Four Books on History, Mostly NYC

(1) “McNamara’s Old Bronx” by John McNamara, published in 1989; (2) “Fifty Years on Fifth 1907-1957” by The Fifth Avenue Association, published in 1957; (3) “From Alley Pond to Rockefeller Center” by Henry Collins Brown, published in 1936, and (4) “Centenarians” by Bernard Edelman, published in 1999.

(1) This is a book of essays on Bronx history, dating from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. I relate the following trivia:


At the bottom of 138th Street in Mott Haven, there were floating bathhouses. It was Ladies’ Night on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

One of the most majestic Public Baths opened in 1909 at Elton Avenue and E. 156th St. It boasted Roman architecture, with carved ornamentation and a copper roof. However, bathtubs in residences became widespread, and the baths have gone the way of many other businesses.


There occurred many tragedies that are now just a blip in the annals of Bronx history.

In the mid-1850’s, it was trendy for rival steamboat lines to “drag race”. On July 28, 1852, two ships, the “Armenia” and the “Henry Clay” were having a drag race. The boilers of the Henry Clay exploded, causing a big fire, and passengers to be thrown off the boat. Many were trapped in the stern by smoke, so they jumped off the side and drowned. To add insult to injury, looters boated out to the scene and took whatever they could get from the flotsam, jetsam, victims, and finally the steamship itself. The criminal case involving the ship’s owners and officers was tried in Riverdale, then a part of the Bronx. They were acquitted. A few months later, the passing of the Steamboat Inspection Act outlawed racing.

In January 1882, the Tarrytown Express and the Atlantic Express trains crashed during a snowstorm. The reason is that someone pulled the emergency brake on the Atlantic, and it had to stop. There was no problem found. However, since it was exactly 13 minutes ahead of the Tarrytown, and going in the same direction, a brakeman was supposed to go out with signal lanterns to warn the Tarrytown. He was too late. Between 8 and 13 people died. People like to tell the story using 13, as other “13’s” pop up in the story, including the aforementioned 13 minutes, the fact that there were 13 cars on the Atlantic, and it was Friday the 13th. The brakeman and the conductor were indicted for, then vindicated of manslaughter.

On June 15, 1904, there was the General Slocum disaster, in which an excursion boat caught fire while in Bronx waters, and hundreds of women and children on a church outing drowned.  In 1914, just two years after the Titanic sank, Murray Haas made a movie in Hunts Point simulating the calamity. The film’s replica of the iceberg was made of wood and canvas. Night shooting was done with flares and arc-lights.


In the late 1800’s, German bands used to play music on the streets of the Bronx. It was a way for Germans to remember their culture. Listeners would put a coin in the musicians’ basket. When the bands were in front of pork stores and bakeries, they created a bit of nostalgia for German housewives. The bands played German drinking songs to remind them of their school days when in front of athletic facilities. In those days, one could get free lunch with the purchase of a beer, but bands that played at saloons at lunchtime got free beer anyway.


In the 1890’s single Chinese men started restaurants and laundromats in the Bronx. Some were from Cuba. The laundrymen sometimes gave sugar cane to delivery boys to suck on. Girls did not work for them, because they had heard (false) horror stories of white slavery. The Chinese actually had a very low crime rate.

In 1787, the Lorillard Brothers, who owned a snuff mill on the Bronx River, created the first ad campaign for their chewing tobacco, snuff and “segars”. They mailed cards of an Indian smoking a long clay pipe of “Best Virginia” to every postmaster in America, since at that time, post offices served as general stores and centers of social activity.


In 1907, Van Cortlandt Park was used as a holding pen for buffalo for a number of months, before the buffalo were sent to the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma. Buffalo were an endangered species at the time, and Congress was trying to beef up their numbers.


There are a few theories as to how the Bronx was named. An unlikely story is that visitors to Jonas Bronck’s farm said they were “going to the Broncks”.

Another is that the first English settlers assumed the phrase “Bronck’s Land” to mean land of a certain nature, such as marsh or hills, and called it The Bronx, such as the way “Flatlands” or “New Lots” are sections of Brooklyn.

Still another is that people referred to specific regions, such as The Bronx River, or The Bronx Kills, by the short name “The Bronx” in the late 1700’s; this, according to Bronx Historian Dr. T. Kazimiroff.

*  *  *

(2) This book tells the history of the buildings and culture of Fifth Avenue, through the eyes of an association that has tried to maintain its high-class reputation through the years.


In the 1800’s, construction materials were very flammable, electrical wiring was faulty, firefighting technology and infrastructure were poor, and hundreds of buildings were burned to the ground in hours:

In 1835, seven hundred buildings, including the Merchants Exchange were destroyed; 1858, it was the Crystal Palace; 1872, the Fifth Avenue Hotel; 1905, St. Thomas Church.


