Sunday, September 20, 2009

My Historical NYC Obsessions

I'll be the first to admit that I am a very strange girl, mostly due to my odd fetishes and obsessions with certain items and subjects. I have always been very serious about the things I am curious about; most of them to seem to have a theme.

I have a strong connection to history: events, people and places from the past. I love learning about those times and trying to recreate those moments in the present using the sensory experience of visiting these places, viewing artifacts, and forming a picture in my mind with the support of imagined atmospheres. Just as Paul Zucker states in Fascination of Decay (1968), ruins can be "...an expression of an eerie romantic mood ... a palpable documentation of a period in the past..."

When I traveled to Europe for the first time, it was the pinnacle of excitement for me to finally visit all these ancient places I'd learned about in school, but never had the chance to fully experience. Now that I am back in NY, I realize I can still have that same euphoria here. Though much younger, the city still has a past and history unlike any other place in the world. It still has the ability to surprise and entice me, even after all the years of being so very close to it. There is so much I don't know, and I'm eager to keep discovering more.

Governor's Island
It was really love at first sight. Much of this had to do with the fact that upon my first visit via ferry, I was greeted by ghostly 20s microphone sounds amidst of sea of bustling flappers. However, the island itself has much more to explore, most of which I haven't even ventured upon quite yet (that will be a September 27th endeavor, when the Jazz Age Lawn Party is revived for the 2nd time this year!)

Apparently, there's a free mini golf course, a beach, a HUGE picnic area where concerts are sometimes held, bike rentals and, last but not least, the abandoned buildings of Coast Guard families, and a history dating back to the Revolutionary War.

Meant as a fort to protect NYC during the war against the British (it didn't work very well, unfortunately), and the site of a major sea battle during the Civil War involving America's 1st submarine ships, there is definitely a palpable sense of historical mystery here. (I unfortunately missed the last Civil war re-enactment day - blast!) Last time I went, I managed to find time to wander around its cylindrical old prison, where creepy, decrepit rooms lay behind dirty glass panes. It was tempting to trespass, to find out what might lurk within those crumbling walls.

The homes of the high ranking officials are still intact, but also (unfortunately) closed off. All the more enticing for my hunger for the past! While most of the rooms look pretty bare, who knows what one could find! The last inhabitants were there in the 80s, but the eeriness is still there. The most intimidating of all the buildings would be the hospital, which already yields such morbid curiosity...

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Roosevelt [Blackwell's] Island
I've been there about three times, and each time my admiration for Roosevelt Island grows. The third was via the Sky Tram, which suspended us high over the East River and Queensboro Bridge, where the view of the island is most spectacular and the weightlessness scarily exhilarating.

The Northern half of the island is like the perfect residential suburb: a main street with quaint mom-and-pop stores, modern apartment complexes with frosted windows and tiny astro-turf yards closed off by cherrywood fences, and a community garden with neatly tended squares of herbs and swing seats. There is a tiny, old church, circa 1800s, in the center of the complexes which lies untouched amongst its sleek surroundings.

After retreating into a moment of rekindled childhood on a small playground and swing set, we sat down for some food at the Riverwalk Bar & Grill, where we were waited on by our oddly Southern-accented waitress, who constantly apologized for having not stopped by to chat 'cause it was "so darn busy!" Nevertheless, my puled pork sandwich was more than satisfactory, and for awhile it seemed I was back in a nicer part of New Jersey.

All along the edge of the island is a cement path with greenery and trees that overlooks either the east side of Manhattan or the odd industrial banks of Queens. At dusk, the skyline looks like a matte painting lit from behind, sitting oddly at the very level of the river water, while streetlights reflect on the water lapping against the coastal rocks. My desire to live there was so strong, I thought my heart would burst out my chest, it was so perfect!

But as with most seemingly perfect places, there was something off about the entire island, which made it all the more alluring to me. Besides a newly built hospital (for amputees, no less), the Southern end of the island was completely gated off. A "No Trespassing" sign was waiting for us when we made our way down; but I knew from previous research that the journey didn't really end there.


If you happen to drive along the east side of the FDR, it is very apparent that a monumentally large and striking building lies there, always illuminated by upward shining spotlights, which only add to its menacing appearance. This is the site of the late 1800s smallpox hospital; in fact the only one of its kind in New York City at the time. Abandoned in the 1950s, it is mostly in ruins, almost collapsing in 2007, which ultimately lead to its closing off from the public view. However, despite it's condition, the "Renwick Ruin" has been saved by the city and rendered an Historical Landmark for its unique Gothic revival style architecture. As the their website states, "it is a romantic and picturesque ruin, evoking memories of the past."

I must admit I am quite bewitched by this place, despite the fact that I have never been within 20 feet of it or seen it up close. I can only imagine what it must feel like to walk the grounds around that ghostly place and breathe in the odors of the same aging walls of its long forgotten patients.

Also important to note is the little-known fact that Roosevelt Island was also the site of the New York Lunatic Asylum. Nelly Bly and Charles Dickens both visited here in the late 1800s and reported on its harsh and inadequate conditions. Since then, the area has been turned into an apartment complex, but rumors of possible hauntings have been reported. A prison was also on the island at one point as well, holding such famous guests as Mae West, Billy Holliday, and Boss Tweed.

