A walk past the Newark Paramount

I am having my Sunday coffee and listening to Yusuf Lateef. With the semester in its final few days, it’s going to be a working Sunday. I have already sent a few emails and will tie up various loose ends over the course of the day. Yesterday a friend and I braved the rain and crossed the river to visit the Newark Museum of Art. I had not been there in 6-7 years and can say that officials there have been doing great work maintaining what has always been an outstanding cultural institution. If you live in New York City and are ever looking for a place to visit, I can attest that the Newark Museum is very easy to get to. Top it off with lunch or dinner in The Ironbound, as we did, and you’ve had a good day.

Paramount Theater, Newark, New Jersey

I took this photo of the Newark Paramount theater on the way to the museum. Some readers may know of the old Paramount Theater in Midtown Manhattan that they tore down decades ago. The reason there was “another” Paramount in Newark is because the movie studios owned their own theaters until losing a major antitrust case in 1948, after which Paramount and others had to divest themselves of their movie houses. As you can see, the Newark Paramount now stands empty. If my memory serves, the last time I was in the vicinity this was a storefront in which Rastafarians were selling oils and incense. Some rudimentary internet searching informs me that this opened as a vaudeville theater in 1886. To put that in perspective, that was the year after Ulysses S. Grant died.

The space in Newark came under new management and was expanded in 1916. Expansion in this period makes sense; in 1916 with the Great War raging in Europe there was a great deal of activity in Essex County, New Jersey. The docks were teeming and it makes sense that there would be entertainment options such as this. During and immediately after the First World War this would have meant live stage entertainment, and starting in the late 1920s moving pictures.

Last night on the train home I sent this photo to a friend who was born in the early 1960s and lived in this area until the mid-70s, when his family moved to a Sunbelt State. This led to a philosophical discussion over text messaging about loss and memory. My friend mentioned how this all seemed like eons in the past. The Newark Paramount closed as a movie theater in April 1986–itself now a lifetime ago–and while my friend in all likelihood never saw a film there, it is a good bet his mother and father did in their own early years.

I have a yen for these old theaters, having in the 1990s worked for a large chain bookstore based in old art deco move house that in the 2010s because a Trader Joe’s. The race seems to be on to save the Newark Paramount. A society cannot let things lie literally in ruins just for the sake of holding on to the past, but hopefully some vestige of this old treasure can be incorporated into Newark’s future as things continue to move forward. We’ll see how things develop, no pun intended.


David Blight on Grant

Small bust of onetime U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant — shown in his Civil War general’s attire (hence the “G” Grant) inside the Cleveland Public Library’s main building

When I was at Grant’s Tomb this past Friday a few of the rangers and I got into an interesting discussion about the Grant historiography. Grant is similar to Dwight Eisenhower in that his reputation waxes and wanes in relation to the country’s mood and circumstances. Of course this is true for all presidents and political figures, but seems especially so with these men who both rose to prominence as military figures and then went on to twice capture the White House. The nadir for Grant was the 1920s and  1930s in the wake of the Great War. Comparisons between Spotsylvania Courthouse and Verdun inevitably highlighted the impression of Grant the Butcher. This was also the high tide for Jim Crow and the mythology of the Lost Cause. In this milieu it was inevitable that Grant would be found lacking in comparison to the dashing Robert E. Lee.

I had to work this past Sunday and while in the library I pulled David Blight’s Race and Reunion off the shelf for a small project I am working on. I have not read Blight’s influential work in many years but intend to re-read it this summer. Earlier this evening, after arriving home soaked to the bone after getting caught in the downpour, I checked out Professor Blight’s website where, as it turns out, he has a new article about Grant in The New York Review of Books. Blight gives Ron Chernow’s new Grant biography a favorable review and also has high praise for the new edition of Grant’s Memoirs edited by John F. Marszalek and others. I was pleased to see Blight mention Ronald C. White’s American Ulysses, which I read last summer, and also highlight the important works by Brooks Simpson on the general and eighteenth president.

(image/Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Interpreting Grant

Grant’s Tomb, May 2018

I was in Upper Manhattan this afternoon for a meeting. I took the #1 train to 116th Street and when I emerged to street level Columbia students were packing their belongings into their parents’ cars and heading home for the summer. As I continued along I saw the doors open at Riverside Church and, with about fifteen minutes on my hands, went in to give it a look. As it happened, I stumbled into the Columbia University graduation ceremony, which I could hear and see going on inside the church from the lobby. A student in cap and gown standing in the lobby even asked me if I needed help but I politely said no, wished him well, and went on my way.

The reason I was in the area was because I had a meeting at Grant’s Tomb. As it turns out, I’ll be volunteering there at least over the summer. I am excited about this. I feel that in many ways things have been guiding me towards this for some time. I am already contemplating a number of interpretive possibilities. My first order of business though will be to ground myself in the basics of the site and its historic provenance. I have already just about completed the historic resource study written by a Park Service historian in the early 1980s.

