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.