Saturday, September 12, 2009

My Gotham

A friend’s child is being asked to write about 9/11, a day when school children across a street saw planes crash into buildings and people jump off towers. I’ve written about New York in many angles. History can be conveyed in so many different ways.

In some cities, people often like to live in the past – there’s not as much to focus on in the present or future.

New York has the opposite force – it’s more about do something today for a great future. The past was yesterday. Done.

New York is a place that does more to originate for a future than react to a past.

But subliminally, New York’s past does contain some genes of its future.

It seems fitting today to look back at its genealogy.

* * *

The term Air Mail didn’t just mean planes, balloons, or pigeons. In New York, mail was once sent by “pneumatic tubes.” Capsules—containing documents—could be blown 35 mph in a tube from one building to another “by air.”

In 1898, tubes went across the Brooklyn Bridge to deliver mail from Manhattan to Brooklyn. These tubes remained active in New York until 1953. In Paris, they stayed active until 1983 when fax machines arrived.
Today this New York Times article can be emailed

At a fair, Scientific American publisher Alfred Ely Beach demonstrated these suction tubes could push a car of 12 passengers and a driver. He had a wooden tube on exhibit from 14th St. to 15th St., hanging from a ceiling to show New Yorkers.

The New York Times reported that a “through city tube” could theoretically transport people from City Hall to Central Park in 8 minutes, to Washington Heights (the top of Manhattan) in 20 and to Brooklyn City Hall going under the East River in two, according to Beach. He envisioned tubes underground, on sides of buildings, and on rooftops.

The next year, in 1868, he applied for a permit to install tubes below Broadway to blow parcels from Wall Street to City Hall. He rented Devlin clothing store on the southwest corner of Warren Street, where he secretly dug a 300 foot tunnel, nine feet wide, 20 feet below, eastward along Broadway to the south side of Murray Street.

At the Warren St. Station, for ambience, he installed gas-lit lights, a fountain with goldfish, a piano, and frescos to open his secret ambition. A 22-person car propelled by a fan became operational by February 26, 1870.

This was New York’s first ever subway car.

It carried 400,000 riders for 25 cents, operational for only a few months until financing stopped. His tunnel is within the present day City Hall station under Broadway.
City Hall Station

Beach's subway was buried after a Devlin Building fire in 1898. New Yorkers then used elevated trains. In 1912, while making a new subway line, Beach's secret tunnel was accidentally discovered and excavated.
Pneumatic Tunnel and Car Found 1912 (upper right)

It’s one of New York’s many secret tunnels where Mole People sometimes live. Sometimes I wonder if anyone escaped the World Trade Center on 9/11 using a secret tunnel. There were many secret tunnels under the WTC.

Beach’s tunnel was one block away.
Somtimes i stayed by Chambers Station at the Cosmopolitan Hotel. On 9/11 the WTC Station was buried.

* * *

The Manhattan Tower and Brooklyn Tower were the tallest structures in North America when they were built. The Brooklyn Bridge – held by these twin towers - opened in 1883, the longest suspension bridge in the world.

Brooklyn at this juncture in history was vying against Manhattan to become the economic epicentre of North America. By 1880, Brooklyn had 5000 factories, including breweries in Williamsburg. The bridge was originally called the “New York and Brooklyn Bridge” until 1915. This was Manhattan’s first land link to Long Island.

During 13 years of bridge construction, 27 men died. This is when the world discovered the “Bends” - a condition unknown at the time from diving deep and decompressing too fast when surfacing.

Workers were placed in caissons (water-tight submersible boxes) and lowered into the water to dig into bedrock. They were lit by “limelight,” calcium lamps used for theatre.

The Brooklyn Tower was erected first without issue. The deeper Manhattan Tower saw workers experience a sickness that contorted their bodies – giving name to the “Bends.” As the shaft of the Manhattan Tower sank deeper, more workers started to die. Ultimately, the digging halted.

The Manhattan Tower, didn’t actually reach bedrock (30 feet short) and now rests on sand.

On opening day, 1,800 vehicles and 150,300 people crossed the bridge. A week later, a rumour – that the bridge was about to collapse – caused a panic-driven stampede killing 12 people – trampled to death or pushed off the bridge. The next year circus ringmaster PT Barnum had Jumbo lead 20 elephants and 27 camels across the bridge to show its strength. The bridge carried elevated trains until 1944. Street cars crossed the bridge until 1950.