Grant’s Tomb is a good fit because it ties in neatly with my book manuscript about Civil War Era New York City. Theodore Roosevelt Sr, Chester Arthur, Winfield Scott Hancock, Roscoe Conkling, Rutherford B. Hayes: the lives of all of these figures and others intertwined with Grant’s in substantial ways. I feel I’m well-positioned to take this on. I will not be starting until early June but after I do I will have regular updates about what is going on.

Re-lighting the lamps of civilization

Adrian Graves, Sir Edward Grey’s great-great nephew, at the Sir Edward Grey and the Outbreak of the First World War conference in London, 7 November 2014

British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey famously remarked on 3 August 1914 as Europe began going to war that the lamps were going out all over Europe and that “we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” It sounds like a far-fetched thing to say, but Lord Grey was not far off. He died in September 1933, just after Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany began unraveling the tenuous peace that had existed for the previous fifteen years. I say all this because today, May 8, is the anniversary of V-E Day, the end of the Second World War in Europe.

Churchill waves to crowds in Whitehall on the day he broadcast to the nation that the war with Germany had been won, 8 May 1945

Edward Grey was just one of the many men who played a role in both wars, some of whom did and some of whom did not live to see the end of what amounted to Europe’s Second Thirty Year War. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson Administration and later the four-term president, died on 12 April 1945. Hitler, a young enlisted man in the trenches of France before taking over in the wake of the Versailles Treaty and unstable Weimar government, committed suicide on 30 April 1945 as the Soviets were tightening their grip on Berlin. Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty in the Great War until forced out for his role in the calamitous Gallipoli Campaign. He had a way of returning to the center of things and in the image above we see him on 8 May 1945, 73 years ago today, as the prime minister, seeing the lights finally come back on after so many–tens of millions–of people had died.

(images/top, Foreign and Commonwealth Office; bottom, Imperial War Museum)

Saturday morning coffee

Lewis Hine image of Cantigny battlefield, April 1919

I’m wrapping up my coffee before heading to work to teach my last bibliographic instruction class of the semester. A friend and I were looking at these Lewis Hine images that The Atlantic posted this week and I thought I would share on this weekend morning. Apparently the American Red Cross commissioned Hine to take these images as a means of drumming up support back home for the Red Cross’s important work attending the sick, the wounded, and the hungry. We actually used the one above in the film we made last fall. It is hard to believe that we are now almost four years into the Great War centennial. I suppose it is difficult to comprehend from an American perspective because we did not join the war until April 1917 and really did not become fully involved until Spring 1918. The Battle of Cantigny, where the First Infantry Division fought so tenaciously, was in May 1918. Hine took the photo above almost a full year later.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt sailed for Europe on January 1, 1919, around the time Hine was taking the images that The Atlantic published this week as part of a series over the course of the centennial. It was not the first time Eleanor or Franklin had been on the Continent. Now in their 30s, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy and his wife were already well-traveled and had seen much of the world. Still, they were shocked at what they saw in those months after the Armistice. Eleanor wrote at the time that “I never saw anything like Paris. The scandals going on would make many a woman at home unhappy. It is not place for the boys [the impressionable doughboys], especially the younger ones . . . All the women in the restaurant look to me exaggerated, some pretty, all chic, but you wonder if any are ladies.”

Though given the subject matter I don’t know if one can “enjoy” the photographs, they are indeed poignant and striking. Here they are one more time.

(Image/Lewis Wickes Hine, Library of Congress)

One author’s take on The Good Old Days

I was walking through the library where I work earlier today when this book waiting to be shelved caught my eye. It may be difficult to believe in our polarized and confusing historical moment that by most cultural indicators the world has been getting better now for decades. Steven Pinker for one has written extensively on this, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Look back at what the world was like in the years before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, or the influenza pandemic that occurred during and just after the war. Of course saying this is not to be pollyannish; our world has serious problems that will not be going away entirely anytime soon. And terrible things can happen when one least expects. Still, we must remember our blessings as we can.

Sunday morning coffee

Hudson River from Metro North train, 28 April 2018

We had a great time in Yonkers yesterday for the film showing and discussion about our documentary New Yorkers in Uniform: From World War One to Today. I do not have any pictures of the event itself right now, but I believe a few of the others took some still photographs and possibly even some film footage. If so, I will share when I have. The subject of our film, Thomas Michael Tobin, was born in Yonkers in 1886 and died there in 1966. I have only been to Yonkers three times now: for the on location film shooting in March 2017, the showing this past December, and now again yesterday for the one at the historical society. The city has come to mean a lot to me. I took the photo you see above aboard the train on the way up yesterday morning. As you can see, even though it is late April the foliage has not yet begun here in the Greater New York area.

After the program a small group of us ended up at the Yonkers Brewing Company across the street from the train station for dinner. I don’t want to discuss the details too much right now, but we have some interesting plans that we believe will bring our film project to full fruition between now and the 100th anniversary of the Armistice in November. Ideally we will go back to Yonkers in the fall but we are not 100% certain. We’ll see how it goes.

Doing the event yesterday at the Yonkers Historical Society was a great treat. There were many interesting people involved in some fascinating projects that they told me about during the after party. The doing of local history helps keep the stories alive in immediate and direct ways. I was glad to see there were some young people in attendance as well. I will keep everyone up to date on how things develop over the spring and summer.

