Ground Zero and Grand Central Station, were booked way in advance, but there were still some good ones.

So I took a walk uptown a-ways to some of the old mansions along 5th Avenue, and came across the Irish American Historical Society on 80th Street, that's been in its current home, an old Beaux-Arts building, since 1940. The public rarely gets to see the inside of these old buildings, so it was a fun experience to be able to walk around one of them. After I signed in, I took a ride up the old elevator, the type you might find in a Prohibition-era movie. Only the second floor was open to the public, which is still more floors than most. The display currently there was modern art from Irish artists, all-in-all it was a big contrast from the old furniture and paintings that were on the walls. Looking out the large windows on 5th Avenue I could only imagine what it would be like to live in a place like this.

The mansion on 79th and 5th, which now serves as the Ukrainian Institute of America, is even bigger. Built for banker and railroad investor Isaac Fletcher in 1898, it was bought in 1920 by oil Tycoon Harry F. Sinclair, and then in 1930 by the last direct descendants of Peter Stuyvesant until 1952 -- a brother and sister who lived there alone with ten servants. (Five each, I guess.) All of the main rooms were massive, with a small kitchen off to the side which seems to have not changed much since the early twentieth century. I even got to show off my tourist-guide skills a little when I offered the corner where St.-Mark's-in-the-Bowery Church is, where all the Stuyvesants, including the last private owners of this house, are now buried.

The following day I went down to the Church of St. Francis Xavier, otherwise known as the Xavier Chapel, on West 16th Street near 6th Avenue, the chapel of Xavier High School next door, where my father, his brothers, and his father all went. It really was a beautiful church, and the tour guide pointed out a number of architectural points that otherwise would have been completely overlooked by the common observer. My favorite part was when we got to go upstairs to the choir loft, which is under some major construction. What were formally smaller private altars for the Jesuit priests on either side of the chapel on the upper level are now being reconstructed into something else, but not even they know what yet.

Open House New York is a great opportunity for a guy like me to learn more about some of the city's most important landmarks. Next year, I'll be on the lookout for it, so I can better prepare for what I want to go see. As for now, I'm glad I was able to find out about it in the nick of time, so I could go check out a few gems.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Greenwich Village

The Jefferson Market Library, 10th Street, 6th and Greenwich Avenues.
The Empire State Building, 34th and 5th.
The Chrysler Building, 42nd and Park.
The main entrance of the "News" Building.
The Daily News Building, 42nd between 2nd and 3rd.
This past weekend I decided to take a walk down to Greenwich Village, taking a few shots of the skyscrapers up town along the way for the Facebook page. While downtown, I tried to take in some of the old buildings that remain down there after trying to get some good shots of the art deco buildings of the '30s. High rises such as the the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and Daily News Building, where my grandfather, father, mother and brother have all worked in one form or another, I'm guessing were supposed to represent New Yorkers vision of the future, with a sleek, plain looking design that was a big contrast to the ornate Victorian style of some of the late nineteenth century buildings, that are now common downtown, a prime example being the Jefferson Market Courthouse (now a branch of the New York Public Library), that still prominently stands in the middle of Greenwich Village. Built from 1874 - 1877, in the 1880s a panel of architects voted it the fourth most beautiful building in the United States. Abandoned by the court system in 1945, it was slated for destruction by the 1960s, but public outcry saved it, and authors like E.E. Cummings, who lived in Patchin Place across the street, persuaded the city to turn it into a library. Meanwhile, the Women's House of Detention, a 1932 Art Deco building that replaced an older jail, and was reportedly the only art deco - style prison in the world, was closed down and demolished in 1973. The prison is featured prominently in David Duchovny's 2005 movie House of D, about his childhood in Greenwich Village in the early '70s, where he befriends one of the prisoners. The prison supposedly was of close enough proximity to the street that prisoners would often heckle passers-by along Sixth Avenue. I never saw that movie but I feel like I should, even though it got terrible reviews, mainly from critics who said it lacked depth and direction.

A couple blocks down is St. Joseph's Church, on West Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue. St. Peter's Church, on the corner of Barclay an Church Streets downtown, is the oldest Catholic Church in New York State, dating back to 1785, but a fire destroyed the original building, and the one standing there now dates back to 1840. St. Joseph's is the oldest Catholic Church building in the city, dating back to 1808, and the Dominican Friars there now run the NYU Catholic Campus Ministry there. I went in their and sat down for a while. The last time I was there, I was browsing through the bulletins in flyers by the door when a woman I'd say in about her sixties who was sitting at one of the chairs by the door came up to me.

