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Past dancing with present – Tompkins Square Park – as it was and as it is.


There’s no gentility here in the Salt Meadows. A backwater on Stuyvesant’s farm, disturbed only in those days by the creatures of the tidal wetlands. The summers here lay down a blanket of fiery, hanging, swampish air. Dazed dog-day weeks spawn the seediness that has always been essential here. Die Weisse Garten, 1850’s Sunday picnics of beer and comraderie, Sabbath carousal that disgusted the Nativists. Nativists, whose days were numbered by the coming tsunami of immigration that made this Kleindeutschland. The third largest German-speaking city on the globe. An exotic enclave in an overwhelmingly Anglo country.

… There were still places in the city, such as Tompkins Square Park… where a passerby might overhear nothing but German…” (1895)

Their steps still plod along underneath, in silence. There is a lonely fountain, surrounded by the hyper voices of children in the playgrounds. There was that day more than 100 years ago that shattered this neighborhood. Fire on the River, 1000 gone. Just when they were beginning their summer.

In the 1980’s and early 90’s, the ever-encroaching grime gurgled up the swamp underneath, and generations of discontentment spewed forth police riots, encampments of men living in cardboard, junkies, squatters, crack heads, punks… When the tide turned, the city regained control of the park and reversed its decay- but never totally washed out the funk.

Fringes. They still sit huddled on the benches, their faces bent and darkened, in the corners where the old men play chess. Nearby there is a monument, erected in 1891, dedicated to Temperance, a deity that long ago became maligned in this wild square. 1840’s, 1870’s, 20th century – the radical center of a politically radical neighborhood. No number of old shady trees, grassy cosps, arranged flower beds, or dappled sun, has ever managed to moderate the mood here.

It’s not all disgust, fists in the air, overdoses on benches. The winter has long forgotten the old Germans it froze to death on Avenue B. Now the ice brings a serene crystallization, And the Spring, in turn, brings forth an orgy of excitement. It’s the sort of park where you try to immerse yourself in a book, and are unable. There is too much music and delight, too many beautiful passers-by. Central Park’s design tries to lead people into nature, Washington Square’s tries to lead people into lofty ideas and civic graces. Tompkins Square’s design, with its playgrounds and its dog run, and melange of people, tends to bring park-goers into vivid proximity to each other.

It was here, in the 1960’s, that the international hare krishna movement began under an ancient elm, perhaps planted in the days of the Germans. The age of Ginsberg’s livid “Howl”, when poets, musicians, and artists, like the punks of the ’80’s, exorcized their disgust of the world with exuberant wailing.

And so the mysterious forces of this buried salt marsh persist, the past dancing with the present, the seen mingling with the unseen. Never ending. All awaiting the death of time.







The World’s First Department Stores – Ladies Mile, NYC

During the Gilded Age boom following  the Civil War, the industrial revolution and the early days of mass production made it more affordable for women to maintain their households without having to spend as much time toiling at home. And so, some of the first modern department stores in the world began to open in the area between Union and Madison Squares.   While their husbands were at work and their children at school, wives and mothers could enjoy the brief freedom of being out on the town independently.  The area became known as “Ladies’ Mile”.  A few stores from that era, like Lord and Taylor and Bergdorf Goodman, still operate in the city and beyond.

O'Neil and Company during the heyday of Ladies' Mile

6th Avenue during the heyday of Ladies’ Mile

The subway was planned and constructed during this era, and as a modern, hurried commuter knows all too well, there are an unusual number of stops on the lines traveling through the former Ladies Mile.

The department store buildings that remain are beautifully designed, a few clad in cast-iron. The interiors of many, like the Home Depot on 23rd Street, have been modernized to accommodate modern commerce, and the area is still a major shopping destination.

Stern Brothers - the largest department store of the 19th century, now converted into Home Depot

Stern Brothers – the largest department store of the 19th century, now converted into a Home Depot

Siegel-Cooper; now converted into a Filene's Basement/ TJ Max/ Bed, Bath, and Beyond

Siegel-Cooper; now converted into a Filene’s Basement/ TJ Max/ Bed, Bath, and Beyond

In the early 1900's. Siegel-Cooper surpassed Stern Bros. as the "largest store in the world"

In the early 1900’s. Siegel-Cooper surpassed Stern Bros. as the “largest store in the world”

Ehrich Brothers, now a Burlington Coat Factory and Staples

Ehrich Brothers, now a Burlington Coat Factory and Staples

The O'Neill and Company department store opened in 1887, and was in business until 1907.  Over the next century, the building served a number of purposes, and in 2006, at the height of real estate bubble, the gold domes were restored and the huge complex went residential.  In late 2012, there was a minor structural collapse, which, I imagine, is still being resolved.

The O’Neill and Company department store opened in 1887, and was in business until 1907. Over the next century, the building served a number of purposes, and in 2006, at the height of real estate bubble, the gold domes were restored and the huge complex went residential. In late 2012, there was a minor structural collapse, which, I imagine, is still being resolved.

Hugh O'Neill and the 6th Avenue elevated train.