Aerodynamics were not tested on bridges until the 1950s, after the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed in 1940. The Brooklyn Bridge’s unique design (strengthened open truss) by fluke does not suffer problems with the wind. Most bridges from its time no longer exist. This year the bridge is being upgraded in a $750 million project a result of an inspection that came after that Minneapolis bridge collapsed on I-35.

On 9/11, a record number of pedestrians used the bridge to flee Manhattan when subways were closed. The movement of a large number of people (steps in unison) causes oscillations to sway a bridge. Some bridges have collapsed from armies marching on them. The sway progressively increases in amplitude. This arguably was the bridge’s biggest stress test.

A terrorist plot to cut its cables with blowtorches was foiled in 2002.

In 2006, a Cold War bunker in the bridge was discovered by city workers in the Lower East Side. This secret space, hidden in masonry anchorage, contained supplies in the event of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. There were empty water drums and medical supplies. “There were cans of high-calorie crackers with instructions to consume 10,000 calories a day per person. The instructions said the crackers should be destroyed after 10 years, but they were mostly intact.”

* * *

Though media outlets have a policy of not reporting suicides, the Brooklyn Bridge is a popular place for jumpers. Retired NYPD officer Gary Gorman estimates 150+ people a year threaten to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. That’s more than one jumper every three days. He personally rescued 35 in 12 years. The police have a 99% success rate of preventing jumps, he says. Those who jump are usually gone before police arrive. Sometimes after jumpers come down, and discover their cars have been stolen. Jumpers are 85% male, and usually from the Manhattan side.

* * *

On March 1 1994, a shooting first labeled as road rage then re-classified as terrorism in 2000 occurred on the Brooklyn Bridge. A Lebanese born gunman shot four Jewish occupants of a van. A sixteen year old died. The Ari Halberstam Memorial Ramp on the Manhattan side is named after the victim.

* * *

I recently visited the scenic River Café below the Brooklyn Bridge where Woody Allen once jammed with his clarinet.

He made the movie Manhattan.

* * *

New York was the first American city massively wired for lights and sound.

Telegraphers operating wire services for Associated Press or Western Union began experimenting with additional activities that could be done with a wire.
Wires across Broadway (1885)

Alexander Graham Bell became the first to transmit vocal sounds across the wire, and launch New York’s first telephone service at 82 Nassau in 1878-79.

The first New York telephone book had 252 names. The Mulberry Street police headquarters was soon connected to every city police station by phone. New York had its first 911.

You cranked a phone to reach an operator to connect you to another phone. At first rowdy telegraph men were hired to operate the switchboard. Their beer-drinking ways, office fights, and swearing (at customers) proved ill-fated. The men were then replaced by women, smooth operators, who soothed customers complaining of unreliable lines.

In parallel, Thomas Edison invented a way to record sound using a “phonograph.” You turned a crank and could hear sound – the sound of New York’s first record.

A year later, Broadway became the first Manhattan street lit with outdoor lamp posts stretching from Union Square to Madison Square.
Arc Lighting down Broadway 1880

Fifth Avenue was then lit up along with 34th and 14th Streets.

15 years had passed since 1865, when assassinated President Abraham Lincoln’s coffin was towed in a funeral car by 16 horses from City Hall along Broadway to 14th across Union Square to Fifth Avenue, watched by a million people. Said Walt Whitman: “Black clouds driving overhead. Lincoln’s death—black, black, black—as you look toward the sky—long broad black like great serpents.”

That same dark place was suddenly in lights.

By 1886, 1500 lamp posts lit thoroughfares in Central Park as well as Fourth, Fifth and Seventh Avenues from Battery Street to 59th Street. Start spreading the news…night life had begun in New York, New York. The town would stop sleeping.

Thomas Edison vowed to create indoor lighting – first manifested as globes decorated in paper mâché and flowers. He moved to Fifth Avenue and 14th Street into a four-storey brownstone and lit up New York’s first building with 100 Globes. He purchased 255-57 Pearl Street to house New York’s first power station. By 1882, The New York Times building was lit up inside as was his bank Drexel, Morgan. JP Morgan’s mansion on Madison Avenue was the first house lit up, in spite of his carpets and walls getting scorched by accident. The Vanderbilts who owned his invention rights lit up their three uptown palaces. Within a year, 500 wealthy homes were lit up, creating a new class system of the lit and the unlit.

Electricity electrified New York. The first elevators were powered in 1889 followed by the first escalator a decade later. Edison started powering anything that needed electricity from sewing machines to Broadway theaters. Night life swung open.

