New York the Way It Really Never Was
The idea for these stories comes from New York conference member Nemo, who was inspired by Bruce McCall's pictorial essay "New York, Once Upon a Time," reprinted in the 1982 collection Zany Afternoons (Knopf). Some tall tales of Old New York:
What Hath God Wrought?
Senator Exon meets Anthony Comstock
Amazing Street Facts!
Which street name means "open sewer"? (Hint: there's just one)
The Commuter Elite
The IRT, the BMT, and...the VIP?
The Secret Ingredient
Explaining that egg cream jones
The Flour Riots of 1871
Tales of White Tuesday
What Hath God Wrought?New York in the 1870s was a bustling beehive of activity -- much of it fueled by the communications revolution of the telegraph. Railroad, Shipping, and Stock information was pecked out over lines strung like cobwebs throughout the downtown business areas. But it was not all business! Period photos show that "pirate" lines were also put in up to the rooming houses in the 20s and over to the fancy digs on lower 5th Avenue. It seems that, for a slight fee, you could telegraph a billet-doux to a special team of hostesses who would telegraph back their amorous activities. Phrases like ".. . .-.. ..... . . ... . -- .. .. .- -. -.- - ." (I EXPOSE MY ANKLE) and ". .. .- ..... - ..- . .. ." (RAPTURE) would "do the trick" for the nerdy "wire- wankers" of the day. For a higher fee, a boy would be sent up the pole to cross wires and provide a primitive "chat-line". All this was swept away with the blizzard of '88, after which the lines were moved underground and out of the hands of the amateur "hacker".
Amazing Street Facts!Broadway was not named for its width, as is generally assumed (the street is not abnormally broad for much of its downtown run), but rather is a corruption of the Dutch "breugh-dwee", or "open sewer." During the Dutch colonial period, the street was used less as a thoroughfare than as the main conduit of filth out of the swiftly growing New Amsterdam. You can still see evidence of this history on exceptionally rainy days, when old Dutch sewage will seep up between the sidewalk cracks on several lower Broadway blocks.
Lexington Avenue was the result of a printer's error! The original grid plan for upper Manhattan included only five avenues east of Fifth. However, an error by the mapmaker for the original project placed an additional avenue between Third and Park (then Fourth) Avenues. An alert proof-reader actually caught the mistake, marking the extraneous road as "1 ex." (for "one extra") -- a mark later misinterpreted as an abbreviation for "Lexington", an appelation that continues to this day.
84th Street is the only numbered Manhattan street that is not named for a number. The street, which predates its neighbors by a good half-century, started life as a small country lane named for the famous French explorer, Pierre Et-Deford, who lived for a time in a small cottage nearby. The street was later incorporated into the grid plan, but imperfectly, which explains why it is approximately 25 feet north of where it would otherwise be placed by the grid.
- Null Dogmas
The Commuter ElitePretty much everyone knows about the special rail siding that runs under the Waldorf to deliver VIP's directly to their suites, and about the private elevator off the end of the Lex platform connected to the former offices of the president of the IRT. Fewer remember the handcar sidings from which young Park Avenue businessmen used to commute underground to work, and the rail-racing fraternity that developed in the tunnels.
Brokers living on the Upper West Side would commission custom-built single-truck subway cars to speed their trips to and from Wall Street. A confederate working for the IRT installed -- ultimately at taxpayer expense -- a complex electric switching system that would let the racers switch back and forth between express and local tracks to weave around the regular trains. The whole thing came to a tragic end in January 1929, when a Whitney protege was mistakenly shuttled from the downtown express track to the uptown side, directly in front of an oncoming train. Indeed, some observers trace the beginning of the market's slide to the shock that this freak accident sent through the financial community. Using Whitney money (indeed, the embezzlements that eventually sent the stock-exchange president to prison), workmen took out the switching system, and the custom cars were scrapped. (A trace of the infrastructure can be seen near Houston on the IRT, where a break in the columns south of the station marks a former switchpoint.)
- Ragged Paul
The Secret IngredientWho could deny the fond feelings turn-of-the-century New Yorkers have for the true toast of the town: the fabled Egg Cream! The Egg Cream as perfected on the Lower East Side was an unadulterated concoction, but over in the Tenderloin district, the taste of syrup and soda water was augmented by another ingredient guaranteed to get satisfaction and repeat customers: heroin. Heroin was once sold over the counter as a cold remedy, and then as now, it was remarkably cheap to manufacture. So in periods of good health, there was an excess supply over at Dr. Lakehurst's factory building on 10th avenue and 25th street. Since the good doctor also was a frequent patron of the area's gambling parlors, sometimes he paid off his debts in overstock. Because the powder would be easily detected in the elaborate mixed drinks in the saloons associated with these gambling resorts, the powder was mixed into some of the more innocuous drinks.
Dr. Lakehurst's factory sometimes had to rent space from the bakery next door, and on at least two occasions he paid his rents in a similar way. At the time a certain chocolate sandwich cookie was being developed and one of the original ingredients was again the habit-forming opiate. The cookie went on to great success, but now the recipe has changed -- so they say -- and it remains popular today.
The Flour Riots of 1871One of the greatest civil disturbances in 19th-century New York came during the Panic of 1871. It was at this time that the flour barons (colloquially known as the White Legion) finally secured their monopoly on the flour industry, and began to tighten the supply. Soon New York was in the grips of a flour crisis, and the effects were immediate and devastating.
The poor, ironically, were largely unaffected by these maneuverings, since they seldom came by flour in any case. (Most poor New Yorkers in those days subsisted on something known as "ratmeal", which contrary to popular belief did not consist of ground-up rats, but rather was mostly made of ground-up insects.) The burgeoning post-war middle class, however, was soon outraged by the lack of bread products, and it wasn't long before their anger boiled over.
On Tuesday, May 7th, 1871, an angry mob marched on the city flour reserves at Greenwich and Barrow Sts. They quickly overpowered the guards, and began ransacking the flour and baked goods within, throwing into the streets what they couldn't carry away themselves. The police soon arrived, and what followed was eight hours of bloody battles, in which three policemen and eight rioters lost their lives. At the height of the battle, rioters dropped bags of flour from rooftops to try to break the police lines. For years afterward, people still talked of "The Day It Rained Bread," or simply "White Tuesday."
There's an incredible picture at the New York Historical Society of two cops fleeing the scene, covered head-to-toe in flour, while a gang of rioters pelted them with dinner rolls.
- Null Dogmas
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