The Bowery Boys: New York City History (general)
New York City history is America's history. It's the hometown of the world, and most people know the city's familiar landmarks, buildings and streets. Why not look a little closer and have fun while doing it?

The Radio City Rockettes are perhaps America's best known dance troupe -- and a staple of the holiday season -- but you may not know the origin of this most iconic of New York City symbols. For one, they're not even from the Big Apple!

 

Formerly the Missouri Rockets, the dancers and their famed choreographer Russell Markert were noticed by theater impresario Samuel Rothafel, who installed them first as his theater The Roxy, then at one of the largest theaters in the world -- Radio City Music Hall.

 

The life of a Rockettes dancer was glamorous, but grueling; for many decades dancing not in isolated shows, but before the screenings of movies, several times a day, a different program each week.  There was a very, very specific look to the Rockettes, a look that changed -- and that was forced to change by cultural shifts -- over the decades.

 

This show is dedicated to the many thousands of women who have shuffled and kicked with the Rockettes over their many decades of entertainment, on the stage, the picket line or the hallways of Grand Central.

 

www.boweryboyspodcast.com

Direct download: 174_The_History_of_the_Rockettes.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 4:55 AM

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.

 

The Pavilion holds a great many surprises, and its best days may be yet to come.  Designed by modernist icon Philip Johnson, the Pavilion was saved from the fate of many of the venues in the World's Fair. But it's only been used sporadically over the past 50 or so years, and the fear of further deterioration is always present.

 

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?

 

www.boweryboyspodcast.com

Direct download: 173_Ruins_of_the_Worlds_Fair.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:06 AM

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.

 

-- 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 the neighborhood of Mapleton.

 

-- 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. 

 

-- 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?

 

-- 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.

Direct download: 172_Ghost_Stories_of_Brooklyn.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 1:42 AM

Gramercy Park is Manhattan's only private park, a prohibited place for most New Yorkers. However we have your keys to the history of this significant and rather unusual place, full of the city's greatest inventors, civic leaders and entertainers!

 

Literally pulled up from swampy land, Gramercy Park naturally appealed to the city's elite, a pocket neighborhood with classic old brownstones so vital to the city's early growth that two streets sprang from its creation -- Irving Place and Lexington Avenue.

 

In this show, we give you an overview of its history -- a birds eye's view, if you will -- then follow it up with a virtual walking tour that you can use to guide yourself through the area, on foot or in your mind.  In this tour, we'll give you the insights on an early stop on the Underground Railroad, the house of a controversial New York mayor, a fabulous club of thespians, and a hotel that has hosted both the Rolling Stones and John F Kennedy (though not at the same time).

 

ALSO: How DO you get inside Gramercy Park? I mean, really?

 

www.boweryboyspodcast.com

 

Direct download: 171_Gramercy_Park.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:22 AM

Rudolph Valentino was an star from the early years of Hollywood, but his elegant, randy years in New York City should not be forgotten.  They helped make him a premier dancer and a glamorous actor. And on August 23, 1926, this is where the silent film icon died.

 

Valentino arrived in Ellis Island in 1913, one of millions of Italians heading to America to begin a new life.  In his case, he was escaping a restless life in Italy and a set of mounting debts! But he quickly distinguished himself in New York thanks to his job as a taxi dancer at the glamorous club Maxim's, where he mingled with wealthy society women.

 

He headed to Hollywood and became a huge film star in 1921, thanks to the film The Sheik, which set his reputation as the connsumate Latin Lover.  Throughout his career, he returned to New York to make features (in particular, those as his Astoria movie studio), and he once even judged a very curious beauty pageant here.  

 

In 1926, he headed here not only to promote a sequel to The Sheik, but to display his masculinity after a scathing article blamed him for the effeminacy of the American male!

 

Sadly, however, he tragically and suddenly (and, some would say, mysteriously) died at a Midtown hospital.  People were so shocked by his demise that the funeral chapel (in the area of today's Lincoln Center) was mobbed for almost a week, its windows smashed and the streets paralyzed by mourners -- or where those people paid by the film studio?

 

ALSO: We are proud to introduce to you -- POLA!

Direct download: 170_The_Life_and_Death_of_Rudolph_Valentino.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:19 AM

One World Trade Center was declared last year the tallest building in America, but it's a very different structure from the other skyscrapers who have once held that title. In New York, owning the tallest building has often been like possessing a valuable trophy, a symbol of commercial and social superiority. In a city driven by commerce, size matters.

In this special show, I give you a rundown of the history of being tall in New York City, short profiles of the 12 structures (11 skyscrapers and one church!) that have held this title.  In several cases, these weren't just the tallest buildings in the city; they were the tallest in the world.  

Skyscrapers were not always well received.  New York's tallest building in 1899 was derisively referred to as a "horned monster."  Lower Manhattan became defined by this particular kind of structure, creating a canyon of claustrophobic, darkened streets.  But a new destination for these sorts of spectacular towers beckoned in the 1920s -- 42nd Street.

You'll be familiar with a great number of these -- the Woolworth, the Chrysler, the Empire State.  But in the early days of skyscrapers, an odd assortment of buildings took the crown as New York's tallest, from the vanity project of a newspaper publisher to a turtle-like tower made for a sewing machine company.

