New York City is not a place known for preserving its architectural heritage. Since the arrival of the first Dutchmen centuries ago the city’s entire philosophy has been to tear down and create anew in pursuit of mammon. That creative destruction makes what indeed remains that much more precious. A friend of mine and I had intended to pick up where we left off last summer in our visits to the five boroughs’ few remaining historic homes, but that is not happening for obvious reason. My friend, another Park service volunteer, recently emailed me this New York Times piece from early June telling the stories of the men and women entrusted with the care of the dozen or so historic houses spread through New York City’s diverse neighborhoods. The caretakers live, either alone or with their nuclear families, in these houses, literally keeping the lights on and making certain nothing untoward occurs. All of their stories are intriguing. I was especially interested in the brief profile of eighty-year-old Roy Fox, who has been keeping watch at the Rufus King Manor for over three decades now dating back to the late 1980s. I have not yet met Mr. Fox, but would love to when the shutdown finally does end.
I am still adjusting to the reality of this most unusual summer; though I regard myself as among the fortunate, it is so difficult to be closed off from the wider world on beautiful summer days such as today. Under normal circumstances, who know where we might have been or what we might have seen? Historical homes such as King Manor and the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum have been quiet for more than three months now. As the article itself points out however, these sites have been around for a long time–centuries in most cases–and been through a lot: world wars, economic depressions, civic unrest, blackouts, petty vandalism, and more. Someday this crazy era too will be part of these structures’ history, and thankfully there are people there right now to preserve that ongoing institutional memory.
(image/CaptJayRuffins via Wikimedia Commons))
I hope everyone is safe and making out okay in these difficult times. I myself am working from home today, trying with my colleagues to ensure that the remainder of the semester goes as effectively as it can once classes resume again virtually this coming Thursday. Over the weekend one of my colleagues authored this piece about the 1918 influenza pandemic, and with her knowledge I am sharing it here at The Strawfoot. I have always found it curious how little knowledge and public awareness there is of that worldwide health crisis. There is surpsingly little consensus even among scholars about its scope and scale; estimates of the number of people killed range from a low of twenty (20) million to a high of one hundred (100) million. Putting it mildly, that’s a pretty wild fluctuation. It may be different in subsequent editions but at one point the Encyclopedia Brittanica afforded the Spanish Flu pandemic a total of three sentences, while its U.S. counterpart, the Americana, gave it a mere one.
As my colleague points out, the best cure for panic is information. For one thing, we are unlikely to have those types of numbers today. Let’s remain calm, practice social distancing, and use our common sense. Remember, too, that many resources are still available to us. While most libraries and museums have closed their doors for the immediate future, note that the electronic and other resources are still available at most school and public libraries. Databases are still available, as are many ebooks and other electronic materials. Academic and public librarians are working hard right now to ensure that the virtual experience goes as smoothly as it can. Again, please do read the article linked to above for more insights on how New York City managed its way through a similar experience a short century ago.
I have a friend who is working on a book manuscript that hopefully will see the light of day in a few short years. I don’t want to go too much into the details here because it is literally not my story to tell. I will say though that his narrative is about the history and evolution of New York City and that he is toiling away diligently on an under-explored aspect of the city’s development. My friend emailed the other day and asked if I could provide a rough outline of American society in the 1910s and 1920s to fill out the story and provide some context for his topic. I offered a few ideas, among them the Versailles Treaty and League of Nations; the influenza pandemic; Prohibition and related rise of organized crime; the Red Scare; the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. All in all pretty basic stuff. Another topic I added was the rise of magazines during the Roaring Twenties. For instance Henry Luce started Time in 1923 and Harold Ross edited and published the first issue of The New Yorker on February 21, 1925, ninety-five years ago today.
Journalsim has been ht hard in recent years by changes in information technology and other forces. Local newspapers are ceasing publication more than ever. I am old enough to remember when a subscription to Time magazine meant one was up on, well, the times. That magazine today is a shell of its former self. The New Yorker however has restored its footing in recent years after the magazine’s identity crisis during the best-forgotten Tina Brown years. Just yesterday I emailed three people “With the Beatles,” a short story by Haruki Murakami published in the current New Yorker issue. It is an extraordinary tale of loss and memory. My point really is that the magazine remains relevant for both its cultural and journalistic contributions.
I remember reading Nat Hentoff’s memoir many years ago in which he spoke of his admiration for longtime New Yorker chief William Shawn. Hentoff’s admiration of Shawn’s instincts and erudition was dampened only by his disappointment in the editor’s treatment of the staff, especially the non-writing staff, whom apparently Shawn was perpetually nickel-and-diming while hiding always behind a veneer of civility. I remember in the late 1990s–now so long ago–just a few years after Shawn’s 1992 death when a spate of memoir/biographies, laudatory and otherwise, came forth to praise and bury the man. I never read any of them, because literary feuds and gossip are two things I am not interested in.
