Thursday, October 16, 2014

Haunted Hipsters: Four Ghost Stories of Brooklyn

Dark skies over the Brooklyn Bridge, from a 1905 postcard (courtesy MCNY)

PODCAST  Brooklyn is the setting for this quartet of classic ghost stories, all set before the independent city was an official borough of New York City.  This is a Brooklyn of old stately mansions and farms, with railroad tracks laid through forests and large tracks of land carved up, awaiting development.  These stories also have another curious resemblance -- they all come from local newspapers of the day, reporting on ghost stories with amusement and more than a little skepticism.

1)  The Coney Island and Sea Beach Railroad took passengers to and from Brooklyn's amusement district.  But nobody was particularly amused one evening to be stopped by a horrific, gangly ghost upon the tracks near Mapleton.

2)  In Clinton Hill, a plantation-style house built in the early years of the Brooklyn Navy Yard has survived hundreds of unusual tenants over the years, but certainly the scariest days in this historic home occurred in 1878 with a relentless, invisible hand that would not stop knocking.

At right: Death will not deter this Brooklynite from ordering a great craft beer. (courtesy Powerhouse Museum)

3)  The Oceanic Hotel was one of Coney Island's first great hotels, an accommodation for almost 500 near the increasingly popular beaches of Brighton Beach.  But in 1894, the hotel was virtually emptied out and reportedly haunted.  Did it have something to do with the murder upstairs in Room 30?

4) And finally, the area of Bushwick nearest the Queens border are populated with various burial grounds like the Evergreens Cemetery, borne of the rural cemetery movement which transplanted thousands of previously buried bodies from Manhattan to Brooklyn.

In 1894, with Bushwick prepared for a spate of new development, the sudden appearance of an oddly dressed spirit threatens to disrupt the entire neighborhood.  During one evening, a drunken party of 300 ghost hunters, brandishing swords and revolvers, come across one terror that proved to be very real indeed.

ALSO: Secrets of The Sentinel, a 1977 horror film set in an old house along the Brooklyn Promenade.

To get this week's episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #172: Ghost Stories of Brooklyn

And we would like to thank our sponsors:

--  Squarespace, the all-in-one platform that makes it fast and easy to create your own professional website or online portfolio.  For a free trial and 10% off (your first purchase), go to and use offer code BOWERY.

-- Audible, the premier provider of digital audiobooks. Get a FREE audiobook download and 30 day free trial at Over 150,000 titles to choose from for your iPhone, Android, Kindle or mp3 player Audible titles play on iPhone, Kindle, Android and more than 500 devices for listening anytime, anywhere.

10 Montague Terrace, setting for the 1970s horror film The Sentinel, sits at the end of this elegant block on the Brooklyn Promenade.

[Looking west from Brooklyn Bridge Park to the houses on Montague Terrace.]

The theatrical trailer to The Sentinel

Phenomena reported August 1894 in several publications, including the New York Evening World

The incident in question occurred near the Mapleton station along the Coney Island and Sea Beach Railroad (Map of Brooklyn railroad lines courtesy The Weekly Nabe who has more information on the early days of Mapleton.)

Phenomena reported December 1878 in several publications, including the New York Sun

A view of Wallabout Bay and the land which became the Brooklyn Navy Yard, circa 1830s.  That would appear to 136 Clinton Avenue (the oldest house in the area) however the general proportion of the region looks a bit off.  Below it, two pictures of the house on Clinton Avenue, including a close-up of the infamous door. (Pics courtesy Flickr/sjcny and Long Island Historical Society)

Phenomena reported August 1892 in several publications, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

The haunted Oceanic Hotel, located at Neptune Avenue and W. 6th Street. Perhaps this looks surprising for a 500-room hotel, but out of frame are bungalows and other adjoined buildings.  But you can see how this sort of accommodation went out of fashion rather quickly.

[First hotel at Coney Island, Oceanic Hotel.]

Phenomena reported November 1894 in several publications, including the New York Times

1924 -- A view of the tracks which separate Bushwick from a cluster of cemeteries. Buildings to the left sit in the vacant lots which were mentioned in this story.  The cemetery nearest this photograph is Most Holy Trinity Cemetery.  You may remember the name Most Holy Trinity for it was this Bushwick congregation that was featured in a ghost story a couple years ago in the show 'Haunted Histories of New York.'

