Archive | New York, NY – USA RSS feed for this section

Home Again, Home Again

To travel is to learn. This is what I believe. Either we learn about where we go, about ourselves, or about how to navigate new, unseen situations.

These are good things, it’s safe to admit. And when one travels in a condensed period of time, all of these lessons are learned in more shortened time frame, often rubbing up against other lessons, and making reflection upon these episodes difficult. Not impossible, mind you, but difficult.

I have arrived home from New York City, having gone non-stop from Seattle early Thursday afternoon, and the schedule was chock full. There was no down time other than sleep, and I walk away from the trip exhausted, but sated.

Thursday evening, after landing?  Drinking.

Friday? Bagels, The American Museum of Natural History, a quick signing of books over at the Downtown Barnes & Noble, and a celebratory dinner at Delmonico’s, where we talked about the “Eh, it doesn’t suck” review of Sweet Tooth from the Wall Street Journal (By the way WSJ? I’m so using ” ‘Kate Hopkins’ is looking for Mr. Goodbar with a vengeance.” as a blurb).

Saturday? A walk through Central Park, shopping around Union Square, dinner at an average Italian place that I had apparently ate at back when I visited Manhattan in 2000, the Lion King on Broadway, and then partying with my friends at a “club” until 2am.

Sunday? Deli for brunch, and then  The Metropolitan Museum of Art for the day, followed by dinner at Adrienne’s Pizzabar, and we closed out the weekend with a passionate discussion about modern art (more on that later).

Today? Today was a travel day.

See? There was no down time. I say this, not to brag, as much as to reflect upon what we accomplished. My compatriots and I played tourist, full-on, annoying swagger, stare-at-the buildings, tourist. And it was ambrosia.

I realize that I had completed a rudimentary overview of New York’s history before heading to the Big Apple, and that, perhaps, it was supposed to influence how I approached the city.  Perhaps I thought I was going to provide journalistic answers to journalistic questions about the city. Or perhaps I believed that I was going to treat the visit with a more academic perspective.

Instead? Instead I took the lesson I alluded to the other day: People go to New York to do stuff.

So I did.  And it was glorious.

If I happened to learn a bit about the place in the process?  That is what Bob Ross used to call “A happy little accident”.

What Is It About New York City?

I’ve been playing around with a simple question: Why do we go to the places we go to?  And, as I sit here, a mere 24 hours before leaving for a New York City weekend, I ask in this instance, why do people go to New York City? What is it that draws people?

Sure, we can say that it’s a big city, and as such, it has access to activities and products that smaller cities do not. But this is the same reason that people go to London, Paris, Mexico City, or Tokyo. So why go to New York City over these places?

There’s little doubt that there’s a mystique about the place. It has a grandiosity that comes from several variables. For one, it’s a financial heavyweight. With that, comes those displays of wealth seldom seen in other cities.  For instance? The city is chock full o’ skyscrapers, whose mere existence is a result of the capital that comes into the region. Yes, every major city in America (except Washington DC), has a handful of skyscrapers. Only in New York are there several square miles of them.  Walking through shadows of the Bank of America Building, The Chrysler Building, the Citigroup Center, and others of its ilk,  is to be reminded on a continual basis on how small an individual can be.

The response to this reminder of insignificance is defiance, manifested through both the New York City attitude that everyone has heard about. But it also manifests itself via another New York City institution, the arts scene, represented most often by Broadway, but you can see it in every aspect of the arts, from The Ramones, to Alvin Ailey, to even Frank Sinatra, who once sang of New York ,”If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere”. And what is the artist if not the pinnacle of individualism?

Together, these two vastly different scenes create a dichotomy on a seven mile long island that exists no-where else on the planet, at least in size of their grandeur Sure, Tokyo has skyscrapers and London has the West End, but neither of them carry the mythos associated with their New York City counterparts.

It is this that separates New York City from the other cities of the United States, and even the world.  Yes, it’s a huge city. But beneath it lies the dreams of wealth, glory, power, and fame.   People head to New York to do things, and often end up making history in the process. It’s a city designed to NOT be the central location of federal politics, and in doing so, has come to represent America better than Washington D.C. ever could.  Paris, London, and Rome have history tied at the hip to the political decisions of their respective states. What is Rome without Ceasar, Paris without Napoleon, or London without Victoria?