Good journalism is time-consuming and expensive, which is often lost on us today when we log online each morning and surf the internet for free. We expect it to be free. It is that very reason why journalism is in such trouble today. Valuing journalism is something to think about in our current historical moment when there are people eager and willing to take the truth away from us. The 95th anniversary of The New Yorker is an opportune moment to ponder how good writing and reporting is produced, and how costly that production is. Whatever news and cultural sources you consume, consider throwing them a few shakels via a print and/or digital subscription in order for them to continue their important work.
I received an email recently from author and podcaster Michael T. Keene, who introduced himself and told me of his exciting new project: the Talking Hart Island podcast. For those who may not know, Hart Island is located in Long Island Sound near the Bronx and since 1869 has served as New York City’s potters field. It is the largest public burial ground in the United States. Approximately one million souls rest there today. Hart Island is still very much a working cemetery; officials estimate it has about another decade to go before reaching full capacity. One hundred and fifty years of burials dating back the days of Tammany offer many exciting interpretive possibilities for a podcast.
Today is an exciting time in the long history of Hart Island. Currently run by the NYC Department of Correction and tended by inmates from Rikers, Hart Island may soon open as a public park if the city council votes to change the island’s jurisdiction to the Parks Department. DNA is now making it possible to identify some of the unknown. These are the stories Mike Keene and his team are telling. Today I listened to the segment one featuring Russell Shorto, To start at the very beginning was a great move. Too often when the public thinks of the history of New York they think it begins with the British. In reality it was the Dutch who set the tone and character of what they called New Netherland. Much of that Dutch ethos remains with us today.
There are already three episodes of Talking Hart Island available for listening, with a new episode coming weekly. Give it a listen by clicking on the image above.
In the manuscript of Incorporating New York, the book I have been writing about Civil War Era New York, I mention the July 26, 1788 New York State ratification of the U.S. Consecution. Isaac Roosevelt joined other Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and others in voting for the Constitution’s passage. Until this past Friday when at the New-York Historical Society, I had not heard of the Grand Procession that took place in New York City on July 23, 1788 in support of the Constitution. New York’s was not the first such procession; other locales had held them previously, some of them large, such as Philadelphia’s on July 4. New York had intended to hold its procession weeks earlier but the thing kept getting pushed back. By the time the procession rolled along on July 23 ten states had ratified the Constitution, one more than need to make it legally binding. Still, there was the significant issue of whether or not New York would join the republic.
The image we see here is from a mid-nineteenth century history book and is not entirely accurate, though they did pull a frigate called the Hamilton through the streets during the procession. We see it here passing through Bowling Green. On the left one can see the fence that is still there. On the left is Fort George, which was torn down in 1790. Cass Gilbert’s 1907 Hamilton Custom House, now home to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, is there today. What I do not understand is the caption where it mentions the president and legislators watching from atop the fort. The First Congress would not sit, and Washington would not be sworn in as president, until April 1789. Perhaps these are the re-enactors of their time? Or maybe a projection to show what could be if New York ratifies? I do not know.
New York ratification of the Constitution was no sure thing. That is why things were dragging out for several weeks at the meeting in Poughkeepsie. This is an extraordinary moment in both New York and American history
(engraving/History of the City of New York: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress, Volume II via NYPL)
Good morning, everyone. I could not let the 75th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion go unnoticed. Anniversaries such as this are an opportunity to pause and reflect on what we have gained and stand to lose in our current troubled times. Coalitions are difficult to build and easy to destroy. We would do well to remember the lessons taught to us by Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall, Harry Truman, and the many others who helped create the world we cavalierly take for granted today.
Last night one person did mention to me the 75th anniversary of D-Day. We’ll see how many, if at all, do today. Here is a post I wrote in 2011. The major D-Day anniversaries have followed me over the course of my adult life.
There are many striking images of New York City taken on June 6, 1944. People obviously had a need to be out publicly, anxious as they were for news from England and France. D-Day was a lonely time for Eisenhower himself, who by that time had done all he could and thus spent his hours chain-smoking and waiting for news at his headquarters in England. Here in the States, ball games were cancelled, shops closed, and things in general came to a halt as the fate of the war hung in the balance.
(image/photographed by Howard Hollem, Edward Meyer or MacLaugharie for the Office of War Information; Library of Congress)
I hope everyone is enjoying their three-day weekend. Whatever one does today, please remember the true spirit and meaning of Decoration/Memorial Day.
