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The Insider's Connection

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Ritual

    Most people visiting New York City right now will brave the cold and the midtown Manhattan crowds to get a photo of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. The tree has transcended geography, language, and religious beliefs – in the past eight decades, it has become an internationally-recognized symbol of New York in the…

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December 30, 2019

Seneca Village: New York’s First Black Property Owning Community

Whose perspectives represent a city’s story? Who gets to shape the public perception and legacy of a city’s communities? Which voices are left out when land, architecture, and public space are changed by the government? In 1824, the odds were stacked against the formation of free black communities in New York City. New York finally abolished slavery in 1827 (one of the last northern states to do so) but free black New Yorkers would still face systemic barriers that made social advancement nearly impossible.  Even after free black men could get jobs and own property here, they were barred from most skill-based trades. They couldn’t vote unless they had over $250 worth of property, which very few did. Black institutions were attacked constantly, and fugitive slaves were vulnerable to capture. Most of New York City’s population was settled downtown.  Meanwhile,…

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December 4, 2019

Government Responds to Yellow Fever Outbreak in New York City

How do city governments respond to crisis? What do people in power prioritize when the whole population is affected? How did rumors and panic lead to the first department of NYC’s Board of Health? It was 1793 when the Yellow Fever ravaged Philadelphia, killing 5,000 people quickly and without explanation. Fearful and uncertain of how the disease was caused and transmitted, New York City formed a Department of Health. Their first action was to quarantine all ships coming into the harbor from Philadelphia. There was little information available, but this department was trying to protect New Yorkers from whatever might be happening Philadelphia. Unfortunately, their efforts simply delayed the inevitable. Over the next 5 years, Yellow Fever claimed thousands of lives (at this point, the population of New York City was only 60,000 – imagine 8% of the city’s total…

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November 25, 2019

The Birth and Purpose of Rutherford Place

 Does your house or apartment building tell a story? Who was in it before you? Do you ever imagine the conversations, conflicts, and transformations that have happened in the place where you live? What conversations are happening now, and what has changed? No two of the 127 upscale apartments at 305 Second Avenue are the same. There are 3 quadruplexes, 66 triplexes, 50 duplexes, and 8 simplexes, each with unique layouts, ceilings ranging from 7-19 feet tall, and stunning views of Stuyvesant Square. 305 2nd Avenue, also known as Rutherford Place, is one of the most expensive addresses in its area. But the several A-list celebrities that have called this building home are the least interesting aspect of its story. The 10-story building was completed in 1901, a philanthropic gift to New York City from J.P. Morgan. Though the building’s…

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November 18, 2019

The Marble Palace in Lower Manhattan

How can one man’s investment in lace and fringe for women’s clothing revolutionize an entire industry? Where did New York City’s reputation as an epicenter for shopping and commerce begin? What is the unlikely building in Downtown Manhattan that tells us this story? Alexander Turney Stewart was a young immigrant in New York City when…

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November 12, 2019

The “Brightest” Subway Station – 49th Street

Do you ever notice something aesthetically unusual in New York and wonder about its history? Thousands of commuters pass through the bright orange, open, columnless 49th Street subway station at 7th avenue every day and likely notice – it looks nothing like NYC’s other stations! How did this happen? In the 1970s, the MTA was expanding and funding the enhancement of existing stations that needed an upgrade. The architectural trends at the time were about clean lines, bold colors, and unobstructed spaces and when architect Philip Johnson was commissioned to spearhead the $2.5 million renovation of the 49th Street subway station, he had “cheer” in mind. This is the theater district, and the subway, he thought, was ready for some zest and color. The 49th Street station previously looked similar to most others in New York City – white tiling…

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November 5, 2019

New York City’s Historic Wood Frame Houses

Which houses stand long enough to tell a story? How does a seemingly ordinary structure survive demolition in a gentrifying neighborhood? Two wood-framed houses on East 53rd Street have seen 150 years of New York history. These houses tell the story of a neighborhood, a real estate economy, and a city that continue to evolve and accidentally leave treasures behind. How will these houses be defended as a valuable piece of history, and what do they represent? By 1866, New York City was well-acquainted with the danger and ever-present threat of Great Fires. There’d been at least two fires by this point (1776 and 1835) that ravaged Lower Manhattan; most buildings were constructed from wood at this point, and when one burned to the ground, many others did too. Above 23rd Street, it was rare to see a wood-framed building…

