Monday, April 5, 2010

Virginless New York

Some say history repeats itself.

Mark Twain said history doesn’t repeat itself, at best it sometimes rhymes. The exact same thing doesn’t happen, but rather something similarly related to it.

14th street and Broadway is one of those places where history rhymes like a Tony Orlando song.

That’s the thing about Manhattan, it’s such a small space that important things have happened in the exact same place century in and out.

Go stand at 14th street on the edge of Union Square Park looking down Broadway. Now look behind you. You’ll see good ole Georgie Washington astride his steed heading south. The statue is here because in 1783, after the Revolution, New York was the last place still occupied by British troops. Old Wooden Teeth waited up here outside of town for the Brits to blow town. Once they’d evacuated lower Manhattan he clip-clopped down Broadway and reclaimed the city.

Flash forward to the end of the Civil War. April 1865. Lincoln has been whacked. Before they bury him in Springfield his body goes on tour. Was this the very first Dead Tour? Since it was Easter his death was compared to the crucifixion. Banners lined the streets saying: OUR CHRIST HAS FALLEN. Somewhat odd since Old Abe never went to church. But then again, Jesus never set foot in a Christian church either. Abe’s casket moved solemnly along Broadway and Lincoln’s body rolled right over the spot where George Washington rode 82 years earlier.

But wait, don’t order yet!

In the picture above you see the intersection of 14th street and Broadway on the day of the procession. On the 2nd floor of that building on the corner you see an open window and two boys staring out watching the procession as it moves north on Broadway.

One of the boys is Teddy Roosevelt.

The building belonged to his grandfather. Teddy lived a few blocks uptown.
The building in the photo is gone. Replaced by the large office building.
But if you look at the carvings you’ll see the letter R for the Roosevelt family.

These are curious things that litter the streets of New York.

Now look to your left at the modern building with the odd sculpture attached to the façade. (It actually has a reproduction of George Washington’s hand up top) One of New York’s last Virgins stood there on the corner. Here on this site the Virgin Megastore was murdered in broad daylight by iTunes.

A fitting place for the Music industry to evolve because this intersection at that very site was one of the places where the music industry let out its first furtive notes.

In the 1880’s 14th street was home to the very first Vaudeville houses, Tony Pastor’s was the very first. There’s a plaque where it stood on the wall of the Con Ed building. It was a new kind of entertainment with a variety of acts. Some magic acts, some comedy acts but primarily musical numbers. The shocking part was there were mixed gender audiences. Oh my! Songwriters ( who would eventually move further up Broadway and form Tin Pan Alley on 28th street) would try to get their ditties performed here in the Music Halls. They’d hire street children to stand in the audience and sing along to their songs --creating instant mega-hits. Of course what they were selling wasn’t LPs, 45s, 8 tracks or mp3s. They were selling sheet music so folks could play at home. Hey wanna hear me play that hot new John Phillip Sousa song? And it’s why 14th street was where all the great piano companies had their showrooms: Steinway ‘s was just a block away.

The stretch of 14th street from 4th Avenue to University was called the Slave Market, because that’s where the out of work performers would gather like so many Latino day laborers leaning against the walls hoping to get hired so they could fill in for one of the Vaudeville acts that had been booed off the stage.

Eventually talent agents appeared with offices nearby, so the talent didn’t have to stand out in the rain. By 1914 ASCAP the American Society of Composer, Authors and Performers was established on 14th street. And before long the music industry became a mega-hit itself.

Now over a hundred years later the “Slave” lines are gone, Virgin is gone and the music action is all online.

But the streets of New York remember the past is never gone, it just goes unnoticed.

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