Sunday, January 6, 2013

 Stand Clear of the Closing Doors

Gnir Rednow - Joseph Cornell (1955) 
Cornell commissioned Stan Brakhage to shoot the El before its demolition, then inverted the footage to form Gnir Rednow.

3rd Ave. El (1955)

Robert Fleury / Joseph Tul / Osmond Beckwith / Tom Carroll / Ann Kaufman
Haydyn’s Concerto in D for Harpsichord played by Wanda Landowska 

Produced and Directed by Carson Davidson
Bob Larkin appears but is not credited. The film includes sounds of the trains and the city, but much of the soundtrack features Joseph Haydn’s “Harpsichord Concerto in D Major.” This is performed by Wanda Landowska, the celebrated Polish-born harpsichordist who played a pivotal role in reviving the popularity of the instrument.
Carson Davidson’s film was not the only professional documentary of the Third Avenue El during its last days of operation. However, it did earn recognition that the others did not. Although perhaps not well remembered today, “ 3rd AVE. EL” received an Academy Award nomination for best one-reel short subject film in 1955.

In the Street
Cinematography: Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, James Agee
Edited by Helen Levitt / Music by Arthur Kleiner

In the Street was shot in Manhattan's Spanish Harlem and originally entitled I Hate 110th Street. This initial title was taken from an image of a sidewalk chalk graffiti that opened an early version of the film. Edited by photographer Helen Levitt, the film was shot in 1945 and 1946 by Levitt in collaboration with painter/photographer Janice Loeb and writer James Agee. The film was released in 1948 and again in 1952.

"It was a very good neighborhood for taking pictures in those days because that was before television and there was a lot happening, and the older people would sometimes be sitting out on the stoops because of the heat. They didn't have air conditioning in those days.[...] So those neighborhoods were very active." 
-Helen Levitt

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Panoramas and Pedestrians

Everyday I see the city from at least two or three vantage points most natives and visitors never get to experience. Between those points I walk and ride the same paths millions take and which I've taken a thousand times. One hour I'm 18 stories above the FDR Drive and the next hour I'm 32 stories above lower midtown. I see buildings torn down and lots built up, their property lines divided from neighbor’s next street over by greasy alleys and historic brownstones, refurbished tenements and converted factories. The cohesive distant city takes on a makeshift patchwork quality up close. The doorman hailed a taxi for the stuffy dowager, her fur collared coat indistinguishable from two of the dog walkers many charges. She lifted her leg as she entered the cab. I waited a moment while the man with the shopping cart fished deposits out of the waste basket. I tossed my empty coffee cup in at the buzzer and headed for the subway.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Brooklyn Bridge & Lower Manhattan

The financial district. The cradle of NYC in lower Manhattan.

Angouleme, New Netherland, New Amsterdam, New Orange, and forever New York.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Mose in Metropolis or Superman on the Bowery

Middle English metropol, from Late Latin metropolis,
mother-city, from Greek: meter, metr-, mother, see meter- in Indo-European roots + polis, city

The word metropolis has a history that begins with Greece and Rome, indicating a large city. It took a space craft from another solar system to crash on earth to make ‘metropolis’ a name associated more closely with New York than with any other city on the planet. Superman, “who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper,” did as much to further the iconography of midtown Manhattan as the skyline itself. Unlike the Gothic aesthetic of Batman’s dark Gotham City (his bat signal only works in the cloudy night sky), Superman’s Metropolis is a modern city of steel and glass skyscrapers reflecting sunlight. Even the ‘Daily Planet’ news building looks like a trophy of accomplishment with its iconic silver globe gleaming from the roof. The connections to Manhattan at its best are unmistakable. But the deeper connection to New York is one that is virtually unrecognized and quite surprising. The character of Superman specifically as a superhero in New York City may have roots that reach back to 1848.

