In the late nineteenth century, municipal officials and boosters of a regionally-scaled New York City endeavored to reshape the material nature of the cityscape. Debates about the physical nature of the urban fringe demonstrate how the city’s coastal edge was both an ecological system and a cultural and political landscape. The harbor environment included both sides of the high-tide line — riparian land and lands underwater. Developers looked to control the material characteristics of the coast through infrastructure. Landscape architects, engineers, and street commissioners approached the urban edge as a laboratory for regional planning. These city builders focused on regional environmental boundaries in contradistinction to laissez-faire urbanization and development that overlooked the conditions of environment and topography. Parks, channelized rivers, and street systems expanded the urban fabric into rural hinterlands.
Reprinted with permission from New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore, by Kara Murphy Schlichting, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2019 by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.
Reviewed by Emily Brooks
The Girl on the Velvet Swing is an engaging and fast-paced presentation of this story that will prove compelling to popular and academic audiences interested in New York City history or histories of the gilded age. Despite these strengths, Baatz’s analysis is weakened by a problematic interpretation of Nesbit’s narrative of her own assault, included in the book’s afterword, which may unsettle readers.
By Joseph Alexiou
On a cool November morning in 1883, George J. Hardy, Deputy Sheriff of Brooklyn, marched toward the city’s most notorious slum. Behind him followed a small army of fourteen “special assistants” — nameless men in frock coats and bowler hats — Sergeant Reeves of Brooklyn’s 10th Precinct with three of his own officers and some newspaper reporters.
Upon first approach it appeared as though nobody was lived among the meandering rows of one-story shanties. The officers commented that it seemed odd. Goats snacked on bits of scrap metal and old hoop skirts that littered the dirt-path while pigs of varying age frolicked, but no people could be seen. Still they advanced on Darby’s Patch as though ready to battle an absentee goatherd.
But when Hardy’s crew reached fifty yards from the bounds of “the Patch,” suddenly “the hillocks teemed with life, every male inhabitant coming up as if from the ground, armed to the teeth with every conceivable implement,” as described one reporter from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In 1883 this would mean metal rakes and ice picks, hammers or pokers, perhaps intentionally rusty. He added: “and the females also equipped with kitchen and other utensils, ready to defend their shanties.”
Hardy turned to the reporter, saying: “My letters must have been given to the goats and they forgot to read them.”
By Julia Guarneri
“I thought I knew every nook and angle of this village, but it seems your staff are ferreting out new and interesting bits every week.” In 1919, subscriber Charles Romm sent this letter to the New York Tribune, praising the paper’s new “In Our Town” section. The Tribune — like the World, the Times, the American, and many of the city’s other daily papers — had begun printing a special local section on Sundays. These metropolitan sections, as they were often called, did not print local news, exactly. They were not the places to look for accident reports or the latest in city politics. Instead, metropolitan sections gave readers glimpses of the everyday city. They brought the sights, accents, and clamor of the city into readers’ laps, to be enjoyed from a living room couch or a lunch counter. Newspapers’ metropolitan sections packaged up city life for quick, enjoyable consumption.
By Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis
The Gould Memorial Library in the Bronx may be the most famous building in New York City that you’ve never heard of. It recently made an appearance in The Greatest Showman, the 2018 Hugh Jackman musical about the life of P. T. Barnum, as the setting for a glorious party, but unless you know what you’re looking at, you’d think it was an elaborate Hollywood stage set—not a library.
By Dianne Durante
The only sculpture originally slated for the Park
In Olmsted and Vaux’s Greensward Plan, the only sculpture was one atop the fountain at the center of Bethesda Terrace. The commission for the sculpture was given in 1863 to Emma Stebbins (1815-1882), an American-born sculptor working in Rome who happened to be the sister of a member of the Board of Commissioners of Central Park.
Stebbins’s eight-foot-tall fountain figure is an allegory for the life-saving, clean water of the Croton Aqueduct. According to Scripture (John 5:2-4), at Bethesda, near Jerusalem, an angel occasionally came down to stir the waters of a certain pool. The first person to step into the pool afterwards was cured of anything that ailed him. The main figure of Bethesda Fountain is the Angel of the Waters, about to stir. The four-foot-tall putti below her represent Purity, Health, Temperance, and Peace.
This post is an excerpt from the author's new book, Central Park: The Early Years.
Amy Werbel's Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock
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