Tony the Tour Guy's Blog

A not very regular series of posts on New York City history, historic preservation, genealogy and related themes.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

If you paint it, maintain it!

This colorful mural was created beneath an underpass near an entrance to the Bronx Zoo. As you can see, it was defaced by some wiseguy who wanted to make a unique artistic "statement."

Those who advocate murals in public spaces need to be responsible for them. If somebody defaces the mural, then the people who sponsored it ought to have it immediately re-painted. This is the best way to stop graffiti; get rid of it as soon as it appears. Ideally, murals should be covered with a special graffiti-proof sealant, so that any future vandalism can simply be wiped off.

Monday, July 25, 2005

From Chaos to Energy: Natural Gas in NYC

One of the great things about studying our town's history is that just about everything is on such a grand scale as to be interesting. Let us look at a utility which most New Yorkers take for granted, except when heating bills start to increase.

Natural gas has been known to exist since ancient times, although it has only been within the last fifty years that the infrastructure has existed to bring this fuel to Gotham. For most of our history, gas has had to be manufactured, and it was a discovery by the Belgian alchemist Jean Baptiste van Helmont in 1609 that started humanity in this direction, through an experiment similar to that performed today in countless high school science laboratories. Hoping to turn common materials into gold (the dream of all alchemists) van Helmont noticed that, when certain substances were heated to high temperatures, they gave off what appeared to be two separate gaseous byproducts. The first, of course, was smoke, but the other, invisible matter was something the Greeks called "chaos," or 'wild spirit.' Van Helmont called the substance "gas."

Scientists may have been fascinated by gas, but they lacked the means to effectively and safely harness it. It was not until 1792 that William Murdock, inventor of the locomotive, discovered that he could light his house with the gas which he derived from heating coal, and shortly thereafter, the cities of London, Paris and Baltimore began experimenting with street lighting powered by coal gas delivered through underground pipes. Not everyone was thrilled with the idea at first. Napoleon called it "foolishness," while Sir Walter Scott dubbed its English proponent a "madman." Besides the fear of this new technology, gas developers had also to contend with opposition from chandlers (candle manufacturers), as well as whalers, who supplied much of the oil used to fuel lamps of that day. Nevertheless, the fledgling industry grew, and gas lighting came to New York in 1828.

Gas in New York was produced from a variety of substances, including coal, oil and rosin, in plants known as "gas houses." Since the heating of coal created large quantities of foul-smelling sulfur, the areas in which these early structures were located were not exactly prime real estate, with two of the more infamous zones being the legendary "Gashouse District" on the East Side between approximately 14th and 27th Streets, and the Gowanus Canal area in South Brooklyn (which we tour on our Carroll Gardens walks). Initially used primarily for lighting, gas was prohibitively expensive, although prices did come down considerably after more companies began to compete. Since nobody had yet developed a metering system for the new utility, suppliers charged each customer by the number of lamps they had. Every evening at about 10:30 an inspector would come around, rap his cane on the sidewalk for attention, and cry "Lights out!," at which time homeowners were expected to extinguish their gas lamps and switch to lanterns or candles. Should his orders not be heeded, the inspector had the authority to turn off the lights himself.

In 1884 many of the independent firms supplying Manhattan joined to form the Consolidated Gas Company of New York, the predecessor to you-know-whom. At about this time the industry encountered its most serious competition so far - electric lighting. The newly-opened Brooklyn Bridge was illuminated by this new technology, and Thomas Edison himself opened the city's first generating plant on Pearl Street in 1882. Bit by bit the City made the transition to incandescent street lighting, until in 1903 the final strip of gas lamps on a portion of Fifth Avenue were extinguished for good. Luckily for the suppliers, New Yorkers were finding new uses for their products, and gas cooking became popular, with the first stoves being brought from England around the turn of the century.

As the technology for producing gas from coal improved, plants became more efficient, and were able to harness a number of useful byproducts from the process. Coal tar has been used in the manufacturing of everything from perfumes to waterproofing to the artificial sweetener saccharin, while a substance known as lampblack has been employed to make ink, paint and synthetic rubber. Useful as these derivatives were, the coal plants became obsolete in the 1950's when New York was able to receive natural gas via pipeline.

