Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lost in History vol. 65: Staten Island Adventures!

We here at Lost in History delight in adventures within the outer boroughs. Especially when said adventures take us to places we haven’t been before; little known secret gardens and hardly-visited museums that revel in the urban idiosyncrasies that make NYC such a marvelous place to live and work. What better excuse to forge such an excursion then being asked to do exactly that: run an all-day adventure to parts unknown, courtesy of Flux Factory! Which is exactly what happened this past Saturday.
Flux Factory is an arts space with a sense of humor located in Long Island City, Queens. Previous installations have included Grizzly Proof – a multimedia show involving various artists’ interpretations of a Grizzly-Bear-Proof suit; and NY NY NY – another multimedia show in which artists recreated the Queens Panorama of the City of New York, and which your author engaged the masses in a psycho-geographical trivia. For their current show, Going Places (Doing Stuff), Flux was taking the project outside, by asking various artist-performers to invent their own adventure, stuff a buncha people onto a cheese bus without revealing too much of the ensuing journey, and take off. Flux asked yours truly to kick the summer-long series off, and informed the participants that the tour would a) stay within the five boroughs, b) last all day, and c) be led by a native New Yorker and licensed NYC tour guide with “knowledge of New York City and a rambunctious personality (that) make him the greatest guide you could wish for.” Aw shucks.
25 people met up at the City Reliquary Museum and Civic Organization in Williamsburg at half-past 11am, to peruse the museums holdings before the adventure began. Flux had been smart enough to ensure that our cheese bus had A/C so we wouldn’t swelter, and our driver was a very friendly Haitian gentleman named Marcus. As soon as we hit the BQE westbound, it was pretty clear where we were going – not to the Bronx or Manhattan or Queens. And although we were driving through Brooklyn, we sure weren’t going to spend our time there. We were headed to NY’s smallest borough in population (less than half-a-mil) but the 6th largest island off the coast of the country; the one, the only, the 40% Italian – Staten Island!
First stop on our magical mystery tour was the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Grotto, in Rosebank, right near the VZ Bridge. Built in 1937 by the local fraternal order, the Grotto is a handmade collaged and stucco’d outdoor sculpture built from concrete, seashells, bicycle reflectors, religious statues and ceramic chips, dedicated to their namesake saint. Open year-round, the Grotto in Rosebank is quite powerful, and as a work of handmade, devoted, religious art, it is also the first Traditional Cultural Property listed in NY State.
Second stop was the Castleton Hill Moravian Church Labyrinth, farther inland on Victory Boulevard. Contrary to what many people think, a labyrinth is not a giant three-dimensional walled-in maze designed to lose its travelers. Instead, a labyrinth is a flattened two-dimensional path that, through it many twists and turns, will always present a way out. This particular one was laid out on the courtyard of the Church, and acts as a meditation tool; as one walks the labyrinth, one should experience peace and spiritual enlightenment. While various members of our adventuresome group strove for those lofty goals, by taking their turns in the 90-degree heat, assisted by the very friendly Pastor Lynnette Delbridge, other intrepid SI explorers marched down the block to order a half-dozen pies from the legendary Joe and Pats Pizzeria. Ricotta with broccoli rabe; Pepperoni; Scungilli with fresh garlic; cheese-free with arugula with cherry tomatoes and onions; plain; those Staten Islanders sure know how to craft heaven into eight slices loaded with fresh toppings.
We voraciously attacked our pizza back on the bus and headed off to adventure number three, deep in the heart of the island atop Lighthouse Hill – arguably the highest natural point on the Eastern Seaboard (although this is a long-running argument between the residents of Lighthouse Hill and the residents of Todt Hill). Amidst the opulent mansions and private driveways snaking up and down the gorgeous land lies the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art. A publicly funded institution with as idiosyncratic a history as its location, the entire place deserves its own Lost in History column, and will receive one, in due time. However, there’s more adventure to our Staten Island, so after a 45 minute docent-led tour of the tiered gardens and art & antiquities collection, we headed off.
Rumor has it that there is a privately designed, privately owned Frank Lloyd Wright house atop Lighthouse Hill. I had never heard of such a thing until Moe, another tour guide and New-York-ophile, inquired of Jessica, the docent. She obliges and gives walking directions, so off we march through the lush SI forest to find the thing. In the midst of the hunt it begins to downpour, but Marcus, ever-ready at the helm of the cheese bus, picks us up and we manage to find the home. It looks like a Maine summer house at the edge of a lake, but one that got left in a medieval stretcher a bit too long.
We also discover the Victorian lighthouse that gives the Hill its moniker – the towering monstrosity is just chilling in another privately owned backyard.
The adventure is almost over – adventurers are getting Staten-Islanded-out. We attempt to find the Conference House, which is in Tottenville at the absolutely southern-most point of NY State. On Sept 11th, 1776, this country estate, the only surviving pre-Revolutionary manor house, acted as the final meeting place between the American and British Forces in a futile attempt to call off the War. Unfortunately, thanks to a series of dead-ends, and a busload of hungry, sun-stroked, tired, cranky, non-islanders, we said screw it, and made our way to Killmeyers Bavarian Beer Hall and Garden – the oldest beer hall cum restaurant in the borough. It was there that we feasted on schnitzel, bratwurst, hefeweizen, German Chocolate Cake, and raised a collective toast to the amazing, underappreciated, overlooked and friggin enormous Staten Island. And it only took two hours to get back to Brooklyn. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, but not for aother couple of years. I love you Staten Island!
more pictures can be found here on my Flickr page.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lost in History vol. 64: Bums, Slums and Geeks