New York? New York has Alexander Hamilton, Babe Ruth, George and Ira Gershwin, Edith Wharton, Duke Ellington , and  Grandmaster Flash.  It’s the city where jazz became refined, baseball became popular, and Hip-Hop evolved from the block party traditions of the 1970′s.  In the end, New York City is a place where interesting things happen in large part due to the backdrop behind it and the resources available within it. It is the perfect amalgamation of money and individualism.  What possibly could represent America better?

 

Vimeo Find: The Street Aesthetic of New York City

[ylwm_vimeo  height="480" width="640"]27973852[/ylwm_vimeo]

Yup, I’m getting geared up for our trip. And I’m realizing that there’s no possible way for me to cover every topic I want to before I go.

Which means…A reason to go back!

Of Grids and Canals: The Legacy of DeWitt Clinton

When it comes to cities, it’s rare to be able to look back in history and point to one person and go “This is the guy! This is the man that made <insert city name here> the city that it is today!” Usually a city is shaped and/or remembered by thousands of events, none of which even come close to falling under the heading of “city planning”.

DeWitt Clinton, who lived between  1769 and 1828, is a name that needs to be remembered in the history of New York. For, at first as Mayor of New York City, and then later as Governor of the state of New York, he initiated two different projects that would both help shape the path of New York City for generations after he left his mortal coil. He is one of but a handful of people to which we can point and go “This is the guy!”

Item #1: The Grid

Geography is destiny, and by the early 1800′s, people living in New York City lived mostly south of Greenwhich Village, leaving close to five miles of the island of Manhattan as unplanned territory.  Yet, with immigrants from Ireland arriving, and the city growing at a torrid pace, it didn’t take a genius to see that it was possible that entire island may one day be filled with residents of New York City. The cities leaders new, even back then, that it would be good to have a plan to which the city could be built around.

As Mayor of New York, Clinton had both influence and power, and in 1807 he appointed the commission that would literally shape the streets and avenues of New York City.  The result? The Commissioner’s Plan of 1811, a work of remarkable foresight and planning that shaped Manhattan’s growth into the twentieth century.  It was this map that laid out the grid of Manhattan Island, what with the Avenues running north-south and the streets running east-west. It was this map that changed civic engineering in America, from the chaos of the Boston and Philadelphia to the regimented shaping of cities yet to come.

And while the resulting map has it’s own history, it should be noted that DeWitt Clinton had his hands in the appointment of those who helped create the grid.

 

Item #2: The Erie Canal

The problem was simple. It cost less to ship items to England than it did to ship them to areas of the rapidly growing midwest. The Appalachian Mountain Range made transportation between the east coast and Pittsburgh and beyond prohibitively expensive.  The solution, as detailed by DeWitt Clinton was far more complex – a canal that would run from Lake Erie and Buffalo, New York to the Hudson River and New York City.

Yes, it cost $7 million dollars to create by the time it was finished in 1825 (Roughly $133,136,983 in today’s money) and Clinton’s political opponents used the cost to paint him as loser. But history has demonstrated the brilliance of the plan, for the Canal accomplished three distinct achievements:

  1. Shipping costs dropped dramatically, to the tune of 95% according to some.
  2. Now that shipping to back and forth to the east coast was cheap, this fueled the economic opportunities to many towns and cities of the Midwest. This, in turn, fueled the population growth of many cities, including the likes of Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland, Toledo, and Detroit, where opportunity now was available to those willing to take advantage of the canal.
  3. New York City became the preeminent port city of America, quickly outdistancing the likes of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston, and soon shipping more annual tonnage than these three cities combined.

Item 3 is the reason that New York became as large as it did, for it was the shipping business that made New York’s name internationally in the nineteenth century, and made it the primary choice of destination for all immigrants into the United States in the early-to-mid 1800′s.

And thanks to the commissioner’s plan of 1811, the city already had a plan to deal with the increasing population, making it better able to accept the incoming immigration wave than most any other city in America.

The fact that DeWitt Clinton had a role in both of these events, to me, demonstrates the genius of the man, and illustrates how well government can work when the right person or people are in the job. For without DeWitt Clinton, New York  would be a very different city today.

Just How Big Is New York City?

Map courtesy of http://www.new-york-hotels-offer.com/map.html

New York City (now) consists of five boroughs. I qualify this with “now” because, as recently as one hundred and twenty-five years ago, when New York City consisted of simply Manhattan, and the other four boroughs were cities unto themselves.