Today all of New York City's gas comes from natural sources. Clean and odorless, it is still the preferred cooking fuel, and has made serious inroads for home heating. (The familiar odor that we associate with the substance is actually a second, inert gas which is added by utility companies in order to make it easy to detect potentially dangerous leaks). Probably the biggest dangers to our town's gas supply in the foreseeable future are depleting reserves and high prices. Who knows? If natural gas becomes too expensive or scarce the era of the gas house may return.

A Lush Oasis in Chelsea

Such a bucolic academic setting as this really does exist right in the midst of Manhattan. These shots were taken at General Theological Seminary, which occupies the entire block along 9 Ave between 20 and 21 Street. As you walk along the streets which border this remarkable place you'll see how it really did at one time sit on the side of a hill.

The Shortest Street in NYC?

I have not found Moylan Place on any map of Manhattan. It runs under the viaduct which carries the IRT #1 train over 125 Street, just south of that thoroughfare. As you can see, there's barely room to park a single car along its length.

My hunch is that Moylan originally continued through the area now occupied by the Housing Authority's Grant Houses (the brick buildings you see in the photo).

Does anyone have any information on this street?

The Hunter's Point Historic District

Most of us don't think of Long Island City as having many beautiful rowhouses. But the tiny Hunter's Point Historic District, right off of the 45 Road/Courthouse Square stop on the 7 train, has many interesting examples of late-19th Century homes, most very well-preserved.

Most of the houses are limestone and brick, although there are a couple of sandstone facades. Brownstone never caught on in Queens to any significant degree. Italianate is the most commonly seen architectural style, although you'll also see some Neo-Grec and Romanesque elements.

It's worth a visit to see this beautiful enclave.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

The Bogus Opium Den and NYC's WORST Tour Guide

Imagine this scene: It is sometime around the end of the 19th century. A young Chinese immigrant is walking along Mott Street in Chinatown when he suddenly finds himself being pointed to by a Cantonese-speaking American who is leading a large group of unfamiliar people. Excitedly, the American
tells his audience that the young man is a hit-man for a sinister "tong" gang. The accusations are groundless, but that does not give the young immigrant much consolation.

Chuck Connors, the self-described "Mayor" of Chinatown, was one of many early tour guides in our City who specialized in sensationalist and not-always- factual excursions through the poorer and more "exotic" parts of town. Catering to a combination of xenophobia, fascination with unfamiliar cultures and the thrill of the slightly dangerous, tour leaders such as Connors would direct their guests, who were often wealthy foreign visitors, through immigrant communities while relying upon their alleged inside-knowledge of the underworld to tell tales of crime, sin and debauchery. Connors was the undisputed king of the trade. He actually spoke some Cantonese, which added to his credibility, and he knew enough about the local community to bill himself as its unofficial "mayor." Eager to bring in tourist dollars, a few local Chinatown entrepreneurs found it profitable to cater to the visitors by constructing such attractions as fake "Buddhist temples," to which they would charge admission. Since the tourists typically had no exposure to Asian culture, they were easily fooled.

The highlight of Connors' tour was a visit to an "opium den." There his guests would listen to tales of degeneracy told by alleged "addicts" and "white slave girls." Although one would think that such 'tabloid tourist' would cater to the unsophisticated, Connors' tour clients included Sir Thomas Lipton and the German royal family.

Luc Sant, LOW LIFE.

Copyright 2000 by Historic New York Tours

The Dan Quayle of City Hall

In 1932 the flamboyant (and incredibly corrupt) Jimmy Walker resigned from the mayoralty in order to join his paramour in Europe. In a special interim election, John Patrick O'Brien was elected to finish the term. Although O'Brien was a Tammany hack just like his predecessors, he lacked some of their gift of blarney. Three incidents speak for themselves:

Attempting to woo the Jewish vote, O'Brien told the assembled members of a synagogue how he had always admired that great scientist "Albert Weinstein."