"Excuse me," she asked, "are you wearing your pants below your waist."

"No, they're at my waist."

"Oh, good. I was just making sure, because wearing them below your waist is an abomination."

Once she had confirmed that I wasn't one of those rowdy teens who wore his jeans below his waist, she had me cornered to start talking to me.

I always try to be polite. I don't like brushing people off, so I sit with her for a while, and she talks about how she didn't like the changes in the Catholic Church since Vatican 2, and she thinks the mass that's going on inside now is not a Catholic service at all. I let her talk to me for a while, and tried to engage her in conversation. But when I was sitting there, I was reminded of something about people who like to talk a lot, no matter who they are: they don't care about whether you are blowing them off or truly trying to engage them in conversation, all they want to do is hear themselves talk. As I watched a glazed over look slowly form over her face as I finished my measly sentence, I decided to just let her say what she wanted to say about the terrible state of the Catholic Church and the world in general. On that note, as she went up to get communion, despite her distaste of the Vatican 2 mass, I beat it out of there.

The relationship this city has with architecture is very interesting to me, though. In the '30s, city developers like Robert Moses, who seemed to have some kind of unrealistic vision of the future, seemed to have no appreciation for the artistic skill that went into the old buildings and monuments in this city, and were content to have them bulldozed to the ground for something that was considered more modern. That old prison, which replaced an even older one, was a great example of old Victorian and new Art Deco side by side. I wish I could have seen it for myself, but at least that tower at the Jefferson Market thankfully isn't going anywhere.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Roosevelt Island

The Smallpox Hospital ruins on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island.
Another shot of the landmarked Smallpox Hospital ruins.
Add caption
Another shot of the ruins.

This was as far as I could get to the Smallpox Hospital ruins.
The lawn of the Blackwell House at night.
The 1796 Blackwell House.
Another shot of the Blackwell family's 1796 home.
Another shot of the home.
One of two entrances to the 1889 Chapel of the Good Sheppard.
The Chapel of the Good Sheppard, with a door for males and another for females.

Another shot of the Episcopal chapel, now shared with the Catholics.
A plaque on the Blackwell House commemorates it's history.
I took a trip out to Roosevelt Island this past weekend. Even though it's right near where I live, it's still kind of hard to get to, and walking around the island, it seems as isolating now with its high-rise apartment buildings, and well-organized stores, library, and police station along Main Street, as it would have been a hundred years ago when it housed the terminally ill, prisoners, the poor and the insane. Walking along the towering, new, expensive-looking buildings, with there balconies and doormen, it's easy to point out the old landmark structures that preservationists have tried hard to maintain, and they all tell a story of how grim life must have been for the outcasts that used to inhabit this place.

I first went to the old church, which looks out of place in its modern surroundings, but seems to hold its own on its own little plot of land. The 1889 Episcopal Chapel of the Good Shepard, which is now also shared by the Roman Catholic parish of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini and serves as a general community center, is actually a rather odd-looking structure. Designed by Francis Clarke Withers, who also designed the Jefferson Market Courthouse tower on 10th Street and 6th Avenue, it doesn't have a main entrance, but rather two doors, with stairways that lead upstairs to the pews and altar, and two more stairways that lead to a dressing room in the basement. The two entrances, I later read, were so that male and female patients could enter separately. We've all heard the horror stories of how the very sick and handicapped were locked up, and hidden from the rest of society, and this island seems to epitomize it. Walking around here from the southern to the northern ends, I can't help but vividly picture the sheltered, shunned lives these poor forgotten souls must have led, and I can pretty clearly envision two lines of outcasts assembling for Sunday morning services in that old church.

To the northern edge of the island is the newly renovated Octagon, the former New York City Lunatic Asylum, which, when it was built in 1839, packed in 1,700 inmates, twice its estimated capacity. Its story is nothing new at all ... told time and again about old New York City buildings in the twentieth century. Abandoned in 1955, it was left to crumble and rot by the 1970s, until an effort was finally made to restore it after it was nearly demolished. It now has luxury apartments, and recently restored again in 2006, is now quite beautiful, with the old tower housing a fitness center, billiards room and conference space, and the famous spiral staircase refurbished.

