Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Ghosts of NYC

Did you know we live in a ghost town?

Yes, NYC is a place where ghosts live. Not literally of course -- ghosts don't exist -- but the lives of past New Yorkers have shaped our city, literally and figuratively, and the spirit of New Yorkers past still haunt our collective memories.

And, to find them, all you have to do is a take a walk.

First, go to West 44th Street. This one block of Manhattan is one of the most fascinating in this or any part of any city in this country. This is where the Algonquin Hotel once existed, and in its restaurant, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley and Edna Ferber and George Kaufman and all sorts of literary legends formed the Round Table -- perhaps the most famous American salon in history. West 44th Street is also where the Harvard Club is located, a place where New Yorkers at the pinnacle of wealth and power came and still do come to congregate. It's where The New Yorker used to have its offices. Under the decades long leadership of William Shawn, this magazine launched the careers of countless legendary writers, including JD Salinger and John Updike. And, much more recently, West 44th Street is the location of the Sofitel Hotel, where a certain former IMF chief got nasty with a maid and thus upended French politics. 

This long, fascinating article from Vanity Fair gives a general and personal history of West 44th Street and how the people who worked, drank, and screwed there formed our city's cultural and political history forever.

Second, walk up to Fifth Avenue and 72nd street and pop into Central Park. And stare at Rumsey Playground and then close your eyes. Then open your mind and imagine a gorgeous Beaux Arts building standing right there. And imagine it's nighttime, and men and women in beautiful suits and dresses are getting out of limos and going inside into what used to be casino. Yes, such a place used to exist right there. It was a building designed by Calvert Vaux in 1859, one of the original architects of Central Park, that was originally called the Ladies Refreshment Salon. By the turn of the century it became a music hall and then, in 1929, under the infamous Mayor Jimmy Walker, it was turned into a Casino -- a sign of the wretched excess of Roaring Twenties New York. Walker's corruption, and the casino he helped build, became hated symbols after the Great Depression began. Walker was forced to resign in 1932 and Robert Moses, in a rash act of thoughtless anti-Walkerism, tore this beautiful historic building down. The ghosts of Walker and Mosesstill  exist in this empty space -- a symbol of the price of corruption and zealous self-righteousness. (If you ever read The Power Broker, Robert Caro writes a lot about this.)

So today, people who visit Central Park, never know that such a building used to exist there. But the ghosts still do.


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