Friday, May 3, 2013

"Fallowed" Ground: the History of 37-41 Chambers Street

For years, in my dual capacity as an attorney and a historian, I have walked by a parking lot on the corner of Chambers & Elk (formerly, Elm) Streets in Lower Manhattan, and have wondered two things: (a) what used to be there? and (b) why hasn't the site been developed.  The lot is 75' wide and is through-block, from Chambers to Duane.  It sits between two landmarked and historically important buildings, the Surrogates Court (23 Chambers) and the Emigrant Savings Bank (49-51 Chambers).

The answer to the first question, in part, answers the second.  The parking lot occupies what had been, until 1971, the former American News Company building, which was erected in 1877-78 per plans by the prominent 19th century architect Griffith Thomas (former Astor Library, now the Public Theater; former Arnold Constable Building at 881-887 Broadway).  American News Company was a magazine, newspaper, book, (and comic book) distribution company which dominated the distribution market in the 1940s and 1950s.  Tthe company had over 300 branches and employed several thousand employees. During the middle of the last century, it stood as the largest book wholesaler in the world, dominating the industry.  In the mid-1950's, as the result of a legal losses in an antitrust suit and changes in the publishing market, the company - which by then was headquartered in New Jersey - liquidated its assets.  It was out of business by 1957.  The building was acquired by the City of New York in 1965, and was demolished in 1971 as part of an ill-fated urban renewal plan.


Saturday, March 30, 2013

What Remains of the Five Points

"The Five Points" by George Caitlin (c. 1827)

Anyone who has seen Martin Scorcese's "Gangs of New York" is familiar with the notorious 19th century neighborhood in Lower Manhattan known as "The Five Points."  Because most physical traces of that world no longer exist, Scorcese couldn't film on location.   Instead, together with production designer Dante Ferretti, Scorcese recreated the Five Points of the 1860’s (along with other sets comprising over a mile of mid-nineteenth century Manhattan) at Cinecittà Studios in Rome.  This decision, itself, was a tremendous gift to the actors, who otherwise would have had to have devoted a great deal of their creative energies to conjuring up that world while acting against a green screen.

Where, exactly, was the Five Points?  It is today’s lower Chinatown (on the east) and the Courthouse district (on the west).  Between these two very different neighborhoods is today the oddly shaped Columbus Park, formerly known as "Mulberry Bend Park."  For those of you unfamiliar with the history of this area of New York City , here is a link to Dan Kowalski’s nine minute video about the Collect Pond in which I am featured.

Map of the Five Points (salmon overlay) with
contemporary streets & buildings in outline.
Only one of the five points (#2) still exists, along 
with a sliver of the former Paradise Square.

It’s hard for most people to conjure up the older world, since the streets and buildings depicted in the movie have been almost entirely altered since then.  Some streets (e.g., Little Water, most of Cross) have been demapped, others (Orange, Anthony) have been renamed and some streets (Anthony then, now Worth) have been extended.  Finally, the most notorious block of the Five Points neighborhood of the Sixth Ward, bounded by Orange (now Baxter) on the west, Cross (now Mosco) on the south, Mulberry on the east and Bayard on the north, is now a public park. The block was oddly shaped, since both Mulberry and Orange bent at a twenty degree angle to follow the lines of a stream that had drained the Collect Pond to the north, towards the flats below Mt. Bayard.  

Mulberry Bend, on Mulberry Street, c. 1902.  The alley 
known as "Bandit's Roost" opened off to the left, 
 between two buildings just north of the bend.

Because of the bend, the block was unusually deep and long.  This, and the common 19th century practice of jamming buildings into the rear yards of such neighborhoods, meant that there were two, and sometimes three, buildings set back from the street in the intereior of the block.  The character of the block can best be discerned from the names give the  alleys and byways that led deep into its interior: "Bandit's Roost," "Ragpickers' Alley," and "Bottle Alley."  All of the housing on this "superblock" was demolished in the middle of the 19-teens to create Mulberry Bend Park such that, together with the demolition of the Paradise Square area, almost all traces of the Five Points have been obliterated.
"Bandit's Roost" alley, c. 1890.  William Henry McCarty, Jr.  
(a/k/a William H. Bonney) better known as "Billy the Kid,"
 was born less than a mile away, on Allen Street, in 1859

The reason that most all of the courthouses in Manhattan are gathered here is a direct result of its earlier status as the Five Points.  When, in the early 1800’s, the decision was made to replace the aging Revolutionary War era Bridewell Prison (“theBridewell”), it was decided that a new jail and court complex needed to be built.  Nominally called “the Hall of Justice” (but more colloquially referred to as “The Tombs” because of its Egyptian style architecture) the decision was made to locate it in the center of the old Sixth Ward (and, by coincidence, at the center of the former Collect Pond) since, by the late 1820’s, the then new and (briefly) middle-class neighborhood in the Sixth Ward was already deteriorating into what would soon become known as the Five Points and it was thought that locating the jail there would “send a message” to the Irish and black riff-raff to keep them in line.  It did not.

