Battery Park City’s Irish Hunger Memorial

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About an hour early to meet new friends for dinner at The Odeon in TriBeCa, I took the opportunity to wander around the northern end of Battery Park City. Created mostly on landfill and severed from the rest of Lower Manhattan by the West Side Highway, this roughly 25-year-old neighborhood gets a bad rap. Many New Yorkers I know look down on this part of town, probably because it is new and planned; it didn’t organically develop over time like most other parts of the city.

Like it or not, Battery Park City boasts impressive parks that are spotless, well-utilized and offer commanding views of the Hudson. On Tuesday, I enjoyed those views from Nelson Rockefeller park as I walked to the Irish Hunger Memorial, a monument to the famine of 1845 to 1852.

Created by artist Brian Tolle and dedicated in 2002, the half acre monument is made primarily of stones and grasses from Ireland. From the Battery Park City Authority’s brochure,

Central to Tolle’s project is an authentic Famine-era cottage donated to the memorial by his extended family, the Slacks of Attymass, County Mayo, Ireland. The cottage has been painstakingly reconstructed on the memorial’s half-acre site as an expression of solidarity to those who left from those who stayed behind. From the cottage, visitors to the memorial meander along paths winding through a rugged landscape thickly planted with native Irish flora, plants often found growing in fallow fields. Ascending to an overlook twenty-five feet above the ground, the visitor confronts a breathtaking view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island beyond.

Part of the mission of the memorial is to encourage efforts to address current and future hunger worldwide. Thus, the walls surrounding the memorial are lined with quotations from accounts of hunger from around the world.

Below are some photos of the memorial. Looming above many of the shots is the new 1 World Trade Center, whose spire now reaches 1,776 feet above Lower Manhattan.

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Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library

New York Public LibraryI returned to the Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library on Sunday to continue digging for a June 1969 article for my author friend in Southern California. This time I was successful, locating the article on reels of New York Post microfilm in about an hour.

This left me time to wander the halls of this 102-year-old Beaux Arts building. Designed by Carrère & Hastings, this was at the time the largest marble structure ever attempted in the United States. Unfortunately, many of the library’s rooms are closed on Sundays. But the Rose Main Reading Room, thankfully, was open for me to admire. From the library’s website:

The Deborah, Jonathan F. P., Samuel Priest, and Adam R. Rose Main Reading Room is a majestic public space, measuring 78 feet by 297 feet—roughly the length of two city blocks—and weaving together Old World architectural elegance with modern technology. … Here, patrons can read or study at long oak tables lit by elegant bronze lamps, beneath fifty-two foot tall ceilings decorated by dramatic murals of vibrant skies and billowing clouds. Since the General Research Division’s opening day on May 23, 1911, vast numbers of people have entered the main reading room. Literary figures such as Norman Mailer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elizabeth Bishop, E. L. Doctorow, and Alfred Kazin have cited the division as a major resource for their work.

As I walked the perimeter of the 297-foot-long room, admiring the ceilings, I couldn’t help but wish I were among those using the tables to read and write on their notebook computers. These people couldn’t ask for a more beautiful space to work.

Fora brief history of the building, visit this page of the library’s website. Or, for the comprehensive (and beautiful) guide to the library and its architecture, check out
The New York Public Library: The Architecture and Decoration of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building by Henry Hope Reed and Francis Morrone.

Below are a few more photos that I took on Sunday afternoon.

Rose Main Reading Room
Rose Main Reading Room
Rose Main Reading Room
Rose Main Reading Room
Astor Hall
Astor Hall, the library’s magnificent entrance hall, with a 37-foot vaulted ceiling
Astor Hall
Astor Hall, the library’s magnificent entrance hall, with a 37-foot vaulted ceiling
New York Public Library
Mayor Fiorello La Guardia is credited with nicknaming the lions flanking the library’s entrance “Patience” and “Fortitude.”

Bryant Park on a Saturday Morning in May

Bryant Park

A research trip to the New York Public Library brought me to Bryant Park last Saturday morning. A friend of mine in Southern California who is working on a book hired me to dig up a newspaper article from 1969. Three hours of scrolling through microfilm of the New York Post and New York Daily News in Room 100 of the Schwarzman Building proved fruitless. But arriving at the library before its 10 a.m. opening offered the opportunity to enjoy Bryant Park and shoot some images while the sun was still low and the crowds still light. 

