Sunday, December 30, 2012

40. Mrs. Satan Locks Horns with the Mighty, part 2

What happened after Victoria Woodhull's threat of exposure to the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, minutes before she was to begin her lecture to a hall jammed with spectators lured there in hopes of a candid exposition of free love, was probably a surprise to all.  When Victoria and her supporters, her sister Tennie included, marched out onto the platform, Theodore Tilton was at the head of the group.  Stepping to the front of the platform, he raised his hands to quiet the crowd, then explained that he had come to hear what his friend had to say on a great question of much importance to her, and since various gentlemen had declined to introduce her because of objections to her character, he would do so himself.  He then vouched warmly for her character and said that it was with great pride that he presented Victoria Woodhull, who would speak on the subject of social freedom.

What had prompted this sudden act by Tilton?  Perhaps he wanted to deflect her threat to expose Beecher, which would also compromise his wife's reputation.  Perhaps he was yielding to a generous quixotic impulse, as he was known to do.  And perhaps it was out of gallantry.  The tone of his words was that of a lover.  He may well have been one of her many inamorati, which complicates even more the complexities of the Beecher-Tilton relationship.

Following the outlines of a speech prepared by one of her male associates, Victoria began with an account of changing attitudes toward the freedom of the individual.  But when she got to the present, she registered more passion and emphasis, and excitement began to mount in the audience, then hissing countered by applause.

"Are you a free lover?"someone shouted.

"Yes!" she replied.  "I am a free lover!" And as cheers, hoots, and howls redoubled, she persisted with fervor, ignoring her prepared text completely: "I have an inalienable, constitutional, and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as a short a period as I can, to change that love every day if I please!"

Pandemonium ensued.  Some hissed and booed; others  cheered and tossed their hats in the air.  She continued speaking for another ten minutes, decrying the false modesty that silences discussions of sex, and the evils attending such modesty's abuses, while insisting that she would have her fellow beings think well of her, that she was telling them her vision of the future because she loved them well.  No one present was likely to forget her impassioned finale.

The speech was fully reported in the Herald, and dire consequences followed.  Victoria and her household were soon forced to leave their mansion for a boardinghouse on 23rd Street, and business fell off dramatically at their Broad Street office.  Commodore Vanderbilt's family were doubtlessly thanking their lucky stars -- or perhaps the Beneficent Creator -- that he had long since severed ties with this wanton and her sister, whose names would now be inexorably linked to free love.  But if Americans didn't share the firebrand's opinions, they were eager to hear about them; lecture invitations poured in from all over the country.

A cartoon by Thomas Nast, 1872.

BE SAVED BY FREE LOVE offers Woodhull, in the garb of the Devil,
as a respectable housewife toils in the opposite direction, burdened with
 children and an alcoholic spouse: "I'd rather follow the 
hardest path of matrimony than follow in your footsteps."

In December 1871 the undaunted sisters marched up Broadway in solidarity with the International Workingmen's Association, in memory of martyred Communards executed by the bourgeois  government of France after the brutal repression of the French Commune.  And at the annual winter convention of the National Suffrage Association in Washington, Victoria appeared on the platform with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton, who were not yet ready to break with the firebrand whom some were now calling Mrs. Satan.  Rumors of scandal plagued her campaign for the presidency on the ticket of the newly formed Equal Rights Party, and lack of funds forced her from the Broad Street office and caused the Weekly to suspend publication.  Things didn't look good for Mrs. Satan.

But Victoria wasn't done yet.  In September, when a delegate to the National Spiritualists' Association in Boston accused her of obtaining money under false pretenses, she took the stand and, furious, gave the details of the Rev. Beecher's affair with Libby Tilton.  How dare he preach the sanctity of marriage while practicing free love clandestinely?  Impressed, the spiritualists reelected her president of the association.  So the cat was out of the bag at last.

Back in New York, using funds from a still unknown source, she revived Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly with a bang.  The first new issue, dated November 2, 1872 (though published earlier), gave a lengthy account of the Beecher-Tilton scandal.  She claimed to speak reluctantly, out of a sense of duty, so as to support her campaign against the outworn institution of marriage.  She was nothing if not candid, mentioning Beecher's "demanding physical nature" and "immense physical potency." With the intimacy of Mrs. Tilton and the minister she had no quarrel, only with Beecher's hypocrisy.  As for Tilton, his conduct had been no better than Beecher's; she deplored his displays of wounded feelings and pride.  (Whatever intimacy they may once have shared by now had obviously soured.)