Hugh O’Neill and the 6th Avenue elevated train.


With the era of the department store came the beginnings of catalogue shopping

As New York entered the 20th century, highrises began to reshape the cityscape.  The area between Union and Madison Squares is a treasure trove of beautifully designed buildings

As New York entered the 20th century, highrises began to reshape the cityscape. The area between Union and Madison Squares is a treasure trove of beautifully designed buildings

Ultimately, the mass transit that had made Ladies’ Mile possible also allowed for development further uptown, and by World War I the neighborhood was in decline.  But not before producing one of the world’s most iconic early skyscrapers –

Flatiron Building

Flatiron Building

There was a darker side to the glory days of Ladies Mile. While middle- and upper- class women enjoyed a new public life, the poorer women of the city suffered in the sweatshops that supplied the products for sale

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

Hiding in the Shadows – Finding New Amsterdam

I have a great love for urban exploring – digging up obscure places and events in the annals of New York.  Places like the Staten Island Ship Graveyard, Dead Horse Bay, the Mansion of King Zog, the 1964 World’s Fair Grounds, et al…

In many ways, the following topic is the most obscured.  Barely anything physical remains of the Dutch colonial era- it exists now only in resonant names, culture, and perhaps, in ghosts that ply the dense streets of this city.

The tip of Manhattan Island, today's Financial District, from the East River in the 1660's.  The World Trade Center is now roughly in the middle of the frame

The tip of Manhattan Island, today’s Financial District, from the East River in the 1660’s. The World Trade Center is now roughly in the middle of the frame

Even though the Dutch Republic controlled New York for barely more than a generation, it left an indelible mark on the psyche of the city.  

For centuries European nations sought control of the much coveted Northwest Passage, which was thought to allow a more direct sea route to Asia, allowing trade to bypass the arduous journey around Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope.  When expeditions finally transited the route in the early 20th century, it had proven to be a pipe-dream –  Arctic ice completely barred reasonable navigation until 2009, when the ice pack melted sufficiently to allow year-round passage.

The Dutch West India Company was founded as a conglomeration of merchants, explorers, and men of money to regulate and centralize colonial trade networks.  As such, it became the de facto government of outposts throughout the world.  It’s been said that the Company was akin to a modern global corporation – but with guns.  Finding and controlling the Northwest Passage was at the top of the DWIC’s agenda.  In 1609, they sent an English explorer, Henry Hudson, to scope out the North American continent and pursue any promising leads.  After a long Atlantic voyage, Hudson came upon a very wide, protected bay, fed by a large river that penetrated deep into the interior – an obvious candidate for a Northwest Passage.  Passing Manhattan island, Hudson made his way up his namesake river, as far as he could go.  Disappointingly, it proved to be a dead-end.  At least, however, he had found a source of a very valuable commodity at the time – beaver fur; a luxury item that could fetch high prices in Europe.

Former headquarters of the Dutch West India Company, in Amsterdam.  It was from this building that the colony of New Amsterdam was chartered.

Former headquarters of the Dutch West India Company, in Amsterdam. It was from this building that the colony of New Amsterdam was chartered.

And so, over the following decades, Dutch settlers began arriving and trading.  They covered a swath of remote outposts from what was known as the “South River” (The Delaware River) all the way past the “North River” (or the Hudson River, as it gradually became known).  In the great harbor that Hudson had come upon, there were a handful of Europeans living on the very tip of Manhattan Island, and on “Noten Eylant” (now Governor’s Island).  In 1624, the settlement,  Nieuw-Amsterdam, was officially chartered as a colony of the Dutch Republic, and capital of the New Netherlands colonies.  The Dutch, of course, were not alone in European designs of control of New World resources, and so very quickly, a fort was erected at what is now the Battery. Though plantations were scattered throughout the future five boroughs, and far beyond, the town was little more than Fort Amsterdam. One could walk from end to end in under 10 minutes, the distance between today’s Battery Park and Wall Street:

The extent of the New Amsterdam colony was roughly the distance between "A" and "B"

The extent of the New Amsterdam colony was roughly the distance between “A” and “B”

It was a reckless sort of person who would endure the dangers of the sea and then live on the very margins of civilization facing a highly uncertain future.  It was a desperate sort of person that would go to such lengths to make a living or ensure a fortune in doing so.  New Amsterdam became notoriously unruly.  What’s more, it attracted settlers from all over the European world, including French Huguenots, Sephardic Jews, and of course, African slaves.

In addition, as was happening all along the Atlantic seaboard, the colonists made a poor first impression on the Indians. When one of the first directors of New Netherlands, Willem Kieft, demanded tribute from the local tribes, skirmishes broke out which led to a short, ugly war that still bears his name.

 In response to Kieft’s lack of control, in 1647 the Dutch West India Company replaced him with Petrus (Peter) Stuyvesant, a veteran of conflicts in the Caribbean.   With ambitious zeal, he razed houses at Fort Orange (Albany, NY) and drove out the Swedes from the banks of the Delaware River and founded the city of New Castle. It was Stuyvesant who dug the Heere Gracht, the canal that was later filled in and called Broad Street. And on the edge of town, he built the defenses that gave Wall Street its name.


