Tag Archives: New York – NY

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?


Delmonico’s: It’s All About The History

Delmonico's circa 1902

If ever there were an example that gave insight into my own character, this is likely it. Here I am, a week or so from heading to New York City, a city filled with world renown restaurants, and me with the resources to choose which one I could go to. My decision?


Why? Because for a history geek like myself, Delmonico’s is chock full of the ghosts of the past. I get giddy just thinking about it.

Delmonico’s, as a name, has been around for a long time. It  is older than the city in which I currently reside – Seattle. It is older than the state of Washington, older than organized baseball, and older than the American Civil War.

Yes, yes, I know. The current incarnation is a mere recreation, trading off of the name. It is not the original, or even the second coming. If my math is right, the current version of Delmonico’s is actually the fourteenth version, if you count the initial pastry shop that the brothers Delmonico founded in 1827. But it’s the idea that’s grabbed me.

Why? Because Delmonico’s brought restaurant dining to New York, and later the rest of America. I talked before about the culinary landscape of New York City at the time Delmonico’s came into being, and it’s important to understand just what this new type of business added to the city. It was (supposedly) here that  à la carte ordering made its debut in America, as well as the ability to eat your own table, unshared by strangers.

Think about that for a moment – a New York City without restaurants, without a place where you can sit down and be both separate from yet intrinsically part of the food scene of New York City.  The restaurant scene of the Big Apple is a direct descendant of the legacy that Delmonico’s at least inspired, if not outright created.

It was a restaurant visited by the like of Charles Dickens, and the place where Mark Twain celebrated his 70th birthday. It was the place where (purportedly) the Lobster Newberg was invented, along with the Baked Alaska, Eggs Benedict, and, of course, the Delmonico Steak. Delmonico’s is a name weighted with the past, and carries with it the authority of tradition and quality. Why else would the name last through nearly two centuries, with the past 90 years being without an actual Delmonico on site?

I recognize that today’s restaurant is merely trading on the name. But for me, that is enough. It knows its past. And if I can have a meal that connects me to the New York City of 1837, even loosely, then I’m okay with that. I will be there with my friends and loved ones, and for a moment or two, I’ll get to think about what it must have been like to eat at Delmonico’s at its heyday.

How did New Yorkers Eat in the Early 1800′s?

The above picture is a lithograph of a dinner celebrating the life and celebrity of Washington Irving. While I have interesting in the first Knickerbocker, he’s not the purpose of this post. Instead, look at the style of the banquet hall – long tables, shaped like the interior Hogwart’s dining hall. The picture gives a good indication on how the upper class ate in social engagements.

But, as with all banquets, these are the exceptions to every day eating, not the rule.  So what was the food culture of the era of 1825-1863? Let’s set aside Delmonico’s, the first name often brought up when talking about eating in that era. Delmonico’s should be noted, but again, they are the exception, not the rule. The idea of “restaurants” had yet to take off in Gotham.

The first thing we have to remember was that New York City, more than another other city on the planet at that time, was designed as a financial center. The first way this manifested itself was through shipping, which meant merchants, which meant people buying and selling cargo. This also meant that the city attracted business men. It has been reported that on any given day in New York City during this era, one should add an additional 60,000 people to its citizenry, all temporary residents who stayed an average of three days. This people had to be fed somehow, and the primary way was through the hotels and boarding houses where they stayed. Those who put up these boarders were expected, through etiquette and tradition, to feed those who stayed with them.  Hotels were expensive, and often had their meals reflect that status. Boardinghouses were middling to cheap, and the food served at these places were famously poor.

Other places where people could eat included the chophouses I mentioned yesterday, with some of these evolving into eating houses that sat next to or near the various playhouses and theaters that were popping up throughout New York City, including a place called Windust’s that sat next to the Park Theater in 1824. The idea of catching a dinner and a show, has its roots way before the idea of “Broadway” could even be fathomed.

Also around the theaters, and peppered throughout the city were the bakeries who provided the daily bread and pastry fix, to the confectioners, now far removed from their apothecarial past. Then there were the taverns, where drinking was the primary order of the day, and food was provided to keep people drinking. Coffee houses had similar a similar outlook, with the intent of keeping people on site as long as New Yorkers could bear.

And for those who had less money to spend, or no time to get home during the work day, food peddlers provided cheap food directl, calling out their wares which included everything from oysters and clams, to baked beans, strawberries and mint, hot yams, and corn on the cob peddled by the hot-corn girls.

All of this was in place by the time Delmonico’s arrived on the scene, and changed the landscape of the New York Dining scene. But, I’m getting just a bit ahead of myself.

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.