On Thursday we attended a free NYC Department of Parks & Recreation lecture in Columbus Park, Chinatown, featuring historian Warren Shaw, an excitable New Yorker who seemed to be even more excited that his lecture, linking the old Gangs of New York culture to the culture of today, was taking place on the physical spot where it all happened. Geek-o-licious! But this is a city filled with geeks, especially ones who love their city history, so the newly renovated Columbus Park pavilion was filled to capacity with about 60 New Yorkers who were all ears and eyes on Mr. Shaw’s PowerPoint discussion.

Titled Bums, Slummers and Swells: The Birth of American Popular Culture on the Lower East Side, 1825-1855, the lecture argued that the youth culture of the notorious Five Points neighborhood had a enormous impact on the development of urban street culture, and therefore all of American culture.

The Lower East Side of the day (what would today be roughly everything from Chatham Square to 14th Street, and from the East River to Broadway) was a crime-ridden cesspool, filled with degradation, sin and vice, squalor and disease, Catholics, Blacks, Irish and the working class. But it was also a colorful neighborhood, with local fraternity organizations sporting DIY uniforms and spouting dialects unheard of in other parts of American or the world. There was a forced camaraderie here unseen anywhere else — because although the Irish and the Blacks didn’t necessarily like each other, they were destitute, so they didn’t have much of a choice, and had to live together. This made the old Five Points the first racially integrated neighborhood in the country, as well as the densest.

Mr. Shaw pointed out that with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, connecting the Great Lakes and the Midwest to the Atlantic Ocean, this architectural and engineering marvel cemented New York as the capital of America’s shipping empire. Now grains, livestock, timber and everything else the bountiful Midwest had to export could be sent abroad; the Erie Canal also allowed New York City’s cultural customs and fashions, slang and dance, drinking, drugging, and colorful fighting to be spread to populated areas west of the Hudson. There was no cultural locus point for the country, as there was no common dialect. Now, along with dictating the countries’ economic trade, NYC was mastering the cultural trade as well.

