Mrs. Roebling and The Bridge

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She succeed for what she lacked: the masculine ego.

   “Well I guess you’ll have to fire me, then.” said Mr. Roebling.
   “I’ll do just that!” shouted Mayor Lowe.
   Emily Roebling emerged. “What was that about? She asked. But she already knew: it was hard not to hear the Mayor’s sharp, condescending tone as he screeched at her husband.
   “He asked me to step down as chief engineer and to give the first assistant engineer my spot. That I could ‘consult’,” he said with disdain.
   Emily puckered. The thought of losing this project after all of the hard work she’d put in it made her stomach churn. She couldn’t – WOULDN’T – stand for it.
   “I told him he’d have to fire me.” said her husband, with a smug grin.
   Emily was shocked; she hadn’t heard her husband’s half of the argument, as he wasn’t strong enough to scream back at Mayor Lowe the way Lowe had screamed at him. She wasn’t sure what shocked her more; the fact that he had been so stubbornly brash with a person whose approval they needed, or the fact that he had defended their work – her work – with that same stubbornness. It ran in the family. Washington, her husband, hadn’t asked to undertake this project and neither had she; it was his father who was awarded the contract, his father whose name was so well known, and trusted, and regarded as a wise man. If only the public had known what a stubborn mule he’d been, insisting on “water therapy” to heal his smashed, infected foot; a boat had crushed it against a pier while he was surveying the land for the project. It was the water therapy that killed him, leaving Washington with the project.
   Washington constructed and designed caissons to work on the bridge while underwater, but he insisted on spending too much time in them, which likely caused his diagnosis of caisson disease, nowadays known as “the bends”, soon after he began work. He was relegated to his bedroom for years after that, and it eventually got so bad that he could not see, hear, or speak. It was Emily who continued to execute his work, day after day, trotting back and forth in her dresses and petticoats to the bridge project, where she would deliver her husband’s instructions. It was Emily who handled all correspondence, Emily who dealt business negotiations, and Emily who informed the trustees.
   Washington had put so little effort into the execution of the project that now, one year before completion, the younger trustees had never even met him. Emily’s intelligence did not help his case; she was so good at explaining the engineering behind the bridge, even drawing diagrams to explain the details, that many trustees suspected her husband wasn’t mentally coherent at all.
   To this point, Emily had overcome everything that set the Roebling men back; the illness, stubbornness, and most importantly her interpersonal skills. It was her lack of male ego that allowed Emily to overcome these setbacks. She pulled out her stationery and wrote to the other board members. They couldn’t fire her husband unless they voted to, and she managed to stop such a vote ten to seven.
   On the day of the bridge’s completion, Emily and her son were the first to cross, while her husband rested at home. She had executed the construction of the eighth wonder of the world, but as a woman, could not take credit for it, as it was unpopular for women to do a man’s work at the time. In order to be respected as a woman, she had to be tactfully modest about her role in public.
   However, on a bronze plaque at the end of the bridge, her name is given top billing for the work she did on her husband’s behalf.

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Newsies Strike of 1899

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The temporary price increase that spawned a massive newsboys strike

   The last few years of the nineteenth century were an exciting time for journalism, especially in New York. Leading papers at the time included the New York World, which pioneered sensationalist “yellow journalism” to sell papers, and was owned by Joseph Pulitzer, and The New York Journal-American, owned by William Randolph Hearst.
   Pulitzer and Hearst are two names that have made their mark on the media industry. Hearst has grown to own more than 24 American newspapers, but are most notable for their magazines, which include Cosmopolitan, Food Network, Good Housekeeping, Men’s Health, Oprah’s “O” Magazine, and Runner’s World, among others. And Pulitzer is best known as one of the most prestigious awards for excellence in journalism, awarded annually to the best of the best.
   But in 1899, the fate of these powerful news giants rested in the hands of hundreds of their youngest employees; the newsboys. And they were angry.
   1898 was a tumultuous year; the Spanish-American War broke out in April and continued on through August. Newsies often made money on the war extras they peddled on the streets, so when the World and Journal newspapers said they’d temporarily raise their wholesale prices from 5 cents to 6 cents per 10 paper bundles, the boys didn’t complain. But as the war ended, the news grew less shocking, and the boys felt the pinch.
   They discovered a Journal deliveryman was shorting their bundles in the summer of 1899, and it brought the newsies to a breaking point.
   On July 18th of that summer, they tipped over the delivery man’s wagon, took his papers, and chased him out of town. The boys demanded the “temporary” price increase be rolled back, or they would no longer buy Hearst or Pulitzer papers. They knew they had leverage because the Brooklyn Streetcar Operators were already striking and, as one 11-year-old newsie observed, “De cops is all busy!” The next day they decided to unionize, and strike against the World and Hearst’s NY Journal.
   Three days later, on July 22nd, 100 boys rallied in Newspaper Row, greeting World and Journal wagons with clubs. Police attempted to scatter them, but another group headed up to Columbus Circle where over 500 more boys bombarded them with fruit, and took their papers. Youthful riots like these continued in Brooklyn, Yonkers, and Jersey City.
   Neither newspaper was really concerned about the strike – after all, they were just children – until advertisers began asking for allowances on their bills, since the strike had dragged circulation down so drastically.
   As for the boys, word traveled fast. Similar strikes were popping up in Troy, Rochester, New Haven, Fall River, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island.
   The publishers used their political weight to call in favors from politicians and police captains. In return, Hearst promptly changed their angle in favor of the police on stories about police brutality in their publications.
   The publishers also hired Bowery Boys to replace the strikers – but the newsies took them into flophouses to explain their side, and the boys quickly sided with them, saying “Every one of us has decided to stick by the newsboys! We won’t sell no papers!”
   Now the papers were feeling the pinch. The strike had reduced the World’s press run from 360,000 to 125,000 – they were selling less than half as many papers as they used to. The boys had forced their hand – the papers still refused to reduce the price, but both the World and the Journal did agree to buy back any unsold papers. The boys were satisfied by this. Rather than put it to a vote as a union, they simply agreed to the terms and spread the news by word of mouth; though they would never forget the summer they forced the hand of two of the largest newspapers of their time.