The 1660 “Castello Plan” of New Amsterdam, which encompasses the area between “A” and “B” on the Google map above. Note the Wall and the canal that became Broad Street. Broadway is the wide thoroughfare extending from the fort. Once can also see Peter Stuyvesant’s “White Hall”, which gave its name to Whitehall Street

Former location of the Dutch canal, which was renamed Broad Street, after the polluted waterway was filled in.  The NY Stock Exchange is visible on the left.

Former location of the Dutch canal, which was renamed Broad Street, after the polluted waterway was filled in.
The NY Stock Exchange is visible on the left.

He imposed a string of austere policies meant to whip the colony into shape. Crimes were more harshly punished, taverns were ordered closed on Sundays, and church attendance became mandatory. He certainly kept order, but was wholly unpopular. Some of his more extreme enforcements were met with strong retorts. When a ship of Sephardic Jews arrived from Brazil, he tried to turn them away until pressured by the Dutch West India Company to desist. When he tried to brutally suppress Quakerism in the village of Vlissingen (Flushing, Queens), he was met with the “Flushing Remonstrance”, a resistance that inspired the freedom of religion clause in the Bill of Rights.

The house of John Bowne, a noted Quaker, who left repression in New England for the Dutch colony of Vlissingen (Flushing).  He was arrested by Peter Stuyvesant for having a Quaker meeting in this house in 1662.  Outcry over the arrest led to the "Flushing Remonstrance"   It is the second oldest structure in New York City,

The house of John Bowne, a noted Quaker, who left repression in New England for the Dutch colony of Vlissingen (Flushing). He was arrested by Peter Stuyvesant for having a Quaker meeting in this house in 1662. Outcry over the arrest led to the “Flushing Remonstrance” It is the second oldest structure in New York City,

With the English to the north and to the south, New Netherland was caught in the pincers, and England was eager to take over the entirety of the Atlantic coast. In late summer of 1664, their navy appeared in the harbor of New Amsterdam and demanded surrender. Stuyvesant made a call to arms, which fell on cold shoulders. The English offered free passage back to Europe for those who would not submit to their rule; but hardly anyone took them up on it. It has been said that the colonists didn’t care what nation ruled them, as long as they could make money.

And so, the colony went back to its business, now under the name of New York.  Dutch custom, culture, and language persisted for generations before dwindling away.  In fact, there were still native Dutch speakers at the time of the American Revolution more than a century later.

A few Dutch-era names rose to lasting prominence, and were counted among old patrician families that author Washington Irving called the “Knickerbockers”.   Some of them are still very current – the Roosevelts and the Vanderbilts, for instance.

St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery, built in 1799 on the site of the family chapel of Stuyvesant's 62-acre Bouwerij estate, now the heart of the gritty East Village.  His remains are buried within.The church sits askew of the Manhattan grid, recalling the country path that once passed by.

The backyard of St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery, built in 1799 on the site of the family chapel of Stuyvesant’s 62-acre Bouwerij estate, now the heart of the gritty East Village. His remains are buried within.
The church sits askew of the Manhattan grid, recalling the country path that once passed by.

Stuyvesant lived out the final eight years of his life at his Bouwerij (plantation) in the fields outside the city. He is interred at St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery, built in 1799 on the site of his family chapel. In 1867, one of his pear trees, now surrounded by the city at 13th Street and 3rd Avenue, succumbed to a horse cart accident. It was the final living remnant of New York’s Dutch origins.

The last tree of Stuyvesant's estate, and the last living connection to New Amsterdam at 13th Street and 3rd Avenue in the 1860's, soon before it died.  Note the large protective fence.

The last tree of Stuyvesant’s estate, and the last living connection to New Amsterdam, at 13th Street and 3rd Avenue in the 1860’s, soon before it died. Note the large protective fence.

And so today, apart from some tavern and town hall foundations recently excavated around Hanover Square (you can view them from a window in the sidewalk), the vestiges of the city’s Dutch era exist only in names and spirit. New York lived up to New Amsterdam’s mercantile ambitions, and then some. For better or worse, it is still a place where money talks, regardless of your origins or beliefs.

And the names – those who live in the region hear them every day – names like Haarlem, Breukelen, Conyne Eylandt (named for its rabbits), Tappan Zee, Hell Gate, New Utrecht, Flushing, Van Wyck Expressway, and the “Kills” (creeks) that appear in town and river names up and down the Hudson Valley…

Stuyvesant’s Bouwerij became the notoriously scruffy Bowery, and the raucous East Village now covers his plantation. The diagonal country lane passing in front of his church, now named Stuyvesant Street, is a solitary hold-out against the 1811 Manhattan grid plan. His name is still everywhere – high schools, housing developments, libraries, etc.