Word spread quickly; issues flew off the stands.  By evening, they were said to be going for forty dollars a copy.  The scandal of the century had finally burst into full view of the public.

On November 2, several days after the issue actually appeared, the sisters were arrested while riding in a carriage on Broad Street.  Arraigned before a packed courtroom, they learned that they were charged with sending obscene matter through the mail, the matter involved being "an atrocious, abominable and untrue libel on a gentleman whom the whole country reveres."  Who had brought the charges?  None other than Anthony Comstock (see post #37), using a federal law of 1872, since the famous and infamous Comstock law had yet to be lobbied for and passed.  The sisters were in full bloom, according to the press, which described Victoria as "sedate," and Tennie as "bright" and "animated," with sparkling blue eyes, and "splendid teeth" that she took care to display.  And who was there to defend them?  Another giant of the day whom we have seen already (post #29):  William Howe, the bejeweled elephant.  The sisters were a magnet for the eminences of the time.

Choosing not to put up bail, the sisters were confined to Ludlow Street Jail, where they vividly denounced  the American Bastille to the journalists who flocked to interview them.  (In point of fact, their durance was not so vile, since the staff there gave them courteous attention and by their own account never, during their sojourn, uttered a word unmentionable to ears polite.)  Meanwhile Counselor Howe protested this attack on free speech, and insisted that the Bible, Lord Byron, and Shakespeare could be similarly suppressed.  As the trial was endlessly delayed, the press made a good show of the lovely captives, their grim accuser, their diamond-bedecked defender, and others related to the case.  Finally, after four weeks in the Bastille, the sisters consented to put up bail and were released.  Their month's incarceration had won them sympathy, and garnered Comstock criticism and more than a touch of mockery.

 Poster for a lecture by the sisters following their incarceration.
From the collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

The whole affair dragged on, with further legal complications, and ever fuller measures of mockery for Comstock from the ungodly, until a ruling came at last on June 27, 1873, when the presiding judge ruled that the 1872 law did not apply to newspapers.  By then the stricter Comstock law had been passed, but for this case it was irrelevant.  The sisters were gloriously free on a technicality, and their accuser must once again ponder the mysteries of the Master's will, before consoling himself by arresting a local bookdealer for the third time.  Victoria meanwhile referred to the YMCA in the Weekly as the American Inquisition, but added that there was no more similarity between the inquisitor Torquemada and Comstock than between a dead lion and a living skunk.

The ensuing scandal took a heavy toll on all concerned.  Plymouth Church was stricken, but at Beecher's urging held a board of inquiry that, in spite of the misgivings of some, exonerated Beecher; Tilton was then expelled from the church.  Tilton's wife was badgered by Beecher into retracting her confession, and then badgered by Tilton into retracting the retraction; she finally left Tilton because of the publicity.  Then in 1875 Tilton sued Beecher for "criminal intimacy" with his wife; the long trial riveted the nation's attention, but after six days of deliberation it ended in a hung jury.  The troubled church held a second board of inquiry that also exonerated their beloved minister, but Libby Tilton confessed again to the affair and was also excommunicated.  Unable to find employment in this country because of the scandal, Tilton moved to Paris and spent the rest of his life there.  Beecher's popularity continued, but he never again enjoyed the uncritical adulation of before.

Henry Ward Beecher
A statue by John Quincy Ward, ca. 1888-89,
at Amherst College, Massachusetts, 

the reverend's alma mater.
The heroic pose shows that, for some,
he is best remembered as a stalwart abolitionist.

Life for Victoria and her sister was not triumphant either.  They were shunned on Wall Street, no longer had the support of the leading suffragists of the time, and had mounting financial problems that made the continued publication of the Weekly difficult.  Victoria now divorced her current husband, who had supplied many of the articles for their publication.  In 1877, in a move that must have surprised all, the two sisters left this country for England, probably financed by William Vanderbilt, the Commodore's heir, so they wouldn't testify in court when some of the Commodore's offspring challenged his will.  In England Victoria continued to give controversial lectures, but ended up marrying a wealthy banker.  Tennie did even better, marrying a wealthy widower who became a baronet; so the rebel who had once scorned what squeamish people said of her, and who had graced the lap of the richest man in America, was now known as Lady Cook, Viscountess of Montserrat, and lived at times in her husband's castle in Portugal.  Needless to say, a curious ending for two flaming female radicals.  Their rise in English society may have inspired Henry James's delicious story "The Siege of London," in which an American woman with a shady past (multiple marriages) manages to hook a most respectable young baronet.  Tennie died in 1923, and Victoria in 1927.  Though the feminists of their time came to shun them, they have since been reclaimed with enthusiasm by the women's rights movement of today.

