A Hoax Within a Hoax Within a Tale

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He was simply known as Lozier, and when he spoke people listened. It could be said that he was the Walter Cronkite of his time: highly-respected, sagacious; everyone trusted his opinions and heeded his advice. He had traveled the world and was learned in everything. Whether the topic was political or financial, social or spiritual, Lozier had a ready answer to people’s questions. His wisdom was only equaled and complemented by his charm; it was this charm that could convince the most skeptical individual that what Lozier had to say was indeed true. Hence, in July of 1824, one of American history’s greatest hoaxes was born.

Centre Market was situated at the junction of Baxter, Centre, and Grand Streets in New York City. In the early 19th century, the bulk of the entire city was crammed into Lower Manhattan and was becoming further crammed with each passing year. Centre Market was a bustling spot for shopping and socializing; a place where people came to pick up groceries as well as pick up on the latest news and gossip. In fact, an area was set aside replete with long benches and soapboxes where various orators would deliver their latest announcements and pronouncements. This was where Lozier reigned supreme over all other lecturers and sermonizers, gossipmongers and aspiring prophets…no one could get enough of him.

Over a century before television would place a “talking head” in everyone’s home, Lozier was a fullbodied talking head who was gifted at dialogue as well as monologue. He never missed a day speaking at Centre Market and was always available for both public and private debates; if anything, he was never at a loss for words. His friends and associates could always depend on Lozier having something to say about anything beneath the sun or underneath the earth or beyond the stars.

Then, sometime in the aforementioned July, 1824, Lozier suddenly went silent and unaccountably wished to be left alone. He withdrew into a corner of Centre Market and into himself, chasing away anyone who approached him. After several weeks of brooding dormancy, Lozier decided to tell a small group of puzzled followers what was troubling him. The small group very quickly became a large crowd, as more passersby began gravitating towards the vocally and socially reanimated Lozier. He prepared them slowly but surely for what was disturbing him, telling the crowd that his problem wasn’t his alone but affected all their lives. This time, they listened to what he had to say like they had never listened before; he told to them quite solemnly that Manhattan Island was about to fall into the sea.

After the inevitable flowing cries and surging gasps from the crowd died down, the obligatory group of fainting ladies finally revived, Lozier went into details concerning this quite depressing news. He explained how Manhattan Island was weighted down at the Battery (its southernmost end) with buildings and the island was tipping more and more towards the sea. When some skeptics questioned this, he had them look at the streets running from City Hall…all ran downhill towards the harbor. Lozier further illustrated the catastrophic imminence of “downhill topography” by telling them that if rivers ran to the sea, the streets around them ran to the sea, it only followed that the island they lived on would follow such streets and ultimately fall into the sea.

Now there was sheer panic. It was true! But Lozier told them not to worry as he had almost figured out a solution. He asked them to give him a few more days and he would announce how Manhattan could be saved from becoming an underwater city.

After a few days the news came that Lozier was going to speak that afternoon at the Market. Needless to say, hundreds showed up to hear his solution. With much drama, Lozier explained how Manhattan Island could be spared impending submersion. First it would be necessary to saw the island off at the northern end, at the Kingsbridge, and tow it past both Governor’s and Ellis Island and out to sea. Meanwhile, the lower, heavy half of Manhattan would be towed north and attached to the mainland. The other half would now be re-towed and reattached to the newly-created northern half of Manhattan. Zoning laws could be passed to prevent construction of buildings on this lighter end. Problem solved!

For several days the sawing off of Manhattan Island was on everyone’s mind. When public interest was at its height, Lozier, who, needless to say, had a perfect sense of timing, again showed up at Centre Market. He held up a large ledger and announced that the names of all able-bodied men would be recorded as applicants to work on the project. Over 300 men signed up the first day! Lozier next hired a handful of contractors and carpenters to furnish lumber and build large barracks which would be used by laborers during the actual saving process. Going one step further, he also ordered a separate building to be constructed to house a mess hall to feed the workers. Continuing with the well-executed plan, Lozier next notified butchers to submit their bids for five hundred head of cattle, the same number of legs, and three thousand chickens!

Lozier was having great fun. He constantly conjured up up new things that had to be done before the actual sawing could take place. He next sought out some blacksmiths to have them make fifteen crosscut saws one hundred feet in length (each sawtooth alone stood 3 feet high); it would take fifty men to operate each saw. They also needed to make several miles of heavy gauge chain which could be wrapped around trees and attached at the other end to the fifteen hundred boats he was having built. (It must be added that no one questioned just who was going to finance this operation.)

Perhaps the single event in this plot that tops them all in terms of humor is that of a “pitman.” Lozier, at Centre Market, announced new applications were being taken for several pitmen. He explained that a pitman had the most dangerous job. That job entailed being on the bottom end of the cross cut saw — under water! Since the job was so dangerous, the pay was triple of those on top of the saw.

To qualify for the job, the applicants were required to hold their breath and be timed. Those with the longest time would be selected as pitmen. All day long the scene was the same. A man would have his turn at the front of the line, Lozier would activate his stopwatch while the man held his breath. At a certain point the man’s face would turn various shades of red then, finally, let out a burst of breath. Several men got in line more than once to see if they could top their prior breathless records.

Eventually, the time came when Lozier could stall no longer. People were getting restless and anxious to start the project. He was forced to announce a starting date. Even this was done with great flair. The date was announced and the workers hired. All were to report at 6 AM at a specific location on the Battery end. From there a parade would march to City Hall — complete with bands! Thousands showed up at the appointed time and place — all except Lozier, that is. He left town the night before and was never seen again.

History has not recorded how long these people waited around before it finally dawned on them that Lozier had made a permanent, one-way departure; leaving behind this moaning herd of befuddled dupes.

Is Manhattan Island still sinking? No problem. Call Lozier! If you could find him.

NOTE: What you just read was a spurious tale about a hoax; or, if you will, an urban legend. It originated in 1835. A business partner of a real life Lozier claimed that he told him the story. In turn, the business partner told the story to his son and grandson many times over. The tale, presumably, gaining more and more elaboration as it was told and retold. Somehow, long before the Internet, the story went viral and it became a popular conversation piece of the mainstream.

Despite the truth behind it all was allegedly revealed in the 1870s, many journalistic history books continued to retell the story as being factual well into the mid-twentieth century! If anything, heedless of one fact: despite being largely undereducated, most people living in New York in the early 1800s (or at any other time) were not that gullible… and certainly not that stupid. In fact, to have believed that there ever was such a hoax would be almost as ridiculous as being duped by Lozier himself.

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The pleasure gardens of Lower Manhattan

Ephemeral New York

Pleasure gardens: The term sounds dreamy and enchanting.

And for 18th and 19th century city residents, these gardens definitely were: recreational spaces open day and night that featured landscaped grounds, lights, music, theater, fountains, and grottos.

Kind of a cross between a botanical garden, country club, and the Playboy mansion, pleasure gardens offered a coed social scene plus the latest fancy refreshments—the alcoholic kind as well as the new craze: ice cream.

New York Vauxhall Gardens, opened in 1767 on Greenwich Street by the Hudson River, was one of the first. Vauxhall eventually relocated between Broadway and the Bowery (practically the countryside at the time) in 1805.

Exclusive Niblo’s Garden (at left) soon became hugely popular, taking over an older pleasure garden at Broadway and Prince Street in 1825 and expanding it with a theater and open-air saloon.

Contoit’s Garden, close to Niblo’s on Broadway, was an elegant rival. And…

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Revitalizing Towards the Clouds

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“The downtown financial district appears to be taking on new life after lagging behind the Midtown sector for several years in new construction and leasing activity.” (NY TIMES)  This was the optimistic forecast on October 23, 1949  when Dun & Bradstreet (a credit agency) finalized plans for their new headquarters at 99 Church Street.  Located between Barclay Street and Park Place, right behind the Woolworth Building, it was the largest office building built in Downtown Manhattan since the Great Depression.

Whereas Lower Manhattan is one of the oldest and most historic neighborhoods in New York City, its historic significance is intermingled with an awkward modernity and lingering decrepitude that confounds its bustling if uncertain  commerce.  A confusing sprawl of narrow, cobblestone lanes, intersecting with wider streets such as Broadway, are congested with pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

Buildings that are already old look even older within a jumbled, overburdened  atmosphere of haphazard and sporadic modernization. Since the 1940s, an ongoing and callous effort to revitalize Lower Manhattan, which would culminate with the construction of the World Trade Center, is proceeding ever more forcibly since its destruction…unfortunately, with the same callousness.

Larry Silverstein, real estate tycoon and former WTC leaseholder who gave new meaning to the words “pull it,” is in the process of constructing a new building over the old building at 99 Church Street to make way for a 80-story hotel and apartment tower. At 912 feet high, it will be the tallest residential building in the city.

The Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group, the building’s sales division, is billing the new project as something that will  “unquestionably advance the revitalization efforts of downtown.”  Now that luxurious living space is apparently replacing the need for office space in noted commercial areas of town such as Lower Manhattan, “revitalization” could be taking on an entirely new meaning.

Until recently, all of the city’s super-tall buildings have been office buildings. New Yorkers have never really lived all that high up in the air. The fabled penthouses of Park Avenue or Central Park West were ever only 300 or 400 feet high. By the standards of history and of many other places, that’s pretty high up. But by the standards of Manhattan skyscrapers, a handful of which rise more than 1,000 feet, it’s not much.  NY Sun

Sadly, the Woolworth Building (already hemmed-in by other lofty revitalization), once known as  the “Cathedral of Commerce” with its icy Gothic pinnacle soaring toward the heavens, will be further overshadowed by Silverstein’s 80-story towering luxuriousness.

I remain somewhat confused that so much apparent luxury is rising in NYC, while its commerce diminishes and leaves behind only its history as an attraction for sightseers.

But as David Dunlap writes, “The Republic Aviation Corporation [one of 99 Church Street’s original tenants] boasted to prospective employees in 1951 that the building was ‘completely air-conditioned’ — something of a novelty at the time.  Presumably, the new 99 Church Street will be able to make the same claim.”

Source: NY Times

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That Messiah Groove Again

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Trinity Church in the snow (© Leo Sorel/Trinity Wall Street)

Monday, Dec. 24 at 5 pm and Tuesday, Dec. 25 at 1 pm, WQXR presents Handel‘s Messiah, in a performance by the resident Trinity Choir and Trinity Baroque Orchestra from Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan.

Conductor Julian Wachner leads the orchestra through this perennial favorite, featuring an elaborate mix of chorus, soloists, and orchestra in the church where it received its New World premiere in 1770. David Garland hosts, with additional commentary from conductor and organist Kent Tritle./ WQXR-FM Live Broadcast

Sphere Of Contention

The Sphere at its original location.

The 9/11 Sphere, that iconic relic of the World Trade Center attack, has been getting the bum’s rush lately. Designed in 1971 by Fritz Koenig, the sculpture once graced Austin J. Tobin Plaza situated between Towers 1 and 2. It was retrieved from the rubble, virtually intact but obviously damaged, and moved to Battery Park in 2002. New Yorkers, victims’ families and visitors alike viewed it as a permanent addition to the park, a permanent tribute to 9/11. However, the Port Authority, the autocratic agency that owned the WTC, viewed it differently.

At Battery Park.

The agency had originally said it would haul the 25-foot sphere to a storage hangar at JFK Airport‘s Hangar where it stores other large 9/11 artifacts by the end of April — but reversed course following a public outcry from many 9/11 families, who feel the sculpture should be returned to its original home, between the Twin Towers, inside what is now the 9/11 Memorial.

Nevertheless, the sphere’s future is still uncertain; the Port Authority, that acts according to its own desires regardless of public concerns, is silent on that issue. Even Mayor Bloomberg came out in support of the sphere. “I think it’s beautiful where it is,” he said recently. “You have people going elsewhere to understand this is something that affected the whole city, not just on the World Trade Center Site.” Ever the politician, Bloomberg also added that he won’t interfere with whatever the Port Authority  decides to do with the sphere.

Currently surrounded with construction fencing and with indecision.

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