The first Tombs (Hall of Justice), built in the 1830's in the center
of the Sixth Ward and the center of the former Collect Pond.

What most people do not know is that the Five Points, as depicted in that movie, persisted well into the first two decades of the 20th century and that, even today, traces of the Five Points remain.  There are places where one can go down into a subterranean tunnel on one block and emerge, back up into the daylight, one or two blocks over.  I give tours of it for friends.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Lawlor, Blake and the Origins of the Most Famous Song about New York City

Notwithstanding the (deserved) popularity of Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" (made popular by Alicia Keys) and the (much less deserved) earlier popularity of Kander and Ebbs' "New York, New York" (made popular by Sinatra), arguably the most popular (and certainly the most recorded) song about New York City remains the turn of the (last) century tune from by James , "The Sidewalks of New York." 

Written in

Friday, March 15, 2013

Aaron Burr and the 19th Century Water Scandal at the Heart of the Founding of Chase Manhattan Bank

In 1800 the Manhattan Company (now The Chase Manhattan Bank, N.A.) sank a well at Reade and Centre Streets, pumped water into a reservoir on Chambers Street and distributed it through wooden mains to a (wealthy) portion of the community.  The ostensible purpose of the company, according to its charter, was to bring "fresh and dependable water" to a city that had been wracked by outbreaks of typhus, cholera and malaria.  However, the real purpose of the company was to engage in banking, and its founder, Aaron Burr (yes, he who fought a duel with pistols and killed Alexander Hamilton) made sure its charter stated that the proposed institution would possess the right to use its surplus capital to engage in various financial transactions. The water only served the upper class and they were badly served by a company that only cared to maintain the illusion of a public water service while protecting its banking operations.

Burr was a lawyer and a State legislator in the the New York Assembly in the 1790's, and he drafted a bill to create the Manhattan Company.  Work began immediately on the new system, but, instead of tapping water from clean wells miles away, Burr's company sank wells to the aquifer at the edge of Collect Pond. Deep wells were dug on Reade Street between Broadway and Centre Street, and the Company announced its presence by erecting a handsome structure on Chambers Street (approximately across the street from today’s Tweed Courthouse, where 49-51 Chambers is now) that included a colonnade plus a statue of Oceanus standing guard. Behind it, on Reade Street down the block from his law office, was a mini-reservoir and nearby (across Reade Street) was the tank shown in the picture, whose function was presumably to maintain pressure in the wooden water mains (made of hollowed-out logs) that gradually fanned out to reach nearby houses and neighborhood pumps.

At the age of 55, Burr re-opened his NYC law offices in June 1812. His offices on Reade Street just east of Broadway were where A.T. Stewart's Marble Palace building (later, the "Sun Newspaper" building, and now the HQ for the NYC Department of Buildings) still stands. A later Burr law office was located by the Collect Pond, at 11 Reade Street just west of Centre Street, right across from the main water pump of his Manhattan Company (NE corner of Reade and Lafayette). Over this well, at the corner of Reade and Center Streets, a tank of iron plates was constructed and a building was erected to disguise it from the street.  The tank remained thus enclosed until the building was demolished by the Manhattan Company in 1914.

That system indeed fared poorly. The wooden mains kept breaking, and residents complained that the Manhattan Company refused to use its water to flush gutters and failed to repair the streets it dug up.  The Manhattan Company served only 2,000 homes through 25 miles of piping, but, at $10 a month sufficient revenue was generated to finance a healthy bank.

In 1830 a tank for fire protection was constructed by the City at 13th Street and Broadway as was filled from a well. The water was distributed through 12-inch cast iron pipes. As the population of the City increased, the well water became polluted and supply was insufficient. The supply was supplemented by cisterns and water drawn from a few springs in upper Manhattan.  About 1836 the system was extended north along Broadway as far as Bleecker Street.  Ultimately, in 1842, the makeshift system of wells, cisterns and wooden pipes was supplanted by clean water from the Croton Aqueduct.

As a water provider, the Manhattan Company was a dismal failure. Instead of channeling a mainland river, the company built a meager waterworks - well, pump, and small reservoir - on suburban Chambers Street and laid a haphazard network of yellow pine pipe down to the town. Under the terms of its original charter, the Manhattan Company had to maintain its ability to pump water, even after its half hearted piss-poor wooden log system was supplanted by clean water from the Croton Aqueduct in 1842, which it did well into the early 20th century by maintaining its large water tank enclosed by this building at the corner of Reade and Lafayette (formerly Centre) Streets.  The building was finally torn down in 1914, and the present structure was erected.  However, beneath the building there apparently still remains the original well sunk by the Manhattan Company 213 years ago and, according to a 1914 article in the New York Times, as of that date, Chase Bank still owned the land and all rights accruing to it, including the well.