Historical footnote:  When newly moneyed Americans began hitting Europe after the Civil War, in England the upper classes asked a crucial question:  Does one marry Americans?  When Lord Randolph Churchill of illustrious lineage married Jenny Jerome, the eldest daughter of Wall Street speculator Leonard Jerome, the answer was a resounding Yes!  What was good enough for Lord Randolph had to be good enough for the rest of society.  (The result, by the way, was Winston Churchill.)  Usually these unions involved new American money bonding with impoverished foreign titles.  In the case of the Claflin sisters, however, the money was all on the side of the husbands; the sisters provided spark and charm.  After World War I impoverished foreign titles were much less enticing to American heiresses; they looked a bit shopworn (the titles, not the heiresses).  Henry James treats this theme beautifully in many novels and short stories.  He is my favorite American novelist; I highly recommend his works.

Thought for the day:  Existence is ecstasy.  (A Buddhist idea that has always intrigued me; it prompts reflection.)

(c)  2012  Clifford Browder

Sunday, December 23, 2012

39. Mrs. Satan Locks Horns with the Mighty, part 1

 Victoria Woodhull
Looking thoughtful, as appropriate for the serious one,
though no photograph of the period does full justice to
the "bewitching brokers" and their ability to
dazzle the all-male press corps of the day.

In January 1870 they popped up out of nowhere to appear on Wall Street, in the heart of the all-male bastion of finance: Victoria Woodhull (her married name, though no husband was visible) and her sister Tennie C. (or sometimes Tennessee) Claflin, who with remarkable knowledge and self-assurance began buying and selling stocks.  That the two sisters were young and attractive, and always receptive to the press, meant that word of them at once spread far and wide.  At a time when respectable women never wanted to be mentioned in the press, the appearance of these two young female speculators was itself unprecedented, and gossip immediately arose about where they got their knowledge of stocks, not to mention the funds to invest.  The Herald, always attuned to the new and sensational, sent a reporter to their suite at the stylish Hoffman House, where, significantly, a portrait of Commodore Vanderbilt adorned the wall of the parlor, and near it, a framed religious motto: "To Thy Cross I Cling."  That the richest man in the country was backing these two adventurers seemed obvious from the start.  The reporter described the sisters and their suite respectfully, and a Herald editorial concluded, "Vive la frou frou!"

Tennie C. Claflin, the other half of the frou frou,
presenting herself as a broker, her mirthful,
effervescent qualities well hidden.

File:Cornelius Vanderbilt three-quarter view.jpg
Cornelius Vanderbilt
 His handsome features and erect posture persisted even
in his later years, as did his taste for the old-fashioned
 stock, in preference to the new-fangled necktie.
The two sisters now opened a brokerage office at 44 Broad Street, and the entire financial district flocked there to see this phenomenon for themselves.  So packed were the premises that the sisters soon posted a sign: "All gentlemen will state their business and then retire at once."  The Herald now hailed them as "the bewitching brokers" and "queens of finance."  Further speculation was fueled by the sisters' quiet admission that in the previous year they had realized $750,000 in profits -- a dazzling sum mentioned in all the papers of the time.  Also noted were the daily visits to their office of Commodore Vanderbilt himself, between whom and Tennie a cheerful familiarity seemed to exist.  Adding spice to the scandal -- if scandal there was  -- was the fact that Old Sixty Millions, a widower, had recently married a young woman half his age; her husband's gallivanting on Broad Street was surely vexing to the new Mrs.Vanderbilt, who with great forbearance was trying to
tolerate -- for now -- her spouse's playful quirks and eccentricities and, ever so tactfully, nudge him toward her Methodist faith.