At stake in the race for the tallest is dominance in the New York City skyline.  With brand new towers popping up now all over the five boroughs, should be worried that they'll overshadow the classics? Or should the skyline always be in a constant state of flux?

ALSO: New York's very first tall buildings and the ominous purpose they were used for during the Revolutionary War!

PICTURES, SOURCES and RECOMMENDED READING will be available at boweryboyspodcast.com

CORRECTION: Ack, I keep saying Crystal Palace Exposition when it's actually Crystal Palace Exhibition! I mean, they basically mean the same thing, almost, right?

 

THIS EPISODE OF THE BOWERY BOYS IS SPONSORED BY AUDIBLE,  the premier provider of digital audiobooks. Get a FREE audiobook download and 30 day free trial atwww.audibletrial.com/boweryboys. 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.

 

Direct download: 169_The_Tallest_Building_In_New_York.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:19 AM

Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr met at a clearing in Weehawken, NJ, in the early morning on July 11, 1804, to mount the most famous duel in American history. But why?

 

This is the story of two New York lawyers -- and two Founding Fathers -- that so detested each other that their vitriolic words (well, mostly Hamilton's) led to these two grown men shooting each other out of honor and dignity, while robbing America of their brilliance, leadership and talent.

 

You may know the story of this duel from history class, but this podcast focuses on its proximity to New York City, to their homes Richmond Hill and Hamilton Grange and to the places they conducted their legal practices and political machinations.

 

Which side are you on?

 

ALSO: Find out the fates of sites that are associated with the duel, including the place Hamilton died and the rather disrespectful journey of the dueling grounds in Weehawken.

 

CORRECTION: Alexander Hamilton had his fateful dinner as the house of Judge James Kent, not John Kent, as I state here.

Direct download: 168_DUEL_Aaron_Burr_vs_Alexander_Hamilton.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:29 AM

Cleopatra's Needle is the name given to the ancient Egyptian obelisk that sits in Central Park, right behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  This is the bizarre tale of how it arrived in New York and the unusual forces that went behind its transportation from Alexandra to a hill called Greywacke Hill.

 

The weathered but elegant monolith was created thousands of years ago by the pharaoh Thutmose III.  Thanks to the great interest in Egyptian objects in the 19th century -- sometimes called Egyptomania -- major cities soon wanted obelisks for their own, acquired as though they were trophies of world conquest.  France and England scooped up a couple but -- at least in the case of the ill-fated vessel headed to London -- not without great cost.

 

One group was especially fascinated in the Alexandrian obelisks.  The Freemasons have been a mysterious and controversial fraternity who have been involved in several critical moments in American history (including the inauguration of fellow Freemason George Washington.) A Freemason engineer and adventurer named Henry Honeychurch Gorringe discovered an incredible secret on the remaining Alexandria obelisk, a secret that might link the secretive organization to the beginnings of human civilization.

 

But how do you get a 240 ton object, the length of a 7-story building, across the Atlantic Ocean and propped up in New York's premier park which had just opened a few years before?  

 

We let you in on Gorringe's technique and the curious Freemasons ceremony that accompanied the debut of the obelisk's cornerstone.

 

PLUS: We have a secret or two to reveal ourselves in this episode. This is a must-listen podcast!

 

www.boweryboyspodcast.com

Direct download: 167_Cleopatras_Needle_and_the_Freemasons_Secret.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:26 AM

On June 15, 1904, hundreds of residents of the Lower East Side's thriving German community boarded the General Slocum excursion steamer to enjoy a day trip outside the city.  Most of them would never return home.

The General Slocum disaster is, simply put, one of the greatest tragedies in American history.  Before September 11, 2001, it was the largest loss of life of any event that has ever taken place here. 

This is a harrowing story, brutal and tragic.  The fire that engulfed the ship near the violent waters of the Hell Gate gave the passengers a horrible choice -- die by fire or by drowning.  In the end, over one thousand people would lose their lives over an horrific event that could have been easily prevented.

But in this tale are some surprising and even shocking stories of human survival, real stories of bravery and heroism. 

 

www.boweryboyspodcast.com

Direct download: 166_General_Slocum_Disaster.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:49 AM

Ladies' Mile -- the most famous New York shopping district in the 19th century and the "heart of the Gilded Age," a district of spectacular commercial palaces of cast-iron.  They are some of the city's greatest buildings, designed by premier architects.

Unlike so many stories about New York City, this is a tale of survival, how behemoths of retail went out of business, but their structures remained to house new stores.  This is truly a rare tale of history, where so many of the buildings in question are still around, still active in the purpose in which they were built.

We start this story near City Hall, with the original retail mecca of A.T. Stewart -- the Marble Palace and later his cast-iron masterpiece in Astor Place.  Stewart set a standard that many held dear, even as his competitors traveled uptown to the blocks between Union Square and Madison Square.

Join us on this glamorous journey through the city's retail history, including a walking tour circa 1890 (with some roleplay involved!) of some of the district's best known buildings.

PLUS: Why is Chelsea's Bed Bath and Beyond so particularly special in this episode?

 

www.boweryboyspodcast.com

Direct download: 165_Ladies_Mile.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 5:18 AM