The island itself was the setting for the 2005 horror/thriller movie, Dark Water, with Jennifer Connelly:
Screenwriter Rafael Yglesias said about the island’s ghostly aura: “Someone once said to me that when you’re driving on East River Drive in the rain and the fog and you look over at Roosevelt Island, it almost looks as though it’s a way station between this world and the next.” (NY Times, 2007)
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Brooklyn Heights: 3 Pierrepont Place
I confess, I don't know much about this area, but upon a recent excursion to the Brooklyn Book Fest, I was pleasantly surprised by this area's charm. The architecture of the apartment buildings and store front (which are not merely store fronts for the likes of New York's many common banks - they are in fact beautifully ornate facades of a greater, younger city) are quite breathtaking. They are in no way decrepit, and the quiet residents seem very respectful of the historical opulence in which they live.

Ryan and I dined in a small burger place that had a unique quaintness about it. It was far from being "yuppie," but admittedly Brooklyn Heights has an air of snobbery about it that would most likely become distressingly annoying to live within if one was not of the money-possessing type (ie, me.) It struck me as quite similar to Red Bank, NJ, as it has that same Main Street flavor. HOWEVER, everyone seems mostly down-to-earth and friendly, and the neighborhood itself is proud in a sophisticated way. You won't cower from condescension, as you feel almost as if you're on vacation in a picturesque town: you are taken by its easygoing nature, the kind neighbors and the elaborate atmosphere, and while you enjoy yourself and breathe in all that is has to offer, you ultimately realize you would never be able to live in such a paradise.

That being said, while walking towards the Montague Promendade that overlooks the southern tip of Manhattan and NY Harbor, I saw the apartment of my dreams (there are a growing list of these...) The building at 3 Pierrepont Place is actually a mansion, though I didn't know it at the time. I tend to assume that any house or apartment I see could possibly be within my price range/grasp if only one day I could scrape up enough to live there; but inevitably, these places usually turn out to be historical landmarks in which very prominent people once lived, and that cost more 100 years ago than I could afford even now. Still one can dream....

I immediately looked this sucker up the next day, hoping to dig up some clues as to who it belonged to (and how I could get my hands, or at least eyes on it), so hungry I was to know every detail about it. Also, was it haunted? It certainly looked that way, as it was dark and towering, and had small ornate little windows the evoked the same mood as Suspiria.

It was constructed in 1857 and is described as one "of the largest surviving Italiante style mansions in New York City." It was built for wealthy tea merchant A. A. Low, to watch his China Clippers as they worked in the South Street docks below. There is a beautiful gated garden behind that overlooks the view of the NYC skyline, but as far as who lays claim to it now, I've not a clue....

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    Housing Works Used Book Cafe
    "Why, this is not an historic place!", you may exclaim. Well, not really, no, but it certainly has many books of historical value, and an interior reminiscent of an old, dusty library (ala Disney's Beauty and the Beast), with beautiful winding stairs and faded bookcases.

    As you may not already know, but you should, about me, I love old books. Not only am I enamored by the romance of writing itself, but also the texture of delicate, yellowed pages and the crisp way in which they turn; the stale and old odors of those same aging pages and the crumbling leather binding. If I could turn this into a perfume, I would, and call it "Eau de Livre."

    Housing Works offers quality used books (donated by friendly neighbors) for very friendly prices. The $1 book shelves are my first stop, and I usually find something odd or interesting amidst the usual cookbooks and obscure theater volumes. One great find (on my 1st visit, no less) was a original facsimile manuscript of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. It was written entirely in his handwriting and also included a real photo of the actual Alice, for which the story was written.

    Most recently, Ryan found Volume 6 of Akira (now out of print, and $60), for only $15, and I, a publishing of a wealthy uncle's letters to his nephew in late 1800s NY, complete with his original sketches of a then Manhattan countryside.

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      Coney Island
      It still haunts me to this day, even though most of it has been overrun by modern installations and carnies; to think that this place was once the biggest resort on the east coast. People from all over would flock to its shores for a glimpse of Luna Park and its sparklingly-lit splendor in the night sky, or for the many oddities of Dreamland.



      Most of what I knew about Coney Island came from my grandma, as she and her family used to visit the public pools and beaches back in the 20s and 30s. Steeplechase was the place to be, and when I visited one day with my aunt and uncle, I stood in front of its original location. All that was left was the renowned parachute drop (which can be seen from NJ), a rusty and decrepit metal skeleton of a roller coaster, and yards of long, blowing weeds. It was the eeriest feeling I'd ever had - a ghostly memory of laughter through the ocean breeze - but instantly I knew I would never forget it.


      A few years ago, I got my hands on a Ric Burns documentary about the island, and my curiosity was rekindled. I had never known that the other two parks had even existed, and I was awed by the antiquated photos and footage they had found. At Dreamland, there were rides like "The Last Day of Pompeii," which recreated its destruction.


