Friday, November 21, 2014
A very happy 50th birthday to the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge! Ten facts you may not know about the bridge's origins
The new span in 1964, photographed by the Wurts Brothers (MCNY)
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge -- the first land crossing between Staten Island and the rest of New York City -- officially opened for traffic fifty years ago today. It is one of America's greatest bridges and a graceful monumental presence in New York Harbor. Below is a list of ten things you may not have known about the bridge. In addition, I'm also including our podcast on the bridge's history via SoundCloud. (You can also download it from iTunes -- it's episode #119 -- or from here.)
1) The Tunnel to Staten Island
People have been dreaming of spanning the Narrows for several decades before the bridge was finally constructed. In New York's subway fervor of the early 1920s, Mayor John Hylan authorized a tunnel be built to connect Staten Island to Brooklyn, ostensibly to link it to the city's expanding subway network. Due to massive cost, however, the project was cancelled. For many years, the remnants of the aborted tunnels on either side of the Narrows were referred to as "Hylan's Holes."
Giovanni da Verrazzano, who explored the shores of the North American continent in 1524, might have lent his name to the bridge which became the George Washington Bridge, a few decades before the Narrows Bridge was completed. The suggestion was made by a Newark resident and was at least passingly considered that the New York Times ran an article about it: "WOULD NAME NEW SPAN VERRAZANO BRIDGE." The article casts aspersions upon the notion that the explorer would ever be seriously considered enough to warrant his own bridge.
3) What's In A Name? Tanto!
The Florentine explorer had much symbolic value to Italian New Yorkers, and in 1960, the Italian Historical Society of America managed to convince Governor Nelson Rockefeller to apply the name to the brand new bridge about to go under construction.
Some were not pleased with what many considered mere political appeasement. "I wouldn't be surprised if the next move is to rename the Hudson River," grumbled the vice president of the Staten Island chamber of commerce. [source] Gripes over the name continued well up to its opening and beyond. A couple weeks before its opening, one naysayer wrote the Times to propose alternate names: "Let's call it Freedom Gate or Liberty Gate." [source]
4) Spell Check
Even then, there was some debate about the proper spelling of the explorer's last name -- Verrazzano or Verrazano. (There was even a small, if vocal, group for Verazzano.) Official construction signs did say Verrazzano, in keeping with the traditional Italian spelling. However, despite strong support for the double Z version, the shorter spelling eventually won out.
5) The Grand Builders
Although this would be one of the final great projects overseen by Robert Moses, it's also the final project of New York's great bridge and tunnel builder Ottmar Ammann. He died on September 22, 1965, less than a year after the bridge's opening.
Milton Brumer is sometimes overshadowed by those two great icons of city building, but the chief engineer of the Verrazano-Narrows had worked with Ammann on almost every one of his projects and was probably more involved in the day-to-day operations than his boss. In total, there were 200 engineers employed on building the bridge, on top of the hundreds of construction workers employed to bridge the Narrows.
Courtesy Museum of City of New York
6) Curvature of the Earth
When it opened on November 21, 1962, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world, so long, in fact, that bridge engineers had to take the curvature of the planet into account in its design. As a result the tops of the towers are slightly farther apart than the bases. Or to put it another way, if the Narrows were drained, the towers would appear to slightly lean away from each other.
7) A Big Boy, and Loud Too
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge weighs 1,265,000 tons -- the longest suspension bridge in the world at its completion, surpassing the Golden Gate Bridge -- but was not the most welcomed neighbor to the areas of Bay Ridge and western Staten Island when ground was broken in August 1959. Many residents railed against its necessity, the displacement of businesses, even the constant noise assault. "That bridge -- who needs it?" [source] Once construction began, however, many business owners benefited from the influx of hundreds of workers entering the area.
Three workers were killed during the construction of the bridge, including young Gerard McKee who fell to his death in an accident which could have been prevented. His death sparked an improvement in safety procedures at the bridge. He's memorably commemorated by Gay Talese, who closely documented the construction of the span in his classic book The Bridge.
8) Goodbye Fort Lafayette
In building the Brooklyn anchorage, crews swept away the remainder of old Fort Lafayette, an entrenchment built during the War of 1812. During the Civil War, Confederates were held prisoner here, including Robert Cobb Kennedy, who attempted to burn down New York during the Great Conspiracy of 1864. During the two World Wars, it held reserve ammunition. Moses personally fought an effort to turn the fort into a night club and now had a hand in dismantling it entirely.
Not only was the fort destroyed, the entire island on which it sat was virtually erased. In addition, areas near Fort Hamilton and Fort Wadsworth were cleared away to make way for the bridge's approaches. Perhaps to nobody's surprise, the construction company tasked with clearing away the old fort employed the son-in-law of Robert Moses.
