Sunday, July 17, 2016

244. Tammany, the Tiger Whose Claws Got Clipped

     The July 5 edition of the New York Times, that infallible newspaper of record, informs me that Tammany Hall on Union Square in Manhattan is undergoing reconstruction.  Tammany Hall on Union Square?  This amazed me.  I’ve long known of Tammany Hall as the onetime headquarters of the Tammany Society, the Democratic political machine that dominated New York City politics for decades, from even before Boss Tweed in the 1860s right down to the 1920s, but never did I suspect that some later version of the hall itself existed on Union Square, which I visit every Wednesday to patronize the greenmarket.  So on a recent Wednesday when I went there, even while buying blueberries and goat cheese and an organic raisin walnut cookie (very tasty), I kept my eye peeled for what the Times described as a neo-Georgian façade “intended to conjure (misleadingly or not) the rectitude of the early republic, when the society was founded.” 

     Rectitude was hardly Tammany’s specialty, but neo-Georgian should stand out, and sure enough, looming there on the corner of Union Square East and 17th Street, was a monument in the aforementioned style, an impressive red-brick and limestone structure with two soaring columns and two pilasters topped by a pediment.  Owned today by Liberty Theaters L.L.C., it functioned until last January as the Union Square Theater, in whose noble interior I have never set foot.  Now, however, the four-story building is going to be reconstructed as a six-story office building.  The exterior has landmark status and therefore will be preserved, but not the interior, so the handsome auditorium and its grand coffered ceiling dome will be totally demolished – a great loss, to judge by a photo in the Times.  But decorative details on the exterior will be preserved, including a limestone medallion depicting Chief Tamanend, for whom the Society was named, and a terra-cotta red, blue, and gold liberty cap on the front pediment.

     The Times tells of how, on July 4, 1929, the day of the building’s opening, the auditorium was jammed with spectators, and “ablaze with color” because of the many flags on display.  Sharing the stage were a trio of notables: New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who already had his eye on the White House; former Governor Al Smith, “who represented the best of Tammany”; and Major Jimmy Walker, “who symbolized just about the worst – if you do not count Boss Tweed.” 

     This last comment annoyed me just a bit, mentioning the heavyset Boss, a mountain of a man and a symbol of massive corruption, with “Beau James” Walker, a slim and lovable scamp who presided over the city back in the Roaring Twenties, a dapper fellow with an ingratiating smile who loved to lead parades in his pin-striped trousers and a topper, but rarely showed up in City Hall before noon, being somewhat hungover from his fun-filled nights in speakeasies with his chorus girl lady friend: the perfect guardian of the city’s morals, or lack of them, in that fun-loving age, doubtless a crook but an endearing one, the kind you hate to hate but love to love. 

     We all identify the name “Tammany” with corruption, but often don’t know that there were, in a sense, two Tammanys, Tammany Society and Tammany Hall, the latter being the Society’s headquarters.  And few of us know why the Tammany leaders were called “sachems,” the members “braves,” and the hall itself the “wigwam.”  So let’s take a quick look at the history of Tammany.

     The Tammany Society was a political organization founded in New York City in 1788, its members being mostly craftsmen who felt excluded by the city’s more exclusive clubs.  As their patron they adopted Tamanend, a legendary Delaware chief, and therefore designated members “braves” and the leaders “sachems,” meaning chiefs – a terminology that they adopted, needless to say, without consulting the Delawares or any other Native American tribe. 

     In the nineteenth century the Society advocated progressive policies such as universal male suffrage (not female – heaven forfend!), and abolition of imprisonment for debt (now increasingly common in some of our states), while welcoming immigrants – especially the Irish – and opposing the nativist, anti-Catholic movements that the influx of Irish immigrants provoked.  But at the same time Tammany was afflicted with little indiscretions like graft, scandals, the theft of ballot boxes, and internal conflicts.  “Vote early and often” was the advice tendered by old timers to new immigrants just off the boat who, with the connivance of certain judges, had been rushed into citizenship on the eve of an election.  Boss Tweed ruled Tammany in the 1860s, and the tiger insignia of his volunteer fire company became a symbol of the Society.   Tweed himself was brought down by reformers, but the Society survived and under a succession of Irish-American bosses from the 1870s on became a disciplined political machine to be reckoned with.  In time, Jews and Germans were welcomed, but the Irish still ruled it well into the twentieth century. 

