These pieces are collected from posts in the item titled The New York That Really Never Was in the New York conference on Echo. That item, in turn, was inspired by Bruce McCall's fine pictorial essay NEW YORK, ONCE UPON A TIME, reprinted in the 1982 collection ZANY AFTERNOONS (Knopf). You can find more snippets of Gotham history at http://www.echonyc.com/~jhhl/tnytrnw.html
The Germantown Riots of 1919 may have been responsible at least in part for the high mortality that New York saw in the great influenza pandemic. When city fathers renamed the district to honor war hero Alvin York, members of the german-american Bund protested vigorously, taking to the streets of the upper east side. Especially hard hit by looting was the confectionery district of 86th St; even today, the sub-basement of Cafe Geiger has two locked rooms under whose door oozes a steady flow of burnt sugar.
The combination of soot from smokey street fires and injuries sustained by almost the entire population made them easy prey for the 'flu; when the plague died down and the last of the bodies had been interred in the potter's field north of Gracie Mansion, entire blocks had become almost empty, and the second avenue El rumbled over empty storefronts and past apartment windows from whose sills no one would look out again.
The Manhattan Grand Prix
Pretty much everyone knows about the special rail siding that runs under the waldorf to deliver VIP's directly to their suites, and about the private elevator off the end of the Lex platform connected to the formers offices of the president of the IRT. Fewer remember the handcar sidings from which young Park Avenue businessmen used to commute underground to work, and the rail-racing fraternity that developed in the tunnels. Brokers living on the Upper West Side would commission custom-built single-truck subway cars to speed their trips to and from Wall Street. A confederate working for the IRT installed -- ultimately at taxpayer expense -- a complex electric switching system that would let the racers switch back and forth between express and local tracks to weave around the regular trains. The whole thing came to a tragic end in January 1929, when a Whitney protege was mistakenly shuttled from the downtown express track to the uptown side, directly in front of an oncoming train. Indeed, some observers trace the beginning of the market's slide to the shock that this freak accident sent through the financial community. Using Whitney money (indeed, the embezzlements that eventually sent the stock-exchange president to prison) workmen took out the switching system, and the custom cars were scrapped. (A trace of the infrastructure can be seen near Houston on the IRT, where a break in the columns south of the station marks a former switchpoint.)
There is no truth to the rumor that the express tracks on the N/R line have been cleared expressly for drag racing.
Last of the Lenape
Until 1934, when their last stronghold was dynamited as "a menace to navigation," the Tammangonk (close[-knit] tribe [who prey on] strangers) Indians pursued a reclusive but prosperous existence on a chain of tiny woooded islands in the East River. They first appear in Peter Minuit's journal as the "quiet tribe" who brokered the Manhattan purchase, but are seldom seen in historical records after than time.
For more than two centuries they appear to have shared the hunting grounds of what would later become Roosevelt Island peaceably with european settlers. Perhaps thanks to the rich effluent of the rapidly growing metropolis, their land sustained a remarkable abundance of fruit, vegetables and game. Indeed, Cameron's early photograph of grazing deer framed by the rising piers of the Brooklyn Bridge is a poignant reminder of that era.
Industrial growth in Brooklyn and Queens, however, destroyed some of the Tammangonk's prime farmlands, and disease introduced by the building of the Welfare Island hospitals decimated the tribe. (Among orderlies, the phrase "seeing indians" was a common euphemism to indicate that a patient was not long for this world.) By the time of the notorious Bootlegger-Indian battles of the 1920's, only a tiny remant survived.
But even those hardy few might have prospered had it not been for the Great Depression. Hungry new yorkers, goaded beyond endurance by the thought of venison so near at had, would row or swim out to the Tammangonk islands -- where alert guards, their skills honed by the preceding decade's rum wars -- dealt out swift, terrible justice to trespassers. Amid calls for a federal expeditionary force to halt the bloodshed, city officials began secret negotations with the tribe's chief, the venerable Wakagim. Recognizing his ultimately untenable position, Wakagim agreed to move the Tammangonks upstate to the new Harriman preserve and a network of temporary camps near the city's reservoirs (with the tacit understanding that the tribe would defend the metropolitan watershed as effectively as it had its earlier lands).
