Sunday, April 28, 2013

58. Steamboat Wars on the Hudson

      Capitalism loves competition.  America loves competition.  Think of Apple vs. Samsung today, or AT&T vs. Verizon,  or Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi-Cola, or years ago, Macy's vs. Gimbels (as seen in the old holiday-season movie Miracle on Thirty-fourth Street), or any number of other corporations.  Competition is in our blood and bone.  And for sure, it's in the blood and bone of New York.  But competition today is tame and genteel, compared to the nineteenth-century steamboat competition on the Hudson.

      June 13, 1840:  As the steamboat Napoleon, 179 tons, a small, ill-furnished vessel skippered by Joseph D. Hancox, a feisty captain who had challenged the prevailing Hudson River Steamboat Association, pulled away from its North River dock with a load of passengers and headed up the river toward Albany, the much larger De Witt Clinton, 500 tons, broke away from its berth and, with full steam up, headed straight for the other boat.  As a crowd, dawn there by rumors of a confrontation, watched from the waterfront, Hancox signaled the De Witt Clinton frantically and, when it still bore down, whipped out a revolver and fired three shots at the other boat's pilothouse, hitting no one but forcing the pilot to duck.  Moments later the larger boat rammed the Napoleon just aft of the pilothouse, causing it to careen violently amid the screams of its terrified passengers.  Miraculously, the boat then righted itself and continued on its way.  Had the De Witt Clinton struck its rival square amidships, as it had evidently intended, the Napoleon would surely have sunk.  Yet when the Napoleon reached Albany and word of the incident spread, it was not the attacking vessel's captain who was arrested, but Hancox, charged with felonious assault with his revolver.  Pleading self-defense in the shooting, and backed up by dozens of his passengers as witnesses, Hancox was readily acquitted, after which he slashed his fare to fifty cents and continued to challenge the Association.

     Standing on the forward deck of the De Witt Clinton during this incident was veteran steamboat operator Isaac Newton, a member of the Association, who was presumably on hand to oversee the operation.  This was a time of cutthroat competition on the river, when the approved methods of eliminating a rival were to buy it off or, failing that, to steal its berth and passengers, to race it, to crowd it, or to smash it.  Since Hancox was that rare phenomenon, a rival captain who couldn't be bought off, Newton had decided to ram his boat and disable it.  Fortunately for his legacy, he was also a gifted ship designer who soon teamed up with Daniel Drew, the cattle drover turned tavernkeep turned steamboat operator (see post #54), to found the People's Line and operate boats on the lucrative New York-Albany run, Newton designing their ships while Drew handled the finances.

     If Newton's reputation didn't suffer much from this incident, it's because keen rivalry and all that resulted from it were the rule on the Hudson.  All up and down the river runners selling tickets solicited travelers boisterously on the piers, praising their line's boats while decrying those of any rival line, whose boilers, they liked to tell nervous ladies, were anything but safe.  Yet when a steamboat approached any intermediate landing, no passenger dared assume there would be even momentary contact between the vessel and the landing, or even between the boat and himself.  If the boat was racing it would probably shoot right past the landing, or failing that, it would execute a "landing on the fly," lowering a small boat that, joined to it by a rope, was propelled by the vessel's momentum to the dock, where it hastily discharged passengers and their baggage and took on more of the same, and then was drawn back to the vessel by a windlass on the vessel's deck, the vessel having lost little time in the process.  Such landings were even performed at night, with considerable risk to the passengers.

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Vanderbilt again, but not yet

     Steamboat skippers and owners relished the prevailing competition, each being determined to prove that his boat was the best and fastest on the river.  Memorable was the contest of June 1, 1847, when Cornelius Vanderbilt pitted his luxurious new C. Vanderbilt, named modestly for himself, against the speedy Oregon of his pugnacious rival George Law, a coarse-featured canal construction contractor turned banker and railroad man who was branching out into steamboats as well.  During the race on the Hudson, Vanderbilt in his excitement seized the wheel from the pilot and mismaneuvered his vessel, while Law, out of fuel, hurled furniture and costly fittings into the furnaces and so sailed on to win.

Daniel Drew in his steamboating days.
No whiskers yet, and not yet "Uncle Daniel."
      Such passion was beyond Daniel Drew, an astute money manager who lacked the gut feeling of a river man, the skipper's fervent identification with his boat, his confidence that it was the best damn boat on the river and he'd race anyone fool enough to doubt it.  One can't imagine Drew planting himself on the forward deck of a boat just prior to a planned collision.  As for hurling sofas into a furnace during a race, why good heavens, those things cost money!

     Drew and Newton knew there were defter ways to compete.  Country boys who had evolved by way of the freight barge and the cattle yards, they grasped early that the key to success on the Hudson was luxury.  Rivaling their countrymen's lust for speed was their longing for regal elegance: the craving of egalitarian, homespun America for palatial opulence such as few citizens could afford in their private lives, but they could enjoy briefly for the price of a steamboat ticket.  The result was a trio of floating palaces such as the world had never seen, to construct which they marshaled the skills and resources of the East River and Brooklyn shipyards for the hulls, the great ironworks of the city for the engines, and the massed talents of the carpenters, plumbers, painters, gas fitters, upholsterers, furniture and glass makers, and privisioners -- not to mention the journalists -- of New York.