The Macbeth Riot (aka The Astor Place Riots)

In the history of New York, there are many riots of note. There is the Police Riot, the Dead Rabbit Riots, the Flour Riot of 1837, and several others. The reason for the sheer amount of riots is actually a combination of factors, all of which are fairly straight forward. Poverty, lack of policing, the crowding of people together into small locations, all  have played their part to create the metaphorical powder-keg, and all simply needed one event, large or small, to light the fuse. One of the more peculiar events that touched off a riot was a pair of competing productions of Shakespeare’s classic Macbeth.

There were three key items that played into the creation of this riot. The first was the very public feud between two leading actors of the day, American Edwin Forrest and Englishman William Charles Macready. The Second was the jingoistic fervor stoked by the likes of the Nativists. The third was the ever-growing chasm between the rich, who looked towards Europe for their cultural cues, and the lower classes, who, as previously implied, thought that American culture should be dictated by Americans. These three items played off of one another, leading to an explosion of violence that left over twenty people dead.

The actors set the stage long before appearing in New York, beginning over a public disagreement about the interpretation of the character of Hamlet sometime in the early to mid 1840′s, where Forrest, whilst in the audience at a production in Edinburgh, stood up and hissed Macready. Forrest had believed the Macready had hissed Forrest’s performance of Macbeth while in London, but there is little evidence of this. However, several members of the British press did document Forrest’s hissing, and criticized him thoroughly in the press, and harmed his European reputation greatly.  From that point on, the two were rivals.

Both tried to get under each other’s skin, with Macready stocking the audiences in Europe with his friends and fans wherever Forrest played, and jeered him. And when Macready undertook an American tour of various productions, Forrest (whose reputation was far greater in America) would book a show in a different theater in the same town, undercutting Macready’s take in any given town, and often getting less press than Forrest would get.

It was this act of these two actors performing the  in two separate theaters that led them to New York City in May of 1849. Macready’s production of Macbeth was at  the Astor Place Opera House (located on Lafayette Street between Astor Place and East 8th Street), and Forrest was performing Spartacus at the Bowery Theater (which resided the area between Elizabeth, Canal, and Hester streets).

Enter the Nativists, who, none to keen on the English, started handing out placards like the one to the right here. Creating an environment of “Us vs. Them”, and keen to stoke the hatred of the English, the Nativists used the Macready/Forrest feud for their own political gains. The Nativists used the opportunity to point out the class differences between those that visited the Astor Place Opera House and those who frequented the Bowery Theater.  For them, real Americans were the hard-working lower and middle classes, and for them, only American products, even American productions of Macbeth, would do.

In a strange twist of history, the Nativists were helped out by the ever-increasing Irish population of New York, who also could never resist the urge of tweaking the nose of the English. While the Nativists would typically spurn the Catholic immigrants in most cases, when it came to Macready and his production of Macbeth, the Irish and the Nativists were of the same mind.

On May 7, 1849, when Macready took the stage, he would soon learn that the audience was filled, not only with the upper class of New York City, but several of the Bowery B’hoys.  Apparently, the manager of the Opera House, in order to compete against the Bowery Theater, gave away promotional tickets, resulting in two important facts. For one, the size of the audience was now larger than the theater could hold. For two,  most of the promotional  tickets had been taken by people intent on disturbing the theater.

The first act went as scripted, but at the beginning of the second, Macready found himself jeered and taunted, and several dozen of the audience began pelting him with rotten eggs, copper pennies,  potatoes, lemons, and rocks. Macready fled the stage.

The next two nights, he refused to go on stage. This only served to stoke the jeering of the working class men who had wanted to taunt the Englishmen, and now had made habit of appearing outside of the Astor Opera House. Seeking to defuse the situation, on May 10, Macready decided that he should perform. The police were called to maintain order, and the ticket holders were vetted before going in, but still the Nativists had made it inside. By the time the curtains were drawn, there were anywhere between 10,000 to 20,000 outside the theater, and a handful more of rioter on the inside.  The soon surged the stage, but the police were able to remove them from the premises, to the cheers of those outside.

By now, those who frequented the Opera house were looking toward a solution, a method to disperse the large crowd outside the theater. The Seventh Regiment was called in, and arrived on scene at 10pm.  An order was given to shoot over the heads of the crowd, but when carrying out this order, the regiment fired into the crowd instead.  Eighteen died on site, and another four would die from their wounds in the following days.  The mob soon fled.

Over the course of the subsequent weeks, public opinion was divided as to who was responsible. Did the regiment over-react? Was the city government more keen on protecting the interests of the wealthy ? Were the various gangs to blame?