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“No sir! I’m running this train!”

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Mayor-Motorman McClellan takes the wheel, and won’t let go!

   On October 27th, 1904, New York City’s first subway line opened its doors beneath the city’s municipal headquarters. The Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) Subway was the first in the city, and boasted that its line could take passengers from “City Hall to Harlem in 15 minutes.” The station was (and still is) a work of art, with Guastavino ceiling details, grand architecture and a unique curved platform.
   At the train’s debut, the NYC mayor George McClellan was given an honorary opportunity to start the train at City Hall Station. It wasn’t his first time on the tracks, he’d participated in test-runs before, but it was his first ride on a finished product.
   “Mayor-Motorman” McClellan, as the New York Times later dubbed him, was supposed to give the controls over to the IRT operator, but McClellan continued to drive the train to 103rd St. When asked if he wanted the engineer to take over, McClellan replied, “No sir! I’m running this train!”
   The IRT company had given Mayor Motorman McClellan a silver commemorative controller to operate the train, but it didn’t fit well, and the train’s emergency brake had to be pulled during its first trip. The passengers on board jolted forward as if they’d hit something; but the rest of the ride went as planned.
   One other interruption of the day was at 6pm that night, when a fuse blew on the express train at 96th St. Unable to quickly resolve the problem, the car was pushed to 145th St. for repairs, which put operations on a 20 minute delay. However, this small hiccup didn’t affect passengers, as the first public express train wasn’t scheduled to operate until 7pm that night anyway.
   The debut of New York City’s subway was a popular ordeal. Outside its entrance, police managed crowds of more than 7,000 people around City Hall. Some people still managed to push through to the underground entrance. Others tried to access the train from other stations. Law enforcement certainly had their hands full.
   More than 100 years later, the City Hall Station is barely used, mainly because the curved platform cannot support the longer cars that are now in use. Tours of the station are available on select dates, but book in advance as they fill up quickly. Though the subway car doors won’t open, if you take the downtown 6 train and stay on after the Brooklyn Bridge stop, you can still catch a glimpse of this architectural marvel through the windows as the train turns around.

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Scars on Wall St.

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A September Wall St. lunch rush ends in a tragedy; and you can still see the scars.

   Nestled between the NY Stock Exchange and Federal Hall, the JP Morgan & Co. Headquarters at the corner of Wall St. and Broad St was the heart of NYC’s financial district.
   On September 16th, 1920, in the middle of the lunch rush, a featureless man parked his horse and wagon along the street near the JP Morgan Building, anxiously got out, and walked away. As the bell tolled noon, 100 lbs of dynamite exploded, sending hundreds of pounds of metal fragments, mostly iron sash weights, as high as 34 stories in the air. Thirty-nine people perished, while hundreds more were injured by the explosion.
   The deafening boom was enough to knock people off their feet or simply out, and it derailed a nearby streetcar. Glass rained down from the buildings above. Those nearest the now-obliterated wagon were either consumed in flames or shredded by the flying metal. The horse’s remains were scattered more than a hundred feet away.
   The Bureau of Investigation (which would later become the FBI) had trouble piecing together a motive for the attack, other than to maximize casualties – as the attack took place during the midday lunch rush. The stock market halted for the day but even in 1920, New Yorkers dusted themselves off and the scene – and much of its evidence – was swept away before the next day. By September 17th, business continued as usual.
   It wasn’t initially clear that this was intended as a terrorist attack. That realization came later, when postal workers noticed a stack of four crudely printed flyers which read “Remember, we will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners, or it will be sure death for all of you.  – American Anarchist Fighters.”
   At this point in time, what little evidence they had pointed to Luigi Galleani’s Italian Anarchist gang, who had carried out a similar terror campaign, also using the iron weights as shrapnel, the year prior – but Galleani had been deported for nearly a year before the Wall St. Bombing.
   While New Yorkers carried on, the Bureau of Investigation continued to explore this case for three more years until they finally let it go. It was reopened in 1944, and the FBI concluded the act was most likely committed by Italian Anarchists. The most likely culprit for the case was Mario Buda, one such anarchist who was an aquaintance of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who had been indicted on September 11th, 1920 for a murder in a robbery gone wrong. But ultimately, no one was charged except for the limestone walls of the J. P. Morgan building, whose base-ball sized pits have never been repaired.