Opposite Trinity Cemetery.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

For Whom The Ghost Tolls: A Haunting in Bedford-Stuyvesant

The corner of Stuyvesant and Jefferson in 1900, looking much the way it does today.  The haunted house in question is a half a block south of this photo. (Courtesy the site Save Bedford Stuyvesant)

More Brooklyn-themed ghost stories coming your way tomorrow.  But here's an unusual tale I stumbled across while researching for this show.  Brownstone Detectives has also written about this particular event so check out their page for more information. 

The Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant is defined by its architectural character, rows of impressive brownstones and ornate apartment buildings which trace back to the late 19th century.  It was once two separate villages -- Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights -- combined to appeal to new residents in the ever-expanding city of Brooklyn.  The Bed-Stuy of the 20th century was the heart of African-American residential life; gentrification may alter that definition in the 21st.

Another feature of the neighborhood that may have passed down through the decades are its ghosts.

Simply mix a neighborhood of families full of imaginative children with severe and dramatic old architecture, and voila! You've got ghost stories.  Anybody born and raised in Bed-Stuy probably has one story of a purported haunted house, either a structure uninhabited and boarded up or an old home with a single unseen resident, the yard out front overtaken with neglect.

But perhaps one of Bed-Stuy's most interesting ghost stories comes not from legend but from an actual newspaper report -- the haunting of 281 Stuyvesant Avenue in Stuyvesant Heights.

The four-floor building was originally built in 1897 as a small apartment house. Although included in the Stuyvesant Heights Historic District, its modest apperance pales next to its neighbor, Grace Presbyterian Church (today's Bridge Street AME Church).

Below: Bridge Street AME Church.  The haunted house in question is the white structure to the far right in this photograph. (Courtesy flickr/Matthew X Kiernan)

On October 23, 1901, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on a disturbing and frankly stressful time had by the building's first-floor newlyweds Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Griffin.

The school teacher and his wife moved into the flat in July and immediately experienced some truly unusual phenomenon.  At precisely 2 pm every afternoon the new electric doorbell stationed in the vestibule would ring, prompting the lady of the house to open the door.  But nobody would be there.

After a few days of this activity, Joseph naturally assumed it was troublesome kids.  However one day, Griffin stood in the vestibule at precisely 2 pm.  To his astonishment, the bell ring with no human agency present.

This was only the beginning.  The ghost continued to torment the Griffins with "hollow groans, creepy sidesteps on the staircase and unexpected trips from room to room by articles of furniture."

A haunting so close to Grace Presbyterian were particularly unsettling. "His temerity in operating in a flat, the windows of which look right out on the stained glass panes of a church, is especially startling."

The Griffins, more irritated than frightened, could not take this disturbing presence in their home any further and immediately moved out.  The skeptical reporter, of course, took note of the fact that nobody else in the building had experienced any particular supernatural phenomenon.

The upstairs neighbor complained of rats and mice and wind gusts with the strength to swing open doors.

The neighbor added, "The pipes groan and the plumbing rattles too, and my husband says its the spookiest house he was ever lived in, but ghosts! -- nonsense."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Bowery Boys 8th Annual New York Ghost Stories Podcast rises from the grave this Thursday

It's our favorite time of year -- time for the annual Bowery Boys New York ghost stories podcast. The new show -- featuring four more frightening tales -- will be available this Thursday.

Our new show will feature an otherworldly spirit from a Brooklyn cemetery, an apparition on the train tracks, a purportedly haunted hotel in Coney Island and the tormented haunting of a curious 1830s home so famous that it was covered by every major New York newspaper of the day.

Catch up on the tradition by listening in to our last seven ghost story shows. You can listen at the links below, download them from iTunes or find them anywhere you listen to podcasts:

Ghost Stories of Old New York (2013) [download] [iTunes]
Four stories set mostly before the 1840s featuring sinister stories of murder, shipwreck and death by fright!  Up in the Bronx, the spirits of dead Lenape Indians may haunt the forest of Van Cortlandt Park. A romantic West Village restaurant finds its home inside the former carriage house of Aaron Burr. Might the vice president still be visiting?  We bring you the legend of an old Brooklyn fort that once sat in Cobble Hill and terrified those who traveled along on old Red Hook Lane.  And finally, over at St Paul's Chapel,  a respected old actor wanders the churchyard, looking for his body parts.

