As a kid (and teen…and adult…), I dreamed of one day being a member of the Explorers Club. I mean, it only seemed natural they would want me. I’d done a pretty good job of exploring the hundred acres of undeveloped woods and caves comprising my grandfather’s property back in the day. Even still, with knowledge of the internal strife and mismanagement that has caused the glory to fade a bit, I still harbor images of reading accounts of the expedition of the Beagle whilst seated in an overstuffed leather chair surrounded by the artifacts of past adventures, occasionally interrupted by a mustachioed, pipe-smoking blowhard known only as “The Colonel” who will not shut up about the Yanomami. This summer, I got about as close as I’ll probably ever get to membership in the storied Club when I got to take a tour of their headquarters at 46 E 70th St. And while there was no The Colonel, and while crested blazers have given way to polo shirts, there was still a wonderfully cluttered array of random artifacts from past expeditions, many of them just sitting there — some of them still in common use — despite their historical provenance.
Last year, we took you on a lantern-lit tour of some of the most famous haunted locations in my adopted home of New York City. Once again, we don our novelty cloak and top hat and beckon you come with us for another round of macabre tales and spooky legends. Join me, won’t you, as we visit voodoo queens, gangland massacres, Edgar Allan Poe, and a ghostly garrison in the wilds of northern New York.
I have a new Frolic Afield up at my usual corner on Alcohol Professor. In a rare moment of timeliness, The Bar that Launched Pride is a look at the history of the Stonewall Inn and how a scummy shithole of a bar that blackmailed its gay customers became the rallying point for and birthplace of the LGBT rights movement in America.
I walk a lot. Because I am cheap, and because New York is a city that rewards the walker. I walk a lot and take a lot of pictures, because this is also a city that changes with a breathless, frighteningly rapid pace. Sometimes for the best, sometimes for the worse, but either way what once was probably won’t be for long, so you can always stick around for the next iteration if you don’t like what you see today. So here’s thirty scenes, photographed with no particular skill on my part, in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
A light dusting of snow danced in swirling eddies across the sidewalk as we waited for the rumbling old elevator to arrive and admit us into its dark, wood-paneled interior. The operator nodded wordlessly to us, slid the door closed, and threw the lever that sent us upward in that creaking, moaning, shaking box. After what seemed an impossibly long and precarious ascent, the lift finally stopped and, just as wordlessly as he’d greeted us, the elevator operator bid us adieu and left us standing in a foyer lit by the yellow glow of incandescent bulbs. A row of wooden telephone booths lined one wall, and the sound of a little big band working their way through a Kay Kyser tune drifted to us on wisps of blue smoke coming from somewhere down a dark hallway.
Kentuckians grow up with Stephen Foster. He wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” our state song, and The Stephen Foster Story has been playing at My Old Kentucky Home State Park for over fifty years. Although “America’s first composer” was born in Pennsylvania and later lived in Ohio (albeit in Cincinnati, which is just across the river from Kentucky), he is by right of his music an honorary Kentucky boy and a part of the fabric of the state. I’d been taught his songs since I was old enough to learn — “My Old Kentucky Home,” of course, but also “Hard Times Come Again No More,” “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” and “Beautiful Dreamer.” They’re what we learned in elementary school music class when we weren’t mangling “Greensleeves” in accompaniment to a classmate awkwardly tooting it out on a recorder. I had no idea until recently that he lived — and died — just a stone’s throw from where I work now in New York City, on a block that is packed with New York history both glamorous and sordid.
New York is one of the oldest cities in the United States, and its most populous. So it’s no surprise that among our eight million residents are more than a few ghosts. Our ancient (well, for America) brownstones and Revolutionary War mansions, our cobblestone (or potholed to the point of seeming cobblestone) streets, and our occasional nightmarish gambrel rooftops host a number of spooks and specters, many of them famous in life, some famous only in death. From the ghost of a Ziegfeld Follies girl to Mark Twain’s House of Death, here are some of my favorite New York haunts.
If you brave the tourist-chocked nightmare that is the Penn Station/Madison Square Garden area of Manhattan and manage to push your way through the throngs of dazed people waiting for the budget Bolt Bus lined up along 33rd Street, and look for the small sign next to the larger signs for psychics and porno videos, you will find 421 7th Ave — Fantasma Magic. Through the nondescript office building lobby, on the 3rd floor, you will find a phantasmagorically decorated hallway lined with posters and reflective wallpaper that leads you to Fantasma’s small but absorbing Houdini Museum of New York. Inside, clerks and local magicians hang out with visitors at the counter, showing off and sometimes even exposing the secret behind sleight of hand magic tricks. Lining the walls is a small wealth of Houdini memorabilia. More is stored in a couple glass display cases. And the far wall showcases, among other things, some of the props from Houdini’s greatest escapes and even includes an animatronic Houdini that will escape from a straight jacket for you.
This past weekend offered a rare respite from our recent rainy weather. And speaking of rare, we got the rare opportunity to visit one of the jewels of off-limits subway lore: the abandoned City Hall station in Lower Manhattan. The station was the first station on New York’s brand new subway line. As such, it was designed to be particularly showy. Designed by Rafael Guastavino, the station opened on October 27, 1904 as the southern terminus of the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit). It boasted Guastavino tile, skylights, stained glass, and brass chandeliers. Unfortunately some years later, transit passengers began to favor the much larger, nearby Brooklyn Bridge station. Because the City Hall station was built as a loop, it could not be easily expanded to compensate for larger crowds or extended to serve Brooklyn. And the curved track left a precarious gap between the train and the platform. Use of the station declined, until it was finally closed on December 31, 1945.
On Memorial Day Weekend 2013, we had the chance to go on one of the many neighborhood walking tours conducted by the NYC Tenement Museum. It was a cold and sporadically rainy day, but that didn’t stop every tour that day from selling out — something I gather is the case pretty much every weekend, so if you want to go on one, book ahead. We chose The Lower East Side: Then and Now, which focused on the ways in which the architecture and ethnic make-up of the neighborhood has changed over the years. It was a fantastic walk despite the weather, and well worth the price of admission.