Another interesting point that Mr. Shaw effusively described was the “flash talk” or slang of the gangs. Just as a member of the Crips today wouldn’t want to be caught slinging Bloods slang, the various gangs had their own vernacular, some of which survives today. “Kicking the bucket” and “Coppers” are two of the slang phrases that stick with us today, invented back in the old Five Points. ("Kicking the bucket" was how one helped an enemy off himself, by knocking the victim unconscious, stringing up a suicide noose, tossing the bozo on top of a bucket and through the loop, then kicking aforementioned bucket to leave ‘em dangling. A "Copper" was exactly that — a copper badge worn by volunteer cops, and therefore hardly intimidating or worth any respect.) Along with flash talk, the Gangs had their invented heroes, their larger-than-life characters who were inspirational figures to anyone looking to rise out of the slums. For the youth of the day, it was Mose, a tough-talkin, wise-crackin’, no-nonsense Irish B’hoy (slang for Bowery Boy) with a heart of gold. Mose can certainly be seen in various heroes of today, including Bugs Bunny, Holden Caulfield, Superman, and (this was a stretch, but) RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan.

All in all it was an interesting, exciting, geektastic lecture, not just because the words were happening on the block where these figures fought, drank, drugged, loved, danced and invented American street culture. Even though, as King of the NYC Geeks, we knew most of what Mr. Shaw was extrapolating, regardless it was wonderful to see so many other people geeking out with us.

(originally published on 6/9/8 in

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Lost in History vol. 63: Uptown Song & Dance

It’s a safe assumption that many New Yorkers have never been to Washington Heights. Tucked up far away at the northern-most end of Manhattan, accessible by the A, C and 1 trains, Washington Heights has for the past 40 years been one of the few immigrant enclaves in Manhattan that still sees hardworking, lofty-dreaming, high-strivers arrive monthly. Chinatown in Lower Manhattan is the another such hustling and bustling ‘hood (and your urban journalist’s favorite Manhattan neighborhood) — but Chinatown’s never seen the lights of Broadway. With the arrival of the incredible new musical In The Heights, which we had the pleasure of seeing last week, it’s time to tell the vibrant story of this north side ‘nabe — both historically and through song and dance.

The “Washington” in Washington Heights is Fort Washington (the “Washington” in Fort Washington is General George), which once occupied the highest point on the island, making it a natural defense line against the Brits during the Revolutionary War. The Fort was constructed by the Continental Army and almost immediately seized by the British during the Battle of Fort Washington on November 16th, 1776; the site of the Fort is now a park, Bennett Park, just north of the George Washington Bridge. As the Industrial Age gave way to the Gilded Age, Washington Heights became popular amongst the monied crowd because of the spectacular views on the high ridge along the Hudson. When the IRT Broadway line reached the southern edge of the hood in 1904, it brought immigrants, mostly Greek and Irish, with the Jews were soon to follow. Along with the working classes came major organizations, such as the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, museums and scholastic institutions at Audubon Terrace and Yeshiva University.

As is always the story in 1960s, 70s and 80s New York City, out flowed the Jews and Irish, in came the black and Latino communities; in particular, Washington Heights became the go-to neighborhood for the surging Dominican population. There were Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans moving in as well, but throughout the 1980s, no other area in the city attracted more people from the DR than Washington Heights — it was the largest DR community in the country and substantially larger than the Dominican Republic itself. Racial strife was prevalent throughout these decades, and in order to give these NY citizens a more substantial voice on the City Council, the district lines were redrawn in 1991; the same year, Guillermo Linares became the first elected official of Dominican heritage in the country.

That’s the past to Washington Heights. The present is reflected in the phenomenal In The Heights. Conceived by 28-year-old wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the lyrics and music to most of the show as a sophomore at Wesleyan University seven years ago, In The Heights is the standard immigrant striving story of trying to make it in an unforgiving city, surrounded by the people you love. The twists and turns that it takes in the interim are aided by the supernova energy of the young cast and the hyperkinetic choreography that reflects modern break-dancing, hispanic meringue, classic Jerome Robbins-style dancing and standard street moves. The songs, a powerhouse charge of salsa, hip-hop, power pop, American Idol-style solos and Broadway group numbers had one woman in the audience screaming out her passion as if she were at a concert. Upon walking out of the theater I felt revitalized and energized, that I had just seen the new face of the modern Broadway musical. And best of all, it’s a new New York musical. In The Heights is a lock for the TONY for Best Musical (who else is going to take it? Xanadu!?). And it’s about time that more of ethnic NYC got its turn on the big stage.

(originally published on 6/2/8 on