     The first of these marvels was the mammoth Hendrik Hudson, which went into service in October 1845: a night boat with berths for 620 people and other accommodations for, it was claimed, two thousand -- admittedly a rather fanciful number.  A reporter, surveying its illuminated interior with spacious saloons flanked by cabins, likened it to Cleopatra's royal yacht at night.  But exactly one year later the second marvel appeared: the Isaac Newton, with the biggest engine ever built in America, a  main saloon with a stained-glass dome overhead, and luxurious staterooms, the fanciest being the Bridal Room, with carpeting said to be from the drawing room of King Louis-Philippe of France, and over the bed a painted altarpiece featuring a cupid holding two doves over an altar, which a spellbound journalist hailed as "one of the most splendid achievements of taste."

The stateroom saloon of the Isaac Newton.
Unsurpassed luxury, until the next boat
surpassed it.
     Could such marvels be surpassed?  In the age of Go Ahead, if one had eclipsed all others, what remained but to eclipse oneself?  In June 1849 the day boat New World appeared, the longest and largest river steamboat ever built, with furnishings that included satin damask chairs, marble tables from Italy, Corinthian pillars, and real oil paintings on the walls.  On its first trip up the river it was saluted on land and water the full length of its run, and greeted in Albany by twenty thousand people thronging boats and wharves, who waved handkerchiefs and cheered while bells tolled and cannon boomed.  Thereafter the paying public flocked aboard the New World and the other People's Line vessels hundreds at a time, until on September 4, 1850, when a state fair was luring unprecedented multitudes to Albany, the New World on a single trip broke all records by carrying an astonishing twelve hundred passengers.  Thanks to the managers' grandiose vision, the profits of the People's Line soared.

     It would be comforting to report that rivalry through luxury put an end to cutthroat competition on the river, with its attendant risks, but such was not the case.  On July 28, 1852, the steamboat Henry Clay, with many prominent citizens aboard, left Albany for New York.  Also bound for New York was the rival boat Armenia, and a race ensued between the two, with many gentlemen in the Henry Clay's bar betting on the outcome.  When the Armenia pulled ahead, the Henry Clay cut in front of it so as to beat it to the next port, causing a collision that alarmed the passengers but did no damage.  At Poughkeepsie several nervous passengers left the vessel, despite assurances by the crew that there was absolutely no danger.  The race continued, with boiler heated to the limit and then some, until embers from the Henry Clay's smokestacks showered down on the wooden deck, which immediately caught fire.  Crewmen pushed the passengers back toward the stern, and the boat was run aground at Riverdale in the Bronx, with its stern over deep water; it burned to the water's edge.  Panicky passengers trapped on the stern jumped overboard and many drowned.  The final toll was 81 dead -- the worst steamboat disaster ever on the river.  Passengers who had left the boat at Poughkeepsie and took a train from there to New York witnessed the disaster en route and realized that this would have been their fate, had they remained on the Henry Clay.  A great public outcry followed, causing Congress to pass the Steamboat Inspection Act of 1852, providing for more rigorous inspection of boilers and the licensing of all passenger-steamboat engineers and pilots.  (All advocates of government regulations can give forth a hearty cheer.)

A Currier & Ives print of the burning of the steamboat Lexington on Long Island Sound in 1840.

      Currier & Ives, when not presenting the heart-warming family scenes and idyllic pastoral landscapes that would adorn the walls of countless American homesteads, also took delight in presenting rail and steamboat disasters.  The loss of the Henry Clay was so commemorated, as was the burning of the Lexington with even greater loss of life.  But that didn't stop people from traveling by rail or boat, any more than news of airplane disasters stops us from doing the same.

The  Daniel Drew, a day boat mentioned
 here, should not be confused with the
Drew, the night boat shown below.
Uncle Daniel had only two boats named
for him; Vanderbilt had too many to count.

     By the 1860s cutthroat competition had all but vanished from the Hudson, where Drew's People's Line dominated the night boat traffic to Albany, while leaving the day business to the Hudson River Day Line.  So all was sweetness and light on the Hudson ... almost.  The "almost" refers to Captain J.D. Hancox, the feisty skipper of the Napoleon, who popped up again in 1874 as owner of the eleven-year-old J.B. Schuyler, with his son Clement as skipper.  The Hancoxes couldn't compete with the big boats of the day in speed, but they had a host of other tricks up their collective sleeve.  One rainy night the Schuyler docked at Albany above Daniel Drew's sumptuous Dean Richmond, which was awaiting the arrival of a train with passengers hoping to continue their trip by boat.  Clem Hancox went ashore and, when the train came chugging along, waved a red lantern signaling danger.  The train stopped, and while its crew were investigating, the passengers got off, thinking they had arrived at the station, and flocked aboard the Schuyler, which quickly departed before they could realize their error.  When the train finally reached Albany, there were no passengers aboard for the Dean Richmond.

A Currier & Ives print.  Conspicuous in the foreground is the Drew, one of the
People's Line vessels that Hancox liked to harass.

