A “Choice” Review of New York’s Quirkiest History

Choice reviews Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure by David Freeland.

The late Ray Browne, considered the father of American popular-culture studies, defined popular culture as “what people do.” In this fascinating volume, Freeland offers an area-by-area archaeology of New York City’s popular culture as revealed in remnants of buildings that housed leisure activities from the late-19th century to the recent past. Freeland’s extensive research enhances his re-creations of what went on in the structures he looks at, which include Bowery beer halls; the so-called Chinese Theatre; rooftop studios for the early motion-picture industry; vaudeville houses, from Tony Pastor’s theater, where vaudeville is said to have started, to the Palace Theatre, home of headliners in its heyday; “swing street,” i.e., W. 133rd Street, and its reincarnation on W. 52nd Street; the evolution of the tenderloin and Times Square areas; Tin Pan Alley; and the Automat, with its labor troubles. Along the way, the author introduces the personalities identified with various activities. More than a vision of New York City’s evolving leisure activities, this book chronicles the nation’s interests as it moved through the 20th century. A necessary resource for anyone interested in popular culture, the book includes photographs and extensive notes. Summing Up: Essential. All readers. R. Sugarman Southern Vermont College

Favorite Poem: David Freeland

My grandmother, Jean Gosse, wrote poems that reflected daily life and concerns in mid-20th century Newfoundland. At the time “The Little Boy who didn’t pass” was written (the early 1950s), Newfoundland had only recently become a province of Canada. Prior to Confederation in 1949, Newfoundlanders were British subjects; but, to hear my grandmother tell it, they had been largely self-sufficient, with their own currency. Like many of my grandmother’s poems, “The Little Boy who didn’t pass” was originally published in the Evening Telegram, the main newspaper in St. John’s, which is Newfoundland’s largest city. It was inspired by a family with 15 children who lived next door to my grandmother in Buchans, a mining town in the center of the province. This is one of my favorite of her poems because of the way in which she sees behind the veneer of this child and grasps the private humiliation he was going through, in being held back a grade at school. Our task as writers, I am reminded when I read these lines, is to get to the heart of things.
-David Freeland

The Little Boy who didn’t pass
by Jean Gosse

He had a belligerent manner, had he.
As if he were saying, “Antagonize me.
And you’ll surely end up in a peppery fight
And if I am tempted I certainly might
K.O. my opponent in any old brawl
For scrapping is something I don’t mind at all.”

He was stocky and short
And his manner was tough
The sort of a kid that a mother calls “rough.”
But his heart was as tender as any wee girl
And the bottom dropped out of his little world
And bitter his tears, walking home with his class–
This little boy wept ‘cause he didn’t pass.

[Selected by David Freeland, author of Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure]

David Freeland Makes Pop Matters’ Best Books of 2009

From popmatters.com

It’s easy to tell the difference between a book that is written with genuine passion, and one that’s written to fulfill a contract, or build a curriculum vitae, or fatten a wallet. Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville fits firmly into the former category, as is apparent from its very first pages when the author, David Freeland, recounts a recurring dream: “Although some details change, the basic situation is the same: I am walking in an American city sometime during the middle of the 20th century. I keep searching for a neighborhood that I know, from my previous visits, contains a large number of old theaters. By the time I figure out where the neighborhood is I am forced to remember that many of the theaters have been torn down… but always I am able to find one or two that are still there—and feel tremendous relief when I go inside and head to a seat, usually in the balcony where I can get a nice view of the whole building. But always something is different about the interior: either it has been stripped of all architectural detail, just a blank shell, or else the stage seems so far away that I can barely see it. It’s as if I’m watching it from the opposite end of a telescope. Everything appears to be growing smaller, shrinking in front of me to a pin-sized speck before evaporating completely.” The emotions that motivate a recurring dream like this are a combination of nostalgia for a past that never was, and yearning, mixed with a bitter regret, for a present that can never be again. Freeland, a writer who has the courage of his dreams, is not afraid to remind us of what we have wiped out, and in our stumbling, childlike sleepwalk through time, continue to destroy. Michael Antman.

“You Are Here” Public Art Project & NYC Scavenger Hunt!

“You Are Here” is a public art project, linked to New York journalist and historian David Freeland’s new book, Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville, that helps New Yorkers (and that includes both residents and visitors) experience the past through the present-day city, with the help of their mobile devices. Here’s David’s post from his blog, Gotham Lost & Found:

Throughout Manhattan I’ve put up 9 (with a bonus 10th to follow) dinner-plate sized signs, each on the surface of a building that once played a key role in the evolution of our entertainment culture. When you find a “You Are Here” sign, simply text in the specified code to the number given on the sign – you’ll receive an instant message back, telling you some interesting fact about where you are and why this building is important. Think of it as my historian’s fantasy – I’m putting up plaques on buildings that should have them, but don’t.

Now your job is to find the signs. They look like this:

You Are Here Sign

The first 5 people who can text in codes from all nine sites will receive a pass to the Museum of the City of New York, as well as an autographed copy of Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville – and maybe a couple of other goodies I can find. I’m not going to tell you exactly where they are (half the fun lies in the hunt) but here are some clues:

#1 is south of Canal, along Elizabeth: you’ll know the plot is getting thick, when you reach a site of russet brick.

#2 sits on twisting Doyers, above hidden foyers.

#3 lies east of Cooper Square; great Yiddish names once gathered there.

#4 captured New York scenes, in a building along Broadway in the lower teens.

#5 is on Second Avenue, in the East Village: where stars once ate, sushi takes the plate.

#6: They say old 28th sounded like a Tin Pan; see it now, while you still can.

#7: in the 130s east of 7th, the stars of swing would sing.

#8: On 135th, ‘neath a 60s-styled wall, sat a great Harlem theater, accepting to all.

#9: Near the spot where Duffy stands, the food was served with invisible hands.

Need more clues? Check out the book – I write about each of these places in detail. Happy hunting!

The WSJ Reviews NYC’s Ancient Nightlives and Forgotten Neighborhoods

A review of Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure by David Freeland appeared in the August 8th edition of the Wall Street Journal.

Newton’s third law—every action has an equal and opposite ­reaction—goes on display every day in ­Manhattan. The action is ­provided by renters and ­owners who want a piece of the city. They’re the ones who empower developers, a group that delights in ­bashing down old structures and replacing them with ­high-rises (and higher prices).

The equal-and-opposite ­reaction to this process takes the form of a wistful longing for bygone pleasure palaces. When they were around, those dance halls and theaters and restaurants were taken for granted. Now that they’re gone, the lamentations are as loud as the wrecking ball.

In “Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville,” historian David Freeland takes full ­advantage of this longing for the colorful past. With an ­archaeologist’s eye and a ­storyteller’s wit he roams from ­Chinatown to Harlem—­concentrating on scenes of the city’s nightlife a century ago during the vaudeville era but also reaching back into the 19th century as he summons up forgotten neighborhoods and personalities who gave old New York its raffish vigor.

En route, he provides a ­hilarious anthology of New Yorkers’ biases—immigrant populations invariably came in for a hard time from the locals. On the Bowery in the mid-19th century, the burgeoning ­population of German ­newcomers was generally ­regarded as ambitious and ­industrious, but that didn’t stop a historian at the time from giving a satiric account: “The chief end of man has long been a theme of discussion among theologians and ­philosophers. The chief end of that portion who emigrate from the Fatherland is to drink lager, under all circumstances and all occasions.”

Time Out for Taxi Dances

A review of Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure in this week’s Time Out NY:

New Yorkers who incessantly gripe about gentrification have become as grating as the near-constant noise of luxury condo construction—yes, even in this economy. But David Freeland’s affectionate, detail-packed tome about Manhattan’s forgotten pleasure centers—from dance halls to gambling dens—adds a lyrical song to the cacophony. Organized geographically and for the most part chronologically, the book explores eight neighborhoods—Chinatown, Chatham Square, the Bowery, the East Village, Union Square, the Tenderloin, Harlem and Times Square—via their entertainment centers, with the added hook that physical remnants of these historical hot spots still exist.

Secret Escape Routes of Chinatown…

From the Library Journal interview of David Freeland, author (and tour guide) of Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville

The Atlantic Garden backed onto Elizabeth Street, from which at first it seemed to Freeland that only the commercial offerings of today’s Chinatown could now be seen. He ventured into the Elizabeth Street police station, and—after persuading the cops as to his intentions (which took a while, he says)—he was able to find a vantage point there from which an old peaked roof, the structure of the Atlantic Garden itself, could be seen. Behind the clamorous facades shielding it from the street, it looks stoic and peaceful.

View Larger Map

When Freeland conducts me next to Doyers Street, called in previous centuries “a forbidding cow-path,” and, more famously, “the bloody angle,” for the Tong gang warfare that was centered there 100 years ago, is it any wonder that, grid-oriented as I am, I feel a touch of vertigo? Doyers bends between Pell Street and the Bowery; Freeland shows me its secrets. We go through a doorway east of the yellow Co Co Fashion sign and descend through successive staircases and along hallways. Just as Freeland has said in his book, it’s a more circuitous version of Doyers Street itself, now revealing the underground storefronts of podiatrists, feng shui specialists, and other commercial offices.

What do today’s residents of Chinatown who frequent these businesses make of the hallway’s eccentric dips and turns before other stairs take them up and out onto where the Bowery meets Chatham Square? Do they know that it’s a pattern in exact echo of the old underground passageway from Doyers Street’s Chinese Theater to the Chinese Theatrical Boarding House on the Bowery? The popular Chinese comedic actor, Ah Foon, took this route one evening in 1909, seeking to stay hidden from the Hip Sing Tong. Accompanied by policemen—from that same station house that still stands—he made it back to his boarding-house room.