9) First Class Reception
The U.S. government did something a little different to honor the opening of the bridge -- it issued a postage stamp featuring the bridge, to be sold on opening day. For its 50 year anniversary this year, the Postal Service replicated the honor with an anniversary stamp. The original stamp was for five cents. The commemorative stamp is for $5.60 priority mail. (Times change.)
10) Opening Day, First Traffic Jam
The opening of the bridge not only brought great pride to New York City, although a small number of protesters noted that the span did not have pedestrian walkways or bike paths (and it still doesn't). Among the dignitaries as the ribbon cutting ceremony were Governor Rockefeller, the Archbishop of New York Cardinal Spellman, Robert Moses and Mayor Robert Wagner. They were all transported over the bridge in a somber 52-limousine procession. The press of vehicles was poorly handled for it resulted in "a traffic jam ... a half-mile beyond the point where the ribbon-cutting ceremony had been held."
The first 'regular' toll-paying person over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was a carload of young men in rented tuxedos (pictured above), "driving a pale blue Cadillac convertible with flags flapping from the fenders," who had parked behind the toll gate for an entire week to earn the special privilege."
Below: The bridge's most famous film appearance in Saturday Night Fever -- but don't watch if you haven't yet seen the entire film!
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
New York street cleaners and garbage workers (sometimes referred to as 'ashcart men') went on strike on November 8, 1911, over 2,000 men walking off their jobs in protest over staffing and work conditions.
More importantly, that April, the city relegated garbage pickup to nighttime shifts only, and cleaners often worked solo. This may have been acceptable in warmer weather, but winter was approaching. At a union rally that evening, a union representative proclaimed, "A 200-pound can was a mighty big load for one man to lift into a garbage wagon ....... [Our] men are already falling ill with pneumonia and rheumatism and ... they demanded the right to work in the sunlight and the warmer weather of the daytime."
In total, almost over 2,000 workers left their jobs in retaliation, "because they didn't like to work in the dark," said the New York Sun, derisively. [source]
By Nov. 11, garbage was heaped along street corners, and coal ash swirled into the street, creating a blackened, smelly stew along the cobblestones. The city brought in temporary workers to carry off the more egregious piles of filth away, but harangues and violence by union protesters --"mobs assaulting and stoning drivers" -- required they be protected by police.
New Yorkers had lived through such a strike before, as recently as 1907, but strikers found little public support this time around. Newspapers, little sympathetic to the strikers, highlighted the growing threat of disease and the perceived selfishness of the workers. "The right to strike of public employees, who enjoy the advantage of being listed in the civil service, is more than doubtful," said the New York Times.
During bouts between strikebreakers and police, over two dozen people were injured and one man was even killed by a falling chimney. Meanwhile, Mayor William Jay Gaynor was resolute in rejecting the cleaners demands. The efforts of the workers failed, and many went back to their jobs the next week, some heavily penalized for their participation in the strike.
Here are a few images from those foul-smelling days. These photographs are far more pleasant to look at than they must have been to shoot!
Horse-drawn garbage wagons collect trash during the four-day garbage strike.
Police protection those who broke from the strikers to clean the city streets.
Crowds form in the streets watching the garbage carts go by. I don't know whether these are strikers or just curiosity seekers!
Boys captivated by the mounted police guarding the garbage carts. In the second photography, a couple rowdy boys are actually chasing after a garbage cart.
Violence against a garbage cart. This vehicle is pelted with stones at the corner of East 57th Street.
Another set of strike breakers rush by this street corner in their garbage cart.
Meanwhile, a boiler company took advantage of the strike to run this grim advertisement for their garbage burners in the New York Sun.
This photo series courtesy the Library of Congress. Portions of this story originally ran on the 100th anniversary of this event in November 2011.
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
Looking over the East River at Brooklyn and Queens, 1981, where much of the film's action takes place. (Photo courtesy GeorgeLouis at English Wikipedia)
A few weeks ago I posted the trailer to the new film by JC Chandor called A Most Violent Year, set in New York City in 1981.
As support for the film (which releases in late December), they've asked me to do a few columns each Monday about New York City history for the film's tie-in site about the year 1981. The year is a turning point in the city's struggle with crime, deteriorating infrastructure and urban decay. It's the year The Clash caused a riot in midtown, the year the New York Times first reported on a "rare cancer" killing gay men, the year Ed Koch ran both as a Democrat and a Republican. Robbery and murder rates in the city would reach their highest peak. But it would also be the year where things begin turning around in New York.
My first column is on a particular incident which occurred two minutes before midnight on December 31, 1980, and how that incident reflected upon the grim state of affairs in the city. Check out the full story here.