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The Triangle in the Village

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Once-smallest bit of privately owned property in NYC: immortalized in sidewalk  

   Just outside the front door of the corner entrance to Village Cigars, located between two Christopher Street Subway entrances, lays a 25”x27” triangle tile mosaic set into the sidewalk. It reads “Property of the Hess Estate which has never been dedicated for public purposes.” This triangle, with an area of about 3 square feet, was once the smallest bit of property in NYC.
   Shortly after the Penn Station Subway opened in 1910, the city wanted to extend the subway line further south. By 1913, they had developed a plan to build 7th Avenue South, with the subway line running beneath it. The plan would cut down more than 250 homes, businesses, and other buildings that were currently in its path.
   The Voorhis apartment building was on the path, and set to be demolished. David M. Hess’ estate owned the building at the time, as David, a Philadelphia-based Entrepreneur, had passed away in 1907. But his heirs did not want to see the Voorhis go. They fought for it in court, but eventually lost.
Then, a funny thing happened: The surveyor sent by the city missed a small, appx 3 square foot triangle at the edge of the Hess’ estate. The Hess family had no idea that they still owned the small portion until 1921, when the city demanded payment of property taxes on it.
   Frank Hess arranged for the owners of the cigar store to lease the triangle from him for many years. They charged the store a few hundred dollars per year. Their deal called for the triangle to be marked, “so the people might know it had not been dedicated to public purposes.” His concern was that without marking it, the city might have claimed it. He was probably right about that; when they realized the space was left over, they asked them to donate it to the city. But bitter about their loss in court, the Hess Estate refused.
   By the 1930’s, the Hess heirs sold the triangle to the cigar store for $1000. But the mosaic, a popular oddity and reminder of the whole ordeal, still stands today.

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The Clock in the Sidewalk

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In a city too stubborn to look up, something to look down at.

   At the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane in the 1930’s Financial District of New York City, a piece of cardboard is laid out deliberately on the sidewalk each morning by the staff of Barthman’s Jewelers.
   Observant passing commuters might have wondered: Why on earth would a fancy Jewelry store want to litter their sidewalk every morning? The answer is shame.
   In 1896, shortly after NYC was first lit with electricity, William Bartham had an idea. The store’s namesake decided to create a clock in the sidewalk as a novelty to get people to come into the store. By 1899, with the help of Frank Homm, an employee of the store, the clock was finished and set in the cement.
   Their clock was rectangular, with cards that flipped every minute, the beginnings of a technology that wouldn’t become standard until the 1960s. But the New York City sidewalks were a difficult climate for such a clock.
   Until his death in 1917, Frank Homm checked the clock almost daily to ensure it was running on time, as the footsteps of pedestrians above and the motion of the subway cars below tended to frustrate the finicky clock. Having invented it, Homm was the only one who could fix the clock, and he did so as needed. When he died, he left no successor to maintain his clock.
   And so the clock ticked to its own rhythm for years, reading ridiculously incorrect times and confusing people. So by the 1930’s, Barthman’s was covering it with cardboard, feeling shameful that they couldn’t fix the clock they invented.
   Their only solution was to replace the clock. In 1940, they replaced Homm’s clock with a more typical, round-faced clock. They also put a gold rim around it in the shape of a compass that read “William Bartham Since 1884”, with each word between a different directional arrow.
   Bartham continued to make updates to the clock through the years. In 1966, they refitted the clock and updated the face, and in 1983 it was refurbished in collaboration with Cartier, and their name was added to the clock.
   Bartham’s was a longstanding figure at its corner on Broadway and Maiden Lane, even sheltering people during the 9/11 attack and being looted in the days following. So it was really strange when Bartham’s changed locations in 2018. The clock, for a time, was removed from its casing in the pavement, and people noticed.
   But the clock was replaced soon after, and will remain in the sidewalk even without Barthman’s by its side for the foreseeable future.
   In a city no one is looking up, at least they will have something to look down at.

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