Bowery B’hoy as Superman
Mose(s) Humphrey* was a resident of New York during the 1830s. Like many young men of the period he was a volunteer firefighter, a member of ‘Lady Washington’ Engine Company 40. He was a printer by trade who worked for the New York Sun and a parishioner of St. Andrew’s Church. He was also a ‘Bowery Boy’ of local fame and renown. As the story goes Mose was a brawler with a formidable talent for never losing. As would have been said at the time, ‘the b’hoy’s got some sand in ‘em.’ According to the legend Mose met his match in 1838 at the fists of Henry Chanfrau from ‘Peterson’ Engine Company No. 15. In the shame of his defeat Mose left New York, moving to any number of places depending on which account one reads. Henry’s younger brother, Frank, never forgot Mose. This is where the history ends.
Here is where the legend begins. Frank Chanfrau became an actor. In February of 1848 he appeared as the lead in a play written by Benjamin A. Baker, A Glance at New York in 1848, the vehicle which introduced ‘Mose the Fire Laddie.’ It opened at William Mitchell's Olympic Theatre on Broadway between Howard and Grand Streets on Feb. 15th 1848. This play was the first time a working class audience was represented on stage in any significant way. Bowery b’hoys, Centre Market b’hoys, Chatham b’hoys and others who patronized the Olympic recognized themselves in Mose.
Baker and Chanfrau, who were initially apprehensive about displeasing the audience of ‘toughs’ with a send up, found themselves surrounded by ovations at the end. Word on the street and positive reviews later in the press helped to create a huge theatrical success and the beginning of a New York legend.

One month later on March 15th further scenes and characters were added, resulting in a then record run of 74 performances. During one later period of the plays popularity, Chanfrau played Mose at the Olympic in A Glance, ended the performance and headed over to the Chatham Theatre where he played in its sequel, New York As It Is, which was then followed by a third 'Mose' performance in Newark, N.J. requiring a ferry trip and a nine mile horse and buggy ride.
It is estimated that between April 15, 1848 and July 6, 1850, Chanfrau appeared at least three hundred and eighty-five times in seven different Mose plays. In all of the plays and later in the penny novels, Mose was always presented as an unbeatable hero, turning the tables on local ‘sharpers’ trying to take advantage of innocent victims (usually 'rubes' visiting the city), running into burning buildings and saving babies, looking for gangs and rowdies to ‘kick up a muss’ with ("I'm bilein' over for a rousin' good fight..."). Besides his passion for fighting fires and trouble makers he also made time for his 'g'hal' Lize, treating her to carriage rides along de Bowery or a 'gala night' to a "first rate shin-dig" at Vauxhall Garden.
As the years passed his legend grew into myth. The following account is an excerpt from the book ‘The Gangs of New York’ by Herbert Asbury. It is perhaps the first time in popular urban culture that a character performs feats of strength and prowess that could be termed ‘super.’