 

In order to get some semblance of how frickin’ big New York City with the five boroughs, if we were to separate them out, four out of the five boroughs would still make the top ten most populous cities in America. From the 2010 census:

  1. Los Angeles, California – 3,792,621
  2. Chicago, Illinois - 2,695,598
  3. Brooklyn, New York - 2,504,700
  4. Queens, New York - 2,230,722
  5. Houston, Texas – 2,099,451
  6. Manhattan, New York – 1,585,873
  7. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - 1,526,006
  8. Phoenix, Arizona – 1,445,632
  9. The Bronx, New York  - 1,385,108
  10. San Antonio, Texas - 1,327,407
Staten Island, with it’s population at 468,730, would sit somewhere between 35th and 40th place, roughly the size of Sacramento.

 

New York City is big. Really big.  At 8,175,133, it’s over twice the size of Los Angeles’s population. Yet, from a square mileage perspective, it’s 75% of Los Angeles’s size.

 

I can remember my first time on Manhattan, and looking up and down the Avenue, and my brain going “pop”, because it was unable to grasp the evidence directly in front of it.  If you’ve never been to Manhattan , it’s impossible to imagine what 1.5 million people sitting on  22.7 square miles looks like.  If you have been, many of you will understand the awe that this borough presents to you inspires.

 

Consider this – Philadelphia, a city roughly the size of Manhattan,   fits roughly the same number of people in 134.1 square miles, roughly six times the land mass of the Island of Manhattan.

 

I realize that we throw around the word “awesome” like some men throw around singles at a strip club. It is one of the more unfortunate idioms of this current era.  So believe me when I say this: Manhattan is awesome, in that it can and does inspire awe.

What Was the First Broadway Musical?

It has long been a goal of mine to see a show on “Broadway”, an area of Manhattan that seems both part of, and yet separate from, New York City.  Taking in a show is as much of the tourists rite of passage in New York as getting to the top of the Empire State Building, or visiting the Statue of Liberty.  The idea of “Broadway” is magical in of itself. A musical is one thing, a Broadway musical is something else entirely.

So this begs my question – how did Broadway, as a qualifier that means both quality and spectacular, come into being? What was the first Broadway Musical?

To answer that question, some exploration of the theater scene in both New York City, as well as the United States of America itself, need to be explained.  Theater had been established in some form or another in America since before the before the American Revolution.  Theater houses were founded in larger cities, including Philadelphia, Boston, Charleston, and yes, even in New York, and these places were used to showcase touring companies from Europe, usually British, but not as a rule, rather because Americans didn’t speak and/or understand the touring companies from Germany, France, or Italy.

Theaters were places where the upper-classes mixed with the lower classes, at least those of whom could afford a ticket on a regular basis. Theater was a vibrant form of entertainment for the masses, one akin to the movies that were to come a century later.  The audiences often talked back to those on stage, and if a performance displeased too many people, rotting vegetables and stones would and were thrown at the performers. To be an actor in this era had its own challenges unseen by many in the profession today. Add into this mix the perception held by the more genteel that theater houses were places of vices and raucousness, and you have the general overview of the state of theater  in the early nineteenth century. The fact that many of the theaters allowed prostitutes solicit themselves in the more darkened floors, and that pickpockets prowled the standing room only pits did little to dissuade the moral from the immorality of theater.

Did musicals exist during this era? Kinda/sorta. Plays could have, and did have musical elements, but these elements were in place to support the narrative of the story in some way or another. The idea of theater event where the narrative elements drive the musical numbers didn’t exist until roughly 1866, when a show called The Black Crook took to the stage at Niblo’s Garden.

The Black Crook was little more than a combination of two shows that were mixed together in order to create a show for a ballet troupe that had found themselves without an avenue to perform when the Academy of Music had burnt down. In order to make the troupe palatable for the masses, a story based off of Der Freischütz was added along with some of the more popular songs of the day as performed by whatever actor or actress knew at the time.

For all intents and purposes, the story was a mess, the narrative had to follow, and whatever themes that could have been explored were non-existent. A man no less than Charles Dickens himself panned the show, stating:

[It is] the most preposterous peg to hang ballets on that was ever seen. The people who act in it have not the slightest idea of what it is about, and never had;

So what made the show popular enough that it ran for a record 475 nights and took in over a million dollars in box office receipts? Two things:

  1. It was naughty, or, at least, gave the appearance of being naughty, what with the scanty costumes that the dancing girls wore, with the pink tights worn beneath sheer robes giving the appearance of partial nudity.  When some of the local press called the play anti-Christian in its presentation, the shows promoters took the “bad publicity is still publicity” to heart and leveraged its less that puritanical reputation.
  2. It looked beautiful, by many accounts. While little to no money was spent on story development (having borrowed heavily from an already established German opera), the set pieces, stage designs, and transitions between scenes were given an exceptional amount of attention.