Sadly, the move did not got peacefully. A group of young braves insisted on staying to protect the shrines of their ancestors. Their hot-headed leader, Figada, even threatened to invoke the ancient tradition of _temminatacos_ and and retake Manhattan Island from the Europeans. So it was, then, on May 13, 1934, just before dawn, that several thousand pounds of dynamite put an end to the Tammangonk's stone fort. The blast echoed as far as Philadelphia.
Death at the Movies
Until a few minutes before nine, June 19 was like any other hot, muggy summer evening in midtown. The office buildings had emptied out and the streets were almost deserted, except for the crowd that had been gathering since quitting time behind the public library. They had come to watch a showing of the old classic movie Casablanca, but instead became trapped in a tragic melee that claimed more than a thousand lives.
Survivors agreed only in the confused and sketchy quality of their accounts, so no one really knows how the Bryant Park Riot of 1995 started; some claimed it was a brawl over a stolen blanket; others said the first fights started in the lines for the inadequate toilet facilities. According to police reports, illegal alcohol consumption was rampant in the audience; many of the dead had high levels in their tissues. Almost immediately, people were breaking the necks of liquor bottles and slashing out with the impromptu weapons -- what started as drunken arguments soon spread into a lethal panic that took over the entire park.
In an effort to contain the violence, police sealed the park exits, trapping more than 3,500 people in what was to become a brutal free-for-all. Those nearest the exits were trampled and crushed, and some impaled themselves on the park fences in and attempt to escape by whatever means they could. But worse was yet to come. Rioters knocked over the park lampposts, starting a series of small fires; one spread to the movie projection van, igniting its fuel tank and causing an explosion that shattered the windows of the new park restaurant. Blood-spattered patrons rushed for any exits they could find; they stamped through the kitchen and ignited another set of fires that quickly spread to the library itself, touching off a conflagration -- the cultural calamity even now causes historians to shudder. Many scholars think of it as the second burning of the library at Alexandria.
Meanwhile, fires at the west end of the park (and the burning stacks underground) filled the N/R subways station with smoke, suffocating those who waited for a train out that never came. And observer watching from the 40th floor of the W.R. Grace Building said that the park seemed to fill with light, then dimmed again as first the flames and then smoke swept over it. In the heat, the park's trees kindled to massive torches, and the heat could be felt even through the air conditioning and thick glass fronts of the surrounding buildings. Smoke and flames rose from the park and ruined library throughout the night; it was not until well past daybreak that firefighters brought the last of the disaster under control. The site still stands empty as a memorial to what New York once was.
That Other Time in Golconda
If only it were true. The real story is much more complicated -- it has to do with a vein of auriferous manhattan schist that runs along the path of City Water Tunnel #3. The stuff assays out at several thousand dollars the ton, but the gold is so finely distributed through the stone that refining is almost impossible.
Mineralogists found that the only way to leach the gold out is through a five-year slow soak in weak carbonic, nitric and sulfuric acids in a short-chain hydrocarbon carrier, with repeated vibration and temperature cycling to break down the stone's grain boundaries and speed up the diffusion process. The repaving of downtown streets with cobblestones is intended to subject the ore blocks to precisely this treatment, and no one will be particularly surprised when everything gets ripped back out around the turn of the millenium.
The project has been kept secret up to now because of disputes over mineral rights with the overlying property holders. but Corporation Counsel recently got a ruling that eminent domain applies. Conservative estimates suggest that the city's fiscal problems should be over for the foreseeable future and that tax rates will plummet. Expect a sharp upturn in the municipal bond market later this summer.
Long Range Planning
For years, subway buffs who noticed section after section of pedestrian tunnel being walled off -- accessible only through locked doors bearing the cryptic legend A.C.O and a four digit number -- have been speculating whether the project at hand was an expansion of the Transit Authority's Alligator Control Office. The growing, unacknowledged infestation had been marked largely by a series of bizarre camouflage installations (the best known of these, in the 14th St tunnel between 6th and 7th avenues, was removed when it became clear that the center of the alligator population had moved uptown).
