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AUTOMATS, TAXI DANCES, AND VAUDEVILLE: EXCAVATING MANHATTAN’S LOST PLACES OF LEISURE

By David Freeland

David Freeland is a writer who specializes in music hisory and popular culture.  He is the author of Ladies of Soul.  This is an excerpt from the introduction of his new book Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure (New York University Press, 2009).

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.1

But we never make total peace with the destruction of architecture. As evidenced by the popularity of Web sites such as forgotten-ny.com and vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com, our anxiety has grown in recent years, as more and more of the city we know has been replaced with new construction. The elegiac posts on these sites indicate that the process of coming to terms with architectural loss occurs in stages: first shock that something beautiful could have been destroyed; then resignation; and, finally, determination to appreciate the treasures that remain. If, as Hamill suggests, we approach loss with a fatalistic perspective, it is because we understand the irreversibility of destruction. Once a building is gone, it is gone forever. The demolition of the original Pennsylvania Station in the 1960s is still recalled with sadness by many who are old enough to remember it, while others bemoan the loss of the Metropolitan Opera House on 39th and Broadway, which was torn down in 1967, after the new Lincoln Center had replaced it some twenty-five blocks to the north. Other losses abound: Luchow’s, the famous German restaurant on East 14th Street; the Helen Hayes, Morosco, and Bijou theaters in Times Square (destroyed to build what is generally regarded as one of the city’s least attractive buildings, the hulking Marriott Marquis), and so many of the townhouses and railroad flats that once typified the East Side, to name a few.

The former Baby Grand, 319 West 125th Street, 2008 (photograph by Steph Goralnick)

The former Baby Grand, 319 West 125th Street, 2008 (photograph by Steph Goralnick)

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.

  1. Hamill, p. 19 []