On a recent early evening, I came across a small scrimmage in Union Square, not an unusual scene for a warm day. But as I got closer, I noticed that at the center of the huddle of bodies was a bank of water fountains. A large pickup truck awaited nearby and some workers were trying to delicately pry the thirsty New Yorkers away from their water source so they could pack up the fountain. As I got closer, I could see large letters on the side of the troth: “Water-on-the-Go” and the familiar logo of the city of New York. Apparently, the city has been providing these portable fountains around town for free each summer since 2010.But water fountains, mostly the non-portable sort, have only been around NYC since the mid-19th century.
Specifically, since the opening of the Croton Aqueduct which finally brought fresh water to the city in 1842 – 90 millions gallons of it per day. Instead of contaminated well-water, the city’s residence now had consistent access to fresh and clean water for the first time. The effects were transformational to the city and to the health of its residents. Wealthier New Yorkers installed running water in their homes and public bath houses and pools were constructed for everyone else . Cockroach trivia of the day: the horrendous critters became known as Croton bugs because they congregated around the water pipes. To celebrate clean water, lavish fountains were erected in Union Square and City Hall Park and over the next few decades, public drinking fountains were built across the city to quench the thirst of “man and beast.”
Today there are 1,970 water fountains in the city with the most in Brooklyn. Their designs are more functional than the ornamental fountains of the last century, but free and clean water is clearly something that New Yorkers still very much appreciate.
Beer gardens are experiencing a small, but notable renaissance in New York City these days. Sadly they don’t even touch the kinds of massive, throbbing beer gardens that used to be commonplace. Sure, you could grab a beer at any of these German-style beer halls that dotted 19th century New York, but they were so much more than watering holes. The largest and most famous of these was the Atlantic Garden, which was a cavernous multi-storied social space were patrons would spend the better part of the day drinking, playing pool and listening to live music and of course, drinking beer. The largest of these was the Atlantic Garden, opened in 1858 on the Bowery at number 50 extending to Elizabeth Street. At a time when male and female social spheres rarely overlapped, beer halls were frequented by both men and women. The Atlantic Garden was particularly popular with German families who came to enjoy some evening entertainment together. This included an array of diversions such as a shooting gallery, pool tables, bowling allies and live entertainment. Despite the flowing beer, the crowd was relatively tame. On the lower lefthand corner of the postcard you can see a young girl sitting patiently at the end of the table as her parents chat away and another couple walking hand in hand between the tables on the right side.
As the Bowery increasingly became home to some of the most desolate populations in the city, Atlantic Garden managed to maintain its clean reputation and remained popular with locals and tourists. That is, until the locals finally left for less seedy pastures. Atlantic Garden was closed in 1902 because its main clientele, Germans and Irish, had moved away from the Bowery. This particularly vivid passage from the New York Times article announcing the closure describes the ending of an era:
Dwellers of the Bowery paused and rubbed their eyes yesterday when they passed Atlantic Garden, for the front of the famous old resort, which had stood almost unchanged on its site just below Canal Street since before the Civil War, was plastered over with Billboard in Yiddish announcing a Yiddish variety programme.”
(Yes, we still clung to that extra “me” in 1902.)
The article goes on to describe how the hall had hosted vaudeville acts, a new form of entertainment when it first opened, and specialized in novelty acts such as “‘teams’ of negro performers,” and later a “ladies orchestra.”
This past fall, it was discovered that the basement of the tavern that had previously occupied 50 Bowery and which had supposedly been George Washington’s headquarters, was still intact. Almost just as soon, it was demolished to make way for a 22-story, 160-room hotel. Hopefully plans will also include an enormous beer hall.
Slimy, briny and amorphous; oysters are an implausible aphrodisiac and an unlikely delicacy. And yet, oysters are part of a cadre of much-valued foods with the fabled powers to generate sexual stimulation, along with chocolate and apparently striped bass. While oysters have long been shrouded in a myth of sensuality, they were not always so rarefied. In the nineteenth century, oysters were one of few foods that both rich and poor could agree were delicious, and they ate them with equal enthusiasm. Mark Kurlansky writes in The Big Oyster: History of the Half Shell that mid-nineteenth century New York oystermania “was one of the few moments in culinary history when a single food, served in more or less the same preparations, was commonplace for all socioeconomic levels.”