It turns out, however, that the ACO is not a renamed RMD (Reptile Mitigation Department) but rather the Altered Climate Office, front for a far-sighted civil engineering project intended to make New York City impervious to global warming. Contract documents scattered through dozens of city and sate offices reveal an undertaking of almost unbelievable scope -- giant fans intended to turn the entire subway system into a set of forced-air cooling ducts, heat exchangers buried in the storm drain system, and even a battery of huge turbopumps that can drive the flow in City Water Tunnel #3 backward to dump hot water into upstate reservoirs where it would evaporate more readily.
Although it has backed by rural legislators whose districts would benefit from increased summer rainfall, the plan still faces almost insuperable obstacles. Late snows this spring scuttled plans to publicize the climate office as politicians feared they would be subject to ridicule. It now appears that the project will be scaled down so that, instead of pumping heat to the catskills, it will employ buried exchangers that tap the cool accumulations of subsurface water under the outer boroughs. As global warming induces sea-level rises that may flood most of Queens and southern Brooklyn, this option is expected to become particularly attractive.
Buried New York
I was walking up Eldridge Street with some friends a few days ago and was reminded of the Schliemann Plan, which so radically reshaped the lower east side. It is remembered today as a landfill project that raised the ground level from Canal Street north to Houston and from the Bowery east to Henry and Pitt. But when it was first conceived after the Blizzard of '84, the Schliemann Plan was much more ambitious, a 19th-century bid for utopia.
The great civil engineering firm of Piscinham and Schliemann proposed building a second level of parks, schools and public buildings at the fifth-story level over the existing tenements, which would be lighted by Edison bulbs and generators. Taller buildings would, of course, exist in both the underworld and the world aboveground. Air would enter through shafts above each street intersection. These shafts would also have room for enormous wrought-iron spiral stairways and -- in industrial areas -- freight elevators. The plan was inspired both by the roaring success of the two-level arcade and freight road built under Broadway in the late 1870s and by the indelible memories the partners had of the great blizzard, when drifts covered the streets and sidewalks to the second or third-floor level.
At first the project seemed a great success. Roofs were erected over Allen, Forsyth and Chrystie streets, and landscaping on the new ground began immediately. Formerly squalid rooftop vistas were transformed into near-bucolic views. Only a few buildings broke through the upper level, most of them by one or two stories. Universal installation of electric lights made the lower-level tenement buildings far brighter than they had been when ostensibly open to the air and sun.
It was late in 1890 that the first cracks appeared in the upper pavement. Rabble-rousers had been spreading rumors of collapsing walls in lower-level buildings since the previous spring, but city authorities largely ignored them. So much of the tenement construction was known to be shoddy that deterioration was only to be expected, especially given the high humidity -- some said constant dripping damp -- in the understories. Piscinham told the _World_ that the crumbling buildings were a blessing in disguise: he called it structural darwinism and predicted the rapid erection of new understory housing stock designed along scientific principles.
By midwinter, however, the seriousness of the problem could no longer be denied. More than a hundred carolers from St. Mark's Church in the Bowery were killed when the stairway at Orchard and Rivington collapsed, bringing down a 30-yard square of the surrounding park. Investigators found that frost was not to blame. Instead, it turned out that building contractors had skimped on supporting columns, often relying on existing building walls to carry the weight of the new structure. Shoring up the unsound areas would be almost impossible.
And so the Schliemann plan, once predicted to spread to the entire city, was abandoned. The understory was largely demolished, and its rubble served as a foundation for the next generation of tenement buidlings -- most of them built no more soundly than before. Some blocks, especially along the original northward axis, were declared unsafe for building and turned into parkland (still visible today). In a few locations, rubble was pitched into the streets, raising their level and effectively shortening the re-emergent buildings.
Some regions of understory remain. Workers renovating the Eldridge St. Synagogue have found sub-basement doors that lead out to at least three blocks of Eldridge, Hester and Canal. Perhaps someday the full story of this bold attempt at urban renewal will be gathered from the city archives.
Nemo's report on the disposition of the old UNCLE headquarters brings to mind the disastrous collapse in the same neighborhood of Wolfe House, which had been abandoned since 1979 when the Wolfe Foundation declared bankruptcy. (Longtime New Yorkers may remember that news of the organization's difficulties were overshadowed by the city's own fiscal crisis. Allegations of mismanagement and misappropriation against the Foundation's president, Fortescue A. Goodwin, had been made by ex-wife Tamiris Baxter but never proven. Goodwin reportedly moved to Nassau in the Bahamas, where he died of a heart attack in 1987. Ms Baxter retired from Federal service that same year and moved to North Carolina, where she runs a bed-and-breakfast.) Parts of the Foundation's orchid collection are still on view at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.