     But the Hancoxes had other tricks as well.  The Schuyler, with a band aboard, would pull up alongside a rival boat and strike up its band.  Passengers on the other boat would flock en masse to one side so as to better enjoy the music, causing the boat to list with one paddle out of the water; then, as the rival boat lost speed, the Schuyler would race ahead and get to the next landing first.  The captain of the Dean Richmond finally found a solution: when the Schuyler came alongside with its band at full blast, he ordered the safety valves of his boat to be lifted, creating a screeching noise that drowned out the band.  The People's Line boats then installed bands of their own, but in July 1875 it got rid of the gadfly at last with the time-honored solution of buying him off.  Hancox then ran his vessel for years as an excursion boat, and peace and serenity settled down on the Hudson definitively.  Things were calmer but just a bit boring.

     Daniel Drew, Isaac Newton, George Law, J.W. Hancox, and the redoubtable Vanderbilt: such were the colorful figures operating boats on the Hudson.  Only Vanderbilt is remembered today, and mostly for his railroads, but these practitioners of Go Ahead were all recognized and honored in their time.  When Isaac Newton died in 1858, on the day of his funeral flags flew at half mast in New York harbor, and in Albany ships' bells tolled, and artillery on Steamboat Square fired salutes for an hour.  And when Vanderbilt sailed off to Europe in 1853 in the steam yacht North Star, the biggest and most luxurious private yacht in the world, and one built in part according to his own design, he created a sensation on both sides of the ocean by this unprecedented tour of the Old World by a self-made man of the New.  He was feted by capitalists in Paris and given the use of one of the Czar's carriages in St. Petersburg, while in London the Daily News likened him to the Medicis and declared that the word parvenu should be looked upon as a word of honor.  He was a sterling example of the New Man, the distinctive American type, self-made, industrious, and versatile, who was beginning to fascinate Europe.  Henry James in his novels would show this type of American interacting with refined (and decadent?) Europeans, and with American expatriates more at home in Europe than America.

Vanderbilt's North Star, a luxury yacht that, like its owner, fascinated all of Europe.

     It was a propos of Vanderbilt that the term "robber baron" was first used, and by the end of the nineteenth century these artists of Go Ahead were reaping blame as well as praise.  What do we think of them today?  What is your opinion, for instance, of Steve Jobs of Apple, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook?  Not to mention the CEOs of banks?  Do they merit praise for their innovative energy and know-how, or blame for ruthlessness and sharp business practices?  Is the New American still with us, and is he (so far, usually a "he") a hero or a villain?  Or a hero and a villain?  In my opinion, a debate worth having.

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Does he deserve to be set on a pedestal?

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And do they... ?

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     Note on income taxes:  Like me, most of you have probably just coughed up money for your federal (and maybe state) income tax.  But not everybody has to.  Did you know that thirty U.S. corporations quite legally paid no federal income tax -- yes, I said none, and I mean none whatsoever -- in 2008, 2009, and 2010?  Among them are such familiar names as General Electric, DuPont, Verizon, Boeing, Consolidated Edison, Wells Fargo, and Honeywell.  Which is worth pondering.  As for me, I'm just a mite angry.  Why is this legal?  Does Congress represent the voters, or does it represent corporations?  No wonder Occupy Wall Street -- among others -- is up in verbal arms.  But conspicuous by their absence from the Lucky Thirty are two companies for which I have a special regard:

    The company I love to love:  Apple.  Yes, I know it has its faults, but sometimes one loves anyway, and besides, I have a Mac.

    The company I love to hate:  Monsanto.  If you don't know why, I can't do a tutorial here, nor am I particularly equipped to do so.  But if you poke around, you'll find out plenty.  For a start, think GMOs, think patents, think seeds.  This involves you more than you may realize.

     Next week: Earth Goddesses: Big Mama, mentioning (among others) Eve, the Virgin, Aphrodite, the Whore of Babylon, Kali, Coatlicue, a castration clamp, and the Last of the Red Hot Mamas.  Forthcoming: Farewells and the Saga of Jim Fisk.  Also in the works: Is America Becoming a Fascist State? (WBAI again).  Hope you've all paid your income tax, unless -- like the Lucky Thirty -- you don't have to.

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder



Sunday, April 21, 2013

57. Gardens

      This is about gardens, both mythic and real.  But I am not a gardener and never have been, so don't expect tips on gardening.

     At the tender age of four or five I and Patty Taft, a neighbor, took a walk together and, seeing Mrs. Pierce's garden ablaze with tulips of every shade and hue -- a garden that was the talk and envy of the neighborhood -- we entered it and picked a few tulips to take home and give to our mothers.  Shocked, my mother sent me at once to apologize to Mrs. Pierce, and on the way I heard Patty's screams as her mother spanked her vigorously.  Fortunately, Mrs. Pierce was amiable and forgiving, but there, right from the start, was the pattern: forbidden garden, temptation, violation, punishment.

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A 15th-century manuscript illustrating the Roman 
de la Rose.  Here, the blue-clad lover gains entry to 
the walled garden and encounters allegorical figures 
as he tries to find the rose.

     Many years later I would find a similar pattern in the opening section of the Roman de la Rose (Romance of the Rose), a famous medieval French allegory of courtly love.  In the poem a lover gains access to a walled garden where he encounters a rosebud, is smitten with love for it, and finally kisses it, but then is driven away by hostile forces that erect even greater barriers around the rose bush.  Patience will be necessary, and a long preparation, before he can hope to pluck the rose.