More and more rumors circulated: Victoria Woodhull was a divorced woman -- shocking!  Furthermore, she claimed to have powers of clairvoyance and healing, and had come to New York at the bidding of her spirit guide, Demosthenes.  Worse still, the sisters and their friends were said to believe in -- still more shocking! -- free love.  Both sisters had evidently been married before at least once, and maybe more than once; they seemed to shed husbands with remarkable ease.  Definitely not bruited in the press were the Vanderbilt clan's concern about the Commodore's prior relations with the duo.  William Vanderbilt, the son and heir, had it from his father's servants that Victoria had tried her powers of magnetic healing on him, while Tennie's gauzy charms had often graced the old man's lap.  She called him "Old Boy," and he called her "Little Sparrow";  there had even been talk of marriage.  So if the Commodore's two sons and nine daughters -- an ennead that he claimed he could barely keep straight -- had been startled by his sudden eloping to Canada with a young Southern gentlewoman, at least he was safely and respectably married.

Victoria and Tennie driving the bulls and bears of Wall Street.
An Evening Telegram cartoon of February 18, 1870.

The "bewitching brokers" shrugged off any rumors about their past.  Victoria was always the leader, and Tennie the willing follower, but it was Tennie, mirthful and outspoken, who expressed herself with vehemence: "I despise what squeamy, crying girls or powdered, counter-jumping dandies say of me!"  Always the earnest one, Victoria told a reporter, "All the talk about women's rights is moonshine.  Women have every right.  All they need do is exercise them.  That's what we're doing."  In post #22 I've already told how they coped with Delmonico's rule about admitting no women customers unless accompanied by a male escort.

If any doubts remained of the sisters' radical opinions, they vanished in May 1870 when a new  publication burst upon the scene: Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, whose motto was "Progress!  Free Thought!  Untrammeled Lives!"  In it readers could find articles advocating vocational training for girls, women's suffrage, and regulation of houses of prostitution, and articles on free love, birth control, and abortion, and in time, the first publication in the country of The Communist Manifesto.  Behind these views were the ideas of several of the sisters' radical male friends.  Every word printed in the Weekly was a challenge to Victorian notions of womanhood, which firmly planted Woman on a pedestal -- in the home, where she should stay.  Forays for good works were of course allowed, but otherwise she should be preoccupied with supervising servants, looking after the nursery, and maintaining that revered inner sanctum of the Victorian home, the parlor (about which more in a future post).

The sisters were now getting national attention.  In December 1870 Victoria presented a memorial to Congress advocating women's suffrage,  The following month she addressed the House Judiciary Committee in a session attended by two prominent leaders of the women's rights movement, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton, whom this development had taken by surprise, and who wanted to get a look at this new advocate and seeming ally.  Indeed, by all accounts Victoria Woodhull was a passionate and magnetic speaker.  Impressed, Anthony and Stanton invited the sisters to attend their meetings, which let opponents of feminism insist that giving the vote to women would encourage free love and destroy the family.

Victoria Woodhull
Victoria addressing the House committee.
Her sister may be visible in the lower left.

Publicity had obviously come at a cost.  The Bewitching Brokers were now being labeled "humbugs," "public nuisances," and worse.   Forced to leave their hotel, they had trouble finding living quarters and for a while slept on the floor of their Broad Street office, before moving into more suitable quarters.  But they were in no way discouraged.  The Weekly's issue of April 22, 1871, announced in bold lettering the candidacy of Victoria C. Woodhull for the presidency in 1872 on the ticket of the Cosmo-Political Party, an amalgam of radical reform groups.  She was the first woman to aspire to the office, though her chances of being elected, or even being allowed to vote, were less than minimal.  Yet in September 1871 she had the satisfaction of indeed being elected president -- of the National Association of Spiritualists -- at their annual convention in Troy, New York.  (Besides growing apples, upstate New York in those days played host to many a new and radical idea.)  But when the sisters tried to vote in the national election in November, they were of course rebuffed.

Collection of the New York Historical Society

By now Victoria's home sheltered a curious assemblage of friends and refugees, stray family members, and assorted husbands (one ex- had turned up in deplorable condition and been granted asylum).  All of which fueled the rumors about her most unvictorian life style.  To tell the world exactly what her principles were -- as if they weren't apparent already -- soon after the election Victoria rented Steinway Hall for the evening of November 20, 1871, and announced in posters that she intended to silence the critics who had persistently misrepresented and vilified her.  The influential editor Horace Greeley and conservative suffragists who were voicing doubts about her were invited to seats on the platform.  "Freedom!  Freedom!  Freedom!" proclaimed banners outside the hall.