The area above 59th street was seedy until it was cleared for the creation of Central Park; in fact, it was named “Squatter’s Sovereignty”. The place was a shantytown of the homeless, an overgrown swamp.  Tracts of land sold to build the Park commanded tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 1850’s. The Park was finally finished in 1876.

In 1907, New York copied Paris, and introduced taxis. The taxis at that time were all different colors.


There were telephone attendants in public phone booths from 1876 through the mid 1890’s. Coin-operated phones were introduced in 1896. They accepted all coins, from nickels to silver dollars. In 1910, nickels, dimes and quarters became the standard, but the caller still had to ring the operator to make a call. The rotary dial appeared on all phones in 1925. An organ maker and his lawyer started the Telephone Company of New York. Bell Telephone Company took it over in 1878.

* * *

(3) This book is an overview of the culture and landscape of various regions, including Queens (especially Flushing), Brooklyn, Bronx, Richmond (Staten Island) and a few bordering areas.


In 1683, Queens, named after Queen Catherine, was formed. The author complains that many of the borough’s old-world villages lost their rural quaintness and became citified. Such is the price of progress.

In the late 1800’s, there were a handful of police officers covering Flushing, New York.


The ways to get around used to include the straw-filled, horse-drawn car, then the cable and the trolley. The elevated trains replaced those. Surface cars, omnibuses and the subway have endured to this day.


Industries such as steel, oil, tobacco, five-and-tens and railroads made many men rich from the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. Oil is still lucrative, but the other sectors have not fared as well, relatively speaking.


At midnight on December 31, 1897, the five boroughs became united. Brooklyn was no longer a city. People used to play cricket in Staten Island. Cornelius Vanderbilt the First lived and died there. So did many sailors, who retired to the now landmark and arts center, Sailor’s Snug Harbor. Three famous architects, James W. Renwick, Frederick Law Olmstead and Arthur Gilman, lived there, too.

Riverdale, The Bronx, was a bird sanctuary for decades before it received other inhabitants.

*  *  *

(4)  This book presents an oral history of dozens of people, mostly white (and a few blacks), who, at its writing, claimed they were more than 100 years old. All were born in the mid to late 1890’s.


During WWII, Nazi minister Goebbels put out the propaganda that Germany had “successfully” invaded the Soviet Union. One West German man says he viewed that as good news, because he knew the Russians would fight back. Polish prisoners agreed. He came to America in 1942, where he discovered he could actually find a job. And talk to women unintroduced, without getting in trouble. There was even free night school.

One way a man was tested to determine his fitness for the air force during WWII, was to spin him around in a dentist’s chair. If he qualified, he might be sent to MIT for six weeks’ training.


When telephones were first installed in residences, seven or eight families shared one line. The ring tone was different for each household; for example, one long and three short rings.

Some people had a coin-operated gas meter. The gas was pumped into light fixtures, which one could turn on by striking a match. When the electric company was invented, it tried to convert people from gas to electricity by giving away appliances and light bulbs. Some people did not welcome electricity, because they were scared of getting shocked. The early electricity meters were also coin-operated. Before the electric iron, females’ work was even harder, because ironing of clothing was done with irons in a fire that had to be constantly stoked.


In Maryland, Christmas, never July 4th, was celebrated by setting off firecrackers. There were gifts of pickles made to the “Negroes”. The sound of a Revolutionary War cannon firing might be heard to herald the start of Christmas Day.


About one hundred years ago, schools might have all grades one through eight in the same classroom. The teachers might be eighth grade graduates. There might be reading, spelling, arithmetic, penmanship, grammar, geography, history and physiology. But no gym, no art, no music. If a kid misbehaved in school, the teacher would punish him, and then his parents would, too. Students started each day by hearing a Bible passage, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and singing a patriotic song. The kids were sick a lot with chicken pox, measles, scarlet fever, whooping cough, hepatitis and malaria, and they were infested with black lice. Fortunately there was poisonous mercurial salve to kill the lice, and quinine for the malaria. Fun.


Cobblestones were used on roads to prevent stick wagons from getting stuck in the mud. People had to shovel snow off the roads themselves. When cars were first introduced, drivers’ licenses were issued, but some people just taught themselves to drive, and never got caught for not having a license. People got flat tires all the time, but also had tire repair kits. Sometimes horses got scared by cars, because cars were very noisy, before getting mufflers. Gasoline was sold in grocery stores, if at all.

