Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Walk in New York City's Bowery

We leave the subway and we’re bumping along a Manhattan street – pinballing along – colliding with one amazing bright and flashing thing after another.  The streetscape interprets the great European immigrant narrative.  The Dutch, establishing the name of the place, bouwerij, meaning farmland, deriving from the Dutch verb for tilling.

Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch representative of New Amsterdam, as the place was then called, capitulated to a superior force of English in 1664, handing over the authority of the island.  Importantly, for the future political life of the city, few of the Dutch returned home, including Stuyvesant.  He retired to one of his six farms and died, eight years later.  He was buried in the yard of a small, private Lutheran chapel he used on his farm. His heirs gave the land to the Episcopal diocese and St. Marks Church rose in the 1790s from the rubble of the little chapel where Stuyvesant lies next to the foundation. 

When the 1820 census began counting foreign born people who lived in America, it revealed just 8,000 people identified as foreign born.  Just 40 years later, at the beginning of the Civil War, 4,000,000 foreign born were counted. 

Immigration populations in New York City
Two groups began the flood of immigrants.  Both came in the earliest days of the city, the occasional Hessian mercenary who decided to stay in America -- an Irishman who jumped ship. The great wave grew when the Irish were pushed out of their homes by punitive legislation in the 1830s and famine in the 1840s.  By 1860 the Irish comprised 220,000 New Yorkers, settling further to the south of the island from where we are standing, roughly where the Brooklyn Bridge would later touch down in Manhattan.  Their location anticipated the future politics of the city. They were not far from City Hall.  The German wave rose alongside the Irish tide, more of them coming for the opportunity than the desperation of the Irish.  The great liberal revolutionary year of 1848 and its failure created a diaspora of German middle and patrician classes to America.  Since many Germans came into the country through Philadelphia, their portion of the New York City immigrant population was somewhat smaller, about 130,000 people in 1860. In 1855 there were more foreign born in the city than native born, led by the Germans and the Irish, to be followed at the turn of the century by the Italians.

At the outset, the Irish did not have the means to go elsewhere and stayed put.  Germans came to Philadelphia and New York and went to places like Milwaukee – a transportation boom town just after Wisconsin statehood and a place that welcomed German Catholics and the beer they brewed.  In 1843, there were 138 taverns in Milwaukee, one for every 40 residents. 

Gottfried Duden
In 1824, two Germans, Gottfried Duden, a lawyer and farmer, and Louis Eversmann, traveled into the Missouri River Valley thinking that their countrymen could overcome the poverty and overpopulation by a mass migration of Germans to the open country in the American mid-west.  By 1829 Duden had published a book that became a best seller in Germany and led to tremendous volumes of immigrants settling in St. Louis and the Missouri Valley -- 38,000 by 1860.  Missouri had long been a place for migrating southerners to find a new life, but Duden’s book and what it set off brought anti-slave ideas to a majority position in Missouri politics and ultimately brought Missouri to the Union side.  Many Germans who learned war in the 1848 revolution rose in the ranks of the Union Army to lead its troops, like General Franz Sigel from St. Louis.

The Germans and the Irish each merged into American society differently.  Americans understood the Germans better, seemed more like them and shared their culture.  The Irish seemed outsiders.  In 1859, 55% of all arrests in New York City were of people of Irish descent, prompting the old saying that “without the Irish we wouldn’t have a police force.  Without the Irish, we wouldn’t need a police force!”  Their acceptance into American society was to take over the political system of their adopted city.  From end of the Civil War to the election of Fiorello LaGuardia in 1934, the Irish owned the politics of the great city.

Walking this street toward whatever our next encounter might be, it is clear that its ownership has passed on once again.  Now it is the Koreans who are beginning to own it.

On my iphone map I noticed that Cooper Union is nearby, the first building of a remarkable university that hosted the Young Republicans of New York, their 900 guests and the speaker, Abraham Lincoln, in late February, 1860.  He gave the speech that would make him president there in the building’s basement, The Great Hall, designed to host just this kind of important American moment. 

Lincoln had been invited a year earlier by the abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher to speak at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights.  But the Great Hall, just finished, was the newest and biggest venue in New York and the sponsors, the Young Republicans wanted the bigger place.  

A Democratic newspaper in Springfield, The Illinois State Register, had a dimmer view of the events about to come as it commented on Lincoln's trip to Cooper Union:  

"Subject, not known.  Consideration, $200 and expenses.  Object, presidential capital.  Effect, disappointment."

