Monday, October 05, 2009

A big-city kid in the 1920s and 1930s

This account, by science fiction writer Frederik Pohl, sure feels like "early history" to me.

Some excerpts:

I count it one of the great good fortunes of my life that I grew up with all the resources of one of the world’s greatest cities within my reach. Young kids of the present, I do devoutly pity you, stuck in your pasteurized suburban developments except when Mom chauffeurs you into town. I had the city streets, always exciting in themselves, and I had the subways.

Of all the modes of mechanized urban transport man has devised, the subway is the most nearly perfect. I love them all, from the creaky tiny cars of Budapest to the shiny streamliners of Toronto, under ground and above. Moscow’s is beautiful. London’s is marvelously efficient. Paris’s runs engagingly from the super-technological to the quaint. But first loves are best, and New York’s subways are what I grew up on.

In the days of my youth the five-cent fare was sacred, and so for a nickel you could be carried from the Bronx to Coney Island, from sylvan Flushing to Wall Street. If you were a young boy and willing to take minor risks (jail, electrocution, things like that), you didn’t even need the nickel. I was six years old when I learned that you could ride free from the Avenue H station of the BMT just by climbing over the exit doors. If I chose to visit friends in Sheepshead Bay, I could ride there free, and ride back at the same economical rate just by climbing an embankment, stepping carefully over the third rail, and entering the platform of the station there.


It wasn’t my first burlesque show. Not by, even then, a number of years. ‘When I was a little kid, five or so, my parents had taken me with them to the Oxford Burlesque, near where Atlantic and Flatbush avenues met in Brooklyn. I liked the baggy-pants comedians, didn’t understand what the stripping was all about, but was thrilled to be included in something Grown-up.

I kept in touch with the Oxford, one way or another, all through my childhood. When my parents stopped taking me, as soon as I was old enough to pass the ticket taker’s scrutiny, I went by myself; and in the famine period between I would still skate down to the nearby Loft’s soda fountain, and often enough I’d see the chorus girls, makeup an inch and a quarter deep around their eyes, sipping sodas through a straw and gazing at themselves in the mirrored walls.


Let me tell you about Brooklyn. For the first part of Brooklyn’s life it was not a conquered province of New York City, it was a competitor. Even after the consolidation, it still competed. Brooklyn had its own baseball team (the Dodgers), its own library system (better than New York’s in every respect, except for, maybe, the Fifth Avenue reference facility), its own parks (after Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park in Manhattan, he took what he had learned to Brooklyn and laid out the even more spectacular Prospect Park), its own museums, its own zoo.

Downtown Brooklyn had its own department stores — Namm’s, Loeser’s, A & S — and I still think they were nicer than, and almost as big as, Macy’s or Gimbels. Downtown Brooklyn had four or five first-run movie houses, including the Brooklyn Paramount, as lavish a marble-staired temple as any in the world, at least until the Radio City Music Hall came along.

On Fulton Street, it even had legitimate theaters, with the same sort of bills as theaters in Boston or Chicago. Road companies of Broadway shows played there after the New York runs had closed, and sometimes Broadway shows opened there for tryouts...

Go read the whole thing.

Labels: , , , ,

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Pirates of New York City

Pirates today are generally associated with Captain Morgan, Jack Sparrow, or for the more serious, the Horn of Africa.

The fascinating blog Ephemeral New York tells us of a time when it could be associated with the rivers of New York City. This should be early history-- maybe the 1600s -- but it's long after my usual dividing line, the invention and use of railways:

That’s one type of criminal New Yorkers don’t worry about these days: river pirates. But from the city’s beginning through the 19th century, ships loaded with valuables were constantly coming in and out of New York Harbor—easy prey for river pirates.

Police were unable, or unwilling, to stop the piracy, reports an 1876 New York Times article.

A detective added: “River thieves are the men who have not the brains to be burglars, but who do not hesitate to murder in order to steal a coil of rope.”

Most notorious of the river pirates in the 1860s and 1870s was the Patsy Conroy gang. Conroy helmed a band of lowlifes who trolled the dockyards of the East River.

Another murderous group known for hijacking and robbing ships was the Hook Gang, named for Corlears’ Hook on the East River waterfront.

Finally law enforcement got serious about ridding the rivers of pirates. The NYPD formed the “Steamboat Squad” in the 1870s, which drove out most of the gangs by the 20th century.

Plenty more good stuff where that came from

Labels: ,

Sunday, March 22, 2009

China's view of the world?

This Economist cover, provided by Strange Maps, is a takeoff of a famous New Yorker cover, which you really must see.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Local history -- the graveyards of New York City

The Economist has a wonderful tour of graveyards large and small in some of the boroughs of NYC. You won't regret having a look.

In Ancient History we spend a lot of time figuring out what graves tell us about past cultures. Just two days ago, we in HIST 2055 had a quick look at what may be Philip of Macedon's tomb If you take the same attitude into more recent cemetaries, there is much to learn. Certainly this article will teach most people a little more about New York and American history than they knew before.

It might also lead you to think about the conditions necessary for the preservation of such evidence.

Labels: , , ,