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Archives for February 2011

Weeksville, Brooklyn, Moving and Me.

Kristin, Matt, Mark and Jonah in Weeksville

Moving to a new neighborhood can be tough. Trading up different amenities and train lines can be a toss-up, re: quality, distance and time. For a New Yorker, every lifestyle comparison becomes a competition. When I move from Bed-Stuy to Crown Heights next week, I’ll be giving up greasy Crown Fried Chicken for hearty Trinidadian Roti, and the gimpy G train for the crowded A/C line. Although I lived in Crown Heights last winter, it was too cold to adventure around much. This means it took leaving (and returning to) the ‘hood before I got to explore Weeksville, in Crown Heights’ eastern stretch. LUNY led a FAM (short for Familiarization) trip there this past Monday.

Moving to Weeksville must have been awfully exciting for its residents. Not only was it the second largest free black community in the nation, but it was also a rarity: founded for and by free African-Americans in 1838. In Dutch New York, the formerly enslaved people had owned land as early as the 17th century, and in 1827 NY State banned slavery. However, this doesn’t mean that things were easy for people of color.

In the middle of the 19th Century, all people of color could not vote unless they owned $250 in taxable property; the average workingman made $300 annually. In the same time period, white men need not own any property and could exercise their right to vote – highlighting the racial discrimination of the law. James Weeks, a longshoreman at the South Street Seaport and a political visionary, realized that only a separate community could provide the safety and security for survival. With the help of other free black entrepreneurs, a plot of land east of the City of Brooklyn became their refuge.

The Freedman’s Torchlight plaque on the Weeksville Houses

With churches, a school, and one of the first African American newspapers in the country – the Freedman’s Torchlight –  Weeksville had over five hundred residents in 20 blocks. Once blacks became free citizens at the end of the Civil War, Weeksville grew in size and diversity: Irish families lived alongside blacks. In one of the houses we visited, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson and their 10 children represented the face of Weeksville, circa 1900. Families from the South, the Caribbean, Ireland and Germany lived amongst the houses. Walking through the kitchen, looking at historic utensils, wash basins and furniture, we learned a lot about life for a working class family in parts of Brooklyn that were still mostly rural.

As the decades progressed and urban blight took hold in the 1950s, Weeksville was abandoned and started “hiding in plain sight, lost in the brush of wild growth” as explained to us by Anna Maternick, an educator at Weeksville. Urban renewal came along and tore down most of the historic area, but in 1968 neighborhood activists started to make some noise. Activist Joseph Haynes and his mentor Professor James Hurley of Pratt Institute, rented a small plane and flew low over the neighborhood (!!) in order to spot these small wooden houses. Weeksville had been rediscovered and heads began to turn. In one memorable and effective event, local Boy Scouts who had been engaged in archaeological digs, presented their artifacts to the Landmarks Preservation Commission in full uniform! The site was landmarked in 1971.

Anna our Educator explains how Weeksville was “hiding in plain sight”

Work and fundraising has occurred over the past few decades, and in 2005 the Weeksville Heritage Center opened to the public. A $23 million, 19,000 square foot expansion will bring a massive addition to the four preserved houses at Bergen Street and Schenectady Avenue. Performance, education and office space including a library, café and sculpture garden are in the throes of construction, and should be open to the public this time next year. Tours are available year-round, and everyone should learn this extraordinary story, hidden in plain sight.

By Jonah Levy

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A Sweet Note from a Tour Mom.

Good Evening Leyy’s … I just returned from a Choir tour with Napa High School and I was honored to experience New York City with tour guide Matt….as being a chapereone on the tour it was incredible the history, the culture, and unknown secrets that were shared with the students during this fast pace tour on our first day of the NYC experience. I hope more people get to experience NY like our group did with enjoying your company as their tour guides. THANK YOU from across the great land in Napa Valley!

Claire Simpkins – Napa Valley, California.

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The Sartorial Brotherhood of New York(ers)

Gideon during his brief "boylesque" period

I was on my way to meeting fellow tour guide and bon vivant Matthew Baker to discuss my inclusion in the Guides Association of New York City. I was halfway down the block when I realized that I had to double back and change; see, I had bottomed off my outfit of black jeans, black commando sweater, black cotton gloves and black and gray-checkered scarf with a pair of brown loafers. Had I arrived at the meeting, Mr. Baker would have sent me home in shame to change into my black Kenneth Coles before accepting my application.

Mr. Baker, as well as my brother Matt, and good friend Jean Barberis belong to an unofficial sartorial brotherhood. Men who believe in dressing well; of continuing in the traditions of fine fashion while not shying away from bold and nuanced forays into experimentations and expressions of our own styles!

The garment industry in New York started in the mid 1800’s, hiring the poor classes of NYC to produce clothing for southern plantation slaves. During the Civil War, the industry exploded in both size and revenue by producing uniforms for the Union Army. As the 19th century came to a close, the endless supply of Central and Eastern European labor (quite skilled at the loom) turned NYC into the garment manufacturing center of the world. Or in the words of Abraham Cahan, founder of the Jewish Forward Newspaper:

Foreigners ourselves, and mostly unable to speak English, we had Americanized the system of providing clothes for the American woman of moderate or humble means. The average American woman is the best-dressed woman in the world, and the Russian Jew has had a good deal to do with making her one.

Daniel Day Lewis portraying legendary gang leader Bill the Butcher

It should come to no surprise then that the second half of the twentieth century also saw a rise in the culture of mens fashion. However, it was the bottom rung of the social ladder more responsible than the top to set these trends. In short, street gangs had as much to do with fashion as Calvin Klein and Oscar De La Renta!