This 9.6-acre space in Midtown has a long and varied history. It has served as a potter’s field (yes, a burial ground), a distributing reservoir with 50-foot high walls (the tops of which formed a promenade), a Crystal Palace Exhibition and an encampment for Union troops during the Civil War. Read more about Bryant Park’s history here.

In 1884, the park was named after longtime New York Evening Post editor and civic reformer William Cullen Bryant. Since then, its fate has fallen and risen, reaching a low point in the 1970s, when few people ventured beyond its raised hedges (hard to believe when you see the park now). The story of the park’s revival is a fascinating one, largely the brainchild of urbanist William H. Whyte. The Project for Public Spaces, an organization that builds on the ideas of William H. Whyte, tells an abbreviated version of the park’s restoration:

Bryant Park was rebuilt in 1934 under the direction of Robert Moses, Commissioner of the New York City Parks Department. Because of the stacks of the library located beneath it, The park was raised above the surrounding busy streets and conceived of as an “urban sanctuary.” However, this design created isolation —and invited crime. The park grew to become a haven for drug dealing and other negative activities. After analysis by urbanologist William H. Whyte and Project for Public Spaces in 1981—their report was titled Intimidation or Recreation—a plan for Bryant Park’s reconstruction was developed. It addressed issues such as opening the park’s constricted entrances and removing hedges along its perimeter so that people could more easily view the interior from the sidewalk, and adding semi-commercial uses such as a food and beverage kiosks and a ticket stand. While construction began in 1982, it was not completed until ten years later.

With Whyte’s signature amenities, like movable chairs, concession stands and clean comfort stations, as well as easy physical and visual access to the city blocks around it, Bryant Park now draws visitors at all hours of the day and night, regardless of the weather or season. (I’m actually more familiar with the park in the Winter, when it’s decked out with an ice skating rink, Christmas tree and scores of vendors—and the Southwest Porch serves drinks around a large, warm fire pit.)

But back to Spring. Below are some shots from last Saturday, from tulips to bocce ball to charging stations for mobile devices …

Bryant Park Bryant ParkBryant ParkBryant ParkBryant ParkBryant Park

 

Signs of Spring in New York City

Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
Daffodils in bloom between Shore Road and the Belt Parkway in Bay Ridge

The first signs of Spring are evident throughout the boroughs this week. While daffodils have been in bloom for a few weeks now, tulips are on the verge of opening, and many pear, cherry and plum trees seem to be at their prime.

The Spring colors have been striking. Here are some photos I have taken over the last week in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Tulips in Washington Square Park
A field of tulips in Washington Square Park prepares to open into a sea of yellow.
Narrows Botanical Gardens in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
Daffodils and forsythia add a splash of Spring color to the Narrows Botanical Gardens between Shore Road and the Belt Parkway in Bay Ridge.
Cherry blossoms in Prospect Park
Cherry blossoms frame Grand Army Plaza at the entrance to Prospect Park
Prospect Park, Brooklyn
Though these trees have yet to respond to Spring’s mild temperatures, the residents of Brooklyn have. Many were out enjoying Prospect Park last weekend.
Pear blossoms in Red Hook
Pear blossoms on Conover Street in Red Hook.
Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn
OK maybe Spring isn’t everywhere. I couldn’t find a single Spring blossom along the Gowanus Canal from my vantage point on the Union Street Bridge.

 

Postcards of Old New York

Old New York postcards

Though not a huge fan of antique markets, I do love to look through old postcards. Last month, I spent at least a half hour looking through New York postcards at the Antiques Garage Flea Market.

I bought three, each sent between 1905 and 1912 (postage was one cent then). Each bears an image of a New York City landmark no longer standing: Coney Island’s Dreamland, the old Pennsylvania Station and the Hippodrome.

Today, we send pictures and notes instantly, to hundreds at a time via social media. Will these digital messages interest people in the 22nd Century as much as these early 1900s postcards interest me? Each is handwritten of course, and hand stamped with the date and even hour that the post office processed it. And 100 years later, I am buying three of them for $12 and holding them in my hands, reading the messages and admiring the almost-forgotten landmark images.

One tells a friend of a new address, 3 West 29th St. and hopes for a visit: “Thought sure I would see you this summer. See how popular you are. It’s dandy that you can go home for Thanksgiving.” Another talks about March weather: “Am feeling very well and having fine weather today changes sudden may not be tomorrow.”

I’d like to display these postcards somehow, but how—especially if I continue to collect them?  photo 1 (4)

Locations from “Wiseguy” and “Goodfellas”

Though I had seen Goodfellas as a teenager, it was only this month that I watched the movie as a New Yorker. And as a student of New York City history, I immediately downloaded Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, the Nicholas Pileggi book on which Martin Scorsese based his 1990 film.