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October 29, 2019

The Roy Lichtenstein Mural in Times Square Subway Station

When visiting a city, where do you go to look for art? How does an artist’s view of their home shift the narrative the place tells about itself? How many of the 500,000 commuters that pass through the Times Square Subway Station every day miss the opportunity to see a world-renowned artist’s original mural simply because they don’t know to look for it? When you’re at Times Square-42nd Street transferring from the yellow line (N/Q/R/W) to the red line (1/2/3) look up; the 53-foot enamel-on-metal mural above your head was unveiled in September 2002, and is significant piece of public art in New York City History. See if you can pause in the fast-moving crowd of commuters to make some sense of the mural’s fragments. The work was commissioned by the MTA Arts for Transit program for this exact location…

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October 21, 2019

The fate of the James Marion Sims Monument

How does a shifting social consciousness change a city’s landscape? Who is involved in deciding which stories a city tells? What constitutes a vital moment in a rapidly-changing city’s history? Over the course of 84 years, millions of people walking on the East Side of Cental Park nears 103rd Street expect to encounter a bronze monument. The statue was first erected in 1894 in Bryant Park, and then relocated to Central Park in 1934 to stand across the street from the New York Academy of Medicine, which became its permanent home. Standing on a massive granite pedestal reading “his brilliant achievement carried the same of American surgery throughout the entire world,” this statue told a fragmented history. The figure, James Marion Sims, widely referred to as the “Father of Modern Gynecology,” contributed innovative new techniques to a field that was…

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October 15, 2019

Norfolk Building Transformation: Synagogue to Art Foundation

How do buildings reflect changing times? What saves an abandoned building from demolition in a rapidly-gentrifying city? Was it sacrilege or a saving grace to turn the oldest standing synagogue in New York City into an exclusive event space? The building at 172 Norfolk Street was built in 1849, commissioned by Jewish organization Anshe Chesed (“People of Kindness”). The congregation hired Alexander Saeltzer to design it (Saelter also designed the Public Theater and the Academy of Music on Astor Place) and aesthetic was the priority as they designed their synagogue.  Many members of the congregation were immigrants, or children of immigrants. Anshe Chesed Synagogue, or “Norfolk Street Congregation,” was the first German-Jewish synagogue in New York, and soon Polish and Dutch Jews joined the community. Congregation members were coming from countries where synagogues had to be hidden and inconspicuous. In…

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October 8, 2019

The Jar of Pickled Ears at the Hole In The Wall Saloon

What makes a bar a “hole in the wall”? What did 19th century pirates look for in a watering hole? What did a bar brawl feel like in 1870s New York? The Hole In The Wall saloon at 279 Water Street was built in 1794 and rose to notoriety by the mid-19th century. Between 1850s and 1880s, the three-story red brick building bustled nightly with alcohol, music, drugs, and murder. One year, seven people were killed at the Hole In The Wall over the course of eight weeks. Many more were injured, likely by one of the bar’s infamous bouncers, on an almost nightly basis. Stories and legends about Gallus Mag have been passed on for generations. At over six feet tall, Gallus Mag towered over most men. Her large build, her cockney accent, and her predilection for knocking out…

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September 23, 2019

Brooklyn’s Abolitionists on Duffield Street

Can gentrification change–and even erase–history? What kinds of buildings mobilize a community to dispute a city’s attempts at eminent domain? What stories do New York’s streets tell, and who controls those stories? The Fugitive Slave Act had just passed when Harriet and Thomas Truesdell moved into 227 Duffield Street in 1850. This set of laws, passed as an attempt to stop southern secession, incentivized citizens to assist authorities in capturing runaway slaves. It denied runaway slaves the right to trial by jury, and punished free citizens who attempted to aid in their escapes. But stronger restriction was met with stronger resistance. The Underground Railroad–a network of people and safe houses that assisted runaway slaves in their escapes to Northern states and Canada-reached its peak in the 1850s. It was getting increasingly difficult to be an abolitionist, but some of Brooklyn’s…

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September 16, 2019

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