By David Freeland
Manhattanites have often seemed remorseful at having ignored their physical history, having treated it so callously. At the same time they have sought to accept change as an inescapable element of life in the metropolis. In Downtown: My Manhattan (2004), Pete Hamill writes poignantly of this experience: "The New York version of nostalgia is not simply about lost buildings or their presence in the youth of the individuals who lived with them. It involves an almost fatalistic acceptance of the permanent presence of loss. Nothing will ever stay the same . . . Irreversible change happens so often in New York that the experience affects character itself."
Still, every so often the past comes back to haunt us, letting us know that it is not to be taken lightly, that it has something to say. In Manhattan there are many striking examples of buildings and neighborhoods where, through adjacent demolitions or the weathering effects of time, layers are stripped away to reveal history. In 1998, when the remnants of the 1918 Central Theater on the southwestern corner of Broadway and 47th Street were torn down to build the W Hotel, the side of a building from the 1860s was exposed, revealing a large painted sign for carriages—a glimpse into the days when Times Square was a center of the horse trade. Of course, once the skyscraper hotel was completed, the old sign again disappeared from view. Another discovery came at a Radio Shack on West 125th Street, near Eighth Avenue. One day the cement below the doorway chipped, uncovering part of a sign for the Baby Grand, a popular Harlem nightclub that lasted from 1947 all the way to 1989. Suddenly a place that had seemed clearly within New York’s past (legendary for performers such as comedian Nipsey Russell and singer Little Jimmy Scott, who often worked there) was pulled into the very real present. At such moments the city offers its own greatest history lesson.
Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville searches for these “windows”—odd openings where we can view the past, if only for an instant—and then uses them as an entry into a history of place. One reason I have chosen to spotlight buildings of entertainment and leisure (as opposed to those devoted strictly to government or business) is because these are the places that most often disappear after their economic usefulness runs out, casualties of an American popular culture that is always moving to the next trend. For example, of the half-dozen theaters that helped make Union Square the city’s leading entertainment district of the 1870s, not one has survived into the present day (a fact that can be compared to the significant number of 19th-century churches, stores, and bank buildings remaining throughout the city). Thus the discovery of an extant cultural site provides the rare chance to experience a fragment of history within itsoriginal environment. It offers the sense of context and scale often lacking in even the most detailed museum installations.
More important, as a starting point for many of the narratives dominating this book, places associated with entertainment culture possess dramatic and sometimes turbulent histories. In his well-researched book, Nightclub City, Burton W. Peretti explores how New York’s social history can be viewed as one long struggle between city establishment and the larger populace. Sites of recreation and entertainment frequently have become grounds for this ongoing battle, one that has played itself out through the machinations of civic authority versus the inhabitants’ opposing will to fight back, to claim ownership upon a space that for them holds meaning. In some instances (such as those related to the experiences of African Americans in Manhattan) the end result of these battles has been an actual population shift, one which reflects the human drive for physical and emotional security—a place to call home. But even in these situations, New Yorkers have managed to take an active role in the creation of their own spaces. Although the history of a building can be instantly wiped away, through fire or demolition (thus underscoring the role chance plays in shaping the city’s architectural patterns), the human processes informing that history are anything but random.
- Hamill, p. 19 [↩]