Excerpt from ‘The Gangs of New York’ (pp. 30-34)
   But the greatest of the Bowery Boys, and the most imposing figure in all the history of the New York gangs, was a leader who flourished in the forties, and captained the gangsters in the most important of their punitive and marauding expeditions into the Five Points. His identity remains unknown, and there is excellent reason to believe that he may be a myth, but vasty tales of his prowess and of his valor in the fights against the Dead Rabbits and the Plug Uglies have come down through the years, gaining incident and momentum as they came. Under the simple sobriquet of Mose he had become a legendary figure of truly heroic proportions, at once the Samson, the Achilles, and the Paul Bunyan of the Bowery. And beside him, in the lore of the street, marches the diminutive figure of his faithful friend and counselor, by name Syksey, who is said to have coined the phrase “hold de butt,” an impressive plea for the remains of a dead cigar.
   The present generation of Bowery riffraff knows little or nothing of the mighty Mose, and only the older men who plod that now dreary and dismal relict of a great street have heard the name. But in the days before the Civil War, when the bowery was in its heyday and the Bowery Boy was the strutting peacock of gangland, songs were sung in honor of his great deeds, and the gangsters surged into battle shouting his name and imploring his spirit to join them and lend power to their arms. He was scarcely cold in his grave before Chanfrau had immortalized him by writing Mose, The Bowery B’hoy, which was first performed before a clamorous audience at the Olympic Theater in 1849, the year of the Astor Place riot.
   Mose was at least eight feet tall and broad in proportion, and his colossal bulk was crowned by shock of ginger-colored hair, on which he wore a beaver hat measuring more than two feet from crown to brim. His hands were as large as the hams from a Virginia hog, and on those rare moments when he was in repose they dangled below his knees; it was Syksey’s habit to boast pridefully that his chieftain could stand erect and scratch his kneecap. The feet of the great captain were so large that the ordinary boot of commerce would not fit his big toe; he wore specially constructed footgear, the soles of which were copper plates studded with nails an inch long. Woe and desolation came upon the gangs of the Five Points when the great Mose leaped into their midst and began to kick and stamp; they fled in despair and hid themselves in the innermost depths of the rookeries of Paradise Square.
   The strength of the gigantic Mose was as the strength of ten men. Other Bowery Boys went into battle carrying brickbats and the ordinary stave of the time, but Mose, when accoutered for the fray, bore in one hand a great paving stone and in the other a hickory or oak wagon tongue. This was his bludgeon, and when it was lost in the heat of battle he simply uprooted an iron lamp-post and laid about him with great zeal. Instead of the knife affected by his followers, he pinned his faith on a butcher’s cleaver. Once when the dead rabbits overwhelmed his gang and rushed ferociously up the Bowery to wreck the Boys’ headquarters, the great Mose wrenched a tree out of the earth, and holding it by the upper branches, employed it as a flail, smiting the Dead Rabbits even as Samson smote the Philistines. The Five Points thugs broke and fled before him, but he pursued them into their lairs around Paradise Square and wrecked two tenements before his rage cooled. Again, he stood his ground before a hundred of the best brawlers of the Points, ripping huge paving blocks from the street and sidewalk and hurling them into the midst of his enemies, inflicting frightful losses.
   In his lighter moments it was the custom of this great god of the gangs to lift a horse car off the tracks and carry it a few blocks on his shoulders, laughing uproariously at the bumping the passengers received when he set it down. And so gusty was his laugh that the car trembled on its wheels, the tree swayed as though in a storm and the Bowery was filled with a rushing roar like the thunder of Niagara. Sometimes Mose unhitched the horses and himself pulled the street car the length of the Bowery at a bewildering speed; once, if the legend is to be credited, he lifted a car above his head at Chatham Square and carried it, with the horses dangling from the traces, on the palm of his hand as far as Astor Place. Again, when a sailing ship was becalmed in the East river and drifting dangerously near the treacherous rocks of Hell Gate, Mose pulled out in a rowboat, lighted his cigar, which was more than two feet long, and sent such mighty billows of smoke against the sails that the ship was saved, and plunged down the river as though driven by a hurricane. So terrific was the force of Mose’s puff, indeed, that the vessel was into the Harbor and beyond Staten Island before it would respond to the helm. Occasionally Mose amused himself by taking up a position in the center of the river and permitting no ship to pass; as fast as they appeared he blew them back. But Mose was always very much at home in the water; he often dived off at the Battery and came up on the Staten Island beach, a distance which is now traversed by ferry boats in twenty-five minutes. He could swim the Hudson River with two mighty strokes, and required but six for a complete circuit of Manhattan Island. But when he wanted to cross the East River to Brooklyn he scorned to swim the half mile or so; he simply jumped.
   When Mose quenched his thirst a drayload of beer was ordered from the brewery, and during the hot summer months he went about with a great fifty gallon keg of ale dangling from his belt in lieu of a canteen. When he dined in state the butchers of the Center and Fly markets were busy for days in advance of the great event, slicing hogs and cattle and preparing the enormous roasts which the giant needs must consume to regain his strength; and his consumption of bread was so great that a report that Mose was hungry caused a flurry in the flour market. Four quarts of oysters were but an appetizer, and soup and coffee were served to him by the barrel. For dessert and light snacks he was very fond of fruit. Historians affirm that the cherry trees of Cherry Hill and the mulberry trees of Mulberry Bend vanished because of the building up of the city, but the legend of the Bowery has it that Mose tore them up by the roots and ate the fruit; he was hungry and in no mood to wait until the cherries and mulberries could be picked.