File:Henry Ward Beecher - Project Gutenberg eText 15394.jpg

In a further act of daring, Victoria invited Henry Ward Beecher, the most renowned preacher of the day, to see her just before the lecture, and in so doing joined her destiny to another giant of the time.   Beecher's sermons at the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights were so famous and so inspired that they drew multitudes of Manhattanites every Sunday to that distant borough, still a separate city and not yet connected by a bridge to the metropolis.  His sermons were more than words, they were performances. An ardent abolitionist when it was most unfashionable to be one, before the war he had held mock auctions to raise money to free real slaves, and, having obtained the chains that had held John Brown before his execution, trampled those fetters dramatically in the pulpit.  He also advocated women's suffrage and Darwinian evolution, and denounced bigotry in all its forms.  Lincoln, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain had all made the pilgrimage to Plymouth Church to witness this phenomenon in action.  If Lincoln had freed the slaves, Beecher was said to have freed men's minds.  So what did Victoria Woodhull want from the man?  Justice, she said in her note, adding that what she would then say or do depended on the result of the interview.  Which had the sound of a threat.

Victoria had learned from the feminist Elizabeth Stanton that all was not well in the realm of Beecher.  Stanton had heard from Theodore Tilton, a reformist newspaper editor and Beecher's close associate, that Tilton's wife Libby had confessed to having an affair with the renowned clergyman, who was himself married and the father of ten grown children.  Indeed, Beecher's muscular frame and long leonine locks, combined with his inspired oratory, made him vastly appealing to women.  The affair, though now over, was known to a small circle of Plymouth worshippers, who kept it a snug, tight secret so as to avoid scandal.  But word was spreading slowly, and Victoria was not inclined to discretion.  She was smarting from criticism by Beecher's sister Catherine, who had urged decent citizens to avoid her recent lecture in Catherine's hometown, Hartford.

Aware of this and feeling vulnerable, the famous preacher came to Victoria when summoned.  What she asked of him was simply to introduce her to the waiting audience, which need not imply acceptance of her opinions.  While Beecher had endorsed women's suffrage, he most definitely did not approve of free love.  Horrified, yet fearful of her reaction if he refused, he fell to his knees and begged her in tears, "Let me off!  Let me off!"  When she remained adamant, he consulted Tilton himself, who advised him to make the introduction and asked Victoria to join them.  Beecher again pleaded for mercy and even threatened suicide, but he could not agree.  "Mr. Beecher," said Victoria, "if I am compelled to go onto that platform alone, I shall begin by telling the audience why I am alone and why you are not with me."  With this, she left.  Beecher's famous emotionalism had been no match for her icy resolve.  There is something disturbing, even repellent, in his crumbling before her, but her satisfaction in humiliating the nation's most celebrated clergyman hardly enhances her image.  Victoria Woodhull, one has to conclude, was ruthlessly selfish and determined, regardless of the consequences to others.  Not just one man's reputation was at stake, but a whole empire of faith.

What happened next was both startling and dramatic.  The ongoing story of the sisters, and an account of this, perhaps the most sensational lecture of the century, will be told next week in part 2.

Thought for the day:  Desire is holy.

(c)  2012  Clifford Browder

Sunday, December 16, 2012

38. A Walk Through Greenwich Village

To find respite from the horrors of nineteenth-century New York, I invite you to come with me on a casual walk through Greenwich Village.  The West Village, of course, since the East Village is a whole different story.  The West Village is well trekked, having loads of historic sites; whenever I go out, I see visitors with their nose in a guidebook, figuring where to go next.

                                                                             joe goldberg
          Let's begin on Bleecker Street just downstairs, with the celebrated Magnolia Bakery.  Yes, tourists still flock there, sometimes whole busloads, and take photos of one another in front of the bakery.  I have yet to buy one of their famous cupcakes, good as they are said to be.  A vegan, I'm not tempted to join the throngs gobbling gooey goodies.  But I bear them no ill will (the gobblers, not the cupcakes), even when the line winds around the corner onto West 11th Street past our entrance, or the gobblers squat on our doorstep to devour their spoils, even though a small park beckons to them just across the street.  Notice the mailbox, too; if anyone ever gets a letter from me, that's where it was mailed.