Lincoln went to church at Plymouth the day before with publisher Henry C.  Bowen.  After, Bowen put him on a horse-drawn trolley where he rode down to the ferry terminal.  Lincoln had new boots and he was limping slightly.  He crossed the river to Manhattan and went to the Astor Hotel where he worked on his speech and took callers.  

It was a Monday evening.  Admission was 25 cents.  Some in the audience wondered if the money was well-spent when they saw the uncombed hair, the poorly fitted suit and the wooden gestures.  When he first spoke, there was some giggling in the audience at the high voice and frontier twang.  But he soon settled in and his audience followed him.

The issue was whether slavery should be allowed to expand into the western territories.  The Missouri Compromise was supposed to have settled the problem in 1820 when it allowed an extension of the then balance of power by allowing Missouri to enter the union as a slave state while Maine entered free.  But the Kansas Nebraska Act repealed the compromise, allowing a vote of the territory to determine slave or free.  The Supreme Court overturned Kansas Nebraska in its 1857 Dread Scott decision, saying that Congress had no authority to stop the expansion of slavery.

Framing the politics of the issue were Stephen A.  Douglas, Lincoln’s opponent over the past several years, and William Henry Seward, governor of New York and the frontrunner for the Republican nomination.  Douglas wanted to return slavery to the states for an up or down vote.  Seward, who thought there was higher law than the constitution, rejected any compromise on slavery, saying “legislative compromise is radically wrong and essentially vicious.”  Lincoln was on his complicated journey to the 13th Amendment and this evening, at Cooper Union, taking another of his small steps toward April, 1865. 

Lincoln sets up his constant foe, Senator Douglas, by opening with a Douglas quote on the extension of slavery to federal territories made six months earlier:  

“Our fathers, when they framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better than we do now,” Lincoln quoted Douglas.

“I fully endorse this,” spoke Lincoln, “and adopt this as a text for this discourse.”

He then takes the signers of the constitution, 39 of them, the people who “framed the government under which we live,” and delivers a clear majority of them, 21, who in subsequent actions, gave their votes against the expansion of slavery to the territories, including George Washington. 

Sure it was a device.  But it was electric to see the dunce cap placed on Douglas’ head by his own words.

Were Peter Cooper alive today, he would have been in software, the zeroes and ones cascading out his fingertips in brightly lit, previously unthought of combinations.  Cooper was a tinkerer who could really tinker.  From his experience rendering dead animals, he derived a patent for the product that would become Jell-O.  From a collection of scrap metal, he built in 1830 the first steam locomotive in the United States and replaced the horses on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.  He invested in real estate, developed a plant in Trenton, New Jersey, that brought in iron ore through one door and spit out many different iron products through several other doors and employed 2,000 people.  

But the Cooper Union is the accomplishment that truly lives on, though its core values today are at risk.  

It was Cooper’s idea to make education freely available to those who could make the grade.  If you were a woman, a Negro, a workingman attending at night, money would not be the barrier.  If you had no money and you could convince the administration you were smart, Cooper Union would buy your education with a full scholarship.  A thousand students are there today, a meritocracy whose founder recognized that sometimes life is not fair but could be fairer with his help.  In 1902, Cooper Union dropped the idea of applying a means test for wealthy students and made it free across the board.

Today the institution is struggling to keep Peter Cooper’s great promise.  Real estate in the Cooper Union portfolio includes the land under the Chrysler Building in mid-town, among other stellar properties, but is not keeping up with the costs of the institution.  In 2010 the school had an endowment of $577 million, but recently, according to the New York Times, its business practices have become unsustainable, dipping into principal and selling assets to support a rush of consequential development on its campus.

We tried to go in and see the Great Hall, but there was an event there and we couldn’t get in which should of given us a big clue, but we missed it.  Perhaps it was because we were now hungry and we’d just decided on the Gramercy Tavern was the right place to sate it. 

The tavern is named after the park nearby, developed early on as a private park for a real estate development in the 1830s.  Only the residents nearby have a key to the park.  Though it is an attractive park, I’ve never liked this place, because parks and locks don't travel well together with me.  The historic preservationists call it a 'Victorian elegance that has never surrendered to time' but to me, it is a stuffy old bag of a park with a bustle wearing a funny hat and thinking of nothing.  The park was opened to the Union Army when the draft riots broke out in 1863 so that nearby property could be protected.  They open the door to the plebes on Christmas Eve.  A statue in the park is Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, whose brother murdered our president.