Mysteries and Magicians of New York (2012) [download] [iTunes]
Grab a drink at the Ear Inn, one of New York's most historically interesting bars, and you might meet Mickey, the drunken sailor-ghost.  A frightening story of secret love at old Melrose Hall conjures up one of Brooklyn's most popular ghostly legends.  A woman is possessed through a Ouija board, but while she accept the challenge by one of New York's first ghostbusters?  And a tale of Harry Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the line between the supernatural and mere sleight of hand. [original blog post]

Haunted Histories of New York (2011) [download] [iTunes]
What's horrors are buried at the foot of the Statue of Liberty? What's below a Brooklyn Catholic church that makes it so dreadfully haunted? What ghost performs above the heads of theatergoers at The Palace? And what is it about the Kreischer Mansion that makes it Staten Island's most haunted home? [original blog post]

Supernatural Stories of New York (2010) [download] [iTunes]
The scary revelations of a New York medium, married Midtown ghosts who fight beyond the grave, a horrific haunting at a 14th Street boardinghouse, and the creepy tale of New York's Hart Island. [original blog post]

Haunted Tales of New York (2009) [download] [iTunes]
The secrets of the restless spinster of the Merchants House, the jovial fright of the Gay Street Phantom, the legend of the devil at Spuyten Duyvil Creek, and the spirit of a dead folk singer. [original blog post]

Spooky Stories of New York (2008) [download] [iTunes]
The drunken spirits of the Algonquin, the mysteries of a hidden well in SoHo, the fires of the Witch of Staten Island, and 'the most haunted brownstone in New York'. [original blog post]

Ghost Stories of New York (2007) [download] [iTunes]
The ghosts of a tragic Ziegfeld girl, a scandalous doyenne of old New York, a bossy theater impresario and the ghoulish bell-ringer of St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery. [original blog post]

Top photo: from the book 'The Oracle' (1919) Internet Archive Book Images
Second photo: from the book "Rhyme and Reason" (1901) Internet Archive Book Images
Third photo: "Two of William Hope's friends lean on their motor car whilst a figure - the couple's deceased son - is revealed at the wheel." Photo by William Hope (1920) National Media Museum

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Open House New York: From Teddy's home to a secret cottage Ten FREE historical spaces to visit in all five boroughs

An old postcard of Cass Gilbert's U.S. Custom House, one of the highlights of this year's Open House New York.

You have no excuse now.  This weekend is the 12th Annual Open House New York, the city's annual celebration of history, architecture and design.  Hundreds of places throughout the five boroughs will throw open their doors to visitors. So that weird old church you've always wanted to visit? It's probably open.  Ever wanted to explore a neighborhood you've never been to but needed a reason to go?  This is your reason.

Some places featured this weekend did require reservations, most of which have been taken.  (But not all. check the Open House website to be sure.)  But a large number of locations have free admissions -- museums, historical houses, unusual residences and so many more.

Here are a few recommendations of places to visit this weekend that are completely free to visit.  You can find the full list here.  I'll be around running around to several Open House sites for most of the weekend so follow along with me on Twitter (@boweryboys) or on Instagram (boweryboysnyc).

In additional, I'm also providing a little 'suggested listening', prior Bowery Boys podcasts which relate directly or indirectly to the Open House New York sites in question.  You can download them via iTunes or at the links provided below.

Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace
28 E. 20th Street, Manhattan
Muster up some of that enthusiasm that welled within you during the Ken Burns' documentary The Roosevelts a few weeks ago and head over to the Flatiron District to visit the beautiful home that gave us Teddy himself.  There are park rangers and docents scattered throughout the house to spill the home's fascinating history. Spend the afternoon imagining this sickly kid pictured at right running through these halls. (Meanwhile, if you got reserved tickets to tour the other Roosevelt house, congratulations!)
WHEN: Saturday, October 11: 9:00 am - 5:00 pm
IN THE AREA: Head on over to the Grand Lodge of Masons afterwards on 23rd Street for a truly memorable tour of the ornate ritual rooms.
SUGGESTED LISTENING: Theodore's home is located right off of  the Gilded Age shopping district Ladies Mile. Wander around and listen to the history of this area.  If you do go to the Grand Lodge, please check out our podcast on Cleopatra's Needle which reveals one particular secret of this unusual building.