For these tasty globs, some would sell their soul.
 Andy C

          Walking east on West 11th Street, just before we come to Fifth Avenue we see, at 18 West 11th, a handsome townhouse whose jutting bay window seems out of place in this neighborhood of Greek Revival row houses.   And no wonder: it's a replacement of a nineteenth-century townhouse demolished in 1970 when a bomb factory of the radical Weather Underground exploded, destroying the entire residence and shattering the genteel calm of the West Village.  It took nine days to sift through the rubble to find body parts and determine how many had died there: three, though two others, one the daughter of the house, had been upstairs at the time of the explosion and managed to escape.  My thought at the time: little children shouldn't play with bombs.  A simplification, perhaps, but I thought the explosion was justified, in a sense, though it was rough on the neighbors, not to mention the absent parents, who had no idea what their little girl was up to in the basement.  And where were the bombs to be used?  At a dance for noncommissioned officers that evening at Fort Dix, New Jersey, to bring the horrors of the Vietnam War home to the dancers and the public, though maybe also to demolish the main library (where I used to study by the hour) of Columbia University.  What they had against the library I can't imagine.

File:Jefferson market.jpg
          Speaking of libraries, let's have a look at my local public library, the Jefferson Market Library on
Sixth Avenue at West 10th Street: a marvelous renovation with Gothic windows and a lofty clock tower with a firewatchers' balcony, and inside, a handsome spiral staircase flanked by stained glass windows, and a spacious reference room with computers and yes, even books, in the basement.  (I don't use the reference room much these days, since so much information is available online.)  It too has a history.  Built in the 1870s, it was originally a courthouse, and there, in 1879, the notorious abortionist Madame Restell was arraigned, following her arrest by Anthony Comstock.  Long ago, there was a market next door, but in the early 1930s the Women's House of Detention was constructed next to the courthouse, a local Bastille none too popular with neighbors, since the inmates and their friends down below on the sidewalk would converse in shrill tones with a generous dose of expletives: another affront to West Village gentility.  (These exchanges graced my ears many a time in the evening.)  Also, there were stories of racial discrimination and abuse.  Finally, in 1971, the prison was demolished (only WBAI, stalwart a foe of gentrification, lamented its passing), and the Jefferson Market Garden, a small but delightful park, replaced it.  Which was fine by me: the more greenery in this city, the better!

          Of course no tour of the Village would be complete without a look at the Stonewall Inn, where it all began back in 1969.  Yes, it's still there, having presumably had a series of owners since then, and I often walk past it.  A simple two-story structure, the ground floor with a brick façade.  Believe it or not, I've never been in there.  But I do wonder who lives upstairs and how they like having a shrine beneath them, not to mention the brouhaha of the annual Gay Pride Parade passing  below.

          Just across the street is Sheridan Square, once an open space available for community meetings and political rallies, and used as a drilling ground and playground; only since 1982  has it been a garden.  Dominating it is a statue of Phil Sheridan, the Northern cavalry hero of the Civil War, first erected in 1936.  Now, quite within his gaze, are four life-size statues, a man with a man, and a woman with a woman, each couple showing signs of affection.  What the stern-faced general thinks of all this is hard to say.


File:NYC - Greenwich Village - Gay Street.JPG
                                                           Jean-Christophe Benoist 

          When I first came to New York in the 1950s, I heard that there were renters who would give anything to have an address on Gay Street.  Gay Street is a street just one block long between Christopher and Waverley Place, one of those charming little side streets so common in the Village.  I always thought it was named for John Gay, one of the Founding Fathers, but now I learn that it takes its name from an early landowner.  Why this address should be so coveted, I can't imagine.

                                                                        Beyond My Ken
          Film crews are often busy on the Village streets, sometimes doing films with a historical background.  And why not, when the row houses on many Village streets seem unchanged from an earlier period.  Consider this photo of Washington Square North, between Fifth Avenue and University Place: a solid block of Greek Revival houses built in 1832-33.  Take away the car, avoid the air conditioners if possible, and the looming buildings in the distance, and you could be back in nineteenth-century New York.  Behind the preserved façades, some of these buildings have been gutted to make room for apartments, but from the outside you would never know it.  And what was "Greek" about them?  Chiefly the columns flanking the entrances.  In congested New York there was hardly room for the spacious porticos fronting Monticello and many a prebellum Southern mansion.