I have plenty of bile working when we sit down in Gramercy Tavern and consume a Brooklyn Monster Ale and then, a little too quickly, another.  Gramercy Tavern is one of several restaurants owned by Danny Meyer whom I think of as a kind of Tom Douglas in New York.  The service is lively and fun, the food good and healthy and they know who you are.  They write down where and when you visited one of their restaurants and, when you visit again, have an idea of who you are.  Meyer is constantly in and out of his properties and loves taking a chance that some new idea will work, like the Shake Shack not far from here, his own take on a food cart, an upscale burger and hot dog joint that gathers lines of people everyday.  He's played an important role in the renaissance of several New York neighborhoods.

While there, we find out why we couldn’t get into the Great Hall at Cooper Union – it is Lincoln’s birthday!  We tear up, toast the President and thank him for his great service.  We pull up the Cooper Union speech on our iphones  and read it and, by the way, find out that February 12 is also Peter Cooper’s birthday.  One more Monster, I say, to appropriately celebrate this historical happenstance!  And a very nice person brings me one with a happy smile. 

Our day off in Manhattan is nearing its conclusion as we leave Gramercy Tavern.  We’re due back in Brooklyn for a performance of “The Emporer’s New Clothes” by the fourth graders of PS 295.  My grandson, Bobby, is in the chorus. 

But, as we turn onto the street where we intend to pick up the subway, a small National Park Service sign announces that we are on the street in front of Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace in 1848 and that we would be very welcome if we chose to come in.  

The place is not a restoration, but a recreation.  When President Roosevelt died in 1919, a group of friends vowed to create a museum in his honor at 28 East 20th.  The rebuilding of the house took four years and it opened in 1923.  Several Roosevelt families lived along this street and others lived a couple of blocks over like Roosevelt’s grandfather, who lived on Broadway and its intersection with Union Square, near the site of another Danny Meyer restaurant, the Union Square Grill.

We were met by an earnest docent and a tall, well-dressed man who had done the tour the day before and was returning for a second look.  Only two of the three floors of the house were open that day – the bedrooms closed off for re-carpeting. 

This is among the most understated museums you will ever see.  It shows how some wealthy people lived their lives just before the Civil War.  The Park Service does a nice job of keeping the electrical lights at about the same level of illumination gas lamps would have produced.  It is a gauzy and flat light, the colors of the place jumping out in narrow shafts of light coming in the front windows.  You wonder how Roosevelt’s asthma held up to the coal used for cooking and heating water, the burning coal blending with the gas from the gaslights.

Downstairs are cartoons of Roosevelt's era, his cavalry jacket from San Juan Hill -- what a tiny man -- and the shirt he was wearing 1912 when he was shot in Milwaukee while running for President.  The assassin fired a 38 caliber revolver, striking Roosevelt in the upper left chest.  Roosevelt's long winded speaking style saved him, the bullet striking his 50 page speech, folded twice, and a metal case for his glasses before lodging between his ribs.  

Roosevelt went on to deliver a most unusual first paragraph of a political speech.  A stenographer took the words down as he spoke:

"Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible.  I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.  But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet -- there is where the bullet went through -- and it probably saved me from it going into my heart.  The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best."  

We know the role the bullet played in Teddy Roosevelt's political life, nearly ending it in Milwaukee even as it propelled him forward in Buffalo.  It was also a part of his childhood.  Not far from where we stand, a photographer made an exposure on April 25th of Lincoln's memorial procession, one of 13 funerals held for Lincoln on his way to Springfield in late April and May of 1865.  Heading up Broadway on the way to Albany after lying in state and other ceremonies at City Hall, the procession takes a little jog to the left on 14th Street to pass by Union Square.  At the corner after the little jog, E. 14th and Broadway, was the house of Teddy Roosevelt's grandfather, a huge flag affixed to the front of his house.  In the window are two little boys, Teddy Roosevelt, six and a half years old, and his brother Elliott, just five, watching the president go by, leaving the great city for the last time.

Walt Whitman was in New York, with his parents in Brooklyn and in the throes of publishing a book when the President was murdered.  I don't know if he went back to Washington, where he was then living, or stayed home, working on his book and mourning.  I prefer to put him here, crossing from Brooklyn to New York, perhaps trudging along beside the procession, perhaps even walking along below the window where Teddy Roosevelt is looking out, amazed.  Soon after, Whitman records this incredible composite of Lincoln crossing the land from Washington to Springfield between April 19 and May 3, 1865.

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,

With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,

With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,

With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

Walt Whitman, 1865
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed

Actor Sam Waterston reads Lincolns Cooper Union Address

Text of Cooper Union Speech  
Nice blog about Lincoln's Funerals

Cooper Union Website

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