On the rough & tumble streets of the Bowery and the Five Points districts, hoodlums would declare their gang affiliations by the way they dressed, not unlike the modern day Bloods and Crips with their red and blue bandanas. The Shirttails Gang wore the tails of their shirts outside their pants, which was quite uncouth for the era. The Plug Uglies were named for their big top hats that they would “plug” with rags, wool and leather and use as helmets during fights.

Bowery Boys and their "soaplocks" Picture from the Museum of the City of NY

But the most famous and stylish of all the street gangs were the Bowery Boys. Known for bright plaid pants, top hats worn at a rakish tilt, a perpetual cigar butt emitting from their lips and lots of soap—or “product”—mashed into their hair, giving them the additional moniker of “soaplocks.”

Today is the last day of New York’s Fashion Week, which has been going on since 1943. Originally titled “Press Week” by Fashion Publicist Eleanor Lambert, it was the world’s first week-long fashion event. Since journalists couldn’t travel to Paris, what with the bombings and Nazi air raids and the collapse of society, NY started its own tradition. Since New York has been the epicenter of fashion for the better part of half a century, our bi-yearly Fashion Week (held in February and September,) has always brought the newest and most daring trends to the runway for everyone to see.

The First Fashion Week, 1943. Picture from Reuters, courtesy of guestofaguest.comFor women at least. What the hell? Why is fashion week always directed more towards womens’ styles and trends then mens’? What’s a guy gotta do to get someone to rep his snazzy threads? Tear down the Astor Place Theater? Geez!

By Gideon Levy

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Freeze Tag on Wall Street Reviewed by Niente Peaches (and Matt’s moustache compared to Snidely Whiplash.)

AKA Matt Levy

What is Ninente Peaches? We have no clue. HOWEVER we DO know that its hella funny, refers to Matt’s moustache by referencing Snidely Whiplash (the one TRUE moustache reference that will earn you Matt Levy’s respect) and goes on at length to describe the author’s out-of-shape not-so-hot-bod. It starts like this:

“I wasn’t sure I was in the right place, then I saw him and I knew. The skinny man in red jeans and Snidely Whiplash mustache just had to be the host. It takes a certain type of person to organize a giant game of freeze tag on the streets of the world’s economy, and that type of person would definitely have a devil-may-care mustache.

The man’s name was Matt Levy, and this sort of brouhaha is his family business.  Levys’ Unique New York is a family of tour guides offering private and group tours to a myriad of New York City sights and landmarks. In addition to tours, Levys’ UNY hosts a monthly activity in the city, typically something offbeat or weird. This past Sunday at high noon, they hosted a giant game of freeze tag mere steps from the Federal Building and the United States Stock Exchange. . .”

And it continues on his website. Checkitout!

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Wall Street Stories: From Tag to Tragedy

The streets of NYC all have different stories – most have just one, but our more famous streets have multiple narratives. Our streets are palimpsests – ongoing historical chapters. On Sunday we added another, silly story to the long life of Wall Street. And last night we attended a reading at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum about a bloody event on the same block.

Sunday was the fifth straight year of Freeze Tag on Wall Street; in which a bunch of us  play old-fashioned street games like Freeze and Blog Tag, Red Rover, Wolf-Rock-Lamb and of course, the beloved Duck Duck Goose. In past years we’ve had bunches of people running around, getting sweaty, screaming, laughing and having a goofy, good time on this most serious and self-important of streets. This year, thanks to press in Time Out NY and Washington Square News (who sent us a very silly press inquiry, asking all sorts of important questions), we had another great turn-out. Teens, college kids, skaters, prepsters, post-collegiate hipsters, family types and the intrepid 9 year old seen in the video. After a couple of hours of running around, freezing, blobbing, wolf-rock-lamb-ing, we called it a day and went to catch the end of the Chinese New Years parade in Chinatown.

Wall Street is a very serious street, but rarely visited by tragedy. Last night, Mark and I went to a reading at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, focused on a Wall Street story of a very different stripe. At the stroke of noon on Sept 16th, 1920, a horse-cart crammed with dynamite exploded outside of the House of Morgan and across the street from the NY Stock Exchange and the Sub Treasury (now Federal Hall National Monument.) The attack killed 38 civilians and seriously injuring 143 more, it was the largest act of domestic terrorism in NYC until 9/11; the case went on to become the largest Federal manhunt in modern history and remains unsolved to this day.

Wall Street Bombing, Sept 16 1920. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia.

Jed Rubenfeld is a popular author who just published The Death Instinct, a historical thriller about the attack. Mr. Rubenfeld gave a short but intense reading:

The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld

“At the stroke of noon on September 16, 1920, the bells of Trinity Church began to boom, and as if motivated by a single spring, doors flew open up and down Wall Street, releasing clerks and message boys, secretaries and stenographers, for their precious hour of lunch. They poured into the streets, streaming around cars, lining up at their favorite vendors, filling in an instant the busy intersection of Wall, Nassau and Broad, an intersection known in the financial world as the Corner – just that, the Corner.”

Then Rubenfeld goes on to describe the foreboding, driverless horse carriage, as it is approached by an angry cab driver, demanding to know who is responsible for leaving this old bay mare in the middle of the intersection. The cab driver peels back a corner of the burlap sack used to cover the 100 lbs of dynamite and 500 lbs of heavy cast-iron sash weight. Rubenfeld ends his intro with these short two sentences:

“The taxi driver whispered, ‘Lord have mercy.’
Wall street exploded.”

Pockmarks in the Wall of The House of Morgan. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia

The pock marks in the wall are still there – J. P. Morgan opted to leave them in the walls, to prove that the endless march of capitalism will continue, regardless of those that attempt to destroy it. We’re very much looking forward to reading our new book and adding another layer to our love of Wall Street’s history.

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