The New York Historical Society has announced an indefinite delay in its plans to re-erect the so-called Sky Cottage, one of a handful of early 19th-century wood-frame houses in Manhattan. No reason was given, and the hitch is unusual at this late date, since the site for the restoration, a double plot near Peck Slip, has already been cleared. (The cottage remains in secure storage, unlike the notoriously stolen cast-iron buildings that once fronted part of the nearby Seaport redevelopment.)
Sky Cottage (definitely not its original name) had been disassembled board by board during the renovation of Rockefeller Center's Rainbow Room, from which it could be reached by a private staircase. Almost everyone who saw the cottage perched improbably on top of the RCA building thought that it was a decorative folly, like the roof gardens that enlivened the view -- but not the lunch hours -- of thousands of office workers.
In fact, it was a relic of Columbia University's long-past tenure on the site, when certain university employees and their families were granted leases "in perpetuity" on the campus houses where they carried out their duties as porters, chambermaids and washerwomen. Although most of these families moved when the University did, some stayed on in the old cottages, carriage houses and wash-houses even as the area became predominantly covered with tenement buildings. The Rockefeller family convinced all the remaining familes to leave, except for Gertrude van Roompel (greatniece of night porter Hengst van Roompel) and her daughter Hetty, then in her early twenties.
Some stories hold that the Rockefellers didn't buy out the van Roompels because they didn't even know about them until it was too late. Although it is clearly marked on 19th-century city tax maps, the midblock building that was to become known as Sky Cottage was not visible on aerial photos of the site. Instead, they worked out an agreement whereby the cottage would be lifted hundreds of feet straight up to sit atop 30 Rock, which occupied essentially the same site as the cottage and its gardens. (Rockefeller Center archives contain letters in which Rockefeller lawyers refused Gertrude van Roompel's demand that the family vegetable garden be translated upward along with the cottage. Although "the use of the soil extending 18 inches below the leasehold surface may have been an implicit part of the lease," the lawyers argued, nothing in the agreement promised soil capable of supporting plants or even of being planted. If the van Roompels thought they could dig into 30 Rock's tile-and-reinforced-concrete roof with trowel and rake, they were welcome to try.) The Rockefellers insisted that the cottage's outhouse be tied into the skyscraper's plumbing system, offering in return hot and cold water and even steam heat so that the family would not have to haul wood or coal.
Hetty van Roompel, who never married, left New York to serve as a WAC in 1941, but returned in 1949 to nurse her ailing mother. When Gertrude died in 1956, Hetty stayed on alone. She worked as a copy editor at _Vogue_ and did volunteer work; she also sang in a local church choir. By the early 1960s, her friends reported, she had a thriving vegetable garden, bedded in topsoil carried to the roof one small bag at a time.
After her forcible retirement in 1978, Hetty became known as something of an eccentric. She retained her keys to the Vogue offices and would sometimes spend the night there, leaving her trademark disquisitions on grammar and usage on junior editors' desks in a minuscule square hand. She also began avoiding the 30 Rock elevator banks, preferring to climb the fire stairs in her size-5 tennis shoes. She said it kept her in shape, but new workers in the building were sometimes scared out of their wits when her silent, diminutive figure appeared behind them.
Hetty weathered Rockefeller Center's changes in ownership and management with a native New Yorker's aplomb, But when her foundation got a new name, she was aghast. GE was just not her style, she said. So one day, shortly after the Rainbow Room closed (and her water was cut off), she just disappeared. Her friends were worried, but it took the better part of a month to convince Rockefeller Center security to let them through to the roof to look for her. They found a neatly emptied cottage; Hetty's old WAC duffel bag was gone, and a card on the kitchen table said, "Tahiti. Back in a few years." But inquiries with local authorities yielded no trace of the old woman, and so she was presumed to have died. A small memorial service was held shortly after the Rainbow Room re-opened.