     Gardens -- especially secret or forbidden ones -- have always fascinated me.  The first poem I ever wrote was about a secret garden, a bit of juvenilia that I soon had the good sense to obliterate.  Some years later I started writing sonnets, one of which also described a garden and  ended with the line "The lupine bloomed, voluptuous and obscene."  Which, for my taste today, is a bit too direct, too obvious.  But I was still a virgin then, so what can you expect?  This poem too has happily been consigned to oblivion.

     In that second poem the garden was certainly sensual, which brings to mind the Bower of Bliss in the second book of Spenser's rich but interminable romance, The Faerie Queene.  In that book Sir Guyon, a knight representing Temperance, sets out on a quest to put an end to the witch Acrasia's sensual garden, where, like the sorceress Circe in the Odyssey, she seduces men and turns them -- literally -- into beasts.  After many adventures and misadventures Guyon arrives at the Bower, a "daintie Paradise" with trembling groves and "crystall running by," shady dales, "painted flowres," joyous birds, soft music, a plashing fountain, and gentle winds -- in short, everything in nature conducive to seduction and love.  He surprises her lying with a lover on a bed of roses (no thorns, I assume), makes her a prisoner, and tears the Bower to pieces.  When I read this in college -- yes, I read the whole darn Faerie Queene, all six books, one of the longest poems ever written -- I confess that I found Acrasia far more interesting than Sir Guyon, and much regretted the destruction of her Bower.

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 John Melhuish Strudwick, Acrasia, ca. 1888. 

     Strudwick was a Pre-Raphaelite painter and like many Victorian artists found inspiration in The Faerie Queene.  Here he shows Acrasia and her handmaidens with a captive knight.  But to my eye this Victorian work looks innocent, with not a hint of bare flesh.  But in Spenser's poem things are different:

   Upon a bed of Roses she was layd,
   As faint through heat, or dight to pleasant sin;
   And was arayd, or rather disarayd,
   All in a vele of silke and silver thin,
   That hid no whit her alabaster skin,
   But rather shewd more white, if more might bee...
   Her snowy brest was bare to ready spoyle
   Of hungry eies, which n'ote therewith be fild...
                                   (FQ II. xii. lxxvii-lxxviii)

The Victorian age is not known today for great painting, but I'm always curious to see how the artists back then coped with sensuality.  In Strudwick's painting, by keeping all concerned well clothed.

Madonna in Rose Garden
Martin Schongauer, Madonna in a Rose
Garden (ca. 1473).  Virginity and purity,
contrasting with Acrasia's bed of roses.

    Acrasia's opposite is, of course, the Virgin Mary, whom medieval and Renaissance painters often showed in a locked garden, symbolic of her virginity.  The image comes, ironically, from the exuberantly sensuous, if not sensual, Song of Solomon 4:12:  "A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed."  To deal with this passionate love song, which some have even found erotic, Christian commentators have traditionally interpreted it as expressing the love of Christ and his bride, the Church.  My only comment: boy, that is some love!

     Getting into Greek mythology, I was fascinated by another forbidden garden, the Garden of the Hesperides, situated vaguely in the far west of the known ancient world, where the goddess Hera set three nymphs, the Hesperides, to guard the golden apples that she had received as a wedding gift from Gaia, the earth goddess, when she accepted Zeus -- apples that, if eaten, conferred immortality.  Not altogether trusting the Hesperides, Hera posted an additional guardian, the never-sleeping hundred-headed dragon Ladon.  Guardians enough, one would think, but the apples were stolen twice.  Eris, the goddess of discord, made away with one, inscribed it "For the fairest," and rolled it into a wedding party to which she had not been invited, causing Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite to claim it -- a dispute that provoked the Trojan War.  And Heracles, for his eleventh labor, managed to steal some of the apples by trickery.

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Frederick Leighton, The Garden of the Hesperides, ca. 1892.

     In this late Victorian work the Hesperides are seen dozing on the job.  No wonder Hera added a dragon (here, a one-headed snake) as an extra guard.  But the nymphs seem quite cozy with it.  For me,  in contrast with Strudwick's Acrasia mentioned earliereverything about this painting -- the dozing damsels, the phallic snake, the clustered golden apples -- seems subtly erotic.  Ah, those sly Victorians!  Leighton, an English sculptor and painter, was the first artist to be made a peer.  He died one day later
-- the shortest peerage in history.
     Of course the supreme forbidden garden of Western lore is Eden, which itself was not forbidden, but whose Tree of Knowledge and Tree of Life were not to be touched by Adam and Eve.  The former gave knowledge of good and evil, while the Tree of Life conferred immortality, and Yahweh didn't want them to mess with either.  The plants in the garden are not specified by the Book of Genesis, which mentions only "every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food" (2:9).  The most famous description of Eden in English literature is surely Milton's, in Book IV of Paradise Lost, where "Cedar, and Pine, and Firr, and branching Palm" are mentioned, along with "goodliest Trees loaden with fairest Fruit," and trees weeping odorous gums and balm, and golden fruit "Hesperian fables true," and "Flours of all hue, and without Thorn the Rose," and the vine that "layes forth her purple Grape."
Granted, this lacks the sensuous immediacy of Keats and Tennyson.  (Yes, Tennyson!  I said "sensuous," not "sensual.")  But Milton was far more scholar than nature lover, and blind as well.