      Both parks suffered fires, once in 1911 and again in 1944. I could go on forever about how wonderful these parks were, and what amazing sights they had (Disney ain't got nothin' on them). But see below for a great site with even greater photos, which does the job for me.

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        Prospect Park
        Another memory inherited fro my grandmother, this used to be the stomping grounds of the Varone family back in the 20s and 30 when all 5 children were living in Park Slope. They played baseball in the parade grounds, and listened to live music at the bandstand (which still stands, actually) on Tuesdays.

        Now that I live close by, I can visit the park a lot, and I never cease to be amazed at its size and tranquility. The grounds are green and airy; one can hardly tell it's in the middle of Brooklyn. There are also other perks:
        • Prospect Park Zoo
        • Litchfield Villa, mansion in the romantic Italian style (circa 1857)
        • Audobon Center, resembling a Southern-style home on the bayou
        • Lefferts farmhouse, which has been preserved from its early 1700-1800 roots
        • Botanical Gardens, home of the Sakura Blossom Festival every spring
        • Brooklyn Museum, which has the largest and most robust Egyptian collection in the country
        Besides the historical value of the locations above, there are also remnants of the park's past scattered throughout; some stone fences and cornices still remain, and help retain its stately, Victorian style. Walking through, you sometimes feel as if you can hark back to a time when gentleman and ladies strolled the dirt paths with parasols and canes.

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          NYU Bobst Library
          Let me make perfectly clear that I HATE this building. However, I find it fit to include on my list of obsessions, as the anger and annoyance it induces in me is also somewhat of an obsession itself. As an NYU student, I had to visit here quite often. I absolutely love libraries, but this place rubs me the wrong way. To me, it is an absolute waste of architecture and space, an eye-sore, and a most depressing place for the joy of reading . It is 12 stories of fluorescent gloom, and the scene of 2 NYU students' deaths, after plummeting from the now-closed off balconies. Since most of my visits here consisted of research for papers, exam crunching and writer's block, I'm sure it only added to my glum outlook on Bobst.

          It did serve as the subject of one paper for our writing class in Freshman year. Though our theme was an art piece that particularly "moved" us, I chose the library as one that moved me to hatred. (I believe I described its outward appearance to be like that of a "wet cardboard box.") Further research on the library led me to discover that in order to make room for its construction, an entire row of 1800s row houses overlooking the park had been torn down, one of which had once housed such literary greats as Edgar Allen Poe.

          How ironic.
          ..instead of bounding eagerly through comforting walls, my stride halted at the sight of a despondent and muted hollow space. I stood gaping upwards in bewilderment at a vast atrium that climbed twelve long levels towards a distant ceiling, the constant sounds of elevator dings, fingers typing, the rustling of winter coats and taps of heels on tile floor, all echoing silently into an empty void. (March 2005)
          It was also the setting for my first (and I think best) 16mm short film, about a young girl (my sister) who gets lost in the creepy stairways. That same day, my mother and other sister nearly avoided being killed by a car that had lost control and crashed straight into Washington Square Park. Coincidence? I think not.

          You can view the film, in all its B&W glory, here.

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            Museum of Natural History
            I remember visiting for the first time when I was young, at the grand opening of the new dinosaur wing. It was 80 degrees out, the AC was broken, and it was so crowded you could hardly move. But I had never seen so many huge dino bones in my life. And after the craze of "Jurassic Park," it was every child's dream. Even today, it hasn't lost it's touch; although recently we've discovered that not only was dinosaur extinction proven to be the aftermath of a giant meteor, but as Sam Neil himself predicted, they are in fact the ancestors of birds (as made evident by my last visit, in which the velociraptor displays had inherited feather. Yes, feathers. Fashionable indeed.)

            Victorian Homes: Kensington/Flatbush/Ditmas Park
            When I first moved into Kensington, I walked along Beverly Road and was in awe of what I found: a tiny neighborhood of absolutely gorgeous Victorian homes. And, per my obsession with lovely homes, I proceeded to research them to fuel my hopes of having my own. Though my dreams were dashed after learning of their million dollar value, I still have a great love for their architecture, and the quiet beauty of its hidden and adorable grounds. What makes them so beautiful are the sweeping porches, round towers, columns and timbers, and stained glass windows. They are like fairytale homes from another time and far away place.


            I still have much to explore, including Mary Pickford's japanese tudor, and the rumored home of Vincent Price nearby. Most of them were constructed in 1920, which only adds to my curiosity of who lived in them, and if they might still be around....

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              3 thoughts:

              Anonymous said...

              1. Check out http://nyc10044.com, especially the Roosevelt Island TimeLine.
              2. Come again, but call ahead for a real tour: 212-826-9056.
              -Dick Lutz, Editor & Publisher
              The Main Street WIRE
              Roosevelt ISland's Community Newspaper

              Tara Rose Stromberg said...

              Awesome! Thanks so much for the info! My friend Damaris just told me she had taken a tour at the Renwick Ruins, and now I know how. :)

              I will definitely be planning a tour soon. She also says hi! Thanks again!

              vajofrey said...

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