Speaking before a Harlem audience, O'Brien tried showing some solidarity with the listeners by stating "My heart is as black as yours."

Tammany Hall leaders had been busy trying to convince the press that they had no control over whom the Mayor appointed to various posts. In responding to questions from reporters about whom the new Police Commissioner would be, O'Brien replied, "I don't know. They haven't told me yet."

Source: Robert A. Caro, THE POWER BROKER, NY, Vintage Books, 1975

Ailanthus: The Tree that Grows in Brooklyn

"Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell,it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and neglected rubbish heaps, and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts."

- Betty Smith, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, 1943.

Everyone has seen the Ailanthus. It grows everywhere. I saw one giant specimen coming out of a window on the third floor of an abandoned building in East New York. Easily distinguished by its long, pointed leaves, Ailanthus Altissima, as the botanists call it, was originally brought to New York from central China in the last century as a street tree. Able to withstand droughts and other harsh conditions in its native land, the Ailanthus was well-equipped for life in the big city. Although its admirers dubbed it The Tree of Heaven the strong odor given off by its flowers gained it the nick-name of Stink Weed.

And like a weed it spread. A single Ailanthus sapling can grow 12 feet per year, and a mature tree may produce 325,000 seeds annually. What's more, the Stink Weed is notoriously difficult to destroy. If you cut one down, new shoots will grow from the stump. City officials banned planting of more trees of this species, but Ailanthus has managed to prosper without any human help. One could liken it to the cockroach in terms of its innate ability to thrive in the worst of environments. Indeed, as Smith remarked, it seems to like urban blight.

In recent years however, Nature has been able to accomplish what people have not. A fungus which attacks Ailanthus has arrived in our area, one which is capable of killing its victims. Although it is too early to tell how serious a threat this poses, it seems safe to say that Ailanthus is here to stay, whether we want it or not.

Source: Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson, WILD NEW YORK, NY, Crown Publishers, 1997.

Copyright 1999 by Historic New York Tours. All rights reserved.

"Dem Bums!" - How the Dodgers got their Nickname

The Dodgers were probably Brooklyn's most beloved institution. More than a baseball team, they were s source of pride (and more than occasional anguish) amongst all residents of the borough, who displayed a fierce loyalty to the boys who played at Ebbet's Field.

Most of us know that the Dodgers took their name from the fact that so many trolley lines criss-crossed Brooklyn at one time that its residents were sometimes called "Trolley Dodgers." But the source of their affectionate nickname is lesser-known. I have heard it suggested that the term was in affectionate reference to the quantity of alcohol which some of the team's members would consume. The real credit, however, goes to a largely unknown sports fan known to radio audiences only as "The Spirit of Brooklyn."

The Depression years were about as good for Brooklyn baseball as they were for the economy in general. One particular fan, who always had a seat behind home plate, became so disgusted at his team's performance that he took to yelling "Ya bum, ya!" (that's 'You bum, you," for those overseas readers not familiar with Brooklyn accents), whenever a player made a mistake.

The games were broadcast over radio, and sports announcer Sid Mercer took to labeling the anonymous fan "The Spirit of Brooklyn." Soon the nickname caught on, with cartoonist Willard Mullin creating a character of a bum to symbolize the team. Later a five piece band of amateur musicians from Greenpoint, calling themselves The Dodgers Sym-phony, took to performing comical songs from the stands while dressed in bum attire. When an umpire came onto the field they would begin playing "Three Blind Mice," and an opposing pitcher who was knocked out would find himself serenaded with "The Worms Crawl In. The Worms Crawl Out."

In 1955, as every Brooklynite knows, the Dodgers made their home town proud by winning the World Series. For many of us, it was the greatest moment in Brooklyn history since the opening in 1883 of a bridge which led to that certain little island which Walt Whitman dubbed "Gomorra across the East River." Alas, even the fierce loyalty and love of an entire city could not stem the market forces of major league sports, and in 1957 Dodgers President Walter O'Malley (boooo) moved the team to California. Every few years since then we have heard rumors of the beloved Bums returning to their rightful home, but it has never came to be. Brooklyn suffered some tough times since the Dodgers left, but has in recent years has made a mighty rebound in many areas. Prospect Park is being renovated; the Coney Island Mermaid Parade is again held each year and the Downtown area has seen a tremendous renaissance. But the town will never be the same without Dem Bums.