     Eden captured the Western imagination as an earthly paradise, a place of peace and innocence where the lion could lie down with the lamb, an exotic setting where unicorns stalked groves of fruit-bearing trees.  For me, Eden lies in the realm of myth, but scholars have tried to fix its location -- usually somewhere in the Middle East -- and the Mormons, following the revelations of Joseph Smith, are convinced that it was situated in present-day Jackson County, Missouri.  But then, why not in upstate New York, which produces an abundance of apples?  Maybe near Rochester, or in the vicinity of Schenectady.  Upstate could use the tourist business that would certainly accrue.

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God with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a painting by the sixteenth-century artist Jacob de Backer.  To the left we see God creating Eve out of Adam's rib while he sleeps.

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In this Raffael mural in the Vatican the tempter
is Lilith, a serpent-like female demon --
presumably a stand-in for Satan.

     You know the story: tempted by Satan in the form of a serpent, Eve gives the apple of the Tree of Knowledge to Adam, who then eats it.  This leads to their expulsion from the garden and all our woes, a subject that artists have loved to render over the centuries.

      Note on the serpent:  I have always felt that snakes quite undeservedly have a bad press, and the serpent's role in Eden certainly doesn't help. Most snakes encountered in this area (New York, not Eden) are harmless, and the one exception I know of -- copperheads on the Palisades (see post #49) -- take care to avoid humans.  To my eye snakes are beautiful, mysterious, and sensual, and we could well see them as phallic in both Eden and the Garden of the Hesperides.  But our globe-trotting doctor, who has a house in Capetown, South Africa, assures me that snakes -- certain snakes -- deserve their reputation.  His garden there is frequently invaded by cobras and vipers; only the presence of two mongooses keeps these intruders at bay.

The expulsion from Eden, as shown in a bas-relief
on the façade of the cathedral of Orvieto.

      What common theme runs through the accounts of all these gardens?  The garden shields an object of great value that the hero or intruder covets, an object whose possession confers something of immense significance -- love, knowledge, immortality -- but that can be obtained only with tremendous effort or at great risk.  It's all about our longing for something difficult of access that, once possessed, may bring unimaginable happiness or deep misfortune.  Which is plenty to chew on.

      Let's turn now from the gardens of myth and legend to the very real gardens that I have visited here in this city.  A bit of a comedown, you may think.  But what if I told you that right here in the West Village, only a few short blocks from where I live, there is a walled garden sometimes open to the public and sometimes not, with pomegranate and fig and Cedar of Lebanon close by, as well as other rare exotics, and smack in the middle, a noble tree bearing a rich harvest of apples.  You would be a little bit surprised, would you not?  But it exists.  Yes, a rich harvest of apples.  Alas, crab apples.  In the autumn those runty little yellow things litter the ground, quite inedible for humans and therefore of interest only to insects and worms.  No one would confront a dragon or risk the wrath of Yahweh for crab apples.

     The garden with the crab apple tree is the Barrow Street Garden of Saint Luke in the Fields, a landmark church on Hudson Street that dates from 1821.  I wouldn't demean its garden for anything, since I have spent restful moments in the shade of that very tree, while others around me rested or read quietly or reflected.  Magnolias bloom there, as well as witch hazel, irises, roses, rhododendrons, and several plants from Japan and other parts of Asia.  Near it is the church's Biblical Garden, comprising plants mentioned in the Bible, Cedar of Lebanon among them, and a Rectory Garden rarely open to the public, with a rare Chestnut rose from China, and a papaw tree that bears exotic banana-flavored fruit.  Because of the gardens' southwest orientation and their heat-retaining brick walls, Saint Luke has managed to grow several species rarely seen this far north, like pomegranate, rosemary, and fig.  No apples conferring immortality here, and no unicorns, but marvels enough.

     Note on the above:  I just revisited Saint Luke's gardens and have noticed changes.  Entering the Barrow Street Garden, I immediately encountered an ornamental iron basin crammed with pansies in riotous bloom.  There were other spring flowers too, but in the center of the garden was a slender tree, as yet without leaf or flower, that looks too small, too svelte to be the crab apple tree of yore.  But I could be mistaken; time will tell.  Their current info mentions several gardens, but no Biblical Garden; has that too been superseded?  I hope not. The thought of a Cedar of Lebanon were in the West Village was enticing.

     New Yorkers, living in a desert of concrete and asphalt and cement, are starved for gardens and greenery.  And, God bless them, they do try.  Out on errands just now, I walked along West 11th Street from Bleecker to Seventh Avenue, and in the course of my walk saw daffodils and tulips in window boxes, in pots on the steps of front stoops, in the skimpy areas fronting row houses, and in little rectangular plots near the curb that often have signs posted, pleading with dogs and their owners to forbear.  What the back yards and rooftops harbor, I couldn't see.

                                                                                              Art Nerd New York

     But those bits of greenery are hardly gardens, properly speaking.  But gardens -- real gardens -- do exist.  One that I love to visit is the Millennium Garden in the Hudson River Park at the end of Charles Street, near the river.  Dominating it is sculptor Stephan Weiss's work "Big Apple," a modernist bronze rendering of an apple ten feet high.  A sign forbids visitors to crawl on it, but, having a kind of tunnel right through it, the sculpture begs to be crawled through, and telling New Yorkers not to do something guarantees that they will do it.  Sometimes I have this little garden to myself, but often there are other visitors crawling through the sculpture and having their transgression recorded by camera.  I have adopted the garden and make a point of picking up the rare bits of litter that find their way into it.  When the summer flowers are thick and exuberant, I love to view them with the nearby river as a backdrop, a view that reminds me of the American Impressionist Childe Hassam's paintings of gardens on the Isles of Shoals, in the Atlantic just off the coast of New Hampshire.  For me, masses of thick flowers at the peak of their blooming, seen against a vast expanse of ocean, present a rich excess of life.