Ten of the rioters were tried in September, 1849, in the Court of General Sessions, New York before Judge Daly. After a trial lasting fifteen days, the jury found all ten guilty. Sentences varied from one month in prison to one year and a fine of $250.00. The members of the regiment were never charged.

However, the Astor Opera House would forever be remembered as a place of mob violence. It never recovered from its reputation, and closed in 1850.

How Downing Street and the History of New York Are Tied Together

By many accounts, George Downing was a right bastard. Samuel Pepys, the noted diarist of London and English bureaucrat said of Downing that he was a ”perfidious rogue” and remarks that “all the world took notice of him for a most ungrateful villain for his pains.”

Yet without this man, this rogue, New York City, as well as the United States, would looked markedly different from how it looks today. For one, without Downing, it would be likely that we would currently be living in the great country of Connecticut.  But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.

Here’s some background – Downing was born in Dublin, but moved to the Massachusetts colony with his parents when he was fifteen years old.  He not only attended Harvard, but was part of its first graduating class in 1642. He was also a Puritan, and he soon found his way to London to help out in Oliver Cromwell’s cause and (later)  government. By 1657, he became a diplomat to The Netherlands, and took up residence in The Hague, where he proceeded to annoy many leaders in the Dutch government and tried to usurp their trade where ever possible.

When Cromwell’s protectorate fell after his death, Downing, clearly seeing which way the wind was blowing, apologized directly to the restored King Charles II, and threw both Cromwell and other Puritans under the proverbial bus, including giving up three of his friends who had helped plan the death of Charles I in 1649. King Charles II, seeing the benefit of having someone with experience in dealing with the Dutch under his thumb, not only allowed Downing to live, but re-instated him as ambassador to the Dutch.

This is where things get a little convoluted, for remember, at this time, New York City was still New Amsterdam, and still “owned”  by the Dutch Wast India Company.

Enter John Winthrop, governor of the Connecticut colony, and son of the deceased head of the Puritan in North America, John Winthrop (the elder) who had been the head of the Massachusetts colony, and was also a good friend of Peter Stuyvesant,  the Dutch Director-General of the colony of New Netherland, and de facto mayor of New Amsterdam. 

Winthrop the Younger, using his father’s friendship as an invitation, paid visit to Stuyvesant in New Amsterdam, and Winthrop was given the courtesy of a visiting head of state.  While Stuyvesant showed Winthrop around, and kept up with  friendly chatter, the governor of the Connecticut colony was taking notes of the size of New Amsterdam’s fort, the amount of guards on duty, and any other perceived tactical weaknesses and strengths that Dutch colony had.  Winthrop then traveled across the Atlantic to Amsterdam, and gave a glowing report of the Dutch Colony to the West India Company.

Then Winthrop traveled to the Hague, to meet up with his cousin, George Downing, and it is said that he handed Downing over all of the notes he had taken about the colony. Soon afterwards, maps detailing the fortifications of New Amsterdam were found the halls of English Government.

Winthrop then went to King Charles II, where Winthrop looked for forgiveness for supporting Cromwell’s crusade, even at a distance, and then asked for a charter  to create a country of Connecticut, and to include all of the lands west of Connecticut, including New York and everything else west all of the way to the Pacific. To the shock of many, including various other British Colonies in North America, Winthrop got it.  When Stuyvesant got wind of the charter, he sent a message to Winthrop, asking for confirmation of respecting an earlier treaty between the two colonies. Winthrop responded with double-speak.

George Downing had other plans, and soon double-crossed his cousin Winthrop. Seeing first hand the amount of money the Dutch brought in from their colonies, Downing proposed to his new King that England should take a similar route.  Downing, and a group of politicians, merchants, and other members of royalty all agreed that they needed  to take a more direct role in overseeing the colonies in America, an approach which was 180 degrees from their previous position under Charles I and later Cromwell.  In doing this, the English government soon reneged on their agreement on the Connecticut charter, and the Government soon set their eyes on New Amsterdam. Three years later, in 1664, Charles II gave the land to his “dearest brother James Duke of York”, and then took the necessary steps of taking the land away from the West India Company.  By September 8, 1664, after a few weeks of negotiation with Peter Stuyvesant, the English entered New Amsterdam, lowered the flag of the Dutch West India company, and raised the cross of St. George.  Soon afterwards, New Amsterdam became New York, named after the Catholic brother of Charles II, James, Duke of York.

For this work, and others, Downing became a baronet in 1663. He had another 20 years or so of service to the English crown, and invested in properties close to the English Parliament, and just south of Saint Jame’s Park. We know this area today as Downing Street, home to one of the most important addresses in England.