Sky Cottage was quietly disassembled, hauled down through the freight elevators and placed in storage while plans for a new site were made. But now there is the minor matter of a postcard from Papeete. Stay tuned.
Echoids who have been wondering about the delay in construction on the new J&R Office building at the corner of Park Row may be interested in the following:
Even from ground level, you can see a series of vaults extending under the sidewalk from the foundation of the previous building on the site. However, our intrepid reporter discovered that one of these vaults extends completely under the street and connects to the still-extant first and second sub-basements of the old General Post Office, which occupied the bottom of City Hall Park until 1939.
The first sub-basement contains sorting stations and -- mind-boggling though it may seem -- mail carts holding perhaps hundreds of thousands of letters left behind when the building was vacated. This part of the old post office was apparently the center for handling returned and forwarded mail from throughout the city. A quick scan of return addresses revealed bank statements, bills, government checks, holiday greeting cards and parcels.
About half the mail carts in the first sub-basement are empty, but tracks in the dust suggest that their contents were removed only recently. (Police-blotter entries obtained by our correspondents lend confirmation to this idea, with repeated reports over the past few months of late-night visitors to the demolition site, but no arrests.) It is possible that Postal Service agents are working to empty the cache of old letters before news of it reaches the public.
(Other sources suggest that highly-placed private collectors may be involved; philatelic authorities report that even ordinary stamps and covers from that time period could be worth several dollars each. Particularly intriguing is the barest hint of a rumor that the sorting room contains a lost batch of Zeppelin letters, including several hundred first-day-of-issue covers bearing the notorious german Inverted Hindenburg stamp.)
If that weren't enough, the second sub-basement (or at least the part that remains accessible after almost 60 years of structural neglect) holds even more surprises. There, file cabinets labeled by nationality, are the results of mail interceptions stretching back well before the turn of the century. Irish, Italian, Swedish, German, Russian, Lithuanian, Polish, Croatian, even Luxembourg has its own docket. Every political organization that every came to the attention of the authorities has a color for cross-reference -- anarchists, socialists, syndicalists, communards, bolsheviks, mensheviks, theosophists, isolationists... It is in its own way a rainbow coalition.
These files, too, show signs of recent disturbance. Our reporter indicated that nothing appeared to be systematically missing, but of course it would take a team of archivists years to decide such a question for sure. Oddly, however, preliminary examination suggests the opposite: the files are not incomplete but rather _too_ complete. Some file folders appear to bear dates well past 1938, when the post office building would have been vacated.
Nocturnal activity around the construction site appears to have tapered off, so it is possible that these documents will remain accessible for some time to come. When asked whether the under-street passageway would remain open in the new building, officials at J&R's architectural firm declined comment.
(NOTE: I have been told that I neglected the very important role played by the pneumatic-tube system connecting the old post office with other branches around the city. It was my understanding that these connections terminated in the basement and hence were destroyed when the building was taken down, but that may not be the case. Anyone with additional information about these connections (or about the mail-interception system they apparently supported) please post!
Give Me Har Gow or Give Me Death
Although the disturbances took eveyone by surprise at first -- how else could the authorities have been so unprepared that two courthouses and One Police Plaza stand to this day as fire-gutted hulks -- in retrospect the shock is that the Dim Sum Riots of 1999 took so long to break out. Diners' first rumblngs of discontent could be heard shortly after the Chinese New Year and its dud firecrackers; by June, July and August the clots of patrons standing outside in the dripping, foul-smelling heat had grown so ugly that the 11th Precinct stepped up its weekend foot patrols.
But it wasn't till late October, with near-freezing rain lashing the hungry crowds, that a preposterous rumor of a citywide 3-month Y2K dim sum hiatus turned a few thousand line-standers into a cleaver-wielding mob.
Walter Niggle, in his classic treatment, _Celestial Palace of Disharmony_, traces the beginnings of the "catastrophic erosion of prandial etiquette" to the innovation of seafood buffets. Although diners had always been able to order special dishes brought to their tables, the saving on wait-staff from allowing them to fetch their own food was substantial and attractive. From there, it was a natural step for bill-toting patrons to snag dumplings from carts in transit rather than waiting for the carts to pass their tables.