Superman as Bowery B'hoy
Herbert Asbury, by all accounts, was a sensationalist writer. It is fitting that his translation of the myth should be the definitive modern version. All of the basic elements for a super hero are present, ripping trees and lamp posts out of the ground bare handed, moving ships in the water with the power of his lungs, picking up carriages full of passengers with horses dangling, single handed no less, and running them uptown, able to leap across the east river to Brooklyn ‘in a single bound,’ and perhaps most importantly, running into burning buildings and saving innocents, all are strikingly close to the talents of a certain caped hero of almost a century later.
The book ‘Gangs of New York’ made its first published appearance in 1928. Whether Siegel or Shuster,  Superman's creators, knew the tale or not, (both were in their teens when the book came out), it’s interesting to consider that the story was still hanging around in the minds and probably on the lips of the older generations. There’s a slight possibility that the Mose myth was one of the seeds for Superman. Mose the person was said to work as a printer for the New York Sun and Clark Kent was a reporter for the Daily Planet. The odds are pretty good for a direct connection. While I’m objective enough to know this all may be pure unadulterated coincidence, I’m absolutely certain of one thing. There is no other place on the planet that could have been a better back drop for either of these two heroes.
“Yessiree, I'm man and no mistake. One of de b'hoys at dat!" - Mose

*A Mose Humphrey is listed in the city directories between 1827 and 1842 as a morocco worker, living on Mulberry Street. For the legend see Fred Mathers, My Angling Friends (New York, 1901), 58, which has Chanfrau spending "weeks" studying Humphrey, However, Baker always insisted Mose was based on a type, not a particular individual, see his interview in the Clipper, 6 April 1878.
The background of A Glance at New York is well described in Peter Gordon Buckley, "To the Opera House: Culture and Society in New York City, 1820-1860," (diss., SUNY at Stony Brook, 1984) 388-399. The best primary source on the creation of the play is the Clipper, 6 April 1878.
- The Gangs of New  York - Herbert Asbury / 1927 Thunder’s Mouth Press 1998
- Mose the Far-Famed and World-Renowned - Richard M.Dorson / American Literature, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Nov. 1943)

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Fire Laddies of New York

Queer Street Characters

(Originally published 1893)

Was it the fireman in real life or the fire laddie of the stage who gave rise to the slang that centred around the life of the volunteer fireman? For a long time, in my school-days, "Mose," "Lize," and "Syksey" were familiar names upon our play-grounds, and we shouted to "wash her out" or "take de butt" as if we were veritable Chanfraus. The caricatures of the period found inexhaustible fun in "Mose," with, his red shirt, black broadcloth pantaloons tucked into his boot-tops, his elfin "soap-locks" hanging over each ear and down his close-shaven cheeks, his tall silk hat perched on one side of his head, and his broadcloth coat hung over his left arm. For his "Lize" he ordered pork and beans in the restaurant, and bade the waiter, "Don't yer stop ter count a bean," and to "Lize" he remarked, as he drove out on the road, It isn't a graveyard we're passin'; it's mile-stones." Possibly a new generation does not see anything laugh-able in these traditional jokes, but to the men of that period they stood for living actualities, the dashing heroes of many a fierce battle with the dread forces of fire.

I honor the old volunteer firemen. When one of the battered "machines" of former days passes by in a public procession I feel like taking off my hat to it, as I always do to the tattered colors that I have followed on many a fierce field of fight. Ah, what nights of noise and struggle were those in which the engines rattled down pavement or sidewalk, drawn by scores of willing hands and ushered into action by the hoarse cries of hundreds of cheering voices. There was no boy's play around the engine when once it began to battle with the flames. Men left their pleasant firesides to risk their lives for the preservation of the lives and property of others, and they did it without bravado, as if it were but one of the ordinary duties of their lot. They had their jealousies and their prejudices, their feuds and their fights of rival organizations, but all met alike on the common ground of self-sacrifice for the common good. All classes of society were represented in the ranks of the firemen. The mechanic and the son of the wealthy merchant were in-distinguishable under the volunteer's heavy hat, and emulated each other in labors and daring. College graduates drew the silver-mounted carriage of Amity Hose to the scene of peril, and then the boys of "Old Columbia" did as good work amid the flames as the gilt-edged boys of the Seventh Regiment did after-wards through the long years of war. And then the firemen's processions-were they not superb? What a magnificent polish the engines took, and how exuberantly they were garlanded with flowers, and how full were the long lines of red-shirted laddies who manned the ropes and were the cynosure of the ad-miring eyes of all feminine Gotham! The men who carried the trumpets were the conquering heroes of the day and the envy of every boyish beholder. It seems a pity that their glory should have departed. Has it departed? I open the book of memory again, and they are all there, and the glory of their record is - undimmed: 
"Those ahold of hook-and-ladder ropes No less to me than the gods of the antique wars."