Central Synagogue
652 Lexington Avenue at 55th Street, Manhattan
Most people think St. Patrick's Cathedral when they think midtown and religion, but Central Synagogue is actually older, opening in 1872.  What's especially unusual about this building is its Moorish Spanish design which reverberates brightly throughout the buildings (newly renovated in 2001).
WHEN: Sunday, October 12: 11:00 am - 1:00 pm
IN THE AREA:  If you're one of those holding tickets to the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church clock tower, then these two sites perfect complement each other.  If not, head on down to 44th Street and stroll around the opulent Beaux-Arts General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen.
SUGGESTED LISTENING: Our latest podcast on Gramercy Park also gives the origin story of the street that the synagogue sits on -- Lexington Avenue. [Download here]

An image of the Arsenal from 1862. "Troops Leaving For the War" (NYPL)

The Central Park Arsenal 
830 Fifth Avenue, Central Park, Manhattan
This former armory building -- once a prototype natural history museum -- predates the park itself and currently houses the New York Parks Department.  There's roof access too so you can impress your friends with unique pictures of the park around you.
WHEN: Sunday, October 12: 10:00 am - 4:00 pm
IN THE AREA:  You're just a block away from Temple Emanu-El which is providing tours all day.  Among the more recent reasons to soak in this Jazz Age-era beauty: the memorial service for Joan Rivers was held here last month.
SUGGESTED LISTENING: Our two part series on the history of Central Park.  {You can find special illustrated' versions of episodes #54 and #55 at iTunes or at these links.)

Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House
1 Bowling Green, Manhattan (pictured at top)
This former custom house, named for my favorite person ever, is always a delight to visit as it houses the National Museum of the American Indian. Tours throughout the day will give you some insight into the extraordinary -- and sometimes wacky-- touches conceived by architect Cass Gilbert.
WHEN: Saturday, October 11 -- 10am - 4pm; Sunday, October 12 -- 1pm - 5pm
IN THE AREA:  You can spend your entire day in downtown Manhattan!  Follow up with a visit to important places to American history -- Federal Hall National Memorial and the African Burial Ground National Monument (open Saturday only).
SUGGESTED LISTENING:  Why not try our history of Gilbert's more famous structure -- the Woolworth Building? [Download here]

Fort Tryon Cottage & Heather Garden
Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan
You've probably been to the Cloisters Museum but walked by this odd little house without ever knowing its secrets.  This fairy-tale cottage from 1905 predates both the park and the museum, and all-day tours will provide you with more interesting details of the grounds' peculiar history.
WHEN: Saturday, October 11 -- 11am - 4pm; Sunday, October 12 -- 11am - 4pm
IN THE AREA:  I highly recommend you follow up the cottage with a sally around the Morris-Jumel Mansion, followed up with a visit to Highbridge Park and Recreation Center.
SUGGESTED LISTENING: A history of the Cloisters Museum and Fort Tryon Park. [Download here]

A photo of Poe's cottage, from between 1910-1915 (LOC)

Edgar Allan Poe House and Poe Park Visitors Center
2640 Grand Concourse, The Bronx
Is there anything more perfectly October to do than taking a free tour of Edgar Allan Poe's former home near Fordham University? Just put on a nice sweater, get a big ole pumpkin spice coffee and head over to hear the curious story of this house.  And stop by the fairly new visitor's center for further information about the writer.
WHEN: Saturday, October 11 -- 10am - 5pm; Sunday, October 12 -- 10am - 5pm
IN THE AREA:  You're just a short subway right north to a perfect companion tour -- the Museum of Bronx History at the Valentine-Varian House, a rustic stone mansion that's dates from before the Revolutionary War.
SUGGESTED LISTENING: Poe, as sleuth-journalist, makes an appearance in the spooky mystery show Who Killed Mary Rogers? [Download here]

The Great Hall of the New York Hall of Science
Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens
You many not be as familiar with this particular relic of the World's Fair of 1964 as you are with those of the New York State Pavilion, but this curious building --  "with no corners or straight segments" -- was designed by Wallace Harrison, the favorite architect of the Rockefellers.  Grab a sneak peak of the new renovations before it officially opens later this month.
WHEN: Saturday, October 11 -- 10 am-2pm; Sunday, October 12 -- 10am-2pm
IN THE AREA: A short subway right east will get you to a couple interesting places, open both days, including the Kingsland Homestead (built in the late 18th century) and Voelker Orth Museum, Bird Sanctuary and Victorian Garden, perhaps the quaintest place along the entire Eastern seaboard.
SUGGESTED LISTENING: A history of the World's Fair 1964-65. [Download here]