Friday, November 14, 2014
Ruins of the World's Fair: The New York State Pavilion, or how Philip Johnson's futuristic architecture was almost forgotten
PODCAST The ruins of the New York State Pavilion, highlight of the 1964-65 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, have become a kind of unofficial Statue of Liberty of Queens, greeting people as they head to and from LaGuardia and JFK airports. Its abandoned saucer-like observation decks and steel arena have inspired generations of New Yorkers who have grown up with this oddity on the horizon.
For the first part of this very special episode of the Bowery Boys, I take you through the pavilion's presence in the World's Fair, a kaleidoscopic attraction that extolled the greatness of the state of New York. In its first year, however, a battle over controversial artwork was waged, pitting Robert Moses and Nelson Rockefeller against the hottest artist of the day -- Andy Warhol. Other controversies at the Fair threatened to derail the message behind its slogan 'Peace Through Understanding'.
In the show's second half, I head out to record at the Queens Theater -- the only part of the New York State Pavilion that's been rehabilitated -- to explore the venue's 'lonely years' with filmmaker Matthew Silva, a co-founder of People For The Pavilion, an organization that's successfully bringing attention to this weird little treasure. Matthew gives us the scoop of the pavilion's later years, culled from some of his interviews in the film Modern Ruin: A World's Fair Pavilion.
This is crucial time in the history of this spectacular relic. With public attention at an all time high, we may now be at the right time to re-purpose the Pavilion into a new destination for New Yorkers. What do you think should be done with the New York State Pavilion?
An airplane passes over the park, its shadow captured inside the Pavilion. (Photo by George Garrigues)
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 #173: Ruins of the World's Fair
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Here's the trailer to Matthew's film Modern Ruin: A World's Fair Pavilion:
Modern Ruin: A World's Fair Pavilion - Promo I from Matthew Silva on Vimeo.
Thank you Matthew for helping out with the show this week! He's finishing his film. If you would like to help out, go over to the Modern Ruin GoFundMe page and donate. You just be helping out the film, but the Pavilion itself. The film will probably be the first time many people ever hear of the New York State Pavilion.
And for a different (fictional) film take on the Pavilion, try out these appearances from The Wiz, Men In Black and Iron Man 2:
And thank you to commenter Signed D.C. who points out that the venue was featured in an music video by They Might Be Giants who, generally speaking, who a bit obsessed with the World's Fair. (It pops up in several of their songs, including a lyric to their song "Ana Ng.") At one point, the lead singer floats over the Texaco map.
Looking down at the Texaco map of New York state. (Courtesy New York Daily News)
An overhead shot of Philip Johnson's extraordinary rooftop, a stunning colorful ovoid that projected a rainbow of colors down upon fair-goers.(Courtesy AP)
Theaterama, part of the New York State Pavilion, is today's Queens Theater. Johnson commissioned the work of several pop artists to hang along the walls of the pavilion. (Courtesy Bill Cotter/World's Fair Community)
A view of Theaterama showing the Roy Lichtenstein mural upon its side (Courtesy Jon Buono):
Andy Warhol's Ten Wanted Men on the side of Theaterama, with the Tent of Tomorrow in the background. Although we can almost guarantee that it was not beloved by Robert Moses, it's believed it was taken down because of Governor Rockefeller.
Robert Moses beams from the sidewalk of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. The mosaic is based on the work of Andy Warhol.
The Federal Pavilion -- "the square donut on stilts" -- was designed by Charles Luckman, who also designed the current Madison Square Garden.
The photographer Marco Catini has taken some recent images of the Pavilion. You can find much more of his work here. Thanks Marco for letting me use your work here!
Here are a few of my photos taken on the afternoon of recording. The New York State Pavilion Paint Project is responsible for keeping the place is festive shape. The candy stripes are similar to the look of the 1964 pavilion.
MY THANKS AND GRATITUDE to the Queens Theatre in The Park for allowing us to record in the cabaret room! I know we went on and on about the observation desks and the Tent of Tomorrow, but you should really check out a show within the greatly renovated theater. Coming in December: Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol!
Visit the People For The Pavilion website for more information on upcoming events, news and fund-raisers. And a shout-out to the organization's co-founder Salmaan Khan!
The New York Daily News just yesterday published an article about People For the Pavilion and its co-founder Christian Doran who passed away in February. There's a fund-raiser tomorrow in his honor. [More info here]
ALSO: I didn't get to plug this on the show, but historian Christian Kellberg has just released a book of photography of the New York State Pavilion, part of the Images of America series. Most of the pictures are exclusive to this book including some extraordinary shots of the pavilion construction.