Video Notes:

Video 1
May 19, 1903. American Mutoscope & Biograph Co.
Two hook-and-ladders, two steam pumpers, and a rescue wagon return to the 'house'. Note the kids running along and hanging on the back of some of the vehicles.

Video 2
Photographed September 21, 1903.
American Mutoscope and Biograph Co.
Camera: Frederick S. Armitage
A parade honoring the disabled and retired firemen of the city, the march is taking place through Washington Square Park. The Washington Arch, designed by Stanford White, is visible in the background as firefighters and antique firefighting equipment pass by.
New York has had a professional fire department since 1865. Before that, volunteer fire companies took care of conflagrations. New York suffered major fires in 1776, 1811, 1835, and 1845 and numerous fire-related tragedies, including the Brooklyn Theatre Fire (1876), the fire on the cruise ship General Slocum (1904), and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (1911).

Music celebrating New York firemen includes "The New York Fireman" (circa 1836), "The Diligent Hose Company Quick Step: As performed by Dodworth's Cornet Band of New York" (1849), "The Fireman's Polka" (1851), the "Friendship Quick Step"--"Composed for Phoenix Hook & Ladder Co. No. 3 of New York" (1850), and George M. Cohan's "The Boys Who Fight the Flames" (1908).

- New York: Songs of the City by Nancy Groce

Washington Square Park was originally used as farmland by former slaves until April 1797, when the Common Council of New York purchased the fields to the east of the Minetta (which were not yet within city limits) for a new potter's field, or public burial ground. It was used mainly for burying unknown or indigent people when they died. But when New York (which did not include this area yet) went through yellow fever epidemics in the early 1800s, most of those who died from yellow fever were also buried here, safely away from town, as a hygienic measure. The cemetery was closed in 1825. To this day, the remains of more than 20,000 bodies rest under Washington Square.

- excerpt from wikipedia

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

urban excerpt

“Don’t you like cities?”
“I adore them. Cities are wonderful.”
“I’m always glad when I get out of one myself,” Loring declared.
It wasn’t a question you could answer right like that, with a reply that she evidently expected would be on the tip of his tongue or ready-made in his mind. Loring knew why he disliked cities but it was a thing that had to be explained, with reasons. This girl, lifting her extraordinary gray eyes above the two straws in her lemonade, confused him.
“They’re too artificial,” he stated.
“But what else could they be? Isn’t that the whole point of cities—the wonderful thing about them—that they are made and can be made?”
“Of course they’re wonderful achievements. But they lack beauty.”
“You think that they do?”
“Yes. I mean,” he fumbled—“you take a wheat field. Or a farm in one of those valleys we flew over today. Or take a lake in the woods with a stand of pine around it. There you’ve got real beauty.”
“you take the George Washington Bridge across the Hudson,” she said, “look at it in sunset. Take Rockefeller Center in moonlight, or look down on it from the Rainbow Room. Take the Grand Central Station. They’re beautiful. You’ve got real beauty in New York.”
“Yes, I suppose so, in a way, particularly the bridge. But so much of New York is unsightly.”
“Did you ever look closely at one of those farms you were speaking of? The detail isn’t so good there either. But I know what you mean. Some things about cities bother me too. When we were flying along this afternoon and would go over one, I kept thinking that the offices and apartment buildings looked like filing cases where people were neatly filed. And there is such a small place in each file for each person. Small and probably pretty dusty.” She almost sighed and said, “I suppose a lot of people are never filed correctly either. They get put in the wrong filing case and have to stay there. They get lost.”
Margaret Culkin Banning - A Week in New York (1940) p.32-33