Sailors Snug Harbor in a photomechanical post card. (NYPL)

Sailors Snug Harbor
1000 Richmond Terrace, Staten Island
Here's the thing -- there are many of you reading this who have never been to Sailors Snug Harbor.  So rearrange your plans this weekend and make this the weekend you visit one of New York City's truly spectacular places.  This 1830s collection of Federalist architecture and surrounding campus will allow you to feel like a time traveler.  [Read more about it here.]
WHEN: Saturday, Oct 11 -- 10am-5pm; Oct. 12 -- 10 am-5pm
IN THE AREA: A short bus ride or bike ride will get you to two of my favorite places in the borough -- The Alice Austen House and Fort Wadsworth / Battery Weed (open Saturday only).
SUGGESTED LISTENING: A brief history of Staten Island. [Download here]

St. Ann and Holy Trinity Church
157 Montague Street, Brooklyn Heights
This austere structure is one of the most impressive churches in a neighborhood filled with 19th century churches, with breathtaking stained-glass windows and shadowy nooks and crannies. During the 1980s and 90s, the church hosted music and theatrical performance; St. Ann's Warehouse spun off from its corridors.  If you're a music fan, this is a must stop -- Jeff Buckley made his unofficial music debut here during a tribute concert to his father Tim Buckley.
WHEN: Saturday, October 11 -- Noon-4pm; Sunday, October 12 -- 1pm-5pm
IN THE AREA:  On Saturday head over to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a free tour (10am-1pm). then over to the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center to wander through their great new museum space (open both days).
SUGGESTED LISTENING: A Brooklyn Heights show will be coming soon, but until then, why not get into the spirit of the season and listen to last year's ghost stories podcast -- Ghost Stories of Old New York -- featuring a frightful tale of ghosts in nearby Cobble Hill. [Download here]

The buildings of Weeksville, 19th century.

Weeksville Heritage Center
158 Buffalo Avenue, Brooklyn
The well-preserved Weeksville residences, home to a significant 19th century African-American population, are supported by a brand new visitors center, outlining the surprising history of this often forgotten black settlement.  There's even traces of an old Indian road!
WHEN: Saturday, October 11 -- Noon-6pm; Sunday, October 12 -- 11am-6pm
IN THE AREA:  Both the old Stuyvesant Mansion in Bed-Stuy and P.S. 83 just blocks away from Weeksville. Both feature art installations in the Creative Time series "Funk, God, Jazz and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn."
SUGGESTED LISTENING: In 1863, Weeksville provided refuge for many families fleeing the Civil War Draft Riots.  Listen to our harrowing show on this subject for a little backdrop. [Download here]

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

MYSTERY! "Doctor Busted" and the skeleton of College Point

Above is an illustrated bird's eye view of College Point, Queens, from a 1917 guidebook "Illustrated Flushing and vicinity."

As that book goes on to describe, "COLLEGE POINT is essentially a manufacturing town—the industrial center of the Flushing District.  It is an old settlement like Flushing and Whitestone, both of which it immediately adjoins on Flushing Bay, and like both, it is rich in its possession of old trees and old houses. It has many fine modern residences, too; and even the proximity of its scores of factories doesn't seem to spoil its charm as one of New York City's pretty home suburbs."

But for a 'pretty home suburb', you never know what you're going to find as you're digging up out in your yard.  I found the following disturbing notice in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 7, 1914:

"College Point, LI, October 7 -- The police of the College Point station thought they had a first-class mystery on their hands today for a time after John Kanter of 622 North Fourteenth Street [sic] dug up in his yard the skeleton of a man.

Just when the keenest Sherlock Holmeses in the College Point service were beginning to concentrate their minds on the subject, however, it was recalled by an old policeman at the station that the premises had been occupied until his death a few years ago by Dr. Busted whom, the police believe, buried the body after using it for dissecting purposes."

It's more likely the doctor's name was Busteed.  Dr. Busted sounds like a character from a 1980s horror film.

Here's a proper mystery: Would somebody like to figure out where 622 North 14th Street in College Point, Queens, is today?  Many streets and roads in Queens were renumbered in the 1920s.  I believe the house mentioned in the article above is on today's 14th Avenue, but there's also a 14th Road.  And neither of them is numbered in the 600s.

If there was one skeleton in the yard, might there still be others?