250 years after  New Amsterdam, the coarsely planned colonial streets gave birth to the skyscraper and to the world’s financial capital.  The narrow lanes, meant for small houses, now host some of the tallest buildings in the world, which have obscured the ground perpetually in shadow.  On quiet blocks, or at night, squeezed between the concrete canyons, you can almost hear the clogged feet on packed earth, the cantor of a passing horse, or the whispers in Dutch.  All historical facts aside, this is where one can feel closest to the distant outpost on the edge of the world that once was.

Amazingly, the streets of New Amsterdam were never widened to accept 20th century skyscraper construction.

Amazingly, the streets of New Amsterdam were never widened to accept 20th century skyscraper construction.

Appropriately, in the end, one of my most striking New York moments was not here, but in old Amsterdam, in the train station, when I heard a departure announcement  for Breukelen. Full circle around the elusive story of Dutch New York.

The Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn.  Once called the Gowanus Creek, a number of Dutch mills lined its shore.  Today, it is one of the most polluted waterways in the country

The Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn. Once called the Gowanus Creek, a number of Dutch mills lined its shore. Today, it is one of the most polluted waterways in the country

The 17th century "Dutch House" in New Castle, Delaware, which was founded by Peter Stuyvesant.

The 17th century “Dutch House” in New Castle, Delaware, which was founded by Peter Stuyvesant.

Kleindeutschland – When New York was the 3rd largest German-speaking city on Earth

The story of immigration in New York is impossibly checkered; after all, more than 100 languages are spoken in the city, and learning that there’s a Bukharian community here, or a Sri Lankan community there usually only elicits, at most, brief casual surprise.

People are flooding in from all over the world, in search of what everyone has always sought in this city of dreams.  Historically speaking, immigration to New York usually conjures up those old photos and newsreels of Italians and Eastern Europeans hobbling through Ellis Island, carrying barely more than the clothes on their backs.  Or also the gigantic influx of Irish that lasted for many many decades, peaking during the mid-19th century.  Naturally, almost all ethnicities of  immigrants, past and present, are visible in shops, neighborhoods, old signs, restaurants, places of worship, etc.

It is, however, surprisingly rare to find physical evidence of one of the hugest waves of influx the city has ever known – that of people hailing from the provinces that became Germany.

During the mid-19th century, New York was the 3rd largest German speaking city in the WORLD (!), after Berlin and Vienna.  At one point, 1 out of 4 New Yorkers claimed German descent.

Tompkins Square Park –  now more well-known for its place at the heart of late-20th century East Village bohemia, for its bums, and for its Hare Krishnas –  was once called “Weisse Garten”.

In the mid-1800’s, the park was at the heart of Kleindeutschland (“Little Germany”), a huge sprawl of a neighborhood that covered the Lower East Side and the East Village.

The Freie Bibliothek und Lesehalle, or Free Library and Reading Room was opened in 1884 and is the oldest building in Manhattan to still be used as a library. The adjacent Stuyvesant Polyclinic Hospital provided health care to the community…  (2nd Avenue, East Village)

Today, walk through any high-density neighborhood immigrant neighborhood, such as Chinatown, and one becomes engulfed by the culture – the markets, the smells, the languages, the signage – One can imagine that Kleindeutschland had similar features.

There would have been the sounds of German (then still an exotic language) on the street. Papers like Der Staats Zeitung would have graced newsstands, and the smell of sausages, sauerkraut and other German fare would have wafted out of homes and beer gardens.

The beer gardens were the centers of the community – meetingplaces where people young and old could gather, talk, carouse, eat, and drink lager.  Music pumping at all hours of day and night; pool tables, bowling…

The Atlantic Garden on the Bowery – in 1872

The Atlantic Garden on the Bowery

Social clubs (“Vereines”) and singing societies, where German musical traditions were kept alive, were also very much part of the community’s fabric.  Countless breweries sprang up to water the saloons and beer gardens; and also, to fulfill a growing demand among non-Germans for German-style lager, a trend that led to the types of commercial beer most popular in America to this day.  Though it was the following wave of Jewish immigrants that made them synonymous with NY, Germans were the first to open delicatessens, which like today’s mom-and-pop ethnic markets, sold food that could not be found elsewhere.

Also, much like many of today’s mom-and-pop ethnic restaurants, one could dine on the cheap, and this also attracted non-Germans, many of whom were also in the neighborhood to visit the theaters and clubs of Avenue B (then known as a “German Broadway”).

St. Mark’s Place, East Village

Some Germans also brought with them new social and political ideas which were becoming very much in fashion in the old country – the homeland of Karl Marx and others of his ilk.   German immigrants in New York and Chicago were very much integral to the early American labor movement.  Situated on Broadway in the Village, Pfaff’s beer cellar, which one has said “was the Andy Warhol factory, the Studio 54, the Algonquin Round Table all rolled into one”,  became a famous meeting ground for radicals, intellectuals and artists, such as Walt Whitman.

Reality is harsh, however – and for every romantic reminiscence, there was certainly a matching tragedy – poverty, overcrowding, hunger, crime…  There is one heart-breaking account of a mother and two children who froze to death in an alley near Avenue B and 10th Street – now, as then, in the middle a hotbed of nightlife.