According to eyewitness reports gathered from almost all of the scattered centers of the riot -- which flashed into being over a half-mile square within minutes -- the morning rush began familiarly enough, with the more agressive eaters crowding around cart staging areas, pulling off the best-looking dumplings, urchins and sate. Some rushed back to their tables to share their prizes with their friends, a few -- known to the regulars by name and favorite dish by this time -- just ate standing up. A handful of others came in pairs: one to "order" and the other to shuttle the dishes back. Some of the carts were half empty by the time they started into the aisles.
Then into this volatile situation stepped the young man who would change the face of lower Manhattan. Rick Jones, a Seattle-born multimedia consultant, flipped open his cellphone and called one of his tablemates at Jing Fong to ask which they wanted: crayfish balls with claw, or bacon-wrapped shrimp with mayonnaise. The second party at the same table wanted two orders of crayfish, and Rick's friends were glad to oblige. They recruited a couple of children from a neighboring table as runners (their price: three custard cups -- compared by endless commentators to the 30 pieces of silver) and were soon supplying four dozen diners.
One waitress later described with bemusement the gauntlet that she had to pass with her cart -- and failed -- to reach the main dining room. Her job was temporarily easier, no doubt, but it was clear that something was wrong.
Perhaps if Jing Fong's manager had bought more broccoli rabe that morning -- but no, it would have been something else. In a flash of disastrous inspiration, Jones toggled though his cellphone's speed-dial list and called a friend who was not entirely by chance hovering next to the carts at The Nice Restaurant. Nothing there, but a mutual friend was at Silver Palace, where the hollow vegetable dish was particularly good. It was the work of only a moment, and the earshot of dozens. Each with their cellphones in turn.
Meanwhile the word had been passed back at Jing Fong -- whether down the escalator or across the airwaves will never be known -- that you might as well not sit down without a connection, the food would never get more than half a dozen yards from the dumbwaiters. The murmur of the crowd waiting for their numbers to be called grew to a grumble, then a shout. No one alive claims to remember who first made for the door off the waiting room -- the door that led to the bottom openings of the dumbwaiter shafts.
Once the kitchens had been breached, most historians agree,it was all over but the noise. Fire, knives and a mob. And thanks to the cellphones, whatever took place in one restaurant soon was happening everywhere. In minutes, hoarders or looters (who could tell the difference?) were surging along Canal, down Mott and Mulberry looking for dried duck, glazed bacon and sticky rice.
By the time the police at the 11th precinct -- just across the street from the mob's epicenter -- even started reacting to the alarms, they couldn't get out of their own building. Most of the officers in the building were evacuated by helicopter from the roof.
Perhaps even then the disturbance could have been contained, although Niggle argues convincingly to the contrary. Either some of the police in their helicopters started firing down at the roiling crowd in the street, or by some colossal mischance a superannuated cache of full-strength firecrackers chose that moment to go off. The 11th precinct burst into flames even as the last helicopter left its roof.
The crowd surging down East Broadway into Chatham Square tore out the plate-glass front of C.H. Imports and emerged with literally thousands of long knives, cleavers and pikes. A particularly thoughtful few brought out dozens of yard-wide woks to serve as impromptu shields. And the store's cache of 150,000-Btu gas burners. Combined with the propane tanks of every street vendor in Chinatown, these burners were to prove formidable weapons.
You all know the rest of the story -- how the mayor inflamed the mob by appearing on television with the remains of french toast on his tie, how eight busloads of tourists from Des Moines were led to safety and hidden in the endless basements of Kam Kuo until the fighting was over, how all the pneumatic tubes in the city were reversed to save a brave band of cooks under seige in the Central Kitchen. Even the famous words of the public advocate as he took command to restore peace: "Sit down and shut up!"
Except for the government buildings and the restaurants where the carnage started, damage from the riots was surprisingly light. There is a memorial park under the Manhattan Bridge, where anyone with a flashlight can read the inscribed names of the dead, and the restaurants reopened under new management by the millennium -- and without seafood buffets.
Perhaps the most lasting change is in the schools, where the lessons of this civil uprising have been distilled into the Dim Sum Curriculum, and every child learns from third grade onward: Wait for the cart.
Web Page © 1999 Paul Wallich