NEW YORK TIME
What other city, state, or region has a unit of time named after it? Especially one recognized, however derisively, by nearly everyone else? Is there anyone who speaks English who doesn’t know what “in a New York minute” means? I doubt it.
(Just to be clear, we’re not talking about the junk movie starring the Olson Twins from 2004 or the 1989 rock song by Don Henley, Danny Kortchmar, and Jai Winding covered by the Eagles in 1995. The phrase also served as the title of an episode of Law & Order in 2005—as well as other films, songs, and a video game.)
For those few who don’t know the term (have you all been living under a rock?), it means a very short span of time, a millisecond, a trice, faster than a speeding bullet, et cetera. (Some people say “New York second”—but they’re probably not from here!) “Officially,” a “New York minute” is defined (reportedly by Johnny Carson) as the time between a Manhattan traffic light turning green in front of you and the driver behind you blowing his or her horn. Clear?
The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) suggests that the term wasn’t actually coined in the Big Apple. (Texas in the mid-’60s is one possible origin.) Speculation is that it’s the notion of the fast-paced life here in New York City in the mind of someone from a less-hectic spot in rural America. Maybe, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong! It just takes a Texan (or whoever) a whole minute to do what we here-abouts do in less than a second. So—waste time if you wanna. No skin off my nose! (Unless, of course, you’re in front of me when that light changes! In that case—fuggedaboudit!)
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Now, speaking of New York time-keeping: A 27-story building across 14th Street from the south end of Union Square Park is the location of perhaps the World’s Most Confusing Clock. There are lots of street clocks all over New York City, some old, some new, some lovely and ornamental, some plain and utilitarian, some analogue, and some digital, but “New York's very own time machine,” as the New York Times characterized it, is built into the façade of the luxury apartment house at 1 Union Square South which opened in 1998.
Completed in July 1999, Metronome, as the timepiece is called, was dedicated that October. Fifteen numerals endlessly count the hours, minutes, and seconds, and a few feet to their right, on a rippling wall measuring 60 feet by 100 feet, steam (“The Infinity”) periodically belches out of a five-foot, gold-rimmed hole (“The Vortex”). At the top of the circle, made of 24-carat gold-leafed bricks, is a huge hand, called “The Relic,” a bronze enlargement of one of George Washington’s hands in the equestrian statue across 14th Street in the southern plaza of Union Square. Below the steam aperture is a large piece of bedrock representing the geological history of the city. An electronic tone sounds at midnight and noon and a gold-and-black sphere spins in sync with the lunar phases. The husband-and-wife artists who created Metronome, Andrew Ginzel and Kristin Jones, say that the various elements of the work represent not only clock time, but geological and astronomical time as well.
The 15 digits of the time display, called “The Passage,” tell the time both elapsed from midnight and left till next midnight, all according to International Atomic Time; Metronome’s linked to an atomic clock for that purpose. The time is displayed in a military-like 24-hour format. For instance, in the numbers 090742000185214, the first six figures, read in pairs from the left, show that 9 hours, 7 minutes, and 42 seconds have passed since last midnight (in other words, it’s 9:07:46 a.m.), and the last six, read from the right, show that 14 hours, 52 minutes, and 18 seconds remain until the next midnight. The seventh digit from each end represents tenths of a second and the number in the middle, an unreadable flash of changing figures, is hundredths of a second. The three center numbers, the artists explain, become “a frenzy of intangible fractions of seconds, which reveal the pace of life in the city.”
During 2005, Metronome did not tell the time; it counted down the hours until the International Olympic Committee announced the 2012 Summer Olympics host city. New York City was in contention for the games, a bid Mayor Bloomberg boosted but which the city lost to London (thank goodness!).
Metronome, at $4.2 million, was one of the city's largest privately funded public art commissions in the ’90s. Ginzel and Jones, who’ve created many works of public art, call Metronome ''an ode to the impossibility of knowing Time.'' Not a few critics, both architecture writers and the public, found that a pretentious statement and have heaped opprobrium on the work. I’ve gotten used to it, but it holds little real meaning for me—and without an interpretation, I can’t remember what most of the symbolism stands for.