Gradually, Kleindeutschland fell into decline, as many moved to other, more attractive, parts of the city, particularly Yorkville along the river on the Upper East Side.  The final nail was driven into the neighborhood’s coffin on June 15, 1904.  On that day, as they had done every June for years, members of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church boarded the General Slocum, a steamship chartered to bring them to a picnic on the north shore of Long Island.  At the East River’s notorious Hell Gate, the vessel caught fire and sank, killing more than a thousand people, most of whom lived in Kleindeutschland.  This horror tore the community apart, and its remaining residents moved out.

General Slocum disaster, 1904

Meanwhile, Yorkville was thriving, as another “German Broadway” sprouted along East 86th Street, and breweries opened near the river.  The display of prosperity was not destined to last very long however.  When World War 1 hit, and sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage”, all things Teutonic dove deeply out of favor with the general public.  The German community laid low, some even anglicized their names.

Yorkville, now also home to other Central and Eastern European groups, retained its Germanness into the 1920’s and 1930’s, though the latter decade found it deeply divided between pro- and anti- Nazi sentiment.  I believe the pro- side was in the minority, but still had a large enough presence to create some of the strangest New York photos from the past:  the swastika being carried alongside the American flag, and Nazi rallies at Madison Square Garden:

Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden, 1930’s

Nazi parade in Yorkville, Manhattan. 1930’s

Anti-Nazi rally, New York, 1937

German immigration had been reduced to a trickle through the first half of the 20th century.  With no new arrivals to counter the assimilation of the preceding generations, and after enduring decades of animosity, German culture was all but wiped off the face of New York.  All that remains are people’s last names, beer culture, delis, hot dogs, pretzels, and old signage here and there.  The Lower East Side became Jewish and Eastern European, then Hispanic, and then the haunt of rock clubs, art, and nightlife.

A few restaurants survived into the late 20th and early 21st centuries – now there are only a smattering deep in the outer boroughs, with a rapidly aging clientele.  Some new places have opened in their stead- Zum Schneider on Ave C, the Radegast Beer Garden in Williamsburg, for instance; however, they bear no connection to New York’s German past, and serve a non-German clientele.

Like its former Dutch-ness, and British-ness, New York’s German-ness has completely sunk beneath the waves of history.

101 years on – The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

March 25, 1911, New York City –

There were many who saw it coming.  Dangerous workplace conditions were one of the many targets of the labor movement of the late 19th/early 20th centuries.  Abhorrent sweat-shop conditions had already led to countless accidents in New York and elsewhere.  This era had seen a massive influx of immigrants – Chicago had grown from a town of 5,000 to a metropolis of 2.2 million in only 70 years.  In 1907 alone, 1.7 million Europeans passed through New York’s port.  It was said that every few years New York added to itself a city the size of Dublin; and indeed, by the opening of the 20th century, there were more Irish in NY than in Dublin, and more Greeks than in Athens.

Most of the immigrants were essentially peasants in the old world, living the same pre-industrial life that their forebears had lived for generation after generation.  It could be said that in coming to America, many flew headlong from a medieval sort of lifestyle into the most modern place on earth.

In a scenario played out over and over again before and since, the disoriented masses, impoverished and desperate, became the expendable and exploitable machinery of the titans of capitalism.

However, workers very quickly found their voices, unionizing and demanding rights to elevate them over the status of workhorses.  They, of course, were fought tooth and nail the whole way by the system that profited from their oppression.

1912 Lawrence Textile Strike

In 1909, workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist (blouse) Factory on Washington Place in Greenwich Village walked out, inspiring the mass strike of garment workers known as the “Uprising of 20,000”.

Speaking at a rally at Cooper Union (in the same theater that sparked the success of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 campaign), 24-year-old Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant Clara Lemlich announced:

“I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”

A year later, the “Great Revolt” witnessed a strike of 60,000.  The strikers and their organizers were predominantly Eastern-European Jewish or Italian – and female.

1910, New York

During both movements, the city responded with unlawful arrests and brutality tactics.  Lemlich herself had suffered broken ribs from a police attack.

In reactionary fear, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory locked its doors during working hours, to prevent walk-outs and to keep union agitators out.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

So it was on the afternoon of March 25, 1911.  By some accounts, it was an unseasonably warm Saturday.  As always, nearby Washington Square Park was full of people enjoying the day.  At 4:40 pm, a fire broke out on the 8th floor of the factory.  The large amount of fabric present meant that the fire spread instantly, quickly engulfing the factory’s three floors.  Many loaded onto the only accessible fire escape, only to have it collapse beneath their feet.

In a scene horrifically repeated 90 years later in Lower Manhattan, trapped workers began to leap from the window, some of them aflame, some holding hands with each other – the majority of them teenage girls.

In all, 146 perished- many heaped in a bloody, charred pulp on the sidewalk.  Four bodies were not finally identified until 2011.

Almost immediately, crowds of horrified bystanders began to form:

“The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.”