A former crime reporter with the Associated Press and New York magazine (and husband of the late Nora Ephron), Pileggi made it easy for me to pinpoint many of the book’s locations, from the taxi stand in East New York, Brooklyn, where, at the age of 12, Henry Hill began his work with Paul Vario, to Hill’s home in Rockville Centre, where he was arrested in 1980. Though much of the action takes place in Brooklyn and Queens, Manhattan and Staten Island make some appearances as well (for example, Jimmy Burke did time as a teenager at Mount Loretto Reformatory on the South Shore of Staten Island—the same Mount Loretto that Francis Ford Coppola used for exterior shots from the baptism scene at the end of The Godfather).

I made a Google map of locations mentioned in Wiseguy. You can access it here or see it below. Fans of the film might also be interested in this map assembled by Eater that shows many of the restaurants used in the filming of Goodfellas.

Grand Central Terminal Turns 100

Grand Central Terminal

This 100th anniversary of Grand Central Terminal has been in the news for a few weeks here in New York City. While I missed much of WNYC’s reporting on the subject, I commemorated the anniversary by taking a 2-hour Municipal Art Society tour of the station yesterday, and by reading much of the 100-year-old New York Times special section, a PDF from the archives that the Times made available last week.

Here are five interesting facts I picked up in the last couple days:

  1. The Glory of Commerce sculpture above the 42nd Street entrance weighs 1,500 tons and was carried up in sections in June 1914. Designed by French sculptor Jules-Felix Coutan, the final, full-size piece was carved in Long Island City, Queens.
  2. The Grand Central Oyster Bar also turned 100 yesterday. Though, like the station, the restaurant fell into decline in the 1970s, it has been in almost continuous operation over the last 100 years. Having heard what the station was like in the 1970s, I couldn’t imagine a restaurant as nice as the current oyster bar being in the station. Sure enough, it wasn’t that great of a place to eat. Owner Jerome Brody describes the decline of the restaurant, before he assumed ownership in 1974:

    With the decline of the long-haul passenger train system, came the decline of the restaurant. It had no position among New York restaurants, and while thousands of commuters passed by everyday, very few went inside to eat.

    In 1974, when I was approached by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority to take it over, the old restaurant had been bankrupt and empty for two years, having become in its last days not much more than a sad, old coffee shop. Reluctantly, I inspected what remained of its former grandness. The elegant marble columns you see in the restaurant today were then painted aquamarine over wallpaper. The wall covering was yellow Cello-tex™. The furniture was upholstered yellow, in unsettling contrast with the red table cloths.

  3. Charles Mingus proposed to his second wife, Sue Graham, in the whisper gallery just outside the Grand Central Oyster Bar. I have never tried the whisper gallery, where two people can stand across the room from each other and hear each other’s whispers carried across the vaulted ceiling–but plenty of others were trying it yesterday.
  4. The use of ramps in a public building was fairly new. It was seen as an efficient way to move large amounts of people from one floor to the next, without the inconvenience (and danger) of stairs. The New York Times described the ramps in its Feb. 2, 1913 edition:

    The infinite pains taken in this respect is used as an illustration of the care taken in every detail. When it was decided that inclined walks should serve as the footways leading into the huge subterranean station, the idea was borrowed from the sloping roads that led the way for chariots into the old Roman camps of Julius Ceasar’s army–no pains were spared to arrive at just the proper angle of inclination.

  5. For 25 cents, you could store your bags, and then change your clothes in a private dressing room, with a maid or valet to assist you. Again, from the Feb. 2, 1913, New York Times:

    Should the woman passenger want to primp us still more, or if she should want to return after a shopping tour to change her costume for a social function, she may have her suitcase or her trunk, for that matter, sent to a private dressing room, for the use of which, with a maid in attendance, she will pay 25 cents …

    The man with two days’ business or pleasure to crowd into one can reserve a dressing room at the barber shop, leave his suitcase there all day, rush back at 6 o’clock to get into evening clothes, with the aid of a valet if he wishes, all for 25 cents. A haberdashery adjoining the barber shop is ready to replace a lost collar button or supply anything else needed. Here, at least, men are accorded equal rights with woman.

And there you have it. If you want to learn more, join the Municipal Art Society on one of its weekly Wednesday tours of Grand Central Terminal.

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal