Tuesday, October 05, 1999


Superb encyclopedia of NYC

LOOKING AHEAD by Wally Dobelis

Those of us who occasionally spend time desperately digging for arcane information about our town have just been granted a great time-saving present -The Encyclopedia of New York City, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson of Columbia University and published by Yale University Press, in asociation with the New-York Historical Society ($60). A mammoth volume of densely printed 1372 pages, weighing 7 lbs 5 oz, this baby, 13 years in gestation, is a collaboration of 680 experts. It contains some 4300 entries and 684 illustrations and maps.
The stories of our ethnic groups alone are overwhelming in their detail, from the five pages on the 533,846 Irish to the half-page about the under 4,000 Latvians. There are also descriptions of the 400 neighborhoods in which we live, histories of hundreds of major organizations and firms for which we work, of buildings, schools, sports teams and newspapers, past and present.
The 1500 biographies cover an incredible range, historical figures, arts and business people and politicians, about 10 percent living. After many years of asking questions (okay, occasional questions) about who was Horace Harding, I now know that he was a banker who prompted the construction of a highway from Nassau County to Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst, to ease access to his country club. After his death in 1929, it was named the Horace Harding Boulevard. What chutzpah, what clout! As you can see from the story, the authors of the encyclopedia do not pull any punches.
My other unknown, Henry Bruckner, turned out to have been a major Bronx pol (assemblyman, Commisioner of Public Works, Congressman, Beep), until sunk by the Seabury Investigation of 1932. He too will be remembered forever, as a Boulevard and an Expressway.
The encyclopedia has staggeringly detailed major articles in many areas, such as theatres, newspapers, parades, literature (see also pop fiction), architecture (also cast iron, terra cotta), housing (also the loathed dumbbell tenements, row houses, almshouses, apartments, cooperatives and so on), subways, and more. I will never sleep again, until I know it all. A warning: use the book sparingly, and at your own risk, it is addictive. Ten minutes of browsing will give you enough "do you know that.." questions to destroy any cocktail party.
The Town and Village constituency will be glad to know that Stuyvesant (Peter, High School, Square, Town), Cooper (Peter, Village, Cooper and Hewitt firm and Museum), Union Square and Gramercy Park have their own entries, as do Friends (Seminary only; Quakers are separate), St. George's, Calvary and St. Mark's (but not Epiphany). Of the hospitals, Bellevue, Cabrini (Mother and Center), Beth Israel and Lying-In are equally honored. As for saloons, only the venerable Pete's and McSorley's make it; Joe King's Rathskeller (Tuesday's, until recently) does not, even as a beer hall.
FDR Drive makes it, but not the avenues. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, Barnes and Noble and Strand have entries; booksellers' row is mentioned under bookselling.
Now to the quibbles, which I'm loath to list, except in the selfish hope that constructive criticism will make an excellent encyclopedia into a superb one.
The book cries out for a topical index, pulling together all entries on the major subjects. You can see that in my description of major articles. There is no overview on health, though physical disabilities, mental health and hospitals are exhaustively covered. Coop City is covered by three lines, and you have to go to Baychester and housing entrees to read about their 15,372 units, built in 1958-70 and renting for $20 a room, while the Parkchester article describes the 1938-42 construction of their 12,273 units directly.
The index, names only, omits listing persons covered in individual entries. Thus, the reader is not informed that the votes garnered by Norman Mailer and Herman Badillo in the 1969 Democratic primaries can be found under mayoralty (Badillo also in '73 and '77), whereas the counts for Conservatives Wiliam F. Buckley. Jr. (1965) and Barry Farber (1977) can be located through the index. Incidentally, the figures are (you'll hate this, but the order is logical): 41,288; 217,163; 354,581; 99,808; a surprising 341,226; 57,437. If these numbers make it through safely, I'll buy my editor Todd Maisel a beer.
About the mayors: they were appointed annually, first by the Brits in 1665, then by the colonial governor and the governor of New York State. Starting in 1820 they were elected by the aldermen of the Common Council, themselves elected from the wards. The aldermen were also empowered to monitor strangers, set the price of bread and control the wandering hogs. Ah, the stories! Direct elections came in 1834, and the five boroughs were consolidated in 1898. The majorality article lists all the mayors and has all the votes; a government and politics article lists the English governors of New York, all the congresspeople ever elected from the city, and presidential votes, by county, since 1836. What more can you want! (Well, if you insist - for senators and state figures you must check the Red Book; for commissioners, City Council and Community Board people go to the Green Book).
That brings up those missing in action: no entry or reference for Community Boards, a major omission. As I think back to the volunteer, unpaid members and presiding heads of our local Community Board #6 onwards from the 1970s - Charlie Kinsolving, Clara Reiss, Stanley Nason, Rusty Moore, Mike Yamin, Henry Walter Weiss, Joana Battaglia, Steve Rosen, Jane Crotty, Lou Sepersky, Gary Papush, to name a few - their effort deserves recognition, not ignominy. And the volunteers for the homeless: there is no mention of the Partnership for the Homeless that provides shelter in 150 churches and synagogues. And political clubs, and district leaders, and New Democratic Coalition - if I start listing the names of the missing, and giving medals, we're all gonna cry. And scant entries for School Boards (under public schools and Board of Education for 1968-69) and BIDs (under local development corporations).
Now comes the worst local sin; no entry for Asser Levy, the brave butcher (now a public school and a swimming pool, to use the terms of Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, also entryless), who defied Peter Stuyvesant. When Old Silver Nails armed all adults to attack the Swedes on the Delavare, Jews were ordered to pay a monthly contribution, to be exempted. Levy and several friends objected, and asked to serve and stand guard, like other burghers. Their petition was rejected, Levy successfully appealed to Holland, and was subsequently permitted to do guard duty.In 1657 he did well in appealing for the rights of Jews to be burghers and to trade. He was a frequent litigant and his own attorney, not only for his own co-religionists. He lent money for the first Lutheran church in New York, and was the executor in the wills of Christian merchants, highly respected in New York and Connecticut. And the Asser Levy pool is highly respected by his New York neighborhood exercise lovers. Take heed, Prof. Jackson, we may appeal.
Wally Dobelis finds the encyclopedia so appealing that he has broken up his series of a walking tour of Union Square area to insert this review. Sorry, Union Square next week. And congrats to Det. Hughes of the 13th Pct. on losing 30 lbs, as reported in the New York Times (because he's the best, that's why!). Keep it up, Owen...er, I mean, down.

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