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Childe Hassam, Celia Thaxter's Garden, 1890.

      What, by the way, is the difference between a garden and a park?  Parks are bigger, gardens are smaller and more intimate.  Not always: I've visited some very big gardens, and some very small parks like the pocket parks of Midtown Manhattan.  Gardens are private, parks are public.  Usually, but some gardens are public, too.  Gardens are tended more; they are planted and pruned, watered and cleaned, given more tender loving care.  Really?  Tell that to the Central Park Conservancy, whose volunteers work in Central Park daily.  One probably wouldn't go to a garden to jog or cycle, but beyond that I give it up.  A garden is a garden because it has been labeled such, and the same is true for a park.

     Speaking of Central Park, the Conservatory Garden at Fifth Avenue and 105th Street, New York's only formal garden, is a garden within a park.  It comprises three sections: the North, Central, and South Garden.  I have already described it in post #21, but will now visit it again.  The North Garden  often comes alive in the fall with masses of Korean daisies of every color that overwhelm you, suck you in.  In the center of the garden is the Three Dancing Maidens fountain, sculpted by Walter Schott in 1910 or thereabouts and formerly installed in the Samuel Untermyr estate in Yonkers, before being given to the city in 1947.  The maidens' clothing clings to their bodies, giving an impression that is frankly and deliciously sensual.  Appropriate for a private estate in 1910, perhaps, but probably not for a city park.  Today, of course, we are more enlightened about such matters, much more evolved.

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Even in winter, they dance.
Banyan Tree

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      The Central Garden has a broad expanse of lawn often used for wedding parties, and near it, as if to guarantee procreation, the skyward spume of an orgasmic geyser-like fountain.  Flanking the lawn on either side are crab apple allées providing welcome shade in the intense heat of summer.

    Ah, some of you are thinking by now, that Browder turns every garden into something sensual.  Well, gardens are usually full of flowers, and flowers are by their very nature sensual, flaunting their organs wantonly.  I've often wondered how Victorian ladies would have reacted, had they known that the scented geraniums they adorned their parlors with were, like all flowers, brazenly sexual.

     The South Garden is my favorite.  Rather than masses of flowers, it offers a great diversity of annuals and perennials, most of which I can't identify: coneflowers, hydrangeas, zebra grass, loosestrife, catmint, lady's mantle, and many others, as well as barberry and magnolia.  And smack in the center is the Burnett Fountain and Pool, named for Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of the children's classic, The Secret Garden.  (To judge by the title, a book I should have known as a child, but didn't.  She was also the author of Little Lord Fauntleroy, but we'll let that one pass.)  The statuary fountain by Bessie Potter Vonnoh features a young boy reclining and playing a flute, and a standing girl holding a bowl with sculpted birds that functions as a birdbath where real birds mix with the sculpted ones.  They evidently represent the main characters of The Secret Garden, but they could just as easily be Peter Pan and Wendy.  If the North Garden statuary is deliciously sensual, the South Garden's is inherently innocent; I love them both.  Adjacent to the sculptures is a pond with water lilies and, on the bottom, a small fortune in tossed coins.  The spot is wonderfully quiet and restful.  So you see, I do acknowledge that gardens can be innocent.

                                                                                                           Ephemeral New York

     What other gardens should I mention?  The Jefferson Market Garden on the site of the demolished Bastille known as the Women's Prison, where the screams and oaths of inmates shouting down to friends on the street have been replaced by magnolia and cherry trees now in bloom, and a rose garden that will achieve magnificence in June?  The four-acre Shakespeare Garden in Central Park, offering flowers mentioned in Shakespeare's poetry and plays?  Paley Park, a pocket park squeezed in between tall buildings on East 53rd Street in Midtown Manhattan, with trees and flowers and a twenty-foot-high waterfall spanning its entire back wall?  The community gardens that self-styled "green guerrillas" have created on neglected vacant lots, reclaiming urban land to raise vegetables and bring people together to deal with the problems plaguing their neighborhoods?  I could go on and on, but there's no way I could cover all these gardens.  So I'll settle for one very big garden that I have visited many times, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, a wedge-shaped 52-acre garden next to Prospect Park.

     The Brooklyn Botanical Garden is really a conglomeration of many smaller parks, each with its own attractions.  Visiting the Native Flora Garden in spring, I have seen wildflowers that I rarely, if ever, see elsewhere: golden club, thrusting a spike of tiny yellow flowers; red trillium, a lovely but ill-scented, liver-red flower; Dutchman's breeches, whose drooping yellow-tipped white flowers look like upside-down pantaloons; wild bleeding-heart, whose two reddish spurs form a heart from which a drop of blood seems to drip between two flaring wings; and shooting star, with swept-back petals and a pointed beak that suggests a star (or missile?) shooting earthward.  I've always been a sucker for wildflowers, their colorful names, their intricate shapes.

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shooting star
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red trillium

     Another spot of interest is the Cranford Rose Garden, with over five thousand bushes bearing nearly fourteen hundred species of roses.  I'll admit that, given such a wealth of roses, they may all begin to look alike, and besides, I'm a wildflower guy, but when I visited the garden, the names of the various species grabbed me.  Who could resist Wild at Heart, Moondrops, Casanova, Duchess, Glory Days, Dainty Bess, Flash Fire, Apricot Twist, Don Juan, Hoot Owl, Uncle Joe, and Bo-Peep?  Someone's imagination must have been cooking, for there is magic in these names.

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The Cranford Rose Garden.  A sundial statue in the foreground.

     For a massive impression of spring, nothing surpasses the Cherry Esplanade, a broad green rectangle bordered by two allées of double-flowering cherry trees that erupt into bloom in April, transforming the whole area into dazzling pink.  No need to go to Washington to stand six- or ten-deep with other tourists to see cherry trees in bloom, when you can do it here with a lot fewer fellow visitors to contend with.

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     Of course there's a lot more to mention: the Osborne Garden, an Italian-style formal garden; the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden, with a miniaturized landscape featuring trees and shrubs shaped by special pruning techniques; the Fragrance Garden; the Magnolia Plaza; the Herb Garden; Bluebell Wood, best seen in May; and many more.  I urge anyone who lives in the New York City area to visit the Botanical Garden soon.  The cherry trees in the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden are at their peak now, and those in the Cherry Esplanade are late this year but will blossom soon; see the website for up-to-date info on what is in bloom and how to get there.  Go early, to avoid crowds.  What you'll see is unforgettable.

     Quote of the day:  "The illegal we do immediately.  The unconstitutional takes a little longer." -- Henry Kissinger, in the recent public release of documents by WikiLeaks

File:Margaret Thatcher 1981.jpg       Good-bye to the Iron Lady:  No sooner had the word spread of Margaret Thatcher's death, but there arose on both sides of the Atlantic a hullabaloo of denunciation and vituperation.  The British media were graced with repeated renditions of "Ding dong, the witch is dead" from The Wizard of Oz, and Parliament was convulsed with praise by her admirers and vehement censure by her foes.  Here in New York City, station WBAI devoted a full hour to rebuking and decrying her policies as Prime Minister in the 1980s, including a satirical skit whose words I could barely make out and that I found uninspired.  (Progressives usually have less bite in comedy and satire than conservatives.)  All of which I find unseemly.  As for those who gloat over her wretched last days, when she was afflicted with a series of strokes, memory loss, and dementia, I find that contemptible.  Admittedly, she was combative and divisive, and her policies highly controversial.  I am no admirer of the Iron Lady, but feel that she and her mourners are entitled to minimal respect until she has been decently buried.  After that, let criticisms fly.  And if the old girl could come back and witness it, she would probably say, as she did once in a stormy session of Parliament, "I'm enjoying this!"  A fighter, she loved a good fight.  I don't admire her, but I admire three things about her: her energy, her strength, and her commitment.  She makes many a politician -- no, I won't name names -- look opportunistic, wishy-washy, tame.  So good-bye to the Iron Lady.  She won't be forgotten soon.

     Banknote:  My ongoing love affair with my bank, J.P. Morgan Chase, continues unabated.  When I visited my branch yesterday I found the Easter Bunny gone but, in its place, Munchkins.  No, I don't mean those little guys from The Wizard of Oz.  I mean those concoctions -- "Little Pops of Pleasure" -- that Dunkin' Donuts puts out.  Greater love for its customers hath no bank, even one that lost six billion -- dollars, not Munchkins -- in a trade.

     Next week: Steamboat Wars on the Hudson.  Forthcoming: Earth Goddesses, Farewells.  In preparation: The Saga of Jim Fisk, the most colorful of the nineteenth-century robber barons.  Meanwhile I wish all a joyous spring.

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder

Sunday, April 14, 2013

56. Monumental New York, part 2

          When you think of New York, you think of Manhattan and tall buildings: the clean beauty of thrust, grandeur without warmth.  The spirit behind Stanford White's majestic Beaux-Arts buildings,  the skyscrapers of the 1920s and 1930s, and the World Trade Center that followed, reflects these words drawn from my fiction:

This country can do anything

Dream dare do


The eyes of the world are upon you

Inherent in this spirit is the need to surpass, to dazzle.  Yes, grandeur without warmth.  For warmth, go to French Renaissance or Gothic: City Hall or Grace Church (see post #53).  Or can one discern here a different kind of warmth, a kind of cold fire, a ruthless aspiration?  And was the World Trade Center perhaps an expression of hubris, and therefore doomed from the start?  I for one am quite content to let other nations build the tallest buildings in the world.  I don't think that a smaller-scale grandeur, something less overwhelming, is a sign of surrender or decadence.  New York will always be overwhelming enough, bigger than life, inspiring.  

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         No visitor ever waxed more lyrical than Salvador Dali, when he first came to the city in the 1930s.  In his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, he expressed his wonder and excitement in vivid Surrealist imagery:

"The poetry of New York is an organ, Gothic neurosis, nostalgia of the Orient and the Occident, parchment lampshade in the form of a musical partition, smoked façade, artificial vampire, artificial armchair….  New York is not prismatic; New York is not white.  New York is all round; New York is vivid red.  New York is a round pyramid.  New York is a ball of flesh a little pointed toward the top, a ball of millennial and crystallized entrails; a monumental ruby in the rough – with the organ-point of its flashes directed toward heaven, somewhat like the form of an inverted heart – before being polished!"