          Preceding the Greek Revival style was the Federal style row house, with roofs sloping toward the street and adorned with dormer windows, as seen in these King Street residences from the 1820s.  They are fewer in the Village, where Greek Revival tends to dominate, but you will see them here and there.  And brownstones?  They came in in the 1850s and 1860s, and are found mostly farther uptown.
                                                           Beyond My Ken
                                                   Beyond My Ken  

          When strolling through the Village, one should always be on the lookout for little side courts off the main streets that one could easily walk past without even noticing them  Here, for example, seen through the grilled gate of the entrance, is Milligan Place, a private court off Sixth Avenue between West 10th and West 11th Streets.  Four three-story brick houses built in 1855 open onto it.  I've often walked past it, sometimes forget to have a look.

          Earlier I mentioned the Greek Revival row houses facing Washington Square Park.  That park too has quite a history.  Once farmland, it was bought by the city in 1797 for a potter's field.  When yellow fever epidemics plagued the city in the early nineteenth century, victims were buried here, well removed from the settled part of Manhattan.  When the cemetery was closed in 1825, some twenty thousand bodies had been buried there; though few realize it, most are still there today.  In 1826 the area became a parade ground for volunteer militia, and then, in the 1830s, a desirable residential area with handsome Greek Revival houses.  Where gentility resides, can parkland fail to follow?  In 1849/1850 the first park was laid out, and the first fountain installed in 1852.  Even after gentility moved farther uptown, the park remained.  Fifth Avenue, lined then with handsome private residences and hailed as the axis of elegance, ran northward from there, spiked at intervals by the spires of fashionable churches.

                                                                                Petri Krohn
          In 1892, to celebrate the nation's first president, the Washington Square Arch, designed by the famous architect Stanford White, was erected, modeled on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris; in the process, many graves were disturbed.  One might think that such an imposing marble embellishment would have guaranteed the park's preservation, but no, in 1935 Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, without consulting the community, announced a plan to redesign the park.  Local residents mobilized to resist the renovation and finally managed to block it.  But Moses, a master builder whose grandiose schemes often disrupted or destroyed existing neighborhoods, wasn't done with the park.  In 1952 he announced another plan to have two streets flank the arch and run on south through the park.  This renewed assault again aroused the opposition of local residents, including Eleanor Roosevelt, who mounted a campaign not only to save the park but also to ban all vehicles from it.  A David vs. Goliath fight followed, with many legal twists and turns, but David won: in 1963 the park was finally saved and vehicles were banned from it forever.  (It doesn't hurt to have a former First Lady on your side, though the long struggle was led by other activists.)

          More struggles have followed, often pitting students, folksingers, drug dealers, and peaceful residents against New York's Finest, whose efforts to preserve the public peace sometimes disrupt it.  Yes, drug dealers have at times been active in the park.  But in a more innocent earlier era I recall one balmy Saturday evening when a police squad car drove through the sacred spaces of the park, forcing people off the paved path onto the lawn, following which the police yelled at the trespassers, "Get off the grass!  Get off the grass!" Nothing had provoked this intervention; all had been peaceful.  A wonderful example of how the guardians of order keep the unruly populace in order.

          In 2007 the city began redesigning the park, including a realignment of the fountain with the arch.  Just why such a realignment was necessary, I couldn't imagine; the lack of it didn't seem to bother anyone.  More legal battles followed, but the realignment did take place, to the satisfaction of contractors and geometry freaks, if no one else.  In New York City changes never come easy, nor are they always needed.  So there you have it: from farmland to potter's field to parade ground to desirable residential area to treasured park defended vigorously by the local residents.  Today the magnificent arch rises nobly above the graves of forgotten thousands, and the fountain bubbles joyously.

          Finally, to end on a wild, weird note, let's have a glance at the Village Halloween Parade.  Initiated in 1974, it used to come down Bleecker Street right under our windows; Bob and I often watched from our fire escape, but to get the full blast of it, you need to watch at ground level.  Alas, in time it became too big for narrow Village streets, so in 1985 it was moved over to Sixth Avenue.  We haven't watched it since then, because it is no longer "our" parade, but it surely reaches more people now.  From the earlier parades I have vivid memories of costumes and masks galore, and more specifically, stilt walkers perilously poised on their stilts, a file of mustached nuns, and a samba band whose blaring rhythms made your blood and brain pulse.

                                                                                                                                                                                   Joe Shlabotnik

                                    Wendy R. Williams

File:NYC Halloween Parade - Twopaperfaces.jpg

Thought for the day:  Energy is eternal delight.  (Not my creation, though I don't recall where I encountered it.  Still, I've often pondered it.)

(c) 2012  Clifford Browder