When Mae West Went to Jail for Free Speech

Of the many stars to be born in my native borough of Brooklyn, few were as outrageous as the daughter of a small-time boxer from Bushwick Avenue named Mary Jane West, better known to the public as you-know-whom. By 1926 Mae had been making a name for herself in the theater and vaudeville, and decided to try her hand at writing plays. Her first production, entitled simply "Sex," failed to gain backing by the major producers of her day, and was bankrolled in part by Mae's mother and Owney Madden, a founder of the famous Cotton Club and a notorious mobster.

The play was set on the waterfront, and told the tale of a good-hearted prostitute who rescues a wealthy society matron who has been drugged by criminals. Rather than thanking her helper, the wealthy woman has her arrested. As revenge, the prostitute persuades the matron's son to marry her, but backs out at the last minute and returns to her true love, a sailor. After opening in New London, Connecticut, the work received disastrous reviews. BILLBOARD wrote:
"Poorly-written, poorly-acted, horribly-staged, SEX does not even contain anything for the dirt seekers."

What the critics had not counted upon, however, was the appeal which such a production would have in a town which was home to a large naval base. The sailors cheered, and soon SEX became a cult play. After it was moved to New York, some papers refused to even print the title. The NEW YORK TIMES ran an ad for "Mae West in that certain play." City Hall at the time was occupied by the none-too-puritanical Jimmy Walker, a friend of Madden. However while Walker was on vacation the administration of the city was turned over to his assistant Joseph McKee, known in some circles as "Holy Joe" for his fanatical Catholicism, and a member of the Society for the Prevention of Vice. As part of a sweep of controversial plays, SEX was raided.

The police offered to drop charges against Mae if she agreed not to resume the play. Recognizing the publicity that could be obtained from such a case, however, Mae stuck to her guns. The courtroom was packed, especially when our persecuted playwright took the stand. A detective testified how "Miss West moved her navel up and down and right to left." Although her sarcastic comments were well received by the gallery, Mae's cocky attitude backfired, and she was sentenced to ten days in the women's prison on Blackwell's (now Roosevelt) Island. (The Riker's Island jail did not open until 1935).

Needless to say, Mae caused quite a stir at the city jail. Ordered to strip for a search she replied "What?! I thought this was a respectable joint." Finding the prison-issued undergarments uncomfortable, Mae brought her own, made of silk. She was given a fairly light assignment dusting, and quickly won the favor of the warden, who considered her "a fine woman." He even took her for lunchtime rides in his car (strictly in the interests of rehabilitation, of course). The other inmates also enjoyed her company, and after being released Mae donated $1,000 to expand the prison library.

Holy Joe's crusade may have temporarily appeased some voters who were concerned about the moral depravity in our fair city, but it also gave Mae more publicity than any agent could provide. Her next theatrical work was entitled THE DRAG, and featured, in its creator's words "Seventeen real-live fairies."

Just what is Brownstone?

Only in our crazy town can a type of rock be controversial. To most New Yorkers a "Brownstone" signifies a stately 19th Century rowhouse. The rich, chocolate brown stone adorns the fronts of thousands of Manhattan and Brooklyn homes, usually in areas originally populated by the then new urban middle class, as well as many university buildings, churches and other institutions. To others, however, brownstone was an affront to the eye, a symptom of pompous bourgeois bad taste and a nightmare to maintain. The author Edith Wharton called it the ugliest stone she had ever seen.