Below: A College Point home from the brochure described at top, belonging to a silk manufacturer.  From the brochure:

"As a bit of prophecy, the reader is asked to lay aside this book for ten years and then compare this portrayal of College Point-Flushing conditions as they now exist with those of a decade hence. It is pretty safe to say that the two old mansions, pictures of which are printed with this article—the Stratton and Graham homesteads — that today stand as landmarks on the trolley line between College Point and Flushing will long since have disappeared, and in their places and on their surrounding acre swill have risen many beautiful, modern residences and apartment  houses, and that the meadows some distance away will have been covered with manufacturing plants all th eway from the hills to the waters of Flushing Bay."

Monday, October 6, 2014

"A History of New York in 101 Objects" by Sam Roberts: or why you should never throw anything out

BOOK REVIEW Looking at history as a collection of objects is a pursuit best suited for a hoarder.  Every item strewn along the timeline has the potential of being totemic to human experience.  A similar review of your own life might imbue symbolic power to such things as an old teddy bear or a dried corsage.  (This is why I hang on to that T-shirt from a 1988 New Order concert, even though it's literally in tatters.)

Compacting this materialistic tour into an exact number -- a round number -- treats the span of history like a Billboard pop chart, but it also means the objects in question are especially potent with meaning.

In 2010, the British Museum, in association with the BBC, produced a radio and podcast series called "A History of the World In 100 Objects," summarizing all of earthly existence with a survey of the museum's own precious artifacts.  The episodes were richly researched and incredibly entertaining.  I wanted to jump on a plane to London and go check out that Clovis spear point and Oxus chariot model myself.

The list was a smash success because it was like a history class and an Antiques Roadshow in one.  It spawned several knockoffs. It has influenced public school curriculum. (I even tried one semi-successfully: A History of New York in 100 Buildings.)  It's an attractive idea in the Buzzfeed age -- history as a completed bucket list.

Sam Roberts, the venerable New York Times writer and editor, has taken a crack at a similar project relating to New York City history. In a 2012 column, he recruited 50 precious objects into service of a tale that began over 13,000 years ago.  He's returned with a book called The History of New York in 101 Objects which expand the contours of his itemized history by 51 other things.

 A Whitman's Sampler of our city's past -- I mean that, there's a famous cookie and a sugar factory in it -- Roberts' history is a friendly, colorful way to experience New York City.

Unlike the concrete selections of the British Museum, Roberts has chosen items from a metaphysical attic of ancient documents, architectural details, and even abstract concepts.  As a tie-in to Robert's book, the New York Historical Society has currently made a gallant attempt at gathering up a few of these.  (The show runs until November 30.)

At left: A draft wheel from the Civil War Draft Riots makes the cut.

As Roberts makes very clear in the introduction, these items represent his impression of history, a group of subjectively chosen tools to express the New York story from a variety of angles.

Each object is accompanied by a 2-3 page description of what it represents upon the map of history. A graying toll ticket represents the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. A New Yorker cartoon stands in for the city's changing views of the outside world.

There are commonplace objects (a bagel and an artichoke, a paper coffee cup) next to items of great artistic beauty (the lions of the New York Public Library, a golden statue atop the Municipal Building).  Each looking onto the tale of New York as though through a lens of different colored glass.

My favorite entries are those that depict small, unusual items or things I've walked past every day without thought. Included here is a clock in Grand Central Terminal, but not the clock you're thinking of.  That rusty little remnant of the original Grid Plan -- secretly hiding in Central Park -- is here.  My favorite New York awning is on the list -- the ragged, filthy one that once hung over CBGB.

Such a book leaves wide avenues for debate over which objects were included or left out. In the end, this is an exercise of graceful balance.  Of course there are certain things unrepresented here.  A book such as The History of New York in 101 Objects shouldn't be seen as a reason to exclude memory; it's simply an inspiration to run out and find your own history -- at the grocery store, overhead in the skyline or in the gutter.

Picture courtesy New York Public Library

Friday, October 3, 2014

In 1914, a Jersey City fireworks and munitions plant exploded. Was it sabotage by the Germans?

One hundred years ago today, the Detwiller & Street fireworks plant, located in the Greenville section of Jersey City, exploded in a horrible shower of fire and glass.  Four men were killed instantly and dozens of employees were injured.  Several surrounding buildings "fell to pieces like houses of cards."   The rumble shook buildings throughout the city, up to Weehawken and even into Manhattan and Staten Island. [sources]

This was the sad, weird reality of munitions plants in the New York metropolitan area.  Staten Island was one of America's largest producers of fireworks and saw its share of disasters, including a 1907 explosion in Graniteville.

