Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Urban Gadabout: Were Mayor Bloomberg's paratroopers in the City Hall area Sunday to provide a Civil War backdrop for our Lincoln walk?


At City Hall, New Yorkers say a final
farewell to President Lincoln.

by Ken

I had thought about writing about my touring (and nontouring) weekend here in NYC as rearranged by the storm (see my Friday post, "While we're on storm watch here in the Northeast, maybe it's an OK time to play '2016'"), but I couldn't find an angle that seemed apt to be of much interest. What's more, I felt awkward, since however life here may have been disrupted, we were largely spared by comparison with our neighbors to the east and north. As you headed east on Long Island the storm was progressively more severe, until in easternmost Suffolk County, the southern shore of which was still reeling from Superstorm Sandy, those unlucky folks got the 2-3 feet of snow that had been threatened, as did areas to the north in a path through Connecticut and Massachusetts. You don't want to go whining about what that mean storm did to you when there are so many people so nearby who had it so much worse.

I originally heard after the snow stopped that the city had gotten 5-8", but later I heard 8-12". As I note in the rambling account that follows, I wound up not setting foot outside on Saturday, when I did venture out on Sunday, it looked to me that at least up here in Washington Heights it was more like 5".

As I said, I had kind of given up on writing about the weekend. And then a friend I hadn't had contact with since before the storm e-mailed asking how I had made out, and by the time I had finished answering, I realized i just had written about it. I've fleshed out the account a little here and there, but what follows is basically my answer to his question of how I had made out during the storm, which I began: "Not bad, actually."

I had a Municipal Art Society walking tour of the Tompkins Square area of the East Village with Francis Morrone canceled on Saturday, so I wound up not budging out of the house, and then a New York Transit Museum tour that would have been mostly in the subways was also canceled, because of possibly iffy scheduling in the subways, and the difficulty of traveling into the city from Long Island. (The scheduled tour was the second half of a riding-the-rails exploration with transit historian Andy Sparberg, a longtime veteran of the Long Island Rail Road, of what is known as the Dual Contracts phase, roughly in the 1910s, of the construction of the NYC subway system. We had done the connection from Manhattan into Brooklyn in the first part, and were scheduled to look at the connections from Manhattan to Queens and the Bronx. Signing up for Andy's tours is a no-brainer for me. One of the best took place the very Sunday that the city was counting down to the transit shutdown in anticipation of Sandy, when we looked at surviving traces, from Queens to Manhattan, of the long-gone Second Avenue El.)

But the cancellation of the NYTM tour, much as I regretted it, worked out fine, because it meant I was able to do an MAS walking tour I'd paid for before that part of the NYTM tour schedule was announced. I knew I didn't want to miss Andy's tour, and so had planned to skip the Sunday MAS tour, intriguing though it looked.

It was a Lincoln's Birthday-themed walk with Matt Postal focused on a part of the city that Lincoln is known to have known from his visits here -- and through which his casket traveled on his final "visit," when it was brought to City Hall (which, remember, dates back to 1810!) for a public viewing and then transported up Broadway. Matt pointed out that the newspapers were filled with accounts of the massive public outpouring for the slain president -- and this in a city that had had little interest in or sympathy for the then-new Republican Party or its hardly-known presidential candidate.

The cool thing is that if you start from City Hall Park, which isn't all that different now from the way it was in Lincoln's time, and walk up Broadway, if you know where to look, there are a surprising number of buildings that actually existed in the 1860s (including, for example, St. Paul's Chapel a block below City Hall Park), you can begin to get a glimmering of how the city looked at that time. In addition, there are many more buildings just a decade or two newer, products of the construction boom that followed the Civil War. Again, you need to know where to look, but if you do, you can get some sense of the city of the 1860s, '70s, and '80s.

We only walked up as far as about midway between Canal St and Houston St, but some of the side streets in TriBeCa and SoHo are still mostly buildings from that period. Also along the way on or near Broadway are some of the early department stores and other businesses where Mary Todd Lincoln is either known or thought to have shopped on her visits to NYC, which were actually more frequent than the president's. For one thing, the White House was redecorated during her time residence, and this is where she did much of the purchasing for it.

Matt pointed out when we started that there's an area farther north, leading to Cooper Union, that we know Lincoln knew, but very few buildings there survive from that time EXCEPT Cooper Union, which of course is one of the seminal sites of Lincoln's life. We do know that on at least two of his visits to NYC he stayed at the Astor Hotel, which is long since gone, but whose site Matt pointed out to us right across Broadway from our starting point at the southern end of City Hall Park (i.e., the block north of St. Paul's). One of the visits was when Lincoln, still a locally little-known presidential candidate, gave the great speech at Cooper Union, one of the most important speeches in American history, a speech that, when it was printed in newspapers across the country, transformed his candidacy. To get from the hotel to Cooper Union, he would have walked pretty much the path we did, up Broadway!

Matt made a point of taking us past the statue of Horace Greeley, the onetime ardent Whig who was a founder of the Republican Party, which now sits at the eastern end of City Hall, across from what was once the city's Newspaper Row on Park Row, where Greeley's New York Tribune was headquartered. The story is that after Lincoln's Cooper Union speech, he and Greeley repaired to the Tribune building to watch over the typesetting and proofing of the speech for publication in the next day's paper.

Matt noted that he's done the Lincoln walk a number of times now, and one thing he knows is not to expect cooperation from the weather. It's always going to be scheduled on what is likely not to be the weather-friendliest weekend of the year. The tour was sold out, meaning 30 people had paid either $15 (for members) or $20 (for nonmembers). About a dozen made it. Which was probably lucky, since the condition of the streets and sidewalks so soon after the storm wouldn't have made it easy for a group of 30 people to navigate. (Of course all 30 people NEVER show up, even when there's no weather excuse! In fairness, I should point out that if the Transit Museum tour hadn't been canceled, I wouldn't have showed up either!)

What's more, the whole City Hall area was being transformed, as we passed through it shortly after 11am, into a locked-down fortress area -- the Bloomberg administration's typical military-stye response to the demonstration that was coming of striking bus drivers. I didn't know anything about it, and was totally puzzled when I came up from the Park Pl subway station and saw about 30 cops huddled at the corner of Broadway and Park Pl. They turned out to be just a tiny contingent of what must have been hundreds (perhaps many hundreds?) of police officers pressed into service for the military operation.


It's easy to remember. You go to and click on "Tours." The new listings cover March, April, and May, and the first thing that popped out for me is an interesting pair of tours Matt Postal is doing, "Remembering Ada Louise Huxtable in Midtown" (March 2 and 16), retracing two of the routes proposed by the NYT"s legendary architecture critic in her 1961 book Four Walking Tours of Modern Architecture in New York City, published by MAS and MoMA.

Matt and a host of other ttour leaders, familiar and unfamiliar (at least to me) will be leading a host of other walks. I started doing some quick notes, but it's a tribute to the range of offerings that it quickly expanded to a length that requires a post of its own, so that's what I'll do, perhaps tomorrow. [UPDATE: Not tomorrow. It's Friday.]

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