Procter & Gamble used to have a huge line of soap kettles, and it still took 7 days to make one bar of Ivory soap. A process was invented that cut the time to two hours. Pringles potato chips never spoil because they are packed on a bed of nitrogen in a cylinder. In the early 1960’s, P&G unwisely tested disposable diapers one hot summer in Dallas.


sd’s – single digits

long – sunup to sundown, 6-7 days/week

Year Job Approx. Pay / Hours

1910’s cotton farmer 5 to ? cents a pound long

19 teens self-employed optometrist $500 a day

19 sd’s coyote killing $5 a head

19 teens drugstore clerk $1 a day long

1890’s laundress $1 a day long

1890’s outdoor manual laborer $1.50 a day long

1910’s lamplighter $24 a month short

1910’s railroad workshop 23 cents an hour long

1910’s motorcycle & bike repair 50 cent an hour

1910’s shoeshine stand $4-$80 a week

19 teens security guard $3 a week, free board

19 teens coat-button painter $8 a week

1920’s domestic servant for rich $15 a week, free board

1910’s restaurant cook $4 a week, free board long

19 sd’s factory nail-puller $6 a week

1910’s factory assembler $7 a week

19 teens ML baseball player $250-$450 a month long

1920 bicycle factory worker $25 a week

19 teens milkman $42.50 a week

1920’s banker $70 a month

19 teens pre-union coal miner 40 cents a ton long

pre-union coal miner $9 a week long

19 teens seamstress $7 a week

1918 certified teacher $90 a month 1918 teacher $64.35 a month

19 teens Navy yeomanette $2 a day, free board

1930’s coalmine paymaster $175 a month

19 teens train car factory worker $15 per unit

Forest Hills Diary

The Book of the Week is “Forest Hills Diary” by Mario Cuomo, published in 1974.  In 1972, New York City Mayor John Lindsay chose Mario Cuomo to embark on a fact-finding mission to collect public opinion data on a proposed low-income housing project on 108th Street in Forest Hills near Corona, Queens, to consist of African American tenants, three towers of 24 stories each.

There was much emotionally charged public debate due to the very nature of the undertaking (housing projects in general, have a bad reputation– for crime, for bringing down property values, etc.).  Cuomo could have proposed reducing the planned apartment sizes to that of studios or 1 bedrooms– a compromise in order to push the project through. Regardless, he could not please anyone because Forest Hills residents were against the project altogether, while African Americans wanted apartments of at least 2 bedrooms.

Another option was to make one of the three towers a “Mitchell-Lama” which would allow tax breaks, but reduce the number of low-income units, and reserve 40% of the units for the elderly. The reason for favoring the elderly was to minimize the public sentiment that the apartments would be crime-ridden. Cuomo visited projects in the Bronx and had seen this phenomenon himself.

The Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights had gone downhill due to low-income housing. The African Americans with whom Cuomo spoke were against the project.  One black leader admitted to him in confidence that a way to spur upward mobility among African Americans was to have a mix of middle-income and low-income tenants.

The “scatter-site” legislation was passed allowing the project proposed originally, to be built.  However, raucous public hearings prompted the developers to compromise by building three towers of 12 stories each (instead of 24), 40% of which were to house seniors. All sides of the controversy roundly criticized a report released by Cuomo, although few people had actually read the whole thing.  This book provided an engaging analysis of political and urban issues with respect to race, housing and human nature.

Whatever It Takes

The Book of the Week is “Whatever It Takes” by Paul Tough, published in 2008.  This book is about Geoffrey Canada’s efforts to improve his community in Harlem in New York City, through both educating kids and providing social services to parents to improve the kids’ environments.  City agencies funded his programs.

Mr. Canada felt bad that he could not save all the underprivileged children in Harlem.  He did not operate his school the same way the KIPP chain of charter schools did– hand-picking a group of underprivileged kids it would make into high-achievers, whose accomplishments would exceed those of their peers.  He idealistically thought all children could become college material, if his Promise Academy charter school (initially a middle school, and later, also an elementary school) did its job right.

However, many studies have shown that success in life becomes much more likely for an individual when that individual is taught specific skills starting in infancy, such as “patience, persistence, self-confidence, the ability to follow instructions, and the ability to delay gratification for a future reward.”  Middle school is too late.

But Mr. Canada still felt it was worth trying to turn their lives around, although he had far less success with them than with kids who participated in his programs from infancy and were lucky enough to be chosen in the lotteries that determined who was accepted.  Also, he had the most success when kids stayed in the programs from infancy through at least middle school, but this was extremely expensive.

The jury is still out on whether society as a whole is greatly improved by providing a small percentage of underprivileged people with resources superior to those of their peers, so they may succeed in life.  I doubt Mr. Canada, and even all of the other people and entities helping too, will ever be able to bring success to all of Harlem’s children. Some people do not want to be helped.  Others unluckily are not chosen in the lotteries. I don’t know the solution.

Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference

The Book of the Week is “Teacher:  The One Who Made the Difference” by Mark Edmundson, published in 2002.  The author wrote this book as a tribute to his high school philosophy teacher.  One of many memorable questions the teacher asked during the school year was, “Why do we need leaders?”  Answer:  We need someone to think for us.  Many of us human beings are lazy and we do not want to think for ourselves.  The author described how even the class clown was made to think, and learned something in this teacher’s class.