The owners were subsequently acquitted of manslaughter charges, though forced to pay compensation to the victims’ families.  Twistedly, the amount they paid out was significantly less than the money they made back from insurance.

Tragedy it surely was – but if there is one bright spot, it is that middle and upper class New Yorkers could no longer look the other way on the issue of worker’s rights.  The city was forced to take moral stock of its principles.  The resulting reforms produced rights that we still enjoy today.

The fire was New York’s deadliest workplace disaster until 2001.  The fact that it resulted in the deaths of women and girls with no other options in life gave it a special place in the city’s infamy.

May Day, 1913 - Union Square

Last year was the centennial – the names and ages of the victims were written in chalk on the sidewalk where many died, wreaths and anonymous flowers were laid along the building – many descendants were present, and there was a woman incanting a Yiddish prayer.

The drapes mark windows from which workers jumped.

At 4:40, the time at which the fire started and alarms rose up around the city, the crowd rang bells while staring up at the windows.

Ringing of bells – TSF fire centennial

The building was renovated, and today is an NYU chemistry building.  However, very faintly, one can still see burn marks.

Victims' names - Centennial

Songs of the Chelsea Hotel

I’d forgotten about the Chelsea Hotel.  Even though I’m in the neighborhood at least once a week, its presence always eludes.  Which is appropriate, because as its long-time residents age, and the NY real estate vultures circle, it’s no longer the place it once was – it hasn’t been for decades now.

And it really doesn’t matter.  The place “it once was” never really was, except in the stories it created.  And these are perpetual, as long as anyone cares to remember.

Without expecting to, I came upon it yesterday.  And out of nowhere those old legends began to tumble forth.

It is a magnificent building.  One of a kind.  Gargantuan, imposing, and gothic, but with touches of grace here and there.  If it didn’t already carry so much cultural baggage, it would have made an even more terrifying setting than the Dakota in Rosemary’s Baby,

It opened in 1884, and its roster of short-term and long-term guests and residents is a staggering cross-section of the 20th century’s creative core.  Mark Twain and O. Henry were early residents.  In 1953, Dylan Thomas died here after his famous binge at the White Horse Tavern.  Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road here not long after.  Not long after that, Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey in his room here.  The 1960’s and 70’s saw Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, Stanley Kubrick….

In the 60’s, actress Edie Sedgwick burned her roomed with an unattended cigarette, Warhol filmed Chelsea Girls; and in 1978, Nancy Spungen was found stabbed to death in the room she was sharing with Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols.

The litany goes on and on and on, and is the subject of more extensive research than mine.

In high school, during the late ’90’s, a couple of friends and I tried to sneak up the ornate staircase to get a glimpse of one of the rooms.  We were stopped, but had a chance to speak with a longtime resident in the lobby, who “had seen it all”.

The Chelsea Hotel has inspired many a song.  Here are two favorites:

Amsterdam! Amsterdam!

To a vast number of people, the name “Amsterdam” conjures up visions of a rampant emporium of drugs and sex.  Rest assured, the vice is here in ample supply, but if you have even a tad of interest beyond getting royally knackered in a red-light district, then it will be clear to you that there’s so so much more going for this city.

Amsterdam is a grande dame of sorts – sophisticated in taste, and refined by prosperous centuries.  However, despite having impeccable table manners, she hasn’t forgotten how to be warm and precocious – to get down on the floor and play with the kids a bit.

It is appropriate then that Amsterdam has been a mother city:  a mother of modern capitalism, a mother of tolerance, a mother of the modern republic, and for a New Yorker, still fondly remembered as the mother city of NYC.

Begijnhof of Amsterdam

It’s a proud city- full of life, confidence, positivity and openness – a rare place of  “live and let live”- Though, truth be told, like any metropolis, it’s not without its downsides.  Organized crime has taken hold of the town’s legal vice “industry”, most heinously in the red light district, where it engages in human trafficking and exploitation.  And, for all the city’s openness, I know of someone who was attacked on the street because he was gay.  Bad things happen everywhere, unfortunately.

The neighborhood around the train station is best missed. This is where the unadventurous, hedonistic day-trippers hang out:  Stumble off the train, get stoned, get laid, come-to in the morning and stumble back on the train.  On weekends, mobs of drunken, young, British men make a zoo of his area.

The further one heads into the tangles of street and rings of canal, the more even-keeled the place becomes – hidden little squares of book sellers, cloistered medieval convents, the famous Bloemenmarkt (tulips!), stately churches, modest cafes and bars, and of course, the magnificent houses of the Golden Age’s well-to-do.

It’s an ambling sort of city – no straight lines, no hard angles – even the old mansions lean forward slightly to facilitate the hauling up of goods to upper-floor storerooms.  The canals wrap around the cityscape in tree-lined ribbons of water.  Without the canals, the city would be impossibly cramped and dark – The presence of so much water gives the place gills –  breathing room and light.

(Speaking of canals, someone has to clean them, especially all the bikes that fall in)

Bikes dominate the streets here. When you see them piled up in squares or along canal fences, tangled all together, it's not hard to think that Amsterdam might have more bikes than residents. No one locks them up, because everyone has one. In order to recognize theirs among all the others, some cyclists take to decorating their vehicles in unique ways. When they move, they move in swarms, plying the streets silently, ready to take down the next clueless pedestrian, tram, or car.