New York was synonymous with oysters long before it was known for its hotdogs and bagels. The nineteenth century waterways were so bountiful that oysters were sold as street food for pennies. New Yorkers were so mad for oysters that shuckers would work 10 hour days opening up 1,000 oysters per hour just to keep up with the demand.
Oysters could be found all over town and prepared in all sorts of ways: boiled, stuffed into in pies and stewed. In The House of Mirth, Lily Bart seeks refuge at a white table-clothed restaurant on 59th Street and Park Avenue where she has a rejuvenating snack of tea and stewed oysters. While just a few blocks downtown in Edith Wharton’s New York, oysters were casually consumed for a penny each off carts by the harbor.
When it came to oysters, elites were essentially indulgent gilded age locavores. Delmonico’s, New York’s original fine dining establishment, put oysters, or huîtres as was their francophile predilection, at the very top of their menu and set the trend for serving them raw on the half-shell. Oysters also attracted the attention of visitors to New York, including Charles Dickens who found most of America to be horrendous and did not hesitate to call parts of New York “loathsome, drooping, and decayed.” And yet, he found the New York oyster cellars “pleasant retreats” and seemed to enjoy their “wonderful cookery.”
I certainly cannot think of a single food item, even with the relative democratization of food over the past century and the increased access and exposure to a wider variety of cuisines, that would be equally celebrated at, let’s say Daniel’s and IHOP. I would love to be wrong about this (Cronuts at Dunkin’ Donuts don’t count), and maybe someone will point out that I am. But from what I can tell, I’m not.
A combination of pollution and bitter turf wars between competing fisherman caused the decline of New York’s oyster population. Eventually typhoid fever and cholera outbreaks forced the City Health Commission to close all the oyster beds in 1927, ending New York’s oyster bonanza.
New York is more socioeconomically divided today than it has been in over a century but it has been nearly as long since oysters were consumed with equal gusto by both the haves and have nots. But could it happen again? There are projects to revitalize New York’s oyster population, like efforts by the New York Harbor School and The River Project. But it’s doubtful that their numbers will ever get as high as they once were when oysters were so plentiful that their shells literally paved the streets.
You can find just about anything in New York City. Most of the world’s cultural exports end up here eventually, from bubble tea to bike lanes. But Japanese culture has only made its way selectively into this city’s cultural landscape. Despite the growing popularity of Japanese pop culture like anime and manga here in the U.S., the Japanese have largely left the weirder stuff back home, until now. The first Maid Cafe has just opened in Chinatown. Theme cafes are big in Japan, and especially hostess cafes which are a special blend of fantasy and female degradation where waitresses dress up in elaborate and often skimpy costumes and flirt with their, mostly socially awkward, male customers. In the Akiharaba district of Tokyo, young waitresses dressed as French maids, school girls and manga characters in platform pumps and thigh highs hand out invitations on the busy streets to passing potential customers. They were all too happy to pose for pictures too, as I found out.
At the maid cafes in Japan, waitresses greet male guests as “master,” listen dotingly, flatter and giggle behind menus. It’s an exaggerated femininity of the kind that feels uniquely Japanese. But, in some ways it’s familiar. What is Hooters if not a fantasy bar where buxom waitresses serve atomic wings instead of matcha? There is one small, but significantly disturbing difference though. There is no mistaking the Hooters waitresses for girls. Whereas the primary look of waitresses at many hostess cafes, and the popular look for Japanese woman in general, is kawaii, meaning cute, as in young, often a little too young. Hence, the popularity of the school girl look. At the Maid Cafe in Chinatown the French maid outfits are maintained but the rest of the experience has been finessed for the American crowd. The cafe holds special events where “traditional” maid service is offered. But regular service involves no references to guests as”masters,” or cartoonish flirtations, just young women in frilly maid outfits serving chicken curry with heart-shaped rice for $6.95.
In the early 1990′s in New York City, on the southwest corner of Central Park a few blocks down from Lincoln Center, lay a disused blocky convention center, a strange Venetianesque latticework building and a few other functional butnondescript structures. This hodgepodge group all crowded around a traffic circle that was decorated with parked motorcycles and punctuated by a sooty column topped by a statue of a famous dead white man. The buildings all seemed to face this traffic circle expectantly, as if asking: why must our fate be to stare at you day after day? You are a blight on our fair city. Alas, we are doomed to continue staring at you until someone comes along with better plans for us all.