He lit up Lady Liberty’s hand in 1886 and the statue’s base with 8000 candlepower lamps. A company executive lit up his Christmas tree (the first ever with lights) which then became an American tradition.

Horse cars were replaced by electric street cars. Street advertising was lit up on the Great White Way along Broadway between 23rd and 34th.

Harlem stayed gas lit, without electricity, well into the next century.

DJ Moby was born on 9/11 in 1965 in Harlem

* * *
The Empire State Building is lit up in colours symbolic of a major event in town. During the US Open, it will have the color of a tennis ball.
US Open lights

* * *

The Five Points intersection of Anthony (Worth Street), Orange (Baxter Street) and Cross (Mosco Street) was America’s original melting pot.

Martin Scorsese had a dream in the 1970s to make a film set here, after reading a 1928 book called The Gangs of New York. His dream came true in 2002, a year after 9/11.

A neighborhood formed here in 1820 around a polluted pond that had been drained. It was poorly filled, creating insect-ridden swamps. Rich people fled. Newly freed slaves arrived. They were followed by poor immigrants, who arrived in abundance in the 1840s during the Irish Potato Famine. Along with London’s East End, Five Points ranked among the world’s most dense neighbourhoods, and was known for its disease, prostitution, violent crime and infant mortality.

A prison – the Tombs 1 – was built on the pond. Tombs III was closed in 1974 for security and health reasons and replaced by Tombs IV which stands today.

The Old Brewery, housing 1000 poor, was said to have a murder a night for fifteen years, until being demolished in 1852. Five Points had the highest murder rate of any slum in the world. Gangs such as the Roach Guards, Dead Rabbits and Bowery Boys ruled the streets. In 1862, 10% of New York was arrested (82,072 people). Al Capone (“Scarface”) was a recruit of the Five Points Gang.

In American Notes, Charles Dickens writes, “This is the place, these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruits here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home, and all the wide world over. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. Many of those pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lieu of going on all-fours? and why they talk instead of grunting.”

For 10 years until 1895, efforts were made to clear this slum. Most of its residents moved to New York’s Lower East Side.

The clashes between the Irish and Blacks were legendary as this neighbourhood became America’s first racially integrated neighbourhood. America’s first melting pot.

* * *

In 1842, white collar workers near Murray Hill and Madison Square bored of cricket came up a new game. In a vacant lot at 27th and Madison, they played a version of a children’s game called rounders and created new rules. They called it baseball. They formed a team called the Knickerbockers. By 1858, Brooklyn would host 71 teams and Manhattan, 25. Together with teams from New Jersey and Long Island, 125 teams formed the National Association of Base Ball Players.

Today on 9/11, Derek Jeter passed Lou Gehrig for most hits ever in a New York Yankee uniform. Jeter stood with Joe Torre and Don Mattingly in the first New York baseball game after 9/11 to console New York. It was the toughest baseball game ever to play in New York. It was hard to stand. Today 46,771 people sat in a heavy New York rain to chant his name.

Torre (6) Jeter (2) Mattingly (23)

* * *

Central Park is home to 1000 homeless people today who can vote from this official constituency. There have always been tramps in the park.

North America’s largest city park and public space is almost entirely landscaped and has 200 species of birds. The property value has been appraised at $528.8 billion.

A poet and landscape architect felt New York needed an open-air driving space (for horse carriages) like the Bois de Boulogne in Paris or Hyde Park in London. They had won the 1857 a landscape design contest to create its vision. 1600 people living there – freed slaves, Germans and Irish – were displaced for construction.

Their design’s centre piece is the “Mall” - two lanes of elm trees ending at Bethseda Terrace, where there’s a view of Bethesda Fountain, and the park pond.

By 1873, after 13 years of work, it was finished. Skating on the frozen pond was among its first historical scenes. Today I don’t think the pond ever fully freezes (there’s always Wollman’s Rink).

Until 1934, sheep used to graze on the Sheep Meadow but were moved upstate in fear of depression era New Yorkers eating them. Seven million people visited the park in 1865. The Central Park Zoo in 1871 became its most popular feature.

Cleopatra’s Needle is the park’s oldest sculpture – an obelisk from 1450 BC gifted by Egypt in 1869, and erected in the park in 1881. Its transport from Alexandria was financed by the Vanderbilt family taking a decade to complete. It stands by the Metropolitan Museum of Art founded in the park in 1870. On one opening day for a new museum wing, 12,000 people showed up.