                                                          Daniel Case

          On now to some monuments.  What is this, and where?  I'll answer the first question: an oyster bar.  But where?

                                Jorge Royan

A currency exchange, of course.  But where?  The same site as the oyster bar.


Does this help?  It's big and monumental.  You've probably been there more than once.


         Grand Central Station, of course.  Opened in 1913, it is now celebrating its centennial.  

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         Illuminated at night, the exterior is likewise impressive.  But let's also look at some elements easily ignored by scurrying travelers.  As for instance the ceiling of the Main Concourse, whose restoration, completed in 1998, removed a thick coat of tar and nicotine that had accumulated over many years.   (See what smoking does to our monuments?  But then, in those days we didn't know better.)  The ceiling shows the constellations of the Zodiac in gold against a green background, based on a medieval manuscript that presents them in reverse order.  How the photographer managed to take this photo without being flattened by hordes of rushing commuters or vacationers I'll never know.

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          And now for a look at something outside that travelers never bother to notice: a trio of gods presiding over the station, with an almost naked but triumphant Mercury at the top, flanked by Hercules and Minerva.  But why them?  Mercury, being fleet of foot, might relate to the speed of trains, but what have Hercules' muscular torso or Athena's wisdom to do with a railroad terminal?  I confess that it escapes me, but I suspect that few travelers share my concern.

         Having visited a monument created in another time, let’s look now at a structure that is resolutely and quintessentially modern: MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art.  Today’s MOMA reopened in 2004 after a massive renovation designed by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, a minimalist who likes to make architecture disappear, and whose buildings in Japan are noted for a “lightness of being.”  The renovation produced a monument of glass and steel, with the glass most in evidence.  I’m not a fan of the glass boxes that now characterize much of Manhattan, but the interior impresses me.

          Mounting from the ground floor to the second by either of two monumental staircases (the elevators are nowhere in evidence), one finds the vastly expanded exhibition space that the museum so needed.  But to get to those exhibition rooms one passes between glass walls that intentionally seem to float free from the floor, like autonomous planes.  They unsettle me, and the view through them of a plunging perspective -- down, down, down -- strikes me as just plain scary.  I never linger here, always hurry on to the exhibition rooms, which have four solid and very reassuring walls.  Grand Central and the old Penn Station never threatened me.  I could look into their immensities without fear; they were always firm and solid.  I don’t have an unusual fear of heights; in Mexico I have climbed up the steep sides of ancient pyramids and then back down again without hesitation.  But MOMA, thanks to the brilliant Mr. Taniguchi, at times makes me downright nervous.

        But one feature of the renovated MOMA is truly inspired and inspiring: the Sculpture Garden, a green oasis in the concrete desert that is Manhattan, and an oasis enhanced by sculpture.  Of it I heartily approve.

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                                             Jacques Hnizdovsky
 And it does bring art to the hoi polloi.      

      Finally, I shall extend my concept of monuments to bridges, and specifically to this one.

The George Washington Bridge, looking east from New Jersey toward Manhattan.

The George Washington Bridge spans the Hudson at West 178th Street.  Opened in 1931, it is my favorite local bridge, though no photograph I have seen quite captures the graceful arc of the cables, the perfect proportions, the soaring energy, not to mention the views from it up and down the river.  Compared to it, the storied Brooklyn Bridge seems flat, though I rank the Verrazano Bridge, connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island, a close second.  I have crossed the George Washington many a time on foot, braving the incoming traffic and its steady roar, most of the cars with a single occupant (so much for share-the-ride), feeling dizzy and my knees unsteady when I glance down at the (on sunny days) scintillating waters of the Hudson.  But pedestrians aren't allowed to linger; there have been suicides, more easily effected here than from the dizzying heights of the Empire State Building, where they are anticipated and guarded against -- 43 attempts on the bridge in 2012, 18 of them successful.  It was from this bridge that Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi leaped to his death in September 2010, after his roommate filmed him having sex with another man and posted it on the Internet.

       This is too depressing a note to end on, so I'll toss in one of those glass boxes that I don't really like: the Manufacturers Trust building at Fifth Avenue and West 43rd Street.  For those who want more transparency in banking, this is the answer: a triumph of Modernism built in 1954, concocted of aluminum, steel, and a plethora of glass, and now a landmark.  I've never set foot in it, but if I did, judging by my reaction to MOMA, I'd probably be uncomfortable.  It has its fans, to be sure, but personally I think there must be better uses for all that glass.

       Next week, a post on Gardens: how I raided Mrs. Pierce's tulips; the Bower of Bliss; golden apples; how snakes are beautiful (unless you've got a cobra in your garden); how the Garden of Eden may have been located in Missouri or upstate New York; an apple you can crawl through; Bo Peep and Casanova in Brooklyn; and the wonders of the BBG.  After that, though not necessarily in this order: Steamboat Wars on the Hudson (with a glance at today's robber barons); Farewells (with a look at green coffins, and a high school girlfriend who dumped me recently); and Earth Goddesses: Big Mama (ancient and contemporary -- they're all over the place!).  Meanwhile, best wishes to all!

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder