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The Insider's Connection

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

Battle of the Cakes: the Brooklyn Blackout Cake

Dessert-lovers across the world recognize the Brooklyn Blackout Cake, its decadent chocolate layers symbolic of a specific moment in history. But how many people know the story of that moment, or of Catherine and George Ebinger’s family business?  The Ebingers opened the famous Ebinger’s Bakery, between 4th and 5th Avenues on 86th Street in Bay Ridge, in 1898. In the second half of the 19th century, the German population was skyrocketing in New York. As German infrastructure and German-owned businesses appeared around the city, a German bakery like Ebinger’s would not have been an anomaly. In fact, brands like Entenmann’s, Holtermann’s, and Drake’s that you may recognize today got their starts as German family-owned bakeries in New York City. Ebinger’s sold over 200 varieties of German desserts, but during World War II, one specific menu item became an unexpected legend….

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September 9, 2019

The Dakota: Fame and Survival in New York City

How does a building get famous? How do a building’s residents shape its history? What would the Upper West Side be like without The Dakota? Over the past 135 years, The Dakota building has maintained its complicated place in the spotlight. It was built on the Upper West Side when the area was farmland; scandalously far north (and west) from everything else at the time. Some critics suggested the building would fail; it was so remote it may as well be in ‘Dakota territory,’ which is the rumored reason for its unique name. It anchored the subsequent residential book on Central Park West, it survived three financial crashes and drastic neighborhood reconstructing, and it’s been home to famous artists, thinkers, and Bohemians for decades. In some ways, Manhattan’s Upper West Side has been built around The Dakota. No matter what…

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August 26, 2019

Chelsea’s Limelight Building–the Church? the Nightclub? the Gym?

 The northeast corner of 6th Avenue and West 20th has looked nearly the same since 1844. The building’s facade, a striking asymmetrical church, was designed by Richard Upjohn when the neighborhood was home to Manhattan’s wealthiest families. Though its Gothic revival-style exterior has hardly changed in 175 years, the stories of this Chelsea corner reveal the city’s secrets and its tendency to keep changing. On this corner 150 years ago, you’d run into Cornelius Vanderbilt or John Jacob Astor coming out of the Church of the Holy Communion, the original congregation here. On this corner 30 years ago, there’d be thousands of Club Kids in lines around the block, and you might catch a glimpse of 50 Cent, Cyndi Lauper, or the Beastie Boys getting ready to perform. On this corner today, who do you see? What story are you…

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August 19, 2019

The Ever So Exclusive Gramercy Park: Samuel Ruggles

What gives an address a reputation? New Yorkers and tourists alike recognize the name Gramercy Park. 20th and 21st Streets between 3rd Avenue and Broadway are some of the most sought-after addresses in the world. The locked gates of Gramercy Park have been standing since 1844, granting access only to residents. Everything about New York…

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August 12, 2019

New York’s Floating Sidewalk Subway Map

How does art become part of a city’s fabric? For a piece to be appreciated, does the original intention have to be clear? What happens when the context shifts but the piece remains the same? In 1985, SoHo would’ve been dark and run-down, home to artists’ lofts, workspaces, and vacant buildings lining streets that were not yet gentrified. An art piece on 110 Greene Street was even more of a spectacle when it was finished 34 years ago, illuminating the block at night, drawing admiration and attention during the day. You can still find it right now, but SoHo looks pretty different; you’ll need to brave crowds of shoppers and tourists, and remember to look down. Subway Map Floating On A NY Sidewalk by Francoise Schein is a spectacular arrangement of lights, stainless steel, and brass rods on the sidewalk….

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August 5, 2019

The Secret Engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge: Emily Roebling

Who are the hidden women behind some of the iconic structures of New York? Who was the secret engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge? How many people–of the hundreds on the bridge at any moment on a summer afternoon–know the name Emily Warren Roebling? Every day, more than 150,000 commuters rely on the Brooklyn Bridge for…

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July 29, 2019

The Glamour and The Despair, The Barbizon Hotel

How do images from popular culture imbue legacy onto a structure? If a building is landmarked, does that mean its story will continue being told? How do we use grand narratives to remain comfortable and avoid looking into the hidden histories of people and places? The Barbizon Hotel operated from 1927-1981 as a women-only residence. The Late Gothic Revival-style building at 140 East 63rd Street stands at 23 stories tall, and for decades its 700 tiny dormitory rooms were home to young, hopeful, single women with modest means and huge dreams. Through pop culture, the Hotel has become somewhat iconic. Variations of the Barbizon are shown in Mad Men, The Bell Jar, Agent Carter, and more. Today, the landmarked building–a unique pink-toned brick exterior with Italian Renaissance characteristics–is now full of luxury condominiums with an Equinox gym downstairs. In the…

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July 8, 2019

Lost Pieces of the Berlin Wall in New York City

Where are pieces of history hidden in plain sight? The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 to divide the communist East side from the democratic West side. The massive concrete border was 12 feet tall and over 100 miles long, a harrowing reminder of extreme political unrest, ideological differences, and a nation at war. In the early 1980s, French artist Thierry Noir began painting the West side of the wall near his home. His hope, he said, was to “demystify” the wall by painting large, simple, colorful figures. Artists from all over the city, and then all over the world, joined in throughout the next 8 years to cover the concrete canvas in art. When the wall was demolished in 1989, it was broken into over 40,000 sections. Most of it was repurposed, used as raw materials in German reconstruction…

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July 1, 2019