The Greensward Plan turns 160

Detail of 1870s Central Park map

Hey all, I am sorry about the lack of posts recently. The semester has been in full swing and I have been involved in a number of different projects. In a few minutes I am headed to Grand Central Station to catch a train to Yonkers with a small group of others to show the World War One film we completed last November. We will be at the Yonkers Historical Society. It feels good to begin to the city from where our doughboy came. Today is an important and probably much overlooked day in New York City history: it wagon April 28, 1858–160 years ago today–that the Central Park commissioners awarded first prize to Plan Number 33. This was Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s Greensward Plan, the template for what became Central Park.

The original law creating a park for Manhattan was passed in 1853. As I point out in the manuscript of my book, we are all fortunate that no progress ensued because Olmsted in those years was touring the South and writing about his experiences witnessing slavery and Southern society. Had construction began then, his and Vaux’s vision for a “central” park would never have been realized, at least not in New York City. It is a theme I come back to with students and others often, but when we are in Central Park or other parks such as Prospect here in Brooklyn we get the impression landscape architects put a stone wall around nature and left it at that. Nothing could be further from the truth. These are fully realized man-made spaces, just like a building, a sculpture, or what have you.

Hopefully today when the many thousands of people are enjoying Central Park on this spring day, a few will pause and appreciate that the process of creating what they are experiencing started on this date all those years ago.


A Modern Rubens by Flashlight

“A Modern Rubens by Flashilght,” The National Magazine, July 1918

I came across this image while researching something else and thought I would share. It comes from the July 1918 edition of The National Magazine. The children are refugees in a Venetian bomb shelter and their caretaker is a nun with the American Red Cross. They are looking up at an airplane during a bombardment. From the day Italy entered the war in May 1915 until the end, the Central Powers bombed Venice more than forty times. The damage to the city was as great as anything Italians would see during the Second World War, which is saying a lot. The editors described this as a “flashlight photograph,” by which they presumably meant it was taken in darkness with a flash bulb. Hence the title: “A Modern Rubens by Flashlight.” The Rubens reference may be to the Flemish master’s early seventeenth century “The Massacre of the Innocents.”

Grover Cleveland Alexander changes uniforms

Grover Cleveland Alexander’s World War One draft registration card

A few weeks back on Opening Day I mentioned that baseball once began much later than it does today. The Cubs and Cardinals began their 1918 seasons playing each other on April 16. Those on the field in St.Louis that day included Grover Cleveland Alexander, starting for the Cubs, and Rogers Hornsby, playing shortstop for the Cardinals. Alexander was an established star by this point and was slated to earn $8000 for the season; Hornsby, an up-and-comer in his third season with the Cardinals, would earn precisely half that after losing a bitter contract dispute to the Cardinals’ Branch Rickey. Throughout late 1917 and early 1918 baseball players were getting their draft notices from their local boards. In January 1918 Hornsby had appealed for a deferment to board officials back home in Fort Worth, Texas. Hornsby argued that his baseball salary was his family’s sole source of income. He received a Class 3 deferment and was thus free to play ball.

Owners understood that there was a manpower shortage and agreed to a 21 (not 25) player roster for the 1918 season. They also held an abbreviated spring training. Though Grover Cleveland Alexander turned thirty-one in February 1918 he was still eligible for the draft. In December 1917 the Philadelphia Phillies traded Alexander and batterymate Bill Killefer to the Cubs. The trade was partly about money but another, more cynical, reason may have been because Phillies management realized that both players were likely to be drafted into the A.E.F. sometime in 1918. The trade was a huge deal and made headlines across the country.

Alexander held out for a signing bonus but finally reported to the Cubs in mid-March. Meanwhile his draft board went about its work. The head clerk in Howard Country, Nebraska announced on April 12 that as of yet Alexander had not been called. There was great confusion, with some newspapers saying Alexander had been drafted and others saying he had not. Less than forty-eight hours later things had become clearer. Grover Cleveland Alexander had indeed been drafted into the Army and was to report to Camp Funston by the end of the month. Alexander asked to be allowed to join the Navy but his draft board would not have it.

Cubs and Cardinals 1918 Opening Day box score, via Baseball Almanac. Grover Cleveland Alexander had been drafted just days before the game and would join the Army by the end of April.

The pitcher’s call-up finally came just as the Cubs were breaking training in mid-April. On April 16 Alexander and the Cubs were in St. Louis to begin their season against the Cardinals. That very day Killefer received notice from his own draft board in Michigan that he had been declared 1A: eligible for draft and service. The board had originally designated Killefer 4A but the government appealed that status and won. So there they were facing the Rogers Hornsby and the Cardinals at Robison Field. Alexander pitched well but not effectively enough to win. The Cardinals took the contest 4-2. He went 1-for 3 at the plate. Hornsby went 1-for-4 with a run scored and an RBI. Sure enough, Alexander would soon leave the Cubs to train at Camp Funston. He pitched two more games, winning both and ending his season, before it truly began, with three complete games and a 1.73 ERA.