     To get a feel of how Tammany operated, one can’t do better than consult the wisdom of George Washington Plunkitt (1842-1924), a Tammany sachem who died a millionaire.  In his later years, topped by a shiny black silk hat, he held forth on the bootblack stand of the New York County Courthouse, expounding on public matters to all who would listen.  Among his recorded observations:

·      There’s an honest graft, and I’m an example of how it works.  I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.
·      The civil service law is the biggest fraud of the age.  It is the curse of the nation.
·      Reform committees were mornin’ glories – withered up in a short time, while the regular machines went on flourishin’ forever, like fine old oaks.
·      This city is ruled entirely by the hayseed legislators at Albany.  New York is their pie.
·      There’s only one way to hold a district: you must study human nature and act accordin’.  Books is a hindrance.  If you have been to college, you’ll have to unlearn all you learned.
·      The Irish was born to rule, and they’re the  honestest people in the world.

     Such was Tammany.  When the new hall opened with great fanfare in 1929, the Society was at its peak, but its decline soon followed.  Investigations by Judge Samuel Seabury revealed massive civic corruption and forced Jimmy Walker to resign as mayor and, fearing prosecution, to decamp for fairer pastures abroad.  Elected by reformers in 1933, incoming Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, an independent, worked energetically with President Elect Roosevelt to cut Tammany off from the patronage jobs it doled out, thus assuring its demise.  Unable to meet mortgage payments, Tammany sold its headquarters to Local 91 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in 1943.  When, after La Guardia’s three terms, the Democrats reclaimed the mayor’s office in 1945, the old Tammany had ceased to exist, though Tammany-influenced politicians like Carmine DeSapio (see post #135) would try to prevail against the reformers, only to fail in the end and fade from the scene.  Once powerful, the Tammany tiger’s claws had been definitively clipped.  That its last hall should become a union headquarters, then a theater, and finally an office building seems only fitting, though a few decorative vestiges will be preserved.

     Mr. Dimon again:  Viewers of this blog know the infinite respect that I pay to Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase, my bank, whose services at a branch near my home I regularly make use of, while eschewing (that word again!) the candy they dispense freely.  My respect for Mr. Dimon vaulted to new heights when, on the op-ed page of the New York Times of July 12, 2016, I encountered an article by him, entitled “Higher Wage Wisdom,” in which he announced that his bank is giving thousands of employees a raise.  The minimum for Chase’s U.S. employees today is $10.15 an hour (plus benefits), almost $3.00 above the current national minimum wage.  Over the next three years Chase will raise the minimum for 18,000 workers to between $12 and $16.50 an hour.  Insists Mr. Dimon, “A pay increase is the right thing to do.”  So bravo, Mr. Dimon, and take thatPOW! -- wage stagnation.  (According to an article in posted on January 21, 2016, Chase  boosted Mr. Dimon’s pay for 2015  to $27 million, up from $20 million a year earlier, an increase of 35%.  The package includes $20.5 million in performance share units, which are tied to future targets.  He also got a $5 million cash bonus and a $1.5 million salary.)

     My books:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received two awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction, and first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  (It also got an honorable mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards, but that hardly counts.)  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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     My poems:  For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down.  To avoid five terrible poems, don't, for God's sake, don't click here.

     Coming soon:  The New Woman who became the toast of free-living Greenwich Village in the 1920s, lured men by the dozen to her bed, and got a Pulitzer for Poetry.  The post will start with a limerick.  Before that, I may – or may not – reblog another much-viewed post.

     ©   2016   Clifford Browder

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