On the south end of the island are the Smallpox Hospital ruins, designed in 1856 by James Renwick, Jr., the renowned architect that went on to give the city St. Patrick's Cathedral. They are the only ruins in the city that have been given landmark status, and they're a real fascination, to me at least. Each night they are lit up by the company that lights the statue of liberty, giving it the eery haunted house on the hill appeal. Supposedly, they have finally been opened to the public, but they weren't when I got there. Night had already fallen and a high fence closed off most of anything, other than one brick tower, the city lights flickering through the castle-like windows of the hallowed out structure. Through a hole in the plastic covering that draped the high fence I couldn't make out much, just to the right of me the top of the Empire State Building in red, black and yellow for the German Steuban Day Parade, and to my left the large neon sign of the Pepsi-Cola factory in Queens, where General Colin Powell had his first job.

While walking up and down the island I came to the old Blackwell House, built in 1796, the former residence of the Blackwell family who formerly owned the island (and who it was originally named for). It's now a museum, and a plaque on the wall outlined its history. Supposedly from 1826 - 1955 it housed the hospital and prison staffs. Imagine that being your job -- working in a forlorn hospital or prison and living in some crummy old house on a desolate island. Now, though, it's very nicely preserved, and the lush, green lawn that surrounds it, and seems to be very well taken care of, adds a bit of country serenity to the island (a big contrast to the city that surrounds it.) Since I'm in the city about 99% of the time, whenever I come across a little nature, I can just feel the fresh air enter my lungs -- it's a nice change of pace.

People who come to visit this city often love it so much because it is so exciting. For me, though, it's pretty much all I've ever known. I've lived on the Upper East Side on my own now for close to six years, and I'm used to something always going on, for better or worse. But being out on that island, even though it's a much nicer, trendier, even pretty desirable place to live, the very real feeling of isolation and loneliness seems to be as present now as I imagine it would've been a hundred plus years ago. It just shows you don't have to go very far to get a big contrast from the main island of Manhattan, and on that note I headed on home to rejoin the human race.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Collyer Brothers

The entrance.
Collyer Brothers Park on 128th Street and 5th Avenue.
A footpath inside the park.
Inside the park, looking east.
Inside the park, looking west.
Another shot, looking west.

The park sign with city park rules and regulations.
The park, on the site of the Collyer Brothers' mansion on the northwest corner of 128th and 5th.
Homer and Langley Collyer were very odd brothers. Their eccentricities, such as compulsive hoarding, anti-social behavior and their filthy lifestyle in the expensive mansion they inherited after their parents sudden departure, have a special place in off-beat New York City history to this day. Many New Yorkers don't agree that they deserve to have a city park named after them just because it used to be the location of the house where they hoarded junk and garbage and eventually accidentally killed themselves in. After all, they were only a nuisance to the community, and the feeling was mutual.

Their father was a bit strange himself. A doctor at Bellevue, he would take a personal row boat out on the East River when called to work at the hospitals on Blackwell Island (now Roosevelt Island), and could be seen carrying it home after he returned to Manhattan. When he abruptly abandoned them and moved to West 77th Street (maybe with their mother, but it is not clear), the life-long bachelor brothers, who had degrees in engineering and law from Columbia University, began a decades-long commitment to reclusiveness that involved collecting piles of garbage and junk that they found interesting and wanted to tinker with, and walking around the city for miles at night looking for food in garbage cans and leftovers that butcher shops and groceries were going to throw out. Langley reportedly walked as far as Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for a loaf of bread.

Despite living like they were poor, when cops kicked down their door for neglecting to pay the mortgage on the house, Langley handed over a check for $6,500 (equivalent to about $88,000 today), and paid the mortgage in full, proving that they actually did have a pile of money. From then on, they asked to be completely left alone, other than to occasionally complain to police about burglars or disruptive kids.

By spring of 1947, neighbors started complaining about the stench coming from the house, and a police crackdown found the older brother, Homer, who had long been blind and paralyzed, dead and hunched over in a chair he'd probably been sitting in for years, his head touching his knees. Langley, the younger brother, it seemed, had disappeared. First a misleading call that someone spotted him on a bus to Atlantic City, and then leads that took the police to nine different states turned up nothing, until a sanitation worker found him a few days later buried in old newspapers and a booby-trap he had concocted, only a few feet from his brother. His body had been decomposing and was being eaten by rats, and the stench that neighbors complained about clearly came from him. He had been crushed by piles of junk and newspapers while trying to bring his brother food. His helpless brother starved to death a few days later. The piles of newspapers, stacked to the ceiling in every room, made it almost impossible for police to get inside. Langley, who fancied himself an amateur inventor and scientist, had been working on a concoction that would, he claimed, one day restore his brother's eyesight, and he was saving all those old papers so that, when that day came, his brother could catch up on the news.