As we shall see, the history of the use of this stone says a great deal about our city. In the period prior to the 1830's or so, most of the rowhouses being constructed in New York had either brick or wood facades. Alternatives such as marble existed, of course, but these were far too costly for most homeowners to consider, especially since the stone had to be
cut by hand and transported long distances. With the growth of the new urban middle class came a desire for something more sophisticated in appearance than simple brick, and more durable than wood. Brownstone, a type of sandstone, was readily available from quarries located in New Jersey and Connecticut. A form of sedimentary rock which frequently contains fossilized footprints of prehistoric animals, it owed its unique dark brown color to high concentrations of iron, which turned color with exposure to water. Using barges, it could be shipped easily to New York, where it quickly became popular. In Brooklyn, brownstone houses could be found anywhere from Bedford Stuyvessant to Brooklyn Heights and Carroll Gardens.

Houses themselves were not constructed of brownstone, but rather a veneer less than a foot thick was placed on the front of each home, which was actually constructed of brick. The mark of a good brownstone mason was his ability to cut and assemble the blocks of a facade so carefully that it almost appeared to be a single mass of stone. Look for this the next time you are in a brownstone community. The development of steam-powered stone cutting equipment, as well as the continuing expansion of the middle class, eventually caused brownstone to lose some of its appeal as a status symbol. Indeed, many experts on the subject claim that the stone which was quarried and sold to New Yorkers after the Civil War was of significantly poorer quality. As the 19th
Century drew to a close new styles of architecture and other materials were coming into vogue. As a result, almost nothing new was being built using brownstone. Meanwhile, the very composition of the stone was causing headaches for those whose homes were made with it. Brownstone consists of many layers of compressed sediment, and water would easily find its way into the material, causing it to crack and flake.
When layers of brownstone chip away, the stone which remains is often of a substantially different color. This can create some interesting visual effects, but does not exactly create a dignified appearance. In an effort to repair such pock-marked surfaces, many brownstone owners have taken to using special colored cements - a practice which some historic preservationists are quick to condemn. As one can easily imagine, it is difficult to create a stucco compound with the same precise shading and texture of a block of stone quarried over 150 years ago.

The current boom in the renovation of old buildings has created a new market for brownstone, and some quarries in Connecticut are now back in business, although experts disagree over the quality of the material currently being cut. One of the recipients of this newly cut stone is the beautiful Cooper Union building.

Today, fans of brownstone architecture can delight in many stunning examples of the stone's usage, chiefly in Manhattan and the downtown areas of Brooklyn. To sample a good variety of the architectural styles with which the stone was used, I suggest a stroll from Cobble Hill, where the earlier Greek Revival homes dominate, through Boerum Hill and finally Park
Slope, which offers stunning examples of the Neo Grec, Italianate and Romanesque forms. Residents of Queens will be forced to settle for a few isolated houses near the Astoria waterfront. For an interesting example of a modern building constructed with brownstone, see the Bobst Library at New York University, on Washington Square South.

Tracie Rozhon, "Brownstone (the Real Thing) Comes Back," NY TIMES, 7/4/2000, p1.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Little Syria: NYC's Early Arab Community

Anyone who has been to the lower portion of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn or parts of Steinway Street in Astoria knows that NYC has a large Arab population. However, most of us are not aware of its origins, or culture.

The first major group of Arabs in NYC arrived in the latter part of the 19th Century and settled in an area near the current site of the Manhattan entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. Most hailed from areas which are now part of the modern nations of Syria and Lebanon, and they soon became successful businesspeople. With the destruction of their area to make room for the tunnel entrance, many relocated to the Cobble Hill area of Brooklyn, opening shops along Atlantic Avenue. In time many moved on to Bay Ridge.

Probably the biggest misconception about these immigrants and their descendents has been about their religion. Although there has been an Islamic presence in NYC since the 19th Century, most of the early Lebanese and Syrian immigrants were either Catholics or members of various Orthodox churches. The Egyptians, of course, were typically Copts. The downtown Brooklyn area still features two of their churches, most notably Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral Although under the jurisdiction of Rome, the Maronites, like other Eastern Rite churches, have traditions which separate them from their Western Catholic brethren - such as married priests. Originally the Church of the Pilgrims, OLL's building was designed by Richard Upjohn, who also created Trinity Church Wall Street, and features doors salvaged from a sunken ocean liner! It is a must-see during any visit to Brooklyn Heights.