Quiet conversation emerges from cafes and weed smoke occasionally wafts from a coffeeshop.  The daytime is certainly not lazy, but definitely not hectic.

Amsterdam, in general, is full of sensuality, but the night bears it especially well.  In one venerable sidestreet bar, old men may be drinking jenever, and in another place, ramshackle bookshelves and colorful art may line the walls…  The streets themselves are an enticing labyrinth by night, with lights reflecting off the canals, and hundreds of dark nooks.  And the red light district…

De Wallen has been catering to the carnality of the waterfront for centuries.  It’s a strange spectacle – women writhing in windows, while hundreds gawk in curiosity and desire.  The scene is made all the more surreal by the tower of Oude Kerk (built 1306)  looking down from on-high.  This is the heart of the old city, and nearby also stand De Waag, Nieuwmarkt, and other medieval locales.

Not far from here is the Begijnhof, a line of homes surrounding a large courtyard completely cut off from the rest of the city.  Dating from some time around the Black Death, it was a home for widowed and single women of the church who, while not sequestered nuns, did charitable works and took vows of chastity.  When we passed through, the morning before leaving, there was a soprano duo singing at the altar of the church here – –  piano and crystal clear singing.  Sobering and sublime.


Amsterdam had one of the greatest runs in history.  It’s a relatively new city- settled around the 1200’s, when the Amstel River was dammed.  (The place of “The Dam” still exists).  It remained relatively obscure for a few centuries, and so, was never a center of Medieval culture, and thus, never firmly established the feudal institutions and extreme religion of that age.

The city didn’t rise to prominence until after 1588, when the Dutch Republic drove out the Spanish Empire during the Eighty Years War.  As the first modern Republic, it was not bound by a totalitarian religious and political regime.  Its policy of relative religious freedom drew in Europe’s misfits- Huguenots, Jews, and traders and artists driven out of the cities of Southern Netherlands (modern Belgium), especially from the formerly prosperous Antwerp.

Its policy of free trade inspired the city to become an economic powerhouse- the first major mercantile city of the Modern era.  It spread its influence far and wide, establishing bases and colonies in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas.  At its height, it was the most prosperous city on Earth.  The magnitude of the city’s wealth at this time can still be seen along the canal rings, where the houses of the merchant class still stand proudly.  Its stock market, founded in 1602, is the oldest continually operating exchange in the world.  Accordingly, it was also an intellectual and artistic center of Europe- the home of painters such as Rembrandt, and philosophers such as Spinoza.

In 1609, the Dutch West India Company, one of two major arms of Dutch trade, hired the English explorer, Henry Hudson, to find a northerly route to Asia.  Instead, he found the American river that still bears his name.  In 1624, on an island where that river meets the sea, a colony was established called New Amsterdam, which eventually became a city that had its own unprecedented run in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Dutch only held New Amsterdam for a few decades, but the similarities between the mother and its child are striking.  Historical Amsterdam is huddled around a ring of canals and has a bustling, congested feel, full of pedestrians, trams, cars, and bicycles darting here and there.  In its heyday, the city was the preeminent commercial city of the world, much as New York was in its prime.  Amsterdam drew the misfits of the world under a spirit of openness, much like NYC has done.  As an artistic and intellectual center, it is home to world-class museums and orchestras, as well as ambitious and successful artists.  The two cities also draw a constellation of tourists.

sunset birds – San Juan

sunset birds
a gathering collective
a glance of breeze
two be one
 a meeting of minds
and alone together
an old house in a new world.

please bless us
us who sit in  the changing light
and hope for all hopes
that serenity comes to those
who dream.

and us who strain in all that longs
for peace to grace those who
 refuse to leave the light

-san juan rooftop, feb. 15, 2008

If you arrive in Old San Juan in the middle of the night, with men sleeping on the dark silent sidewalks and the smell of piss in the dank air, the first morning is brilliant.

Old San Juan

Bright sky and the comforting blanket of vegetal heat.  Color splashes everywhere – aquamarine water, shaded gardens, sea-weathered walls, and pastel on every building in sight.   The green carpet of El Morro’s vast Campo.  The paving stones, carried over as ballast on colonial Spanish ships, are a metallic blue.

The smell of coffee and breakfast pepper the air, mixing with the scent of sea and earth.

The city was founded only 16 years after Columbus’s first voyage, by Juan Ponce de León, the man who searched for the Fountain of Youth.  For centuries, it was a stopover on the Spanish galleon routes, and an occasional target of English pirates and privateers.  In testament to the city’s former stature,  Old San Juan is surrounded by a wall and protected by two mighty forts.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Evening in San Juan is golden light, ice cream, and cigars in parks.  The breeze becomes sublime as the sun drops in glorious orange and yellow.