It is on this latter point that Mark Twain had a word or two, as he explained a wordless, thirteen minute transition between scenes that started in a subterranean gallery and ended in the “Realms of Stalacta”:

Beautiful bare-legged girls hanging in flower baskets; others stretched in groups on great sea shells; others clustered around fluted columns; others in all possible attitudes; girls – nothing but a wilderness of girls – stacked up, pile upon pile, away aloft to the dome of the theater, diminishing in size and clothing; till the last row, mere children, dangle high up from invisible ropes, arrayed only in camisa. The whole tableau resplendent in columns, scrolls, and a vast ornamental work, wrought in gold, silver, and brilliant colors – all lit up with gorgeous theatrical fires, and witnessed through a great gauzy curtain that counterfeits a soft silver mist! It is the wonders of the Arabian Nights realized.

To say the Msr. Clemons enjoyed the show would be an understatement.

Would we recognize it today as a musical? In structure, yes, but only just. The show lasted five and half hours, about two and half hours longer than today’s average show. The fact that the narrative of the story has some importance would likely put off modern audiences to The Black Crook. But it had recognizable, musical theater elements that we have today, including a chorus line (of sorts), and (some) songs created for the show itself would fit into today’s definition.

While some may claim others fit the bill as being the first Broadway Musical, The Black Crook has enough history to claim itself to be a seminal event in the history of Broadway.

The True Story of Bill the Butcher

Picture by Simon Hsu aka Citizen5010 on DeviantArt

In Martin Scorsese’s 2002 movie Gangs of New York,  Daniel Day-Lewis played a character named Bill the Butcher. In the movie, Bill the Butcher was  a Protestant political leader, as well as the head of a gang called the “Nativists”.

Scorsese’s movie was based off of a book written back in 1926, also entitled The Gangs of New York, a non-fiction recounting of the seamier sides of New York City during from around 1830 up until the early 1900′s. The book itself reads like yellow-journalism, with the story being torrid enough to keep one interested, but so fantastic at times that it makes it difficult to believe. I’m not saying the book is untrue, per se, but merely that it’s a product of its time, as it bases many of its accounts on various magazines and newpapers of the era, and not all of them had the journalistic ethics to which were so accustomed to today. There are enough verifiable facts in the book that makes it difficult to discount completely.

Regardless, if the book plays fast and loose with the facts, the movie outright fictionalizes them in order to tell a better, more cohesive story. Scorsese himself would admit to this, and it’s hardly a sin.  But one of the fictional aspects of the movie is Day-Lewis’ character, whose full name was William Cutter.

In real life, (or at least as real as the book will have you believe), there was also a Bill the Butcher, on which the movie Bill the Butcher  was partially based.  His real-life counterpart, however, was named Bill Poole.

If it’s one thing that the book makes clear, it’s the sheer amount of chaos that the urban-poor was part of on a day-to-day basis, and that the gangs were one mean of establishing order in that chaos.  Gangs and their political persuasions helped establish identities and Bill Poole fit into that pattern with near perfection.  Bill was a butcher by trade, and a member of the Bowery Boys, and politically identified as a Know-Nothing. And much like everyone else who was affiliated with a gang, Poole was likely a tremendous thug, one with respected fighting skills and a talent for encouraging mayhem.

He was not the epic man that Daniel Day-Lewis makes him out to be, but he did turn into a legend of sorts, based off of his political position as a leader in the Know-Nothing party, and his infamous last worlds.  After a bar fight where one Lew Baker shot and mortally wounded Poole , the Butcher lasted another fourteen days before giving his last words, “Good-bye boys: I die a true American!”

The Nativist party decided to make a martyr of Poole’s death, and arranged a funeral procession consisting of 5000 men, and it walked down the entire length of Broadway. Soon afterwards, various plays, songs, and poems began to appear in the city, each extolling the virtue of the anti-immigration/anti-Catholic beliefs of Bill Poole, and each play, song, and poem referred to his “final” words in the most dramatic of fashions.

The real Bill the Butcher was not as much as a monster as the movie version. The real Bill was a mobster and thug, and very much a product of his age. His connections made him a small legend when he died, and would have dissolved into obscurity to those of us in the modern era save for the recreation of Draft-Riots era by one of the premier movie directors of our time.