Probably the best-known fixture of NYC's Arab community is Sahadi's - Brooklyn's answer to Zabar's. Charlie Sahadi's family have the best selection of dried fruits and nuts anywhere- and at great prices. Even if you have no interest at all in Middle Eastern food, their collection of cheeses, Italian olive oils and other gourmet items makes Sahadi's a delight.

Why do they call it an "Egg Cream?"

After all, it typically has neither as an ingredient.

I have gotten several inquiries on this topic, typically from folks who have fond memories of this remarkable soda fountain drink, typically made from seltzer water, syrup and a small amount of milk. The origin of the term is a mystery, although some people from the Bronx have told me that they have, indeed, had such concoctions which had a small amount of egg white mixed in -presumably to create a thick, frothy head. And others have told me that they have enjoyed the drink with a small amount of heavy cream, or a dollop of ice cream.

As in a game of Fire Escape Basketball, there are no official rules for making an egg cream. Each "Soda Jerk," (as practitioners of the art have historically been called - and not with derision) has had his/her own recipe. And, like a properly-poured pint of Guinness, there's a certain skill in preparing a good one. But most have called for Fox's U-Bett syrup, milk and real seltzer water - from a fountain or siphon. I have tried homemade egg creams created with bottled seltzer; bottled soda water is to the fountain type what real draught beer is to what you get in a can. It just doesn't cut it.

Fortunately, there has been a revival of interest in the egg cream, and more and more restaurants have been offering them - of varying quality. One place actually made them at your table, with the waitress bringing over a siphon bottle. I've gotten inquiries from many countries asking where one can get a really good egg cream in NYC, and I honestly can't say. If anyone has a recommendation, please post it.

Just who is "Tony the Tour Guy?"

Back in 1997 I started doing walking tours concentrating upon the more offbeat parts of NYC - typically on weekends and after work. Wanting to maintain a certain separation from my day job (and since most folks seem to have trouble pronouncing my surname) I decided to stick with the nickname "Tony the Tour Guy." It sounded right to me. I'm not a moonlighting history or architecture professor, just a native of Brooklyn (currently residing in Queens) who enjoys learning about our crazy patchwork of a town's history and sharing what he knows with others.

Most of my tours cover Queens, Brooklyn and Roosevelt Island. It's not that I have anything against Manhattan, but there are dozens of folks out there covering the Village, Harlem, SoHo, the Lower East Side, etc - and doing a damn good job of it. I like to think that I've carved a good little niche for myself - especially in the Western Queens areas of Astoria, Long Island City and Sunnyside. These communities are loaded with fascinating history, great food and loads of really hard-working, salt-of-the-earth people who are doing a wonderful job at helping their neighborhoods and each other.

My "credentials?" Well, I got interested in local history back in 1980 - while taking a graduate course in NYC's future at Columbia, although you could say that I inherited my passion for the subject from my mother, who was always scouting out obscure ethnic eateries and offbeat architecture in Brooklyn. Mostly it was just a hobby of mine until one night in 1996 when I had dinner with a pal who had just quit a job as a guide for a (fortunately now-defunct) double-decker tour bus company. Over plates of bifstec at an Astoria Colombian restaurant, we decided that the only way to really see this town was on foot- and that there was a real need for tours concentrating on the more offbeat, quirky and blue-collar sections of the outer boroughs. We both got our Sightseeing Guide licenses (yes, you need a license from Consumer Affairs to do tours!) and started laying the groundwork. Then my buddy got cold feet, but I was psyched to go. My first tour, in April, 1997, consisted of the Brooklyn Bridge and parts of Fulton Landing.

Since then, I have amassed a collection of dozens of books, periodicals, etc on our town, and have provided tours to unions, religious groups, schools and social clubs, as well as the general public. John Montone interviewed me on WINS Radio for the 75th Anniversary of the Three Stooges. And you'll find my articles on various topics all over tne Net.

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