Night in San Juan is music and life.  Restaurants overflow.  Teenagers fill corner stores, drinking rum punch from “Capri-sun” pouches.  Salsa pours out of the Nuyorican Cafe, bomba y plena from hidden bars and at outdoor parties.  (Bomba y plena is a precursor to salsa using a variety of hand percussion and call-response singing.  It is not so much performed as played communally.  The dancing interacts intimately with the rhythm and the melodies are thrillingly hypnotic.)

At the impromptu party on the waterfront, cake is passed out liberally to guests and by-standers alike.  The experience of San Juan is not observational.  When you’re here, you become a part of the town’s fabric.

Rum is everywhere.  Bacardi, of course, but also del Barrilito, Palo Viejo, Don Q, and scores of others fill supermarket shelves and stock bars.  They well fuel mojitos – but it’s most tasty on the rocks, as in Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary.

Frozen in the 18th century – New Castle, Delaware

Hidden away only 5 miles or so from the I-95 artery of the East Coast, the small town of New Castle, Delaware (pop. ~ 5000) has more colonial buildings packed into it than any other American town I know of.  Not a single structure within the historic center seems to have been put up after the 19th century, and never have I seen so many pre-Revolution buildings so immaculately intact in one area. The only things in town that look of this century are the cars and the people. Most of the streets retain their original paving stones, and especially since it’s such a quiet place, it really is easy to forget Modernity..

What is best about New Castle, though, is that it’s an actual town and not a museum piece as many other colonial areas have become.  Regular families inhabit the centuries-old houses, and people still frequent pubs that have remained largely unchanged since the 18th century. One can still visit the house where, in around 1680, William Penn supposedly spent his first night in America, the homes of two signers of the Declaration of Independence, a house where the Marquis de Lafayette attended a wedding, and the modest 1832 ticket booth for the New Castle-Frenchtown Railroad, which was the 2nd railroad built in the United States.

Dutch House, built late 1600's

Founded by the Dutch West India Company’s Peter Stuyvesant (whose more famous post was that of governor of New Amsterdam), its strategic location on the Delaware River meant that it changed hands a number of times in its early days- the main players, of course, were the Dutch and the English, but surprisingly it was also controlled for some time by the Swedish, who once held a bit of sway in this region. In fact, the Old Courthouse, built in 1732 (and one of the oldest still standing in the country) still flies the Swedish flag. Its situation and initial influence had New Castle poised to become a city of some significance. However, despite having one of the first railroads, sometime around the mid 19th century,  the main freight routes shifted to Wilmington and the town stopped completely in its tracks.  It failed to keep up with industrialization and missed the train, so to speak-

Immanuel Church, built 1703; Nighttime in New Castle is dead-quiet.

And this is where the town just froze in time. A more upward moving town would have destroyed its old buildings as it marched into the modern age. A town with less initial influence and history would have receded into poverty.  New Castle, however, just stayed right where it was, and largely remains there today, even as millions of travelers on the highways bypass it by with only miles to spare, completely unaware.

Old Courthouse, built 1732. Delaware's round border with Pennsylvania and Maryland is an arc that was surveyed along a 12 mile radius from the top.

Immanuel Church, built 1703

Immanuel Church

Jessup's Tavern - If I remember correctly, this building was once used to make sails in the early 1700's, then became a tavern sometime before the Revolution, which it has remained ever since. Fun patrons and lots of good stuff on tap here

Amstel House, ca. 1730

Old Library, built 1892

Van Dyke House, site of an 1824 wedddng at which the Marquis de Lafayette accompanied the bride to her marriage.

along the Delaware River

et lux perpetua – Winter Solstice and the light

Overnight, the Winter Solstice will arrive for the Northern Hemisphere, and northern cultures around the globe are in the midst of a great festival of light.

This is the time of the last harvest feasts before the starvations of deep winter.  The cold and dark are beginning to wrap the earth in a shroud of icy morbidity.  While we feast our last, we create light – for heat, of course – but also to recognize the tipping of the cycle back into sunshine, back towards the promise of a distant spring when the world will be plentiful again.

To fill the night with our own light, to stave off darkness, is one of the most fundamental of human characteristics.  And in December, examples of this are countless  – in the pre-Christian rituals of the British Isles,  Scandinavia, and Russia, in Zoroastrianism, in ancient Japanese myths of the sun goddess, in Buddhism…

– Hannukah, which began last night, celebrates the miracle of perpetual light in a time of great trial.

– In later period of ancient Rome, the harvest carnival of Saturnalia morphed into a celebration of the “Invincible Sun” on December 25.

Of course, in the Christian tradition, this day is far more well-known as a celebration of the life of Jesus, whose birth brought light to the world, and was signaled by a giant star.  Right now,the Christian world is decked in evergreen plants, candles, hearths, and lights.

– Another great Christian tradition came on December 13 – the Day of St. Lucia, protector of holy light (and of the blind).  Originating in Germanic and Scandinavian Europe, the commemoration includes candlelit processions led by a girl who wears a candled wreath on her head.

Happy Winter!

All photos Copyright Matt Logan – may not be reproduced, published, or used in any way without written consent.