But there was one huge difference between the 1907 Graniteville disaster and the 1914 Jersey City explosion -- World War I.  Fireworks manufacturers during the war also produced munitions.  As the United States wasn't yet engaged in the European conflict, some manufacturers were hired directly by the Allied nations.

The New York Tribune notes the unwillingness of executives to talk about the blast, and eventually the plant's superintendent was eventually charged with "violations of the Crimes act, which makes it unlawful to store high explosives within 1,000 feet of a  highway unless in a fireproof vault."

From the Evening World, October 3, 1914:

While the press reports of the day never explicitly mention Detwiller & Street's munitions productions, it's clear from later incidents that this was probably at least part of the plant's output that year.  Another explosion at the very same plant in 1917 killed nine, all women.  A safety report clearly indicates then that "[t]he company is engaged in the manufacture of munitions for the Russian government."  On hand to rescue some of the women was a Russian munitions inspector. [source]

This naturally leads to a more disturbing question -- was the 1914 explosion sabotage by the German?

An early postcard from 1873.  The New York based Detwiller & Street specialized in "fireworks, time danger signals, railroad track torpedoes, etc."  They were also responsible for the spectacular fireworks display at the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.

That's one suggestion according to a 1918 book The German Secret Service In America 1914-1918, listing a set of suspicious fireworks accidents in New Jersey before Oct. 3, 1914, Jersey City disaster. While these early accidents may have been due to increased munitions contracts in the hands of inexperienced employees, the authors admit ominously, "These explosions were the opening guns."

German orders from that year make clear the focus on American targets.  From the German Secret Service book: "[A] circular dated November 18, issued by German Naval Headquarters to all naval agents throughout the world, ordered mobilized all 'agents who are overseas and all destroying agents in ports where vessels carrying war material are loaded in England, France, Canada, the United States and Russia."

This had horrible consequence for the United States and those plants in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania in particular, leading to the greatest act of sabotage prior to America's involvement in World War I -- the Black Tom Explosion. (Pictured above: Aftermath of the Black Tom Explosion, courtesy Liberty State Park)

On July 30, 1916, a munitions depot on Black Tom pier in Jersey City was set ablaze by German agents.  The resulting explosion killed seven people on neighboring Ellis Island  in Jersey City and ricocheted through the metropolitan area, shattering windows in Times Square and over at St. Patrick's Cathedral and shaking people from their beds in Brooklyn.  The Statue of Liberty also suffered damage from this act of sabotage.

And so it's hard to read accounts of the Jersey City explosion from one hundred years ago and not imagine the possibility of sinister intention.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

1981 was indeed "A Most Violent Year" in New York City

In 1981, there were more reported robberies in New York City (over 120,000) than in any year in its history.  There were over 2,100 murders that year (slightly down from the previous year) including such infamous crimes as the mob-related Shamrock Bar murders in Queens. After years of steadily increasing crime rates, it seemed unlikely in 1981 that New York would ever reverse course.

This should make a very intriguing backdrop for the new film A Most Violent Year by J.C. Chandor, starring Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac.

We last saw Isaac in another New York flashback -- Inside Llewyn Davis -- which gave us a spectacular view of 1960s Greenwich Village.  And Chandor himself dabbled in some recent history with his debut film Margin Call, about the 2007 financial crash.

The film is set for an end-of-the-year release. So far the production design looks very promising:


And here's a few images of New York City in 1981 for comparison:

Top pic courtesy New York Daily News/Getty Images. Middle picture courtesy Luper/Panoramio.  Meryl Streep courtesy Life Magazine!

Autumn attire : Get a Bowery Boys T-Shirt!

Here's your new look for the fall! Proclaim your love of New York history and the Bowery Boys podcast and blog with these two new exclusive T-shirts.  

The gold-on-black model is called The Boss Tweed, great for either a night out on the town at Delmonico's or an all-nighter at a Five Points stale beer dive.  

The red-on-white model is called The Stuyvesant, perfect for any budding director-general looking for something fashionable to wear to the beach, gym or rowdy Dutch port town.  

The shirts are $20 apiece (XL and larger $25) plus shipping.  You can purchase them here: the official Bowery Boys Shopify store.