My friend and I had a good time in Green-Wood yesterday. While I don’t want to give away too much right now, we came up with what might be an interesting small summertime project. Over the course of the day, which we split in half with lunch to replenish ourselves and get out of the heat for a bit, we came across this headstone here. I found it striking and could not help but notice that the individual died in 1869, one hundred and fifty years ago. So, we stopped and took the pic you see here. It turns out that James Harper is none other than the oldest of the Harper Brothers, the siblings who two centuries ago founded the publishing empire that still exists today. Their father came to New York from Philadelphia around 1790 and opened a grocery store on Maiden Lane, which means he most certainly knew the Roosevelts, whose hardware concern was on that same Lower Manhattan street. Young James worked with Thurlow Weed for a time before founding J & J Harper in 1817 with his brother John. They brought younger siblings Joseph and Fletcher into the publishing business in the 1820s and eventually named the company Harper & Brothers. All are buried in this Green-Wood plot. Indeed, the other brothers are represented on the other three sides of this monument.
James Harper was a notorious anti-Catholic who in 1844 successfully ran for New York City mayor on the nativist American Republican ticket. He served one term. His administration is noted for something that did not happen within Manhattan itself. In 1844 nativist riots, sometimes called the Bible or Prayer Riots, took place in Philadelphia ninety miles away. Closer to home there was anti-Catholic in Brooklyn just across the water as well. The fighting there was especially intense, with pitched clashes between nativists and Irishmen. Brooklyn however was still an independent city, and thus beyond Mayor Harper’s jurisdiction. The Nativist Riots caused great concern. Thankfully the violence did not spread to Manhattan, in part because of the vigilance of Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes. The pugnacious cleric met Mayor Harper and warned him in stiff language of potential consequences should goons attack people or churches. James wisely left politics after his one term in office and focused again on the family publishing business, which only grew in the ensuing decades. The brothers’ most important vehicle was of course Harper’s Weekly, which made its debut in 1857.
(bottom image/Library of Congress)
I hope everyone’s Memorial Day Weekend is going well. I’m meeting someone on the far end of Green-Wood Cemetery in about an hour. We’re going to explore the cemetery and then get lunch before the true heat of late spring kicks in. We submitted final grades the other day but there is still some detail work and mopping up in the coming days as we cap off the academic year. I started John Strausbaugh’s Victory City: A History of New York and New Yorkers During World War II. Last year after completing the manuscript for Incorporating New York I read his 2016 book about Civil War New York. I intentionally held off on reading it until finishing the draft of INY because I wanted to follow my own vision for the narrative and did not want others’ ideas seeping in.
I am profiting greatly from reading Victory City, which voters many of the themes my colleague and I covered with our class this just-concluded semester. One of the major figures–how could he not be?-of the book is Fiorello La Guardia. I know so much more about La Guardia than I did at the beginning of the calendar year. I thought in recognition of Memorial Day Weekend I would re-up this post from last year.
John Purroy Mitchel, New York’s boy mayor, died 100 years ago this coming July. Mitchel was in office from 1914-17, thus overlapping almost entirely with the early years of the Great War. Mitchel was a proponent of Preparedness and as such became a natural ally of Theodore Roosevelt, Leonard Wood, and others advocating for American readiness to join the fight. After Mitchel left office he joined the Army Air Service and was killed in Lake Charles, Louisiana when he fell out of an airplane during a training exercise in July 1918. Friends dedicated a memorial to him in Central Park near 90th Street and Fifth Avenue in November 1928. For years, especially throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Mitchel monument was a focal point of Memorial Day commemorations in New York City. One regular attendee was Fiorello La Guardia, who over the course of his tenure in office from 1934-45 observed at least nine of twelve Memorial Days at the monument to his mayoral forerunner, Fusion Party associate, and fellow World War 1 aviator.
The photograph above shows La Guardia at the Mitchel monument on Memorial Day 1934. This would have been just over a year into the FDR Administration and with the Great Depression in full effect. This was also La Guardia’s first Memorial Day as mayor. There were still Civil War veterans marching in New York City’s Memorial Day parades in these years, about 25 this year. In the years after this their numbers dwindled into the single digits.
The headline here in which La Guardia advocates for an “aviator’s peace” comes from the 1944 Memorial Day observation. While obviously the public did not know the exact day that the offensive to liberate France would begin, Memorial Day 1944 took place one week before D-Day. Thus we see La Guardia pressing for all out victory. Poignantly, 1944 also happened to be the first year that a Civil War veterans did not participate in Manhattan’s Memorial Day observation. Brooklyn and Queens each had one G.A.R. veteran in the ranks. Spanish-American War veterans, doughboys from the First World War now well into middle age, and active duty servicepersons including WACS, WAVES, and SPARS were all represented.
La Guardia was on hand again at the Mitchel memorial on Memorial Day 1945. He had gotten his “aviator’s peace,” at least in Europe. By Memorial Day 1945 V-E Day had passed and everyone was waiting anxiously to see what would happen in the Pacific.