The pollution of newly invented cars, sporting activities, and city hall neglect caused the park to go into decline. Central Park rapidly became dead trees, worn-out lawns, and litter.

“The once beautiful Mall looked like a scene of a wild party the morning after.”
– The Power Broker, Robert Caro

Mayor La Guardia in 1934 asked Robert Moses to clean the park. He added a dozen ball fields, 19 playgrounds, and handball courts and restored the park to its current beauty. The 1960s saw the park become an events location – The Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and Shakespeare in the Park. The 1970s saw massive concerts (Simon and Garfunkel, Elton John) and political rallies. 1980 saw 100,000 people light a candle at night to mourn the tragic death of John Lennon in what is today Strawberry Fields.

It’s strange to have seen 9/11 unfold live and Imagine all the people.

* * *
Give Me Liberty

The Statue of Liberty was a gift from France to America in 1886 to celebrate 100 years of nationhood. On 9/11, Liberty Island closed and didn’t reopen until August 3, 2004. The statue remained closed until July 4, 2009. It took eight years for Liberty to re-open.

Technically, the Statue of Liberty is in New Jersey, not New York.

Very few people know the Statue of Liberty was actually once damaged by the Black Tom explosion – one of only three covert attacks on the US mainland in history (the other two being 9/11 and the Oklahoma bombing by Timothy McVeigh).

The explosion occurred on a nearby island in 1916. German agents blew up a munitions depot by setting fire. The impact was like an earthquake measuring 5.0 on the Richter Scale. Fragments were lodged into the Statue of Liberty, damaging the arm and skirt. The arm and torch has been closed to the public ever since.

Windows in Times Square shattered.

* * *

Revolutionary activities were held in Fraunces Tavern at Pearl and Broad Streets. Today it’s the oldest building in Manhattan. George Washington gave his farewell address in 1783 at the end of the American Revolution here.

The original house was built in 1719 and then made into a pub in 1762 where the Sons of Liberty would meet to plot revolution. The pub has taken a cannonball in 1775 and suffered numerous fires notably in 1832.

In 1975, a bomb killed four people here and injured 50. No one was prosecuted. The FALN of Puerto Rico claimed responsibility.

A few blocks away, George Washington went to St. Paul’s Chapel at 209 Broadway for his inauguration day, becoming America’s first President in 1789. Built in 1766, St. Paul’s Chapel is New York’s oldest church and continuously active public building. It’s a part of Trinity Church (at 79 Broadway) first built in 1698 and then rebuilt to completion as New York’s tallest building in 1846. Trinity housed New York’s first school which would later become Columbia University.

St. Paul’s Chapel survived the great fire of 1776 when a quarter of New York City burned down, including Trinity Church. On 9/11, the chapel had not one broken window. Somehow, while located across the street from Ground Zero, it survived as the world’s tallest buildings fell down before it.
St. Paul's Chapel, September 11, 2001 - across WTC

A sycamore tree that stood there for a century was felled in the northwest corner, and “church history declares it (St. Paul's Chapel) was spared by a miracle” of this tree protecting it. The tree’s roots have been preserved in a bronze memorial by sculptor.

This is where NYPD, NYFD, and Port Authority staff sought refuge on 9/11. This is where families of victims posted photos of their missing loved ones on the fence.

This is where Mayor Giuliani, who stood brave on 9/11 after a priest who stood next to him only moments before perished, gave his farewell speech.

* * *

Until 9/11, New York never saw such casualties from a man-made explosion. It exceeded the casualties of the Wall Street bombing of September 16, 1920. That day, a horse drawn wagon was parked in front of the House of Morgan at 23 Wall Street, carrying time-detonated explosives. At noon it exploded. 38 people were killed and 400 were injured. This Wall Street house and symbol still carries damage from that day on its façade in defiance of those who committed the bombing.

A warning note was found at Cedar Street and Broadway by a mailbox, but no one was ever caught by the FBI. Italian anarchists were suspected and discrimination against immigrants from Sicily and Eastern Europe increased noticeably after the bomb. Investigators raided numerous stables…nothing was found and the file was rendered inactive in 1940.

I had friends who worked at Morgan Stanley in the WTC and a friend flying there that day. It was fortunate they weren’t there.

* * *


Gotham is named after Goat-um – a village in England where townsfolk feigned madness to prevent a highway, the King’s Road from going through it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this beautiful blog about a wonderful city...

I hope to go back there one day too... the breakfasts are the best!