This pricing is for a limited time only so buy shirts for you and your gang today!  All profits go back into the improvement of the podcast and blog, so you'll even be helping make our show better than ever.  In a few months we hope to have a couple more items to choose from.

TO NEW YORKERS: The shirts are being shipped from outside New York from Texas which explains the shipping price. We would appreciate any suggestions about how to get them made more cheaply here for locals. Email us and let us know.

Thanks for shopping and supporting the Bowery Boys! We tip our hat to you.

NOTE: The Boss Tweed is unisex while the Stuyvesant is in both unisex and women's sizes.

Shirts and logo designed by Thomas Cabus.  Thanks to Shahar Shamir for modeling.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Housewives demand open markets! One century ago, New York radically changed how people bought groceries

[Manhattan open market.]

Setting up a market under the Manhattan Bridge. (Courtesy MCNY. Note: This photo may be of an earlier market here, but this gives you an idea of where the 1914-15 markets would have been located.)

Groceries are becoming more expensive as retailers mark up prices due to food shortages (or simple price gouging at perceived shortages). So people are turning to rather unconventional methods of getting fresh meat and produce.  Is this 2014 or 1914?

At the start of World War I, there was an immediate shortage of certain food items at New York grocers. Local distributors greatly took advantage of this special circumstance, marking up a variety of essential items.  "Sugar and flour, which have been increasing in price so rapidly, gave indications of continuing their upward march," an article from August 19, 1914 proclaimed.

Shopping at a typical New York grocer, 1903 (MCNY): 

266 Seventh Avenue c. 1903.

Fifty years before, New Yorkers could interact with farmers and butchers directly at open-air markets.  But by the 1910s, most transactions were governed by local distributors. Old Washington Market was by this time a thriving indoor wholesale market. Local grocers had limited space with limited selection. The era of the modern supermarket -- with greater selections and better values -- was still a decade or two in the future. (The first supermarket is often considered to be Piggly Wiggly, which opened in Tennessee in 1916.)

To fend off rising food rates, the city of New York did something rather extraordinary:  it opened its own direct markets (or "open markets") which cut out the middle-man entirely.

Manhattan Borough President Marcus M. Marks authorized the opening of four such markets in the following open areas -- under the Manhattan sides of the Manhattan and Queensboro Bridges, the intersection of 3rd Avenue and 129th Street (today's Harlem River Park), and the Fort Lee Ferry Terminal (West 139th Street and the Hudson River, near today's Riverbank State Park).  A similar program was also set up in Tompkinsville, Staten Island.

Below: Interior of the Queensboro Bridge Market, 1915 (MCNY)

[Interior of market under the Queensboro Bridge.]

The markets opened in September 1914 with dozens of Long Island and New Jersey farmers bringing their wares to New York. Pushcart vendors, already spread throughout the city, also set up shop here.  What makes this such a controversial move is that it was a clear attempt to undercut all established grocers, to force distributors to quit gouging price.

They were an immediate hit despite being located in areas quite distant from certain populated areas. The markets appealed to women of many classes, because who doesn't love a bargain? "At this market were many housewives who came in automobiles to buy from the farmers," said a report from September 20, 1914. "Baskets filled with fresh vegetables and fruits were on seats, and the legs of more than one chicken projected from paper parcels under the chauffeur's elbows."  By 1915, the markets were considered by some "a social affair."

Below: from an April 1915 profile from the Sun:

 The open markets were so successful that stock was usually emptied out by mid-morning.  Late-arriving women "actually wept when the market was bought out." [source]

Naturally, retail grocers were angered by the city's bold move and soon went on the offensive. "There is nothing but politics in this open market game, gentleman, from start to finish," declared one speaker at a grocers union rally that October.

The city counteracted the grocer's propaganda by providing 'bargain days' for extra values, reeling in the participation of farmers, butchers, poultry brokers and even honey producers.  "A butcher, who will open a new stand, says that he will give a head of cabbage in lieu of trading stamps to every purchaser of a piece of corned beef." [October 15, source]

The markets lasted only a few months and, strangely enough, it was the city itself that killed them. Obviously bending to pressure from local businessmen, the city began charging high rents for a spot at the markets, and smaller farmers soon fled.  The Evening World noticed rents that would equal up to "$900 a year". That's $20,000 in 2014 currency.

In essence, this was one end of New York government attempting to dampen the authority of the other (namely, the borough president's office).  Vendors had to raise prices to keep their place, and so the usefulness of the markets swiftly faded.