And of course there's Joseph Tirella's terrific book Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World's Fair and the Transformation of America, putting the entire fair within context of the rapidly changing America of the 1960s.
And since I mentioned it on the show, here's a link for Robert Caro's The Power Broker as well!
Thursday, November 13, 2014
Robert Moses rejected this terrifying Margaret Keane painting from hanging at the 1964-65 World's Fair
The World's Fair of 1964-65 at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park was a major American event forward-looking in its intent and, in many ways, backwards in its practice. In particular, Robert Moses did not care for cheap carnival amusements, nor did he care for music or art that was particular edgy or controversial. Moses' tastes ruled supreme over the Fair as he held veto power over any works that were in "extreme bad taste or low standard."
There was no pavilion dedicated to art although several independent partners funded their own art displays. The New York State Pavilion presented the work of brand-new pop artists; an objectionable piece by Andy Warhol entitled Thirteen Wanted Men was eventually painted over (although it was the governor Nelson Rockefeller who objected in this case).
Moses did eventually throw out one surprising piece of artwork -- Tomorrow Forever by Margaret Keane.
The Keane painting was to have been displayed in this building at the fair.**
Keane was known for her bizarre and haunting images of children and animals with large empty eyes. During the 1960s, her husband Walter Keane claimed to be the creator of her paintings. It was he who was announced as the painter of this macabre work, chosen in February 1964 to grace the Fair's Hall of Education. The venue devoted to the future of schools would feature a scale model of an elementary school from the year 2000, a playground with "futuristic climbing structures," and from the entrance way, the terrifying painting you see above.
The New York Times' art critic John Canaday could barely conceal his disgust at this "grotesque announcement," adding, "Mr. Keane is the painter who enjoys international celebration for grinding out formula pictures of wide‐eyed children of such appalling sentimentality that his product has become synonymous among critics with the very definition of tasteless hack work." [source]
To be fair, Canaday had only seen a photograph of the painting, which depicts an endless sea of soul-crushing zombie children, rising out of a morose and barren wasteland. "That's true," he confessed to a Life Magazine reporter. "It's normally a principle of mine never to judge just by a photograph, but in this case it didn't matter."
Moses seemed to agree with Canaday, demanding the Hall of Education cancel the planned installation before it was even mounted. Thanks to Canaday's protest, Moses' office was inundated with letters from angry intellectuals and aesthetes. "[T]he perpetrators of this art burlesque," wrote Joseph James Akston, "expose us to veritable scandal sure to incur ridicule and laughter of the whole civilized world with possible exception of Russians." [source]
Keane, who of course didn't paint the artwork attributed to him, nonetheless seemed to revel in the critical potshots. The following year, he issued a press releases from San Francisco and Tahiti, declaring himself "the American Gauguin." Canaday would continue to take aim at Keane's kitschy work. Imagine how Canaday felt when he discovered that Walter hadn't even painted the works he so deliciously despised?
Margaret eventually left her husband and sued for rightful ownership of her artwork.
Below: From a Life Magazine profile in August 1965:
NOTE: I'm being a little irreverent in calling the painting "terrifying" as the artist clearly intended the subjects to be starving, sad children. However, the passage of time has been a little strange to Keane's legacy. She is perhaps more beloved than ever -- there's a new Tim Burton film coming out this year -- but the flagrant sentimentality of the work has given way to their spectacular kitsch value.
** The Hall of Education picture courtesy the blog Little Owl Ski which has a few other nifty World's Fair pictures.
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
New York's 369th Infantry Regiment was America's first African-American regiment engaged in World War I. While many white American soldiers would have been happy to serve next to trained regiments of any color, intense racial prejudice in the United States forced many who signed up to fight for their country to instead be assigned to the French army.
They returned to New York in February 1919 and marched through the streets of Manhattan on February 17 -- from Greenwich Village to Harlem, in triumph.
From the New York Times the following day:
"New York's negro soldiers, bringing with them from France one of the bravest records achieved by any organization in the war, marched amidst waving flags and cheering crowds yesterday from Twenty-third Street and Fifth Avenue to 145th Street and Lenox Avenue."
"At Thirty-Fourth Street the men marched under a shower of cigarettes and candy, and such tokens were pitched at them at other points in the line, but the files did not waver for an instant."
The men of the 369th photographed as they arrive back in New York City, 1919
From original caption (courtesy US National Archies): "[The] 369th New York City Infantry (old 15th) [African American] troops and some of the 370th Infantry, Illinois [African American] troops, one of the most decorated regiments in the United States Army return to New York City. They saw [the] longest service of any American regiment as part of a foreign army, and had less training than any before going into action. They were never in an American division or brigade always being with the French."
The 369th marching up Fifth Avenue.