Anyway, it's a pretty weird story. It kind of sounds like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, but it really did happen on the northwest corner of 128th Street and 5th Avenue, and I decide I ought to go take a few pics of the little resting area that sits there now in their honor. I've got to admit, Collyer Brothers Park is actually very nice, and if I didn't live so far away, I could see myself spending a lot of time there. A few benches are set up with a couple of small gardens, and a stone walkway. On this warm end-of-summer day, the flowers, grass and trees were lush and in full bloom, and it was a very nice contrast from the harsh concrete Harlem streets surrounding it. On the fence by the entrance was a community bulletin board, with info posted on when and where the next Harlem Community Board meeting was and other neighborhood events. It seems to me that these brothers didn't have to do much to have a very peaceful and important park named after them.

There were a couple of other pics I wanted to get for the Facebook page while I was this far uptown before the sun went down (the Tomb of the Amiable Child, the Seinfeld diner), so I kept on walking and left the very relaxing and refreshing Collyer Brothers Park for another day.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company occupied the 7th, 8th, and 9th floors.
Cobblestoned Greene Street is now full of NYU students.
The new buildings that now surround the old one on Washington Place and Greene Street.

Another shot of the upper floors.
The east side of the building.
A shot of the south side of the building.
The base of the building.
Another shot of the top floors
Science classes for NYU students are now taught here.
Another look down the cobblestone streets.
Another look down the cobblestone streets.
I can very clearly remember learning about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that occurred in the Asch Building on Washington Place and Greene Street on March 25, 1911, in eighth grade social studies class, and having very little interest in it other to try and figure out what a "shirtwaist" was. I found out about a week and a half ago that it was another name for a woman's blouse at the time. They never explain the simple stuff in school. What they did harp on was the significance it had in inspiring the labor movement and the organization of unions.

When I first found the building, now the NYU Brown Building of Science, donated to the university in 1929, I tried to imagine what the block must have looked like back then. A couple of the streets are still cobblestone, and I can picture the horse and buggies hustling by, and the first cop to arrive on the scene, who was actually also named James Meehan coincidentally, to come galloping up on horseback. Most people don't realize it, but the same building is still there, and pretty much looks the same as those old photographs. The eighth, ninth, and tenth floors, where the factory was located, were gutted after the fire, but were able to be restored and I assume now hold chemistry, biology and physics classes for smart rich kids. As I checked the number on the door to make sure I had the right building, #29 Washington Place, it was 4:40 in the afternoon, and class had just been let out. The doors swung open with swarms of hipster college kids piling out, talking about their plans for the rest of the night, dressed in their cargo shorts and flip flops and macaroni necklaces. It reminded me how easy college life really was. I wonder if they new or cared much about what went on in this building. Not that I blame them ... New Paltz had a lot of history that I never bothered to explore when I lived there. It's funny, though, how NYU seems to be snatching up some of the most historic buildings in the city -- this building, the Puck Building, and most of the space around Washington Square, they're unofficial quad. It would seem like the perfect place for an amateur New York City historian like myself to go. Maybe I'll get my masters there.

Let's see:
- An appreciation for the concept of having the whole of New York City as my campus? Check!
- An unquenchable thirst for knowledge and the truth? Check!
- About a hundred thousand dollars a year? Oh, well. Two outta three ain't bad.

As I looked up at the top three floors, I can imagine the plight of the poor teenage and twenty-something women who toiled there day-in-day-out for next to nothing, most of them immigrants who spoke little English. The owners locked the doors so they couldn't take breaks or steal any fabric for their own families, and that, combined with the fire trucks insufficient ladders, which could only reach to the sixth floor, caused many of these women to jump from the windows to their deaths, much to the horror of the crowds gathered. A number of people that day saw a couple kiss at a window before falling together to the concrete below as they realized the fire was inescapable.

In the end, the owners of the factory, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were put on trial for the murder of 146 men and women, but were acquitted because the prosecution was unable to prove that the owners new the fire exits were locked. However, they lost a civil suit in 1913 in which the families of victims won compensation in the amount of a mere $75 a life, spare change compared to the $60,000 Harris and Blanck received from the insurance company. That same year, Max Blanck was arrested once again for locking the doors to his factory, and was fined $20.

It's hard to be poor and live in this city now, but stories like this just show some of the injustices the poor endured back then. After taking a few shots of the area and looking around once more, I headed to my cousin's salon on Elizabeth street for a quickie haircut because I had an interview the next day, a response to something I actually applied to online. Yeah, I'm shocked, too.