This was the Columbus Circle that I knew as a child. Today it is the manicured center of high-end shopping and living. Recently, Columbus Circle was named Best Roundabout in the World 2013 by the Roundabout Appreciate Society (which should itself be voted Most Unapologetically British Society 2013). Fountains and careful landscaping have replaced the motorcycles, Columbus and his column have received a scrub down, the weird latticework building whose arcade was essentially a homeless shelter, has been discreetly covered up and is now the Museum of Arts and Design, the abandoned convention center (a Robert Moses creation) was torn down to make way for the billion dollar Time Warner Center, and Donald Trump took over the anonymous glass tower by the park. Actual people, lots of them, sit on the benches backed by a row of fountains. It’s easy to romanticize the “bad old days” of New York and confuse grit and neglect with authenticity, but Columbus Circle itself is a gleaming example of a resuscitated public space. And while I wish it didn’t mean that William Sonoma and Whole Foods are today as much of a draw to this corner of the city as Jazz at Lincoln Center, I am very glad the motorcycle parking lot is a distant memory.
Not too long ago on an episode of Iron Chef America, the sweaty contestants were dexterously hacking away at a large animal encased in an impressive layer of fat usually only seen in the parts of Europe where words like “monounsaturated” and “natural supplement” haven’t yet arrived. “This is Iron Chef America Battle of the Mangalitsa!” the announcer proclaimed. At which point I leaped out of my chair, yelling: “It’s Mangalitsa!!” as if I had just seen my best friend on TV. I was first introduced to the Mangalitsa when I was living in Hungary a few years ago. They are a hulking, fatty, woolly hog that taste as unique as they look. So, when the strange beast appeared on my TV, well, I got really excited. Apparently I was not the only one. As I found out, Mangalitsas are finding their way into the hearts of chefs, farmers and foodies right here in New York. Here’s my full story on NPR’s The Salt.
This afternoon I went through an internet wormhole that began at a Slate tirade against flip flops and ended at an article about a chunk of the Berlin Wall that resides in NYC, naturally. I’ve walked by Paley Park, a small midtown POPS (Privately Owned Public Space), many times–enchanted by the urban waterfall but never noticing the mural on the other side. Turns out this slab of concrete is a genuine piece of the Berlin Wall (the nice people at Yelp are not as impressed and give this piece of history three out of five stars).
Of course, the excellent Untapped Cities already knew all about this. They report that this section of the Wall was added to the park in 1990 from its original location on Waldemarstrasse and decorated by German artists Thierry Noir and Kiddy Citny in 1985. Turns out there are three other pieces of the Wall in New York City: one at the entrance of the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, one between Gateway Plaza, the North Cove Marina, and the World Financial Center and another in the gardens at the United Nations Headquarters featuring a mural titled “Trophy of Human Rights.”
Not much of the Wall remains in Berlin itself. Of the nearly 100 miles that once surrounded West Berlin, only 240 yards still stand. So, where did other parts of the Berlin Wall end up? Some small pieces found their way into people’s pockets–hawked to tourists or kept as souvenirs by the very people who helped tear it down. But pieces have found their way all over the world.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall in 2009, the BBC crowdsourced photos from around the world where pieces of the Wall now reside. Fragments are in some far flung places–some displayed with more symbolic purpose than others, form The Hard Rock Cafe in Orlando to a Cape Town street.
Bet you didn’t know that Le Parker Méridien’s lobby is actually a public space? Here are some other disguised and not so disguised private-public arcades in Midtown, including Manhattan’s newest avenue. Read more at Untapped Cities.
A Modell’s in Flatbush, a Starbucks in Greenpoint, a Pentecostal church in Times Square…what do they have in common? They were all once movie theaters. Here are some other former theaters that are now chain stores, churches, and a beautiful gym.
Competing ideologies, market shares, oh, and dragons. It’s Chinese New Year in Flushing. The Chinese New Year parade in Flushing was about much more than dragons. Read my full write-up at Untapped Cities.