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A different kind of clock, which has become symbolic to the whole country in the last several years, doesn’t tell time at all: The National Debt Clock. We see an image of it whenever some politician wants to make a point in Congress about the current debt situation or when a newscast does a story on the subject. Before the necessary technology even existed, New York real estate developer Seymour Durst conceived of a National Debt Clock to call attention to the country’s soaring debt and each American family’s share of it. Durst installed the original clock, which used 306 individual light bulbs, on a Durst Organization building at the northwest corner of 6th Avenue and 42nd Street (facing Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library building) in February 1989, when the national debt was nearing $3 trillion.
In September 2000, when the prosperity of the 1990s resulted in the national debt slowly decreasing, the clock started to run backwards. The display wasn’t designed to go in reverse, however, and the clock was turned off and covered with a red, white, and blue curtain when the debt dropped to a steady $5.7 trillion. That didn’t last, and when the debt began to rise again, the clock was reactivated in July 2002, starting at $6.1 trillion. The current clock, whose high-resolution, dot-matrix numerals are designed to run backwards, replaced the original in 2004 on another Durst building at 44th Street and 6th Avenue. When the debt exceeded $10 trillion in September 2008, an additional digit was installed.
New York City’s National Debt Clock has inspired similar countdown clocks, including debt clocks in other countries as well as displays of other constantly changing figures like population growth.
Now, let’s go back in time—between six and nine centuries. Or just to 1938, if you prefer. In May of that year, The Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's medieval-art complex, opened to the public. This is one of the true joys of living in New York City. Even if you aren’t a particular fan of medieval art—and I’m not—the presentation of the tapestries, sculptures, and sarcophagi in this beautiful setting in Fort Tryon Park in far northern Manhattan is just awe-inspiring. At The Cloisters, the display is as much the star of the show as the 5,000 artworks themselves. The collection also includes manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork, enamels, and ivories. (Trust me: if you are a fan of the art of the middle ages, you won’t be put off by the setting. It just makes the works more outstanding.) I don’t believe anything like The Cloisters exists anywhere else in the world. The fact that a place of such calm and pastoral peace is located in busy, hectic, often frenetic Manhattan is all the more astonishing.
Built with financial support from John D. Rockefeller, the building is constructed from architectural elements of five medieval French cloistered abbeys dating from the 12th to the 15th centuries, reassembled brick by brick between 1934 and 1938 on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. The former cloisters themselves are gardens today, planted according to horticultural information obtained from medieval manuscripts and artifacts, where visitors can take a moment’s respite from wandering the chapels and halls of the abbeys examining the art pieces in environments not too different from the ones in which they’d originally have been seen. (One of the cloister gardens, which all have slightly different delicate, slim columns around their arcade, is a small café where visitors can get a snack or have tea or a soft drink.) It goes without saying (but I will anyway) that the best time to visit The Cloisters is on a really nice day in spring or fall—though it’s certainly beautiful in summer or winter as well.
The basis of the museum’s holdings is the private collection of George Grey Barnard, an American sculptor and collector of medieval art. Rockefeller purchased Barnard's collection and donated it, along with a number of his own pieces—including the famous (and spectacular) Netherlandish Unicorn tapestries, displayed in a gallery of their own—to the Met. Rockefeller also bought over 65 acres of land along the riverfront for the park and site for the new museum (which occupies four acres), and even bought several hundred acres of the Jersey Palisades and donated them to the State of New Jersey to protect the museum’s unspoiled vista across the Hudson. (Say what you will about this famous industrialist, but this was truly a wonderful gift to the residents and visitors of New York City. Easily accessible by public transportation, Fort Tryon Park is admission-free and entrance to The Cloisters is modest—suggested donation for adults: $15—gaining visitors same-day admission to the Met as well.)
Since 1987, the surrounding area of Fort Tryon Park is turned over to the Medieval Festival for one day each October. The park is transformed into a medieval market town festooned with banners and flags where performers and visitors appear in period dress. Festival-goers are treated to authentic music, dance, magic of the middle ages. Minstrels, jugglers, and jesters ply the grounds, and costumed vendors demonstrate and sell medieval crafts and food and drink. The afternoon concludes with a jousting tournament among four mounted knights. Like the park itself, entrance to the Medieval Festival is free.
Nearly everyone knows something that’s uniquely identified with New York City, whether it’s the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, the Yankees, an expression like fuggedaboudit, or Manhattan clam chowder. One of the most enduring is the egg cream, especially associated with Brooklyn. For those who don’t know about egg creams, it’s a drink, sort of in the category of the ice cream soda or the milkshake . . . but different. An egg cream—which has neither eggs nor cream among its ingredients—is almost exclusively a fountain drink, making it harder and harder to find even in the Big Apple since soda fountains are becoming scarcer and scarcer. (A few attempts have been made to bottle egg creams, but it doesn’t really work—it has to be made fresh just before you drink it or it won’t get a head on it. You can make it at home—recipe follows—but somehow that doesn’t really work as well, either. Bottled seltzer doesn’t have the fizz that soda from a siphon has and the outcome is flat and limp.)
My grandfather was a pharmacist in New York City and when I was little, my greatest wish was to make my own fountain drink at his drug store; a real egg cream would have been my dream come true! It’s made from chocolate syrup, milk, and seltzer (that’s soda water for you deprived folks from somewhere else—also known as “two cents plain”) and probably dates from the late 19th century. I suppose you could look on it as an ice cream soda without the ice cream—if you wanted to be a killjoy.
The legend is that Brooklyn candy store owner Louis Auster invented it in 1890—but who knows. Others have laid claim to the honor as well. Even the origin of the name, egg cream, is unknown. There are many suggested sources, but none of them sound very convincing. One, for instance, is based on the German/Yiddish word echt, which means ‘real’ or ‘true’: the treat was made with echt cream, which became corrupted in English as egg cream. But since it isn’t even made with cream and no one calls it an egg milk, I don’t really buy that. The rest are even sillier.
The origin of the drink itself is less farfetched, though the stories are still undocumented. The most plausible is that it was a variation on the prototype of the milkshake, invented around 1885. Milkshakes, unlike the thick, creamy variation we know today, were originally made with cream, an egg, and flavored syrup mixed in a shaker until all foamy and then poured into a glass. Soda was added to the glass to finish the drink. To keep the cost low as prices rose, the eggs were eliminated and the cream was replaced with milk, giving birth to the egg cream. It cost about a nickel back in those days. (Unflavored seltzer sold for two cents, hence the name: “two cents plain.”) Recipes for drinks using the same name have been traced back to the late 19th century and to the years around World War I, but they were all slightly different than the egg cream we see in New York today.
The recipe for a modern egg cream is fairly simple, though it takes some practice and care to get it right. Take a large glass and pour in one part cold milk. You can froth the milk with a whisk or a frother if you have one. Whole milk works best; low-fat or skim milk will provide a wimpy egg cream—this is not a drink for the diet- or cholesterol-conscious. It’s an indulgence! Add two to three parts seltzer; a freshly opened bottle works best because the carbonation is still strong. (Club soda doesn’t yield a very good egg cream because it’s saltier than plain old seltzer. Fizzy mineral waters don’t work, either, because the bubbles are too small and weak. This ain’t an effete drink, either. Remember, it’s from Brooklyn!) If you own a soda siphon, you’re golden! Finally, squirt in up to a half inch of chocolate syrup, depending on how chocolaty you like your drink. (I understand that some people make the egg cream with vanilla syrup, but I say that’s phony. A real Brooklyn egg cream is chocolate and only chocolate.) You should stir the ingredients just a little very fast to preserve the layering, which is the mark of true Big Apple egg cream. You also don’t want to let all the fizz escape the seltzer with excessive agitating—there’s nothing worse than a flat egg cream! Finally, you’ve got to drink it right after it’s made. You can’t make an egg cream ahead of time and stash it in the fridge. It’s an impulse treat: you want it, you make it, you drink it.
Back in ’89-’90, I had a temporary gig teaching at a state college in Oneonta, N.Y. That’s in the middle of the state, about five hours by car north of New York City. It’s in farm country—specifically dairy farm country. But do you know that I can get better, fresher, and more plentiful produce here in Gotham more easily than I could upstate? True. And the reason is: Greenmarket.
Founded in 1976, Greenmarket, run by a privately funded nonprofit organization, provides small farms the chance to sell locally grown products directly to consumers and ensures that New Yorkers can get the freshest locally grown food available. The idea started with 12 farmers at a single market at 59th Street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan and has grown to 53 sites all over the city (all five boroughs), representing almost 250 farms and other producers like fishermen and bakers. Greenmarket is the largest such enterprise in the country. The largest market is at Union Square, right in my own neighborhood (a half a block east), and customers come from all over the area, not just the city, to shop there four days a week. (A big draw every year are the special-order fresh turkeys at Thanksgiving and Christmas.) Even several of the restaurants in this neighborhood do some of their shopping at the Greenmarket.
There are some rules. The vendors can only sell what they grow, raise, or produce on their farms or other businesses. There’s no importing, reselling, or wholesaling. You won’t, for instance, find oranges in the Greenmarket—because no one around here grows them. If it’s out of season locally, the vendor can’t send off to Florida or Mexico for it and stock his stand. When the local tomatoes and corn are done for the year, you just have to go to the supermarket and get the stuff that sits in a warehouse somewhere for God-knows-how-long—or wait till next season. But while they’re in the fields (there are some hothouse tomatoes available all year ’round, of course—but the field-grown beefsteaks only last through the summer), they’re delicious and beat the store-bought tomatoes all to hell!
What’s more, the produce in the Greenmarket is ripe when I buy it. I can get tomatoes or peaches that won’t be ready to eat until the next day, but I never have to buy any that have been picked and shipped hard as a rock. The supermarket peaches have no flavor and the tomatoes aren’t much better (I never buy them in a store), but the fresh ones in the Greenmarket are the best-tasting fruits and veggies I ever eat. There are some things I won’t buy anywhere else anymore.
There are various sellers aside from straight farm produce, like bakers (bread, rolls, pies, cookies—you name it); jelly-makers; honey sellers; dairies that sell cheeses, yogurt, and ice cream alongside the milk and cream; even wineries. The non-farm products have to be made by the sellers and the ingredients have to be predominantly local. Some non-edible products are also sold, such as flowers and plants, candles, wreaths and decorative objects made from dried plants, and fleece.
My Greenmarket has a stand that sells potatoes of so many varieties, I’d never even seen some of them (including one that’s purple inside!), and one that has a dozen kinds of peppers displayed in bins arranged from mild to scalding hot! One preserves stand, along with the usual fruit jams and jellies and the different chutneys and relishes, carries a line of vegetable jellies like garlic and rosemary. They have a hot pepper jelly that I’ve discovered makes a fantastic condiment for pork and chicken and I always have a jar of it in my fridge. There are also more exotic products available, like squid, lemongrass, or bok choy (also catnip, for feline patrons)—all of it fresh. The produce has to be fresh-picked within days, depending on the product; most is picked within 24 hours of sale. (Lettuce or corn has to be the day before the sale or so, while potatoes and onions can be dug a little earlier.)
There aren’t any real restrictions on how far away the farm or fishery can be (as long as it’s “in the New York region”), though getting the products to market while they’re still fresh limits the distance a would-be vendor can travel. I get farmers not just from Long Island and Jersey, but from as far away as Pennsylvania. (A prospective Greenmarket vendor can wait years for a spot to become available in a popular market like Union Square.) I don’t know all the specific rules for the sellers, but it all adds up to the same basic result: the stuff’s all fresh and hasn’t been sitting on a truck or in a storeroom for weeks. I get a much longer shelf-life that way than I do with produce from a supermarket. Of course, since I only have to walk a half a block to replenish my supply, I don’t have to buy so much at one time.
Many towns have a haunted house or mysterious empty property around which legends and myths have grown up. New York City’s no different—except that maybe ours are bigger and, perhaps, stranger. One such site in the Big Apple is sometimes known as the Beekman Palace at 5 Beekman Street at the corner of Nassau Street, practically right across from City Hall Park. Properly known as Temple Court, a city landmark and once one of the best-known office buildings in New York, the building has an elaborate skylight and decorative ironwork that’s long been hidden from view in a vacant, deteriorated property. The ornate 129-year-old building was designated a city landmark in February 1998.
Temple Court, designed by Silliman & Farnsworth, was built by banker Eugene Kelly, who had amassed the 19th-century equivalent of $630 million by the time he died in 1894 at the age of 88. Put up in two stages beginning in 1881, the nine-story building, known first as the Kelly Building and redesignated Temple Court in 1882, was completed in 1883 as part of a wave of construction of tall, fireproof buildings with elevators that went up in lower Manhattan at the dawn of the skyscraper. The exterior features two pyramid-roofed corner towers climbing an additional story; the sole negative building review at the time of the landmarking described these as “donkey ears.” The earliest surviving building from that period, and only the third building erected in New York City after the introduction of elevators, it was extensively expanded in 1890. 5 Beekman Street is built around a central atrium soaring up nine stories to a pyramidal skylight, surrounded on every floor by Victorian iron railings, delicate Victorian iron balustrades ornamented with flowers, wings, sunbursts, spikes, and arabesques. Now restored, the iron-and-glass skylight looks up at the tower of the 54-floor Woolworth Building, another New York City architectural landmark, built 30 years later. For decades, since probably 1940 when the building was shuttered, the central atrium was walled off from public view. “I had no idea it existed,” recalled the daughter of one past owner in 1998. “I crawled under and went back in time.”
Temple Court went through an infelicitous renovation in the 1950s, with new walls and ceilings added. Above the false ceilings were cast-iron brackets shaped like roaring dragons, their tails whipping around, their scales reminiscent of shark's teeth, and their wings holding up the ceiling beams. The walls of the staircase that ascends the atrium are covered with patterned cast-iron paneling. Flat, mid-century walls hide deep, arched mahogany door and window frames that were almost untouched by the ugly drywall covering; much of the original tile work on the floors and walls is still intact. “We started uncovering things,” recalled an architect who’d been engaged to redecorate Temple Court in 1998, “and said, ‘Wait a minute. Why would you ever redecorate? You have to undecorate!’” Blogger Nick Carr of Scouting NY, who took dozens of terrific photos of the interior in November 2010, described the preservation of “the most beautiful atrium in New York City” due to its having been closed up for so many decades, as “a mosquito in amber.” Alex Herrera, the technical director of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, proposed giving Temple Court’s owners the ''King Tut Award'' for most successful entombment.
The space has been offered for photo shoots, videos, and films. For a November 2010 issue, Harper's Bazaar did a fashion layout there featuring the model Iman and scenes for the 2010 AMC cable TV series Rubicon were shot there, turning the site into the torture chamber of an East European prison.
Currently, the property owners are looking for a buyer. There’s a hang-up over some legal matter between the two companies which control the property, but the sellers are in negotiation with a company that wants to turn Temple Court into a hotel, restoring 5 Beekman Street to its turn-of-the-century grandeur and preserving the original details discovered under the 1950s disguise. The proposed 200-room luxury hotel would be called the Beekman Palace, and many people who’ve had contact with the building since its “rediscovery” in the late ’90s are fervently hoping it will happen. Carr of Scouting NY envisions “quite possibly the most unique hotel in all of New York City.” Even if we couldn’t afford to stay there, he points out, at least New Yorkers could walk in and “admire its beauty.”
“KNICKERBOCKER” AND SLEEPY HOLLOW
Washington Irving (1783-1859), one of the first American writers (with James Fenimore Cooper) to become famous in Europe, published The History of New-York in 1809, written under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker. When I did some reading about Irving (I’ve also published some of his letters on ROT, 13, 16, 19, 22, 25, and 28 August 2010), I got curious about the name Knickerbocker. I wondered if the name used as a nickname for New Yorkers, especially those of Dutch origins, came from the name for the knee-pants or if there was a family name from which it derived, or if it meant something in Dutch. It turns out that it's entirely made up. Irving popularized Knickerbocker as a nickname for people and things New York, but he took it from a friend (and U.S. Representative from New York to the 11th Congress, 1809-11) named Herman Knickerbocker (1779-1855), who, in turn, was descended from an early Dutch settler in New Amsterdam, Harmen Jansen van Wijhe Knickerbacker (ca. 1650-ca. 1720), but Harmen Knickerbacker (a variant spelling, along with Knikkerbakker and Knickerbakker) made the name up when he arrived here. As far as I can tell, it was never a real name until then and it may not even have an etymological meaning in Dutch. (I didn't find one.)
The pants were named after the Knickerbocker family, who were known for wearing the short pants with long stockings, so that use doesn't date any further back than the early 19th century. (The German for the knee-pants we call knickerbockers or knickers is Kniebundhosen, literally 'knee-bound trousers.' I don't know what the Dutch word for them is.) Irving popularized the whole invented tradition of the New York Knickerbockers, the Dutch-descended elite of the former colony (akin to the Boston Brahmins) and perpetuated their habits and customs, such as the long-stemmed clay pipes the men smoked and the old-fashioned style of pants they wore long after the popular style had turned to trousers.
Virtually everything in New York that used or uses the name Knickerbocker, including the basketball team, owes the use to Irving; he invented the entire "tradition" out of whole cloth: it has no actual historical provenance! In fact, Irving popularized the name through a kind of hoax: he created an imaginary missing person named "Diedrich Knickerbocker," a fictional Dutch historian who’d supposedly disappeared from his hotel, in a series of newspaper ads and kept the story going until it went viral—as we'd say today. One of Irving’s notices was purportedly from the hotel manager who said that if Knickerbocker didn’t return to pay his bill, he’d publish a manuscript the historian left behind to cover the debt and when Irving published The History of New-York, it came out under the name Diedrich Knickerbocker, which eventually became one of the writer’s frequent pseudonyms.
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Sometime around 1645, in what was then the Dutch colony of New Netherland, settlers built the first European residence on the eastern bank of the Hudson River about 25 miles north of Manhattan (New Amsterdam). By 1674, when the British took the colony from the Dutch, the village that grew there was called Tarrytown. Just north of Tarrytown is a smaller village formerly known as North Tarrytown. By an overwhelming margin, the people of this Westchester County village voted on 10 December 1996 to change its name of 122 years to the more evocative appellation of Sleepy Hollow, deliberately calling to mind the area’s connection with Washington Irving’s 1820 short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.'' The famous tale of schoolmaster Ichabod Crane and his encounter with a headless horseman on a dark country lane was set in the area around Tarrytown and North Tarrytown.
As popular as the name-change was (residents voted for it 1,304 to 710), it was not universally well received. “I've been here all my life, and it's always going to be North Tarrytown to me,” said one resident. Some called the action “empty” and “pretentious,” though more people came out to vote on the issue than in some presidential elections. (Village name changes are rarer than presidential elections, after all. The previous recorded one in this area was in 1972 when East Paterson, New Jersey, became Elmwood Park. For the record—and for comparison—the present-day Saint Petersburg, Russia, was Leningrad, Soviet Union, until 1991. Before that, it was Petrograd, Soviet Union, until 1924, and before that, Saint Petersburg, Russia, again until 1914. Tsar Peter the Great founded the city in 1703, so it’s actually younger than Tarrytown, if not Sleepy Hollow.)
Aside from its association with Irving’s story (published, as it happens, under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker), Sleepy Hollow is the location of Philipsburg Manor House, a historic house, water mill, and trading site, and Kykuit, a Rockefeller family estate. It’s also where British Major John André, who was carrying the plans of West Point provided by Benedict Arnold, was captured during the Revolutionary War. In addition to Washington Irving, such prominent figures as Andrew Carnegie, Walter P. Chrysler, Brooke Astor, and Elizabeth Arden are buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
TATTOOS AND PINBALLS
New York City’s a navy town, lots of sailors. It’s also a counterculture center, of just about every type and leaning. So did you know that tattoos were illegal here for over 30 years until they were relegalized in 1997?
American style tattooing was born in Chatham Square in lower Manhattan. In 1875, Bostonian Samuel O'Reilly set up shop in New York City, a seaport and entertainment center attracting working-class people with money. His shop was so successful, he took on an apprentice, Charlie Wagner, and after O'Reilly's death in 1908, Charlie Wagner opened a tattoo supply business with a man named Lew Alberts who’d trained as a wallpaper designer. Alberts transferred his skills to the design of tattoos and is credited with redesigning much of early tattoo art.
In the 1920s, with prohibition and then the depression in the ’30s, Chatham Square lost its appeal and tattooing moved out to Coney Island and later Times Square, which had started to become sleazy and dangerous. Then, in 1961 there was an outbreak of hepatitis and tattooing was seen as a prime cause. Though most tattoo shops had sterilization equipment, few used them. Newspapers reported stories of blood poisoning, hepatitis, and other diseases and the public saw tattoo parlors as disreputable. At first, the city health department gave the tattooists the opportunity to form an association and regulate their own practices, but the skin artists were too independent-minded to organize themselves. A health code regulation went into effect in 1961 and the tattoo shops in Times Square and Coney Island were shut down. Tattoos became illegal and for a time it was difficult to get one in New York. Body art was only available on the second floors of buildings on Canal Street, in basements, apartments, and back rooms. The better shops moved to Philadelphia and New Jersey where it was still legal.
In the late 1960s, the attitude towards tattooing changed. Much of the credit goes to Lyle Tuttle, a handsome, charming, and media-savvy body artist who tattooed celebrities, particularly women like Janis Joplin, Cher, and the sex worker Annie Sprinkle. Magazines and TV interviewed Tuttle about this ancient art form and in the ’70s he appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. By the 1980s, tattooing, no longer seen as part of the subculture, had become popular again. Body art was becoming mainstream and sexy; hardly a band didn’t have tattoos. Underground tattooists began advertising openly, albeit in alternative publications. The New York Tattoo Society was formed in 1985 and eventually became the catalyst for legalization; the law prohibiting tattoo parlors was repealed in February 1997. Today, tattooing has made such a comeback in New York City that in 1998, the first Annual New York City Tattoo Convention convened; its 15th session is scheduled for May 2012.
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It’s pretty easy to see why New York City and its health department would become concerned over tattooing, however misguided it seems from our perspective today. But what about the lowly pinball machine? In 1939, pinball games, too, were banned in the Big Apple. What could the seemingly innocent pastime of so many teenaged boys, found in malt shops and soda fountains all over the country, possibly have done to cause that drastic action?
Pinball was banned from just before world War II to the mid-1970s in most of America's big cities, including Chicago, where the game was born and where virtually all of its manufacturers have historically been located; Los Angeles; and New York. The stated reason for the bans: Pinball was a game of chance, not skill, and so it was a form of gambling. To be fair, pinball really did involve a lot less skill in the early years of the game since the flipper wasn't invented until 1947, five years after most of the bans were imposed. Many lawmakers also believed pinball, on top of being a waste of time and money for impressionable youth, was a mob-run racket. (The machines robbed the "pockets of schoolchildren in the form of nickels and dimes given them as lunch money," New York Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia wrote in a court affidavit.)
In New York, the pinball ban was executed in a particularly dramatic fashion. Just weeks after Pearl Harbor was attacked, for instance, Mayor La Guardia issued an order to the city's police force making the round-up of pinball machines and the arrest of their owners their first priority. La Guardia led Prohibition-style raids in which thousands of machines were seized and dramatically smashed with sledgehammers by the mayor and police commissioner. The machines were then dumped into the city's rivers. The games weren’t relegalized in New York City until 1976.
The ban ended when Roger Sharpe, a witness for the Amusement and Music Operators Association, testified before a committee of the New York City Council in April 1976 that pinball games were no longer games of chance but had become games of skill. He played a game set up in the chamber, and, reminiscent of Babe Ruth's home run in the 1932 World Series, announced what he was going to shoot for and then did exactly what he’d said. Astonished committee members reportedly then voted to remove the ban. (Sharpe reportedly acknowledged later that his committee room shot had been sheer luck.)
The video-game boom in the 1980s put an end to the heyday of pinball, but that bubble didn’t last. Many old-line manufacturers either shifted to the new games or went out of business, but the challenge also spurred many designers and manufacturers to come up with new ideas for the pinball using the latest technology. The new models didn’t attract back the numbers of players the old pinball games had drawn, but they held onto a core of fans and when the coin-operated video-game phenomenon collapsed in the 1990s, the pinball was poised to come back. By 1997, however, the second boom in pinball interest dried up, too, supplanted largely by computer games which could be played at home, even by young teens and preteens who couldn’t go into arcades legally. Today, fewer companies are making pinballs, even the latest digital and computer-driven models, but once again, the games are holding on to die-hard fans, even though they may no longer look like the old pinball machines my generation grew up with, the kind immortalized in The Who’s Tommy. Players of the silver ball may no longer be able to feel all the bumpers, hear the buzzers and bells, or see the lights a